The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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July 2013

JellyBiologist Turns One!

Congratulations to Rebecca over at JellyBiologist on the first anniversary of her blog! Over the last year she has been dutifully posting all about the weird and wonderful world of jellyfish and other beautifully alien sea life. Her content is interesting and accessible — she is a true warrior for public scientific literacy.

You should definitely go over there and take a look at the picture of the Jelly Fish cake she has posted. Om nom. Oh yes, and read about marine biology.

BTR Cohort X: The Musical

My roommate, Juliet, led several other intrepid members of BTR’s 10th Cohort in producing this cheesy tribute musical to our residency experience. If you’re savvy with some teaching terms, you’ll probably find it funny — though fair warning, it mostly consists of a non-stop stream of inside jokes.

And it probably goes without saying, but this is for fun, not representative of any entity we work for, and definitely very satirical.

And for those of you who can’t get the songs out of your heads (ahem), here is the soundtrack and all the lyrics so that you can sing along!


We’ll Make Teachers Outta You (parody of “Let’s Get Down to Business” from Mulan)

Let’s get down to business
To defeat the odds
Urban schools are awesome
When you got BTR

You’re the brightest bunch we’ve ever seen
But we’ve got some work to do
Somehow we’ll make teachers outta you

Thirteen months before us
You’ve got grades to keep
CTs give their orders
Don’t forget to sleep

You’re the fly-est, most connected lot
Cohort X, it’s up to you
Somehow we’ll make teachers outta you

I’m never gonna catch my breath
Say goodbye to those who knew me
Boy I’m really glad I’m not doing TFA
This rubric’s got us scared to death
Hope that they don’t see right through me
Now I really wish that I knew how to maintain high cognitive demand!

We must be quick as we make decisions
We must force it like a great typhoon
Making content accessible
With backwards planning you know
You’ll get there soon

Time is racing towards us
till the MCAS arrives
Use your data wisely
And you might survive
You’re unsuited for boring test prep
But assessment is near at hand!
Somehow you’ll find a way
To maintain high cognitive demand!



LPD SONG (parody of “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore)

White, white, white, white… (black) white, white, (latina), white white white white

I’m gonna go unpack
we’ve all got privilege from our station
I, I, I’m huntin’ looking for oppression
It’s social location

RESIDENTS (various):
Nah, walk up to the class like, “What up? I got a big diagram!”
I’m so pumped about the Cycle of Liberation, man!
Racism, ableism, it’s so damn costly
And now people always like, “Damn! That’s a sexist comment.”
Rollin’ in, hella deep, teachin’ for democracy
Dressin’ down, ‘cause we’re sweatin’ bullets up in here
Got my ‘Readings for Diversity and Social Justice’ with me
I don’t get what mattress of oppression means,
But shit, she said it ninety nine times! (Map it)

I see that racist code
You can’t target me no more
I feel contextual
Rich white men are in control
I see that racist code
You can’t target me no more
I feel contextual

[Repeat chorus]


BLMB (parody of “P.I.M.P.” by 50-Cent)

I don’t know what you heard about me
But ya can’t get a holla past me
When my students think I can’t see
I got the motha f***in BLMB

Don’t care what you think about me
But I got some tricks up my sleeve
For behavior managing
I got the motha f***in BLMB

Sup? It’s oozing down to the kids’ level
If you gotta call ‘em out, but don’t ever


 TEACHER’S DREAM (parody of “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry)

You think I’m aggie when I try to ask you “why”
You think I’m forcing whenever I make it hard
I know you want to, so I let it all roll off, roll off

Before I met you, teachers weren’t listening
I could BS them, but you think I’m sense-making
Wish you’d tell me when I’m right or wrong
Just right, right or wrong!

STU: Cognitive demand is high.
JULIE: Yeah it’s hard, but it’s love.
STU: When I’m wrong, you still ask why
JULIE: Cuz I know you as a learner!

You make me feel like I’m living a teacher’s dream
The way you turn and talk
I listen in, so I can warm call all your
Thoughts and reasoning your thoughts and reasoning
My heart stops, when you raise your hand
Wait time lifts the cognitive demand
Stop and jot, you guys are learning
Don’t ever look back, don’t ever look back

I’mma get you sense-making with my talk moves on
You’re my teacher’s dream today

Go ahead and turn and talk with your shoulder partner
You’re a teacher’s dream today…

Chorus (fades)


GATEWAY (parody of “Glamorous” by Fergie)

G-A-T-E-W-A-Y it’s the gateway x2

From our first class, back in July
When Jesse said he was white
He said get ready for all your at bats
And the gateway…
The gateway gateway

The gateway…

Goals and Principles I mean
Other things don’t mean a thing
CTEs and planning
Shopping for some grading pens
Get your rubric memorized
Got your at bat on rewind
Get your feedback in your mind
Hope that Marcie don’t come by

I still gotta do mine
At bats all right
Cognitive demand is high
I’ll be stayin’ up tonight
Drama with my CT
Conference with my CTE
All I wanna do is sleep
S’up with this intensity?

G-A-T-E-W-A-Y it’s the gateway x2


Review of “Cosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer Space” by Paris Arnopoulos

Cosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer SpaceCosmopolitics: Public Policy of Outer Space by Paris Arnopoulos

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A good faith stab at attempting to consolidate information on a wide-ranging and complex question. How do we set up social structures that will work for the dawn of the real space age… when space is commercial accessible and exploitable by private interests?

However, the perspective is dated and some of the underlying assumptions naive. For example, Arnopoulos assumes that wealth disparity is due purely to the random distribution of resources on the planet and who was able to apply innovation to make use of them. This perspective completely ignores the much larger role that exploitation, slavery, genocide, and predatory monetary policies have had on the distribution of wealth in all human societies to date. Economics in a free market system are not based on people cooperating in rational self-interest, but rather conscious and subconscious xenophobia and the drive to maximize in-group wealth.

These human tendencies are certainly not going to magically disappear just because we will venture out into the solar system. Consider that a private company is now resupplying the space station and has designs on Mars, another private interest is sending a manned (slingshot) mission to Mars by the end of the decade, and still another is planning to mine asteroids in roughly the same timeframe. This is real, and this is now, and not facing the very real social problems we still have on earth will hardly lead us to anywhere sustainable or equitable in space.

While I did glean some useful thinking points from many of the essays, I confess to putting it down halfway through due to its sociopolitical and economic naivete. The fact that the writing gave me the sense that I was perpetually trapped in an introduction didn’t help in keeping me awake.

View all my reviews

In Defense of Progress

I am, in general, quite the fan of Ken Liu and his (prolific) string of beautifully written and diverse science fiction. Yesterday, however, he tweeted two statements to which I take strong exception:

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 12h9:26 PM – 2 Jul 13
I don’t write scifi that tries to imagine a “better” future because I fundamentally don’t think human nature changes. There’s no “progress”.

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 9:27 PM – 2 Jul 13
The future is both better and worse because technology just magnifies our existing tendencies.

I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by many people, including friends and colleagues, in recent times. I’m not sure if its the hangover from post-modernism or just an extension of the disaffection of the times. I suspect it is a combination of both, perhaps mixed in with a little neo-liberal angst about the fact that the civil rights movement, while a momentous step forward, hasn’t yet actually solved the problems against which it arose.

Whatever the cause, I think the belief that we never make progress (moral, social, political, or technological) is not only ideologically self-defeatist, but also simply wrong on the facts.

Here were my responses to Liu:

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:52 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 I respectfully disagree. We have a long way to go yet, but think of what we have accomplished with civil rights, disease, & war.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:53 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 For example see: I am often saddened by the world, but believe in humanity and scifi’s role in shaping it.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:54 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 Discrimination, segregation, & misogyny remain rampant, but few would say that we are worse off than 1960. Visionary writers help.

I am a teacher in an urban public school. I will be among the last to say that we are even close to solving the problems of structural racism, ethnic/class/sex/gender segregation and discrimination, and economic and social exploitation. And anyone paying even marginal attention to the news around the world today may find little that is heartening.

But to claim that we make no progress denies the hard-won successes on so many fronts by brave people that brought us closer, step by painful step, to the day when we actually live up to our stated ideals.

The article I linked to in my reply tweet to Liu is about Stephen Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. It makes several points that many disaffected contemporary citizens might find surprising. Chief among them is this one:

The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.

The trend holds true even accounting for the advancement of destructive technology:

Against the background of Europe’s relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought.

Further, with respect to human rights:

The final trend Pinker discusses is the “rights revolution,” the revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals that has developed over the past half-century. Pinker is not, of course, arguing that these movements have achieved their goals, but he reminds us how far we have come in a relatively short time from the days when lynchings were commonplace in the South; domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee; and Pinker, then a young research assistant working under the direction of a professor in an animal behavior lab, tortured a rat to death. (Pinker now considers this “the worst thing I have ever done.” In 1975 it wasn’t uncommon.)

I won’t rehash all of Pinker’s arguments and supporting points here. Read the article (and really, the book) if you are curious.

My point is threefold.

  • The advancement of scientific ideas has saved or improved the lives of hundreds of millions if not billions of people through medicine and medical technology, agriculture, sanitation, informatics and data, structural engineering, civil infrastructure, and countless other applied fields, all of which rely on advancements in the pure sciences as their foundation. Science has also opened up our eyes to the big picture of who and where we are in the universe, and helped us to see ourselves as one species on a pale blue dot. It has also proven 19th century philosophers wrong by showing that human nature is essentially collaborative, not brutishly selfish1.
  • The advancement of moral, philosophic, and socio-political ideas2 has liberated countless people from slavery, bondage, discrimination, persecution, superstition, and prejudice through the spread of humanism and rational thought.
  • And last but certainly not least, the advancement of cultural ideas through the production and dissemination of art has repeatedly forced people, societies, and governments to face and analyze both the beautiful and ugly sides of our nature, and served as the catalyst for change in modes of thinking, living, and treating each other.

Of course these battles are not yet won, of course we’ve sometimes taken two steps back for every one forward, and of course many of the leading people and ideas in these movements were flawed3. But to focus on these narrow aspects with the smug satisfaction of neo-liberal hindsight is missing the forest for the mushrooms at the base of the trees.

These liberating forces (Science, Philosophy, Art) are not about individuals, but ideas — of grand movements that span generations, in which the contributions of individuals join like droplets forming a river.

Let’s bring it back around. Where is science fiction in all this? I don’t mean to unfairly single out Liu, as I think this goes well beyond any individual. And as I said before, I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for Liu, his writing, and what he has done for science fiction. He just happened to tweet something which irked me and now here I am on an idealistic rant.

Liu is a prominent writer, and deservedly so, in the field of science fiction. As a consequence, I think his remarks, even off-the-cuff ones, can do much harm. These remarks can propagate the myth that science is somehow “equally good and bad” (or worse) in affecting human condition (see above, I think it has been unequivocally an overall force for good4. These remarks can entrench the contemporary negative trends of looking inward, to what is about ME, rather than outward, to what is about US and what we could accomplish together if we tried. And these remarks can encourage other science fiction writers to abdicate their responsibility to further social, technological, and ethical discourse about both the present and our shared future.

There is progress. Science fiction is a genre that has both the power and, I would opine, the moral obligation to help shape that progress. To quote a progressive warrior from decades past, I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it.

And I think Liu welcomes it too, whether he consciously admits it or not — his fiction has arguably done more to increase diverse and progressive thought in science fiction than that of perhaps any other writer of which I am aware, at least in the past couple of years. Those are welcome drops in the river.

Eyes on the prize. March on.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Though I would say certain economic structures can definitely promote selfish behavior.
  2. For the western world, this means most particularly the Enlightenment. However, there are analogs of this idealogical reformation in the history of many cultures around the globe.
  3. Yes, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and was by many measures a hypocrite; he also helped craft the very documents and ideas that the civil rights movement used to justify emancipation and desegregation, and the inspiration for other progressive movements around the globe. Yes, Hemingway was a chauvinist; that doesn’t erase his damn fine prose and insight into the human struggle for meaning. Have we become so polarized even in thought that we can no longer handle these gray superpositions?
  4. See also my philosophy of science education for further discussion.

Boskone: Writing Advice – The Next Level


Writing Advice: The Next Level (Saturday, February 16, 2013)

Writer Nick Mamatas says, “By the time someone finds their way to a panel at an SF con, stuff like ‘Don’t quit your day job’ and ‘Read widely’ and ‘You have to finish a story before you submit it’ is no longer necessary. There is certainly a need for higher-level advice. I had a student recently who had never heard of Freytag’s triangle.” So let’s elevate the answers, people — and the questions.
Jeanne Cavelos (M), Elizabeth Bear, Beth Meacham, David Anthony Durham


Cavelos opens with a question to the panel: What are some pieces of advice you would give to a new professional writer just starting out?

Bear quotes a fellow editor: “I read a really great story the other day, but it fell apart at the end. It made me sad.” Says this quote points out two things. Firstly that endings are really key, you can’t just leave your story without a solid conclusion, regardless of how great the ideas and characters are. Secondly, the editor is your advocate, not a gatekeeper. They are looking for good work and the want to publish you. You need to give them a good reason why.

Durham remembers that as a young writer, he was a pretty arrogant artiste, focused disproportionately on the literary as opposed to the story. He says he had an attitude of “they should read this for their own good.” This led to problems, doesn’t recommend for getting you anywhere in the field. Also emphasizes that plot is essential. As a young writer he was all about the literary fads of character and mood, but something has to happen. As a writer, you should be  looking at your characters and asking yourself, can I *do* that, is it something that is actionable.

Bear agrees and admonishes new writers to simplify their prose, make it clear and sensible. Don’t use obfuscating words like obfuscate.

Cavelos observes that a lot of new writers seem to struggle with structure. Suggests a quick practical way that can do a lot of good is to think of the story in three stages. Protagonist needs a goal, always motivating everything. Then put this in a three-part structure: there should be two turning points before the climax. The turning point means that, due to some conflict or challenge, the protagonist has to change his/her goal or approach to the goal in some meaningful and emotionally significant way.

Cavelos continues into style, comments that it is under-appreciated by new writers. Should be aware that style has meaning. Long sentences increase emotional content, we are trapped and flowing with the sentence. Short sentences deliver punch and impact.

Durham says you must read widely, even the genres you don’t write.

Bear talks about the bane of her existence when she was a slush pile reader: “the curse of the Page 2 (or Chapter 2) flashback.” Start with the first interesting moment and NO EARLIER (and certainly no later).

Cavelos goes back to what Durham said about plot. It’s such a let down to have great situations and ideas, but no plot. Raise the stakes! The worst form of this is when writers don’t want to harm their characters. Bear continues with this thread and says you should get your characters into a corner that YOU don’t know how to get them out of. Then either stop, figure it out, or kill them. A lot of times you find that a story finally works when something has to break irrevocably.

Meacham finally gets a word in edgewise and comments on the importance of reading/writing nonfiction. She suggests that writing nonfiction, even blogging, is a great way to build the core skill of writing good exposition. She says the world in which the story is set is itself a character — treat it as such.

Bear talks about what makes worlds realistic: “The real world is inconsistent, but it’s inconsistent for a reason.” She gives the example of how Russian dashboard cameras were able to catch incredible video of a recent huge meteorite streaking across the sky. On the surface, there is no reason for why a bunch of Russian drivers randomly have dashboard cams. But it seems that there is a lot of crime and the police often are complicit, so citizens need their own evidence… so there is a reason for it.

[So basically, acknowledge that people’s behavior often doesn’t make sense, or make decisions that an outside perspective would consider rational. Compare this to J. Rios’s comments on what makes mythology credible in the panel Mythology in Science Fiction.]

Durham admonishes writers that readers can often lose track of the main story if you are distracting them with too many shiny things. Remember that side and back stories should be in there only to inform the main story. If the tangent is really that interesting, write that story instead.

Cavelos says that the questions editors leave on your manuscript are likely to be the questions your readers will have. Maybe you want them asking those questions, maybe not. But they are there to help you.

Bear says something that is hard for writers to do is remember that words and both malleable and expendable. Treat them as such. Learn to let go when you have to. Sometimes structural problems mean you just need to start over with the same premise and pieces. Also, confusion is not the same thing as ambiguity. And don’t preach.

Audience member asks what the panel’s opinion is on workshops.  Meacham says that they tend to homogenize the talent that shows up, but concedes that it’s always useful to receive informed criticism. Durham recalls that writers in a workshop often have such a diversity of genre that it’s hard to find a common base of what we are trying to say in our stories and why. Bear is very negative on workshops, saying they can break people, often unfairly. Cavelos (who runs the Odyssey Writing Workshops) counters that they provide opportunities to diversify your writing, build a network, and can also be very empowering.

Audience member asks about their writing process. Answers are so all over the place that I won’t even bother writing them. There is no consistent process. Find one by writing.