On experimentation and grading

I did something this quarter that you normally can’t do in schools, and that’s using my students to perform an experiment. I have two honors Algebra classes, and I decided early in the 3rd quarter that I was going to grade most of their assignments simply on completion. In other words, I wasn’t going to go through any of them question by question and decide, okay, this one is a 9/10, or this is a 7/10, or whatever. Turned it in, and it looks like you tried? 10/10. Didn’t turn it in? 0/10. Same late work policy as the rest of my classes; ie, if it gets turned in it gets graded and I don’t care how “late” it is.

One would think, that if the only grades that were possible outside of tests were either zeroes or A+, that would really skew grades toward failing or high-A grades, and with a group of honors kids, generally more predisposed than others to turn in work, one would expect to see higher grades across the board.

One would be wrong. This policy barely moved grades at all. Most of the kids whose grades changed also turned in more work. There was no skew to the extremes, because kids inclined to failing assignments also don’t turn in a lot of work, and the amount of work kids turn in is really damn close to the scores they get on the assignments they turn in. Find me a kid who turns in every single assignment on time and I’ll show you a kid getting an A. Damn near every time.

Tests, of course, are a great leveler, and one other thing I have to pay attention to is whether test grades are plummeting, which might also be a side effect of this policy. Once kids figure out they don’t necessarily have to work super hard on classwork, because missing a question or two isn’t going to hurt their grades, maybe they don’t learn as well and that shows on the tests? All I can say is I didn’t see it, and I was paying pretty close attention. I might take one of my regular ed classes next quarter and see how well this policy works; I’m not going to try and apply it to everybody, though, at least not until I’m certain what kind of effect it’s having, and I don’t have remotely enough evidence for that right now.

(Reminder: all grading is arbitrary. Yes, all grading, even the system you have in mind right now.)

Third quarter ended today. Two weeks to Spring Break, about a month to ILEARN, and then that’s year 19 done and dusted. Amazing how fast the year has flown by since I changed schools. Just amazing.

#REVIEW: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World, by Riley Black

I say this a lot, but it’s as true now as it’s ever been: I don’t need to review this book, because you already know if you want to read it or not, so really, my job here is just to make sure that you know it exists. And did you know that Riley Black’s The Last Days of the Dinosaurs existed? Yes? Then you have it already. No? Go buy it. I was about to say “It’s about dinosaurs!,” which actually isn’t quite true, because the book begins on what Black quite reasonably refers to as the worst day in the history of the entire world: the day that a 6-mile-wide object, possibly an asteroid, possibly a fragment of a much larger asteroid, and possibly even a comet, slammed into the Chicxulub region of what is now the Yucat√°n and basically killed every living thing on Earth. Including all the dinosaurs, except for the ones lucky enough to be living underground or underwater when the object hit. She goes into some pretty intense detail about what happened in the immediate aftermath and then skips ahead a bit in each subsequent chapter– the next day, the next year, 100 years later, and so on. “That sounds fascinating!,” you think, if you’re the type of person who would be reading this blog in the first place.

Yup.

I like the description on the cover, there, that refers to the book as “narrative prehistorical nonfiction.” This is definitely a work of pop science; there are notes, but they’re confined to the back; Black is not citing sources or arguing with specific paleontologists during the text, because it’s not that type of book, but neither is she engaging in wanton speculation. Where things are fuzzy, she says so, but she talks about the different changes on Earth after the explosion through narrative, fictionalized stories about the various creatures that would have been alive (or could have been alive, at least) during whatever time period she’s discussing. In other words, we might not have uncovered the fossils of the specific Triceratops with bone cancer in the Hell Creek formation in what is now Montana that she discusses in the first chapter, but there were definitely Triceratops there and we’ve uncovered evidence of some that appear to have had cancer. Do we know for sure that this particular turtle might have been in this river at that time, staying alive partially by breathing through its cloaca? Nope! But they can do it now, so it’s reasonable to project that ability backwards given other trends in the evolution of prehistoric turtles.

You get the idea. This book tells stories; the stories are not specifically true, necessarily, but they are carefully fictionalized, and there’s forty pages of extra “stuff” in the back past the official end of the book if you want to read in more detail. Which I do, of course. What you need to be able to pull off a book like this is a fine grasp of the detail, a good journalist’s instinct for getting your story straight, and a novelist’s flair for storytelling, which is a rare combination, but one Black (an amateur paleontologist but not, I believe, a Ph.D) has in spades. This is a great read for anyone who thinks deep history and dinosaurs are cool, and if you’re not one of those people, you’re not here anyway, so everybody else go buy it.

(Oh, and also: I found out about it on Twitter, and bought it on the spot, so those of you who don’t think Twitter can sell books are doo-doo heads.)

In which I predict the future

I’m putting this in print now, so that I can point at it later: Assuming it makes it to its Lagrange point fully functional and successfully accomplishes all the various complicated unfoldings and such necessary to start receiving data and transmitting it to Earth, the James Webb Space Telescope is going to discover evidence of extraterrestrial life at some point, and probably at many points, during its lifetime. A slightly inaccurate story about NASA hiring a bunch of theologians to discuss the possibility of alien life blew up on Twitter over the weekend, which led to everyone speculating that NASA already knew about alien life Out There Somewhere and was scrambling to figure out how it presented it.

To be clear, when I say “life,” I’m talking about microbial life, although discovering evidence of intelligent life would be a lot easier, relatively speaking, especially post-the-alien-equivalent-of-the-Industrial-Age life, which would involve a planet emitting a lot of light from its dark side on a tight band of wavelengths and would be difficult to explain as anything other than artificial life. Microbial life is going to involve lots of hypothesizing about chemical analysis and will have people arguing about it for decades, if not longer.

I have actually said this part in print before: I think that ultimately we’re going to discover that there’s a pretty high probability of life anywhere liquid water exists, and I think there’s probably half a dozen or so places just in our solar system where life exists or existed at some point outside of Earth.(*) Remember, 20 years ago we didn’t even know if planets existed outside our solar system– one of my finest moments in Divinity School involved an argument with an actual astrophysicist about the Drake equation, where I argued that we would eventually discover planets would be common, something I was absolutely right about– and I have the same level of certainty that 20 years from now we’ll have had the same sea change about extraterrestrial life.

(*) Including, but not limited to: Mars, Io, Enceladus, Europa, Venus and Titan.

Go ahead, bookmark the page. Y’all can come back and laugh at me in 2027 if I’m wrong.

TikTok talk

So, yeah, I threatened everybody with writing this post yesterday, and as of right now it’s still percolating in my head, so screw it; we’re officially in “my blog” territory here and I strongly suggest that no one bother reading this as I intend to simply dump the contents of my brain into this blank text box and then go about my day.

Y’all might remember a web service by the name of Vine that shut down a couple of years ago. Vine was the Twitter of video; your videos couldn’t be more than something like six or seven seconds long, and somehow even given that restriction Vine was frequently hilarious. It takes quite a bit of creativity and talent to manage to be consistently interesting in six-second bites, and unfortunately I didn’t find out about the service until too close to it going away; I never actually posted any videos (I am funny in certain contexts; seven-second videos is not one of them) but I enjoyed browsing the site before it got turned off.

Enter TikTok. I first downloaded the app … I dunno, a month ago, maybe, thinking that it might be a worthy replacement for Vine. And, well, it’s not, if only because it’s doing entirely different things. TikTok, you see, exists solely to generate memetic content. The interesting thing about the app is that it allows you to copy the audio from any other posted Vine and use that audio with your own visual content. You can also “duet” another video, which plays that original video alongside yours with the audio from the original video; you can add your own text if you like.

What this means is that TikTok is literally the worst earworm generator on the entire Internet. And while it doesn’t have Vine’s restrictions, the videos are usually short, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-30 seconds, maybe, although most of them are on the shorter end. Huge numbers of TikTok videos are either people lip-synching audio that other people originally recorded or sometimes putting it in another context. It can be hilarious, but when you’ve heard different spins on the “Her Name is Margo” audio from twenty-five different accounts over the course of a single day it’s going to start infecting your dreams, and God help you when a snippet of a song that you actually hear on the radio goes viral. It’ll melt your brain.

There are, near as I can tell, two components to the app. The first is the For You page, which is an endless stream of videos that I assume have been curated by an algorithm and may or may not differ in some way from user to user. The goal of any video is to make it to the For You page, because most people (I believe) interact with the app by mindlessly scrolling through those videos and that’s the best way for any individual video to get a lot of attention. You can like individual videos, which adds them to a list in the app, and you can follow individual creators, which creates a second list that is just of those creators, but doesn’t appear to be sequential or anything like that. It’ll just go on forever, repeating videos if necessary, until you die or close the app. It is terrible for those of us with mildly addictive personalities because it never ends and there’s no way to get shunted off into an article or something that causes you to accidentally learn something and get off the site for a few minutes. Just hours of the same five audio clips repeated until you die.

And then there’s Charli D’Amelio.

Charli is a fifteen-year-old high school freshman who has, as of this exact moment, twenty-seven point nine million followers on TikTok, the current high-water mark for the service, and I don’t believe second place is very close. By comparison, Barack Obama has about 113 million followers on Twitter, a much older and more established service, and oh also he was President of the United States.

Charli is a dancer. She dances. That’s basically it. She has a bunch of short dances that she’s (mostly? I assume?) made up for various songs (or, rather, parts of them) and she does her little dances and that’s the end of the video. She doesn’t speak in most of her videos. Now, don’t get me wrong, the kid is talented; I know she wants to dance professionally in the future and she’s absolutely going to be able to do that if the Social Media Queen thing doesn’t work out for her.

But I’m not just mentioning her for the hell of it. Remember how this site works. It works by other people taking audio from your videos and then either repurposing it or duetting you, where their video appears next to yours. And every single time Charli releases a video literally millions of people record their own videos either doing the dance alongside her, reusing the audio for something else, or issuing commentaries at varying levels of societal acceptability. And a quick look at her feed reveals that she’s done six videos just today. And every single one is going to end up being memetic content in some way or another. There is an entire account dedicated to finding out where she bought her clothes and posting where to get them and how much she spent. (Her family seems to be reasonably well-off, but the clothes aren’t expensive enough to warrant commenting on, for the record, much less creating an entire account for.)

I did a little experiment earlier, counting videos on the For You page and checking how many were either Charli’s videos or Charli-adjacent somehow. Each time I went through 100 videos, which takes less time than it sounds like it does since it only takes a second or so to figure out if she’s in the video or not. I did some of them logged in as me and some completely logged out to see if the app was deliberately steering Charli videos to me.

Out of a hundred videos, the high mark was eighteen having something to do with Charli– four in a row, at one point– and the minimum was three. Which means that even on a signed-out, no-algorithm account a minimum of three percent of the videos this site was serving to me were from one person, on a site with hundreds of millions of users.

Think about that. This kid is fifteen and she is basically running this entire social media network. TikTok, at least partially because of the way it’s built– you could never have something like this happen on Facebook or Twitter because of the way people interact with them, and while Instagram influencers are a thing nothing Kylie Jenner has ever done has accidentally made it into my feed– has unintentionally (?) created a situation where one user is driving an enormous amount of their traffic– either from people watching her or reacting to her with their own videos. It’s nuts. Babygirl was at the Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star game, for God’s sake. How do I know that? Dozens and dozens of videos of her, from enough users that it literally couldn’t be avoided.

I don’t know if this is a sensible way to create a social media network, but it’s certainly interesting.

#REVIEW: Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon

Longest post title ever? Possibly. Gotta love nonfiction books.

This is known: there exists an alternate-universe version of me who has a Ph.D and works as either an astronomer or a planetary geologist. I’ve been fascinated by this stuff for as long as I can remember, and every now and again I really wonder how it is that I didn’t take all that much math and science in college.

(Actually, I know why that’s true. My current enjoyment of mathematics dates to realizing how fascinating statistics was when I had to take a stats class for my … oh, wait, I was a Psychology major, among other things, so I guess I did have to take a fair number of science classes in college.)

(Let’s say “hard science” classes and piss off the psychology people. Like, science with math, which– other than stats– Psychology really doesn’t trouble itself all that much with. Shut up you know what I mean.)

Anyway. I followed the New Horizons mission with no small degree of fascination, and the data they’ve acquired about Pluto and its associated moons is endlessly interesting. Earlier this year the spacecraft did a flyby on a Kuiper Belt object now known as Arrokoth, and I believe there’s at least one more KBO flyby planned before the craft is shut down. Stern and Grinspoon’s book isn’t so much about the science, or about Pluto, however; it’s about the 20-plus-year effort to get the mission to explore the ninth planet(*) approved and the political and scientific process by which the mission itself actually came to be. As it turns out, there were a lot of people who for one reason or another didn’t want New Horizons to happen, and the mission was either actually cancelled or nearly cancelled five or six times, to say nothing of the number of times where something went wrong with the craft itself. For example, I wasn’t aware that they lost contact with the craft just a few days before the Pluto flyby began, and the book’s description of the mad scramble to not only reestablish contact with the by-then-several-billion-miles-away craft but to then slowly re-upload a bunch of mission-critical code updates before the thing sped by Pluto at thousands of miles per hour is compelling as hell.

So, yes– this book is less a work of popular science or a textbook about Pluto than it is a book about history and politics. It’s about the mission, not the planet, and while I wasn’t quite aware of that when I picked it up it’s no less of a good read for it– I’m always down to read something about NASA’s inner workings, and some of the squabbling that takes place between Caltech’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins over who was going to actually design and build the spacecraft that eventually became New Horizons is pretty damn cool. One way or another, while I haven’t read a ton of nonfiction this year I’m glad I finally let this stop languishing on my shelf and picked it up. You’ll probably see it mentioned again in a month or so, when I write my 10– or possibly 15– best books of the year post for 2019. In the meantime, check it out.

(*) For most of the book, Pluto is very much considered a planet, and the authors’ open derision toward the new definition of “planet” that reclassified Pluto is hilarious. Needless to say, for these guys Pluto is the ninth planet and it ain’t going anywhere.