• I was here at this time last year; how did I miss those electric crape myrtle blossoms?

I Coded

From my desk to yours, a pair of birdbrained Python projects.

Steve and Dave: A Python Doodle

Let Steve and Dave be two souls who occupy the same body. This means that they receive identical sensory input, represented here by the function environment. We want to study how Steve and Dave’s emotional philosophies help or hurt them in coping with their environment’s ups and downs.

English Conversation Questions Generated by AI

I am the world’s first artificially intelligent Fulbright grantee.

Others in our cohort applied to be English teaching assistants in Korea because they sought challenge, adventure, and human connection. In their applications they gushed about their interest in global cultures, their enthusiasm for language learning, and their desire to do good for others. They believed their intelligence, progressive politics, and moral certitude made them strong candidates.

But I was the perfect candidate, because I am a robot.

Simple Equations

Last week, our school took the second graders on a three-day trip to Seoul and back. We did the standard route with a few twists: Namsan Tower (fig. 1), Changdeokgung Palace (this is an “ATM Machine” kind of title, by the way), a full day at the Lotte World amusement park, a play, and visits to a few science museums on the return trip.

I’m being somewhat vague for the sake of our students’ safety, since the school takes a similar trip every year. I’m always surprised by Korean notions of safety and personal privacy. Many people who wish to show off their sensitivity to cultural differences will voice simple equations like, “Americans value privacy, whereas Koreans value sharing.” To be sure, there are areas where that’s true: For example, before we could depart on our trip, we had to call a police officer and have him breathalyze both bus drivers; this is a standard safety precaution in Korea, but I can imagine many Americans taking umbrage. (As far as I can tell, only New York has considered a similar policy.)

On the other hand, Koreans in general are much more protective than Americans when it comes to sharing photographs. It’s very common, when posting photos to Korean social media, to blur out (or stick a cute animal on top of) the faces of your friends, since you don’t have their consent to post it. Even my students, after we went on a roller coaster together, asked my permission before sending my photo to their homeroom teacher. And when we ended up picnicking alongside a group of elementary schoolers at one of the museums, our school’s homeroom teachers reminded the students to angle their photos so that no kids would appear in them.

A slightly less clear-cut example occurred when it came time to search the students’ bags. We had all the students leave their bags in the hotel lobby and line up outside as the student council checked for contraband. The reasoning was that it would be an invasion of students’ privacy for teachers to do the bag searches themselves—a moot point, because if anything suspect turned up, the first question the teachers asked was, “What bag is that?” Still, letting students serve as their own auditors strikes me as a significant trade of safety for privacy.

As the foreign teacher, it felt truly special to be invited to join in this trip, since the supervisory duties are technically beyond my qualifications. But most of the places we visited had several staff on standby to welcome our group; they took care of all the wrangling, leaving us teachers to grab coffee and gossip. That made this trip a welcome chance to get to know my coteachers in a relaxed atmosphere. Many of them have taken circuitous routes into teaching, and hearing how they settled on middle-school boys as their target demographic reminded me that despite how exhausting it is to deal with shouting students, other groups present other problems. And now that most of the faculty know that I’ve applied to extend my grant for another year, I’ve sensed a greater willingness let me assist with student discipline and help me understand the layout of our school’s bureaucratic plumbing.

On the bus, I got to talk at length with my vice principal, who just started at our school this semester. A former English teacher himself, he had lots of questions I couldn’t answer about the American school system and differences in cultural attitudes toward education and work. Probably the most useful sentence I have in such cases is, “America is very regionally diverse,” which is really a euphemism for, “I honestly have no idea what it’s like in red states.” We found common ground in our love of Yuval Noah Harari, whose 21 Lessons for the 21st Century my vice principal was reading in translation. “People get so hypnotized by technology,” says my VP, “but I have some doubts. It’s important to learn to be patient.”

I told him my hobby nowadays is sitting at the park and counting frog croaks. He seemed impressed.


I accidentally swore in front of my class yesterday. I intended to say 종이 똑같다, but I got the consonants shuffled around, and the students went wild. I was doing this thing I do where I keep a score for myself in addition to for their teams (awarding myself outrageous bonuses if, for example, no student gets a correct answer), so I went ahead and recorded a −20 in my column, which placated them.

I did something else new: Often, when a student is struggling with a problem, a smart one will try to “help” them by just translating the whole thing or telling them the answer straightaway. But yesterday, I saw one of my students taking great patience and care in assisting another, guiding him with strategic hints but never revealing the full solution—thinking, in other words, like a teacher. I used our school messaging app to write a memo to his homeroom teacher, letting her know it was cool to see his initiative, and she thanked me for noticing.

While there’s only so much I can do overnight to correct my awkward mannerisms and sheepish demeanor around the office (I am the least experienced!), written communication seems like a good way to maintain a sense of connection with the faculty and compensate for my frequent mistakes.

This level of investment.

Although I still play things rather selfishly about my office hours and study time, and although I often advise overworked friends to cultivate a sense of detachment from their work, I notice myself caring more and more about this job. Every time my patience is worn thin by a tough class and I start to acquiesce to the thought that teaching must just not be for people like me, something beautiful happens, my heart melts a little, and I get excited for the next day again.

  • Concept: What am I hesitating about, if I already know I’m happy?
  • Concept: What if (as Pete Buttigieg likes to say) this is a local minimum?
  • Concept: It’s too early to tell.

Yes, I Get the Irony


My brilliant idea of the day is a paper airplane contest, slated for eighth period today, in which the students learn some vaguely useful vocab about cutting and folding, make a bunch of airplanes, and then compete for distance and flight time.

Why? Because I accidentally printed sixty copies of Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life.

I intended to read this work of urban geography on the recommendation of one of the Fulbright research scholars who presented at our spring conference a few weeks back. Her suspicion of the traditional critical approach—interrogation, diagnosis, contextualization; the text as adversary—sat nicely with my feelings about how things tend to analogize things,™ and in an email she suggested I check out this Lefebvre guy, so I found a PDF of his book online, hit print, and left the office for an hour to go teach.

What I’m saying is, the print wizard was still set to sixty, the number of handouts I normally make for my students.

I returned to the office to find our vice principal gesturing at the overheating printer. He’d already had to put in one fresh stack of paper. Now 800 pages were piled up in the output tray, and he wanted to know how long this darn document is, we’re running low on toner.


I can’t print again on the other side of the paper, because all 800 pages were double-sided. So, paper airplanes it is.


The most mindless of my class ideas tend to go the best. Flying paper planes in the parking lot, we drew an audience of kids from the high school next door’s PE class, the ones who’d been eliminated early in whatever sports bracket they were doing. The science teacher brought her class outside too, apparently just to have a chat in the sunshine, and it occured to me that this was the first evidence anyone other than my students and coteacher had seen of my teaching activities. Is a paper airplane class admissible?

The winner, in both the distance and flight time contests, succeeded by crumpling his paper into a very dense sphere and throwing as hard as he could.

I Made Something

I believe, as I heard a mother say on This American Life this week, in doing the things you are capable of, so I’ve created a digital essay about how we teach information. Click this thing to see it:

How do we learn what’s true?

Let me now use this space to write a bit about the essay’s motivation.

Liberalism maintains that once we collect enough data, we will arrive at the correct models. But the increasing importance of narratives—and the consequent decrease in the importance in their underlying facts—has thrown this epistemology into doubt. Much contemporary writing seeks to recover a sense of reality from the soup of competing truths that defines postmodernity. Seeking to disclaim bias and reassert the regime of factuality, writers of all ideologies have begun to speak of argument as the act of staking out territory in an information war, proving that postmodernism is here to stay. As a crude example, here I’ve concatenated a paragraph from a right-wing conspiracy site with an opening passage from a mainstream liberal essayist:

The manipulation of facts and the slow relentless war on reality is being waged on this landscape of the mind. When those who seek to control humanity can convince the world that what they say is true, we will rapidly descend into the most oppressive tyranny ever seen.

Most of us can’t afford the luxury of investigating, because we have more pressing things to do: we have to go to work, take care of the kids, or look after elderly parents. Unfortunately, history does not give discounts. If the future of humanity is decided in your absence, because you are too busy feeding and clothing your kids, you and they will not be exempt from the consequences. This is unfair; but who said history was fair?

(Solution: The first paragraph is from InfoWars. The second is from the introduction to Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.)

Media-literate readers can tell the authors’ ideologies apart by the change in shibboleths: the right’s prophecies of battle, chaos, and Armageddon become the left’s boring sympathy for unpaid domestic labor. But both agree on one thing: that only a dark era of epistemological chaos can follow the sunset of objectivity. Whether they tell the leftist story of identity- and class-based oppression or preach brass-tacks Evangelical nationalism, modern ideologies claim veracity by positioning themselves as rocks of intellectual certainty amid a tumult of postmodern confabulation. It’s not the correct ideology that wins the most followers, but the one with highest degree of narrative fluency—the one that knows who to talk to and what tone to take.

I wanted to do something about it.

Things You Can’t Teach Yourself

Remember that moment a couple of years ago when, all of a sudden, everyone was listening to podcasts?

Podcasts weren’t a new technology; there was no PR campaign. Rather, it seems like they benefited from a lucky coincidence of forces: The election of a contentious president made everyone care about the news. The release of the Apple Podcasts app put an easy subscription tool in everyone’s pocket (I don’t miss middle school, when I subscribed to all the tech podcasts via RSS feed and painstakingly downloaded a fresh batch of .mp3s each week). Serial happened. Nowadays, all you have to do is say Quip electric toothbrush in a crowded urban space to hear a concert of groans.

I bet that online courses will be the new podcasts.

My evidence? My mom is now taking online courses, and it was around the time Mom started listening to podcasts that everyone else did.

I, too, am taking online courses. Something I’ve observed is that open-access, labor-of-love sites tend to surpass paid MOOCs. Paul’s Online Math Notes, for example, is more legible and better paced than any of the other online calc courses. I’m in differential equations now, and the only reason I’ve paid to enroll in an online class is to issue myself quizzes; Paul doesn’t have any diff EQ practice problems yet. Likewise, I did a course on data analysis using Python, and its best part was the link to An Introduction to Statistical Learning, a free machine-learning textbook that doesn’t shy away from the algebra that Python packages are designed to help you shy away from. I’ve also been working on HTML and CSS (W3Schools) because I’m the web editor for Fulbright’s Infusion litmag, which is working on its first issue of the grant year. (This blog might also be due for a facelift … )

A second observation: STEMmy things like math and coding are easy to learn online, but the resources are more paltry if you want to work on the humanities or social sciences. Ironically, this might be due to humanists’ high aesthetic standards. People who know Python usually know how to write HTML, too, so they start by tossing their notes online, then beautify them in stages. On the other hand, lettered-arts nerds love the feeling of beautiful typography and layout, but they lack the skills and confidence to code it themselves, so they rely on expensive print journals and paywalled websites to host their research—and then wonder why people call the humanities out of touch.

There’s this thing called the digital humanities, which in theory is about getting academics to design websites and compile online databases. But the movement falls short by yielding to humanists’ anxieties about code. Rather than take actual web-design courses, typical grad programs encourage students to attend one-shot DH workshops, where they learn WYSIWYG tools like Scalar (sorry, alma mater) and Wix. These are great ways to get your feet wet and explore the possibilities of web design, of course, but truly lit projects in DH usually combine solid underlying research with attentive, material-aware design well beyond Squarespace’s capabilities. A favorite is the Slave Voyages Database, although I must admit I preferred its web-1.0 look to last month’s AirSpace-informed redesign.

Another mistake of the DH movement is to reduce to the web to a content-delivery system—and miss its potential as a medium unto itself: I won’t @ any individuals here, but while uploading PDFs of your journal articles to Scribd or is better than nothing, it probably doesn’t count as digital humanities.