DogeCoin!

It’s one of those things that has to be said with an exclamation point. Those of you who have not heard of cryptocurrency are probably wondering what a dogecoin is, and those of you who have heard of cryptocurrency are probably slapping your foreheads and wondering what I’m thinking and why I’ve gotten myself wrapped up in one of these ridiculous things that have flooded the speculative commodity market. 

To the former group, a cryptocurrency is a currency that exists entirely on the Internet. An individual keeps a little data on his or her computer and he or she gets access to a wealth of, well, wealth. Each of these currencies is distributed to people according to various mechanisms and then spreads around the world, much like any other good or money, via trade and gifts. These cryptocurrencies have become exceedingly popular, and now hundreds of them are in existence, each one slightly different from the others. That’s essentially all you need to know about cryptocurrency to get the general idea.

What makes DogeCoin stand out from its ilk is its community. Dogecoin is based on the “Doge” meme.

This is a specialized member of the animal caption family of memes involving a particular shiba inu making a strangely distrustful expression. Much like the LOLcat, the Doge features a particular made-up dialect unique to itself. “Wow” begins many sentences of Doge-speak, generally followed by a vague emphasizer (“much,” “very,” “so”) and a word that does not grammatically fit that emphasizer (“much successful!” “very altruism!” “so scare!”). One commenter has provided a link to a more detailed linguistic analysis of Doge-speak. The doge face itself has been reproduced in a vast array of different forms.

Why does the fact that DogeCoin is deliberately goofy in a relatively well-defined way make it a more valuable commodity? Simply put, it’s fun. The people attracted to DogeCoin are not just intimidating high-stakes traders, die-hard libertarians, and the impenetrable cryptography geek community, anyone with a computer and an appreciation of silly pictures of animals could be coaxed into becoming a “shibe” (pronounced “Sheeb” or “Shibay”), a member of the DogeCoin community.

As an owner of a DogeCoin account, I recently accepted 150,000 DogeCoin from my roommate Nate as collateral for a loan of $200. When Nate paid me back, I announced on  the DogeCoin subreddit (a forum for DogeCoin enthusiasts) that I had just completed the first recorded DogeCoin-backed loan. A couple days later I’ve received forty-four comments and over 200 DOGE in “tips,” which are an easy way to give small amounts of DogeCoin to posts that one appreciates on the DogeCoin subreddit.  Currently a DogeCoin is worth approximately a tenth of a penny, so that’s twenty cents.

That’s not the point, though. The reason that DogeCoin is valuable is because DogeCoin doesn’t have to be valuable. It’s the first cryptocurrency to have a community that likes it for more than just the money they could supposedly make from it. At one tenth of a cent per coin, DogeCoin has inspired my roommate to make a service to sell people Robusta coffee beans for DogeCoin, and it inspired my other roommate to buy a collection of high-end computing hardware and run a process to get him DogeCoin. If you remember the last post of the “The Cold Apartment” post series, the purpose of the rig that was heating J’s room was to mine DogeCoin. It inspired me to write this post to explain the phenomenon. DogeCoin also inspires people to do good, spawning the “DogeCoin Foundation,” which shortly after its creation scrabbled together enough funds to send the Jamaican bobsled team to the winter Olympics. If you’re ready to be inspired, here’s a video to confuse the heck out of you:

To The Moon!

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Personal Religion

We don’t spend a lot of time staring at the cruel, absurd universe

My roommate Nate said something very interesting recently. My friend Greg and I were telling him about the horrible, regressive, anti-consumer, anti-environmental agreements in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he told us he’d rather not hear about it.  This surprised me because I consider Nate to be the most politically active person I know. Not only does he generally keep up with politics, Nate actively gets involved in political controversies. Most recently he put North Carolina State University’s climate science program on the map and appeared in the News and Observer for arranging the controversial “Shored Up” to be shown at the Hunt Library.

Nate succinctly explained that if he could not expect to have any effect on an event happening in the world, its only value to him is the effect it has on him. Therefore, learning of a depressing, awful deal like the TPP has only the effect of making it more difficult for him to believe in a generally good world, making him stressed and less hopeful, and may even hurt his ability to affect the parts of the world he can change.

This is tremendously interesting to me because it ties in neatly with a concept I’ve been considering that I call “personal religion.” Here I define a “religion” as any belief having intrinsic value outside its truth or falsehood. An organized religion such as Christianity has various beliefs that, irrelevant of whether they are fact or fiction  have enormous effects on both the world at large and their believers.

I define a personal religion as a religion, as defined above, that an individual keeps for his or her emotional benefit, whether knowingly or not. I suspect that everyone has personal religion. Athletes believe that their team will be the team to win the next game. Entrepreneurs believe that their struggling company is imminently close to a breakthrough. Parents believe in their hearts that their children will grow up to be successful and happy. A cancer patient believes that his chemotherapy will send his tumor into remission. Descartes might agree that we all choose to believe that what we experience every day is truly reality. Nate chooses to believe that the world is generally a good place, emotionally if not intellectually, which I think is why he prefers to avoid bad news when he can help it. One of my personal religions I share with the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

In the vast majority of cases, our religions harm no-one. They are merely the tools we use to cope with the uncertainty in our lives. Just as our more mundane earthly religions reassure us and help us through this life,  belief in the supernatural, in life after death, helps us not to fear the next. I personally like to entertain a personal religion of reincarnation, or even an admittedly absurd faith in the imminent technological singularity which will grant me immortality, rather than torment myself with my inevitable demise.

Did you notice that I admit the absurdity of my own belief? F. Scott Fitzgerald said “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  A motivated entrepreneur believes in his business, but a wise one hedges his bets. An aspiring actor believes she will make the big time, but gets a technical degree to fall back on. The cancer patient writes his will.

Religion is a wonderful and beautiful shield that protects us from the cruel absurdity of the universe. But when it comes to making decisions, we should rely on our own understanding. Our decisions that affect ourselves and other people should be based on the evidence that we see in front of us, be it an umpteenth audition failure, an economic downturn, or the results of a cancer screening. What we want to be true is often different from what is. Sometimes the cost of avoiding the truth is greater than the cost of staring the universe in the face in all its absurd cruelty.

Fortunately, though, it usually isn’t. Nate, for example, can easily ignore the TPP if it makes him uncomfortable because it’s not likely he’d be able to do much about it individually anyway. Also, I can keep denying that I’ll ever die for decades to come! I’ll see y’all at the technological singularity, when we’ll be able to scan our brains and replicate them in software. I look forward to the day when I’ll live forever as a free-roaming artificial intelligence on the Internet!

The Meeting

<- Continued from 54 Degrees

Upon Nate’s return, our house assumed an internal temperature of a balmy 63 degrees. One day, I came home to find it turned up to 65, which was too high. I asked Nate about the situation, and he told me that he was dreadfully ill, and needed the heat turned up or he, Nate paused for effect,  would certainly die.

I carefully weighed the cost of the extra two degrees against my roommate’s untimely demise and grudgingly agreed to let the temperature stay at 65 until J came home. That evening, true to his word, Nate lay curled on his bed in the fetal position, repeatedly calling my phone and leaving messages of him retching and hacking up his lungs and various other vital organs.

The next day I checked my messages and was duly satisfied that Nate had not been bluffing about his illness. I was particularly impressed when he demonstrated his delirium by leaving a message of six minutes of silence followed by “Hello, hello? Who is this?” and hanging up. Eventually, J told me, Nate had given up trying to get in touch with me and called him instead. J had gotten Nate’s medicine from CVS and rescued him from death’s icy clutches.

The next day, the temperature was back down to fifty-four degrees. Evidently there had been a meeting (with a quorum of two out of three household members). Nate would heat his room with a space heater, and to make up the electricity difference we would go below mine-strike level again in the rest of the house.

I put up with it for three days. Eventually when I was worried my fingers might snap off from being allowed to get so cold, I went to have a conversation with Nate, who was now feeling much better.

“Nate,” I said, somewhat reluctantly, “I think… I think it’s too cold.”

“You’ll get no argument from me,” said Nate.

“Yeah, I think we should have a meeting and decide the right temperature once and for all,” I said.

“Just turn it up,” Nate replied, rubbing his hands together to keep them from getting frostbite and making no attempt to hide that he was wondering when I would let him go back into his warm little room.

“No, no, no,” I insisted. “This thermostat has been changed without the input of the whole house too many times. This time we all agree.”

“Ok,” said Nate, “go get J, then.”

So I went and knocked on J’s door. When I told him I wanted to have a meeting about the temperature, J came down to the thermostat and said “What temperature do you want it at?”

This caught me off guard, so I said, “63, I guess.”

“Ok, ” J said. Without missing a beat he punched the thermostat back up to 63 and returned to his room. Nate, satisfied that the issue had been resolved, also left. “Good meeting, everyone!” I called after them both.

On my way up the stairs I remained baffled at J’s mysterious ability to be comfortable at any temperature. As I climbed the stairs and reached the landing, a blast of hot air from his room answered my question. Looking through a crack in J’s door, I saw a rack of open-air processors covering his entire desk. An enormous box fan distributed the heat from this collection around the room. Upon returning from the restroom, J explained that an enormous process running on those processors had been heating his room for the last few weeks. I remain convinced that J knows how to handle cold temperatures, but evidently it wasn’t what he was doing this time.

Now that Nate has his personal heater, and J has his superheated processors, we cover up the vents in their rooms and use the HVAC to heat the kitchen and my room. It seems to have ended the conflicts and confusion, at least.

Fifty-Four degrees

Part 2 of The Cold Apartment
(<- Read Part 1)

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Fifty-four degrees for a week was no sweat. Sure, I had to wear my coat around the house, but my bed, once it got warmed, was very warm indeed. It became quite difficult to leave it in the morning. My fingers seemed to move more slowly than usual when I took my gloves off to type in my room. I came to empathize more closely with cold-blooded animals who simply cannot move when the temperature drops too low.

J returned first. When I bragged that I had passed his challenge, he was surprised. He told me that he had never meant to challenge me. He thought that I was leaving for the break as well and that he was cooling what would soon be an empty house.  When Nate came back he told me that it’s illegal to heat a mine shaft less than 55 degrees, and miners have gone on strike for less than what I did to myself.

Now let’s fast-forward one year. J and Nate switched rooms and now Nate was beside the kitchen and J was next to me. With respect to  my newly proven ability to withstand cold temperatures, J made 54 the standard house temperature. Fortunately, the weather had not yet gotten that cold even outside.

Then the Polar Vortex hit. Duke Energy sent out an email asking us to all try and conserve energy, so J, as any good citizen would, did so. The catch was that he used the current temperature of our house – 54 degrees – as the baseline, so he put the temperature down to 48 degrees. Nate was to come home shortly, at which point J and I agreed that 48 degrees would not fly, so I was happy to do my part to help keep Duke Energy from being overwhelmed. I solemnly donned my long-johns,  sweater,  subzero-rated jacket with the hood up, three pairs of socks, earmuffs, and  ski-mask and shivered violently on my couch, secure in the knowledge that I was doing the right thing.

Next Week: Giving up on finding a shared temperature

(Continue to “The Meeting” ->)

The Cold Apartment (Part 1 of 3)

4253211430_d23dfe9df9_bOr as my girlfriend hears it, “The Coal Department.”

Tell me, readers, what strikes you as a reasonable temperature for one’s home in winter? 70 degrees? Maybe 65? What about 60? Now let me tell you, my friends, the long and complicated story of how my apartment’s baseline temperature made it down to forty-eight degrees Fahrenheit and stayed there for forty-eight hours. It is a story of challenge, of confusion, of communication and lack thereof. Most of all, it is a story of pride. Please sit, or start your treadmill desk, and get ready to hear the chilling tale of Western Manor Apartment K-6.

It all started last winter. Though a mild winter even for North Carolina standards, it did feature days that fell below comfort levels. It is a time of year when every group of roommates must come to an agreement regarding the degree to which they will take advantage of fossil fuels and energy to create unseasonable warmth in their place of residence.

Enter one Mr. Nathan Freeman, a Vermonter with an ineffable aversion to the climate of his youth.  When Nate first joined our apartment, he moved upstairs into the room next to mine. Shortly thereafter he removed the grate on his vent and positioned his desk such that he would spend his nights bathed in a column of hot air from the ceiling.  To accomplish this, he set our house to what I’m sure many of you would consider to be a reasonable 68 degrees.

Not me. Maybe it was my ascetic upbringing. Maybe it was my father who didn’t hesitate to use the word “evil” to describe an overutilization of resources of any kind. Maybe it was the fact that the particular thermodynamics of our apartment made a 68 degree thermostat set downstairs into a sauna in my room . In any case, I was not going to put up with such a temperature, and I told Nate as much.  Nate disagreed, leaving us at an impasse. Unable to resolve the matter between us, we had to reach out to the only affected third party.

Our enigmatic third roommate, who asked to be referred to only as “J”  lived next to the kitchen and spent most of his time in his little room so quiet that no one could possibly know if he was even home or not. You would be cooking dark and all alone in the house when the door behind you would creak open, sending a chill down your spine.  Before you could spin around and scream, J would step out, turn on the light, and say “hi, how’s it going?”

J was from Minnesota and, as it turned out, impervious to cold. This got me on the better side of majority rule and we set the temperature to 63. What I didn’t expect, though, was that later that week, when he and Nate were both leaving for the winter vacation, J would come to my room and tell me, “I’m going to be leaving for a while, so I’m setting the thermostat to fifty-four degrees. Is that ok?”

I didn’t have a very good sense of how hot or cold different specific degree temperatures were, but having so recently called upon the power of our icy landlord to settle my dispute with Nate, I knew when I was being challenged to put my money where my energy-conserving mouth was.  “Oh, definitely,” I huffed with the cockiest smirk I could muster, “54 is totally fine.”

“Ok,” said J, giving no hint on his face of what he was thinking. He closed the door. I heard his footsteps as he walked down the stairs and I imagined the beeping of the thermostat as he plunged it to a new low. I looked outside my window at the leafless trees and the squirrels huddling together against the bitter winds of winter. hmph, I grunted, I’m not afraid of the cold.

Next week: Sam lives in a house at 54 degrees for a week.
(Continue to Part 2 ->)

The Future of Education: Part 2 – Nightmares

“A Teacher Gets Depressed” isn’t specifically about technology in the classroom, but does speak to the problems of exclusively using automatic evaluation to judge the quality of schools and teachers. Also it references a nightmare. Click the image to see the whole comic.

When I spoke with my old teacher in my post on positive outlooks for education, he expressed concern at being replaced by technology. I told him that no technology would be invented that could reproduce the growth he spurs in students until long after his retirement, if ever. Teaching is a social vocation, and technologies for performing even the most simple social jobs are still in their infancy. Teaching is not a simple job, and attempting to remove the human factor from education at this point is likely to do more harm than good.

But what is a mad scientist, if not one who releases upon the world a new technology that turns out to cause more harm than good? Our collective body of fiction is rife with people who think they know more than they do and cause immense suffering as a result. The most famous of these mad scientists, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, reversed the course of death itself, but without considering the ramifications of his actions. The fruit of his life’s labor turned out to be a wretched, ugly creature even its creator could not bring himself to love.

While raising the dead may be a bit of an overstatement in terms of the risks of advancements in education, the allegory of the genius who does not consider the consequences of his actions is an appropriate one. In the theoretical future, an aggressive reductionist approach to education based on the theory that a child’s growth can be fully represented by his or her score on then-available automatic testing technology could become an educational Frankenstein’s monster, causing more problems than it solves.

If we were to measure school performance according only to the results provided by these technologies, and allocate funds accordingly, inevitably the skills and qualities unmeasured by the tests, which even in the near future will not be perfect measures of everything, would lose attention in favor of the ones the tests do measure. Perhaps in the near future we will have the ability to measure skills and qualities like  creativity, ability to work well in a group, self-confidence, and civic responsibility, but if we don’t, schools will no longer have incentive to maintain, and will therefore lose, their ability to foster these skills and qualities in our nation’s youth.

I am a strong proponent of technologies in the classroom. I also believe that the more data we can collect on the process and results of education the more we can use to help advance our goal of a well-educated population. The ability to bestow life on a lifeless being is also a scientific advancement that could do wonders for the world, but before we rush ahead, we should consider whether our technologies are ready for the tasks we will be counting on them to perform.

The Future of Education: Part 1 – Dreams

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I mentioned to an old college teacher a while back that I was working to develop educational technology. “So this is how you thank me? By replacing me?” He said. There’s no point trying to deny that advances in technology render obsolete certain professions, but teaching need not be one of them, at least not until long after my professor’s retirement. Teaching is about the most necessarily social job out there, along with diplomat, counselor, psychologist and many more. Technology is not even close to where it can effectively perform these tasks. If society knows what’s good for it, none of these professions will be replaced for a long, long time. Whether society knows what’s good for it, however, has been an open question since people have had the time to ponder questions of the greater good.

Let me share with you a vision of a possible future where technology aids human teachers in providing an experience to students unparalleled by today’s standards, The Inverted Classroom. I have not invented this general concept, but I’ll describe how it might play out. Imagine you our your child taking lectures at home and doing “homework” at school. The lectures are delivered by subject matter experts who have devoted their life work to making amazing lectures, the “homework, ” which we shall from here on out refer to as “coursework,” is done under the supervision of a teacher, who instead of stressing over how to reinvent the same lectures that other teachers have perfected thousands of times before, can spend his time doing what a human still does better than any computer – giving individual attention to the particular needs of each of his students. We already have the technology to accomplish this, but let’s think further into the future.

The students don’t write their answers on paper with feedback only once every day at best. Instead, they work on tablet computing devices, answering short answer questions and completing virtual labs to learn the content interactively. The digital notebook can do simple analyses of their work and to a limited extent help them to stay engaged and scaffold them towards proper learning. It can even provide a simple digital tutor for each student to help them feel comfortable and encouraged to stay on task. Moreover, the teacher doesn’t have to just look over her students shoulders and check their work because she will have her own portable device with a list of the students in her class. Beside each student is a progress bar and a simple indicator, perhaps color-coded, that can tell the teacher when a student is falling behind or is not learning the material. Freed from the need to constantly be devising and presenting curriculum herself and with the ability to easily see the progress of her students, a teacher will be better prepared than ever before to lead the next generation’s students on the path to becoming the productive citizens of tomorrow.

What do actual teachers think of this? I know I have more than a couple teachers and former teachers who read this blog. Is there anything you’d like to see technology help you with? Does this dream seem like more of a nightmare to you? Next week I’ll discuss some of my nightmares in part 2 of this two-part blog post.

It's about whatever I say it's about