Agatha Christie’s Pale Horse

Reading Christie’s The Pale Horse and struck again by a couple things in Christie.

  • We think of Christie as chronicling the 30s, and that’s what most of the horrible TV remakes have focussed on. But for Christie it wasn’t nostalgia, it was a real desire to engage and dissect a contemporary world. The Pale Horse continues that tradition, a 1961 novel that goes out of its way to show beat coffee houses, young girls dressed in black wool at the height of summer, and Cockney boys adopting Italian airs. True, it’s all shown through the slightly derisive eyes of older characters, but underneath it all is a real curiousity to what the heck makes this new generation tick.
  • The novel is very META. Characters talk about what makes murderers of people, why Shakespearean plots are ruined by overacting, and even what makes a pleasing solution in a mystery. They also spend extensive time going over their own life’s story arc — dissecting reasons why it isn’t more like a novel or film.
  • In other words, we don’t think of Christie this way, but there’s more than a little Nick Hornby and Whit Stillman in her — it’s kind of a shame she never gets seen that way…

Inert vs. Liberating Literacy

A recent find, as applicable to new media as to numeracy. From Robert Orrill’s Mathematics, Numeracy, and Democracy:

“For both Dewey and Cremin, the matter becomes even more complex when we ask what literacy means in a society dedicated to democratic ideals and informed by an ethos of individual freedom. In democratic settings, Cremin says, it is important to distinguish between what he calls “inert” and “liberating” literacy. As Cremin de?nes these terms, the former is that level of verbal and numerate skill required to comprehend instructions, perform routine procedures, and complete tasks in a rote manner. From a social perspective, this is that measure of literacy we might expect to ?nd applied in a cultural setting in which tradition prevails and customs are securely in place, and where opportunities for freedom, choice, and innovation are limited. To speak of literacy as “liberating,” however, assumes a much more challenging standard by which individuals command both the enabling skills needed to search out information and the power of mind necessary to critique it, re?ect upon it, and apply it in making decisions. It is only this more expansive and demanding meaning of literacy, or what Dewey calls “popular enlightenment,” that can inform and animate a vital democracy. Indeed, Dewey reminds us, a successful democracy is conceivable only when and where individuals are able to “think for themselves,” “judge independently,” and discriminate between good and bad information.”

A Department-Based Twitter Aggregator in Google App Engine

We have a department twitter account here at CELT. The idea of that account is it’s a place to share edtech and ed design info without forcing faculty members to sort through my political rants, Jenny’s comments about beer and biking, etc.

But obviously it’s makes very little sense for us to log into that account whenever we have a new edtech insight or retweet. We’d like to just stay in our own spaces, and let the @kcelt feed pick up the pertinent stuff.

So I built this little aggregator to compile all of our tweets that use the kcelt keyword.,holden,gobman,judybrophy,scastriotta

where basically param ‘g’ is the keyword you choose to mark stuff you want to go to the group acct, and ‘a’ is the set of twitter accounts you want to look in for that key word.

Once you get to that point (a clean RSS 2 feed) you just have twitterfeed check it every half-hour and do the required postings. You can also embed the RSS in your blog, or Pipe it to a thousand other uses.

To make sure the call stays under the 30 sec limit for App Engine threads, it makes only one call to twitter (searching for the key term) then goes through the results filtering out those authors that are not approved.

Here’s the code (Python in App Engine’s wsgi env):

Here’s how you might post to it if you are using the params we set


And here’s how that comes out after Twitterfeed posts from the aggregated feed:


Obviously, you would likely use a different keyword and different accounts. But it’s App Engine, so feel free to use it if you want, and let others know about it.

You can see our newly rejuvenated kcelt feed, with everyone’s contributions, here.

Learning Styles and Manuals

This is really a continuation of my conversation with @gobman on twitter, but it was too big for twitter, so I’m dumping it here.

Do I believe in learning styles? Yeah. I think so. I believe that people have different approaches to solving problems, and that to me seems to be learning.

I, for one, never read manuals. I jump in, get going, and only when I get stuck do I finally consult the thing. My wife tends to read manuals. The net result of this is we are good at different sorts of things. I tend to be good in any undocumented area, where there are no set practices and there is no good documentation. On the other hand, my wife can outperform me, sometimes even on technical tasks, when the best method is to read-up fully first.

I’m not the one you want putting something together from IKEA, or making a meal from a cookbook. I’m actually crap at a bunch of things that are supposed to be the traditional male stuff too, always getting stuff out of sync on how to change a car headlight. On the other hand, she’s not the one you want troubleshooting the TVersity player, fixing the snowblower, or improvising a meal out of the three final items in the fridge.

This actually works out pretty well. We’ve found our chores over time and it’s partly that knowledge that we supplement each other’s weaknesses that makes for such. I’m a hacker. She’s a master of method. I write code and songs, she executes amazing things like this, one pencil stroke at a time.

So learning styles/problem-solving styles exist. But here’s the question – if my wife is teaching a class on how to assemble an IKEA couch, does it make sense to separate people like me and show us how to do that without reading the manual, or does it make sense to teach me to read the manual, even though my preferred style is to dump all the Allen hex bolts on the floor and see what makes sense?

I know that sounds reductive – there certainly are multiple ways to solve problems – but my point is that even where there are multiple ways, the styles that work are determined in a large part by the nature of the problem, not the nature of the learner. If my wife was to show me how to execute that piece of art I linked to above, there would be a lot in that method that would be anti-thetical to how my mind works, but it might turn out to be necessarily so.

So where does that leave us?  Rather than argue about whether we should tailor specific instruction to learning style, presumably so students can better regurgitate material into blue books, why not create environments that function more like the real world, where differences in problem-solving style are the strength of teams and communities (and marriages) – places where the planners can plan and the hackers can hack? That means project- based, collaborative education, education that helps students answer much more pressing questions than the stuff on the test. Stuff like how they might design their place in life better by understanding both their strengths and limitations.

If that’s what learning styles is about, I’m all for it.


I’ve been looking for a Twitterfeed alternative, since the service has been a bit shaky lately, and I’ve been amazed at how many of the competitors to Twitterfeed have had to shut down due to being overrun by spammers. And of course Twitterfeed itself is struggling, as anyone that has waited five minutes for the dashboard to load can attest.

As I waited that five minutes for Twitterfeed to come online, I started thinking about all the five minutes everywhere dedicated to clearing out this junk from these people. And all the workarounds we have to develop. The $50 billion or so a year in lost productivity spam is supposed to cause. And most of all, the innovations, particularly around the use of RSS, that have been shelved or killed because of these lowlifes.

I know this has been said before — but what would happen if we took all that money being spent on persecuting music-sharers, and all that legal apparatus that streamlines crushing them with draconian fees, all those international treaties making sure that no one hears Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” without paying for the pleasure — what if overnight we just took that legislation and redacted “file-sharers” (so to speak) and replaced it with “spammers”? Turned the death ray around? How much faster could all these projects get off the ground if the first question wasn’t always “How do we keep out spam?”

Personal Information Stupidity

A supposedly scary story about how dumb Facebook users are:

Although the 50-something crowd responding to the request from “Dinette Stonily” were less likely to give out a fully-fleshed date of birth, they were three times more apt to hand out their phone number.

Relatively few people in either group — just 4% of the group replying to 21-year-old “Daisy Feletin,” and 6% of the older users — gave out their full street address, however.

The article continues:

“Ten years ago, it would have taken a con artist weeks, maybe with the help of a private investigator, to come up with this kind of information. Or diving in garbage bins,” said Cluley.

Really? Why wouldn’t they just get a telephone book?

For those of you who haven’t heard of telephone books, it was a book that listed people who lived in a city alphabetically, along with their street address and telephone number. It was an incredibly controversial document because of how dangerous it was.

People just don’t seem to get it, Cluley said, no matter how many times they’re warned that identity thieves and other criminals troll social networking services like Facebook for useful information. “Sometimes it seems that we’re in a classroom, and all the students are donkeys,” Cluley bemoaned.

The only donkeys in this situation are any establishments that use telephone number and address as their sole validation information. This world shouldn’t be like some weird fantasy novel where if someone figures out my birth name or birth date they suddenly have untold power over me. To the extent that the world is that way, we need not more paranoid consumer behavior, but laws that make sure institutions are accountable for their verification mistakes, instead of their customers.

Learning Styles vs. Environmental Fit

I hated grade school. My two daughters love it. I found it, by third grade, to be too arbitrary, too restrictive, too bound up with power. My daughters love the structure.

I did poorly grade-wise at school, graduating in the quarter that made the top three quarters possible. I didn’t just refuse to do homework – I seemed emotionally incapable of it. I scored perfect tests, but completing vocabulary homework (where we were to look up words and write down definitions to turn in) was painful to me. My daughters find this a Zen-like exercise.

Here’s the odd thing: in every way I can observe, my older daughter approaches problems in a way identical to me. She jumps in with both feet, soaks in example (as opposed to reading recipes) and tries to understand the principles by which the examples operate by changing elements and seeing what breaks.  My daughter’s style is so close to mine that I can watch her work and actually learn about my strengths and weaknesses as a programmer by watching how she goes about figuring out how to make a pop-up book.

Which makes me wonder – if our styles of problem-solving are similar, yet our experience of class-like environments is so different, what does that mean?

Maybe it’s not as big a problem as I suppose – I always tested at the top of the class; in that way, our similar styles led to similar success. But I can’t help but wonder if when we think we see differences in learning styles we might be seeing something even more basic, something that is not specific to learning. Thoughts?

Mormons, Homosexuals, and Atheists for President (Gallup)

Just some data re: my post the other day, from Gallup, February 2007. Keep in mind the question here is “Would you vote for the person in your political party if they were of belief/orientation/gender/age X?” The difference from 100% represents the number of people that would either not vote at all or vote against their party if their party ran a candidate of this sort.

Between now and the 2008 political conventions, there will be discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates — their education, age, religion, race, and so on. If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be …, would you vote for that person?


Yes, would
vote for

No, would not
vote for













A woman









Married for the third time



72 years of age



A homosexual



An atheist




The picture doesn’t get much better if you run on a liberal ticket — about 1/3 would still vote against party on the basis of atheism:

Willingness to Vote for Non-Traditional Presidential Candidates
by Political Ideology





















A woman












Married three times




72 years of age




A homosexual




An atheist





I’m not really arguing anything here, this is just interesting to me. I’m always curious what theists think atheists would do in office that would be so different. “Well, seeing as there is no God, I think I will use my newfound power to start a White House harem! And after that I’ll force people to worship ME! Bwhahaha!”

People amuse me. There really is this insane belief out there that if people all of a sudden didn’t believe in God there would be riots in the street as everyone tried to steal TV sets and break into banks and have public sex. Because all that apparently stops people from being good is belief in God — so society would fall apart.

Here are some societies that are just falling apart because of atheism:

Country Percent atheists, agnostics, non-believers in God
Vietnam 81.0%
Japan 64.0%
Czech Republic 54.0%
Estonia 49.0%
Sweden 46.0%
Denmark 43.0%
France 43.0%
Belgium 42.0%


I’m sure no one has alerted the Czech Republic yet that since they have no religion, they can basically do anything.

Incidentally, I was surprised to find out that Canada, a nation with 18% self-identifying as atheists and up to 30% identifying as nontheists has a really strong secular tradition. I had no idea.

Thug Life, or the Napster of Books

I just stole food out of the mouths of Kenneth Fearing’s heirs — I pulled down his The Big Clock today from my new favorite book-sharing site instead of forking over the money for it to my local chain bookstore. I think his heirs will survive, but the $26 I would have had to pay for the anthology if it weren’t for the site is going to go elsewhere. We’re on month to month budget here, so someone will get it — just not the heirs of Kenneth Fearing. Most likely it will go to buying some of the plastic film you use to seal windows. I think Kenneth, who died almost fifty years ago, is not going to object.

It’s pretty neat how far these book-sharing sites have come — the one I use even has more than a dozen or so paid staff to maintain the site. And some people may think I’m a lousy dad, but because I want my daughter to grow up literate, and not spend a lot of money when she doesn’t have to, I’ve been teaching her to always check the book-sharing sites first, and not to pay money to get a book unless she has to.  If she can get it off the site, do that first.

I know that means less money for the author, but I tend to think my daughter’s literacy is valuable to society, and that literacy can’t be enlarged if she has to pay $10 a pop for kid’s books. So it’s best she learns to do this now for the good of society.

After all, this book-sharing site we use — our town’s public library — will hopefully be a great resource for her in years to come.

You probably have one of these sites in your own town. You should check it out.

Next week I’m going to show her how to read a book without paying the author by going to an even more evil institution: the used bookstore.


A weird thing happened the other day that I’ve been thinking quite a lot about.

Someone asked me when I would run for office. (If you know my political history that makes more sense).

I replied offhand what I usually say, which is I wouldn’t have a chance anyway, I’m an atheist.

I’ve said that before, but it struck me as kind of weird hearing it. It’s absolutely true — in the recent history of Congress there has been precisely one nontheist — Pete Stark. And in his case he kept that under wraps until year 30 of his service.

But isn’t it a bit weird? About one in eleven people in this country are atheist or agnostic (and agnosticism is really just a bogus distinction to divide nontheists), but to be revealed as a nontheist is the death of any campaign.

I’ve been an atheist for a very long time, since I was 19, which means usually when people have conversations about religion in groups I’m in I just wait it out. The assumption people have is that if the discussion broadens out to the We’ll-even -accept-God-as-transcendent-life-force level then of course everyone is included.

But everyone’s not included.

I’ve never had a moment, a Big Scene where I went home and said, “Mom, I’m an atheist!” and consequently my mother thinks my issues are with the Catholic Church, or maybe Christianity. I’ve said in a couple conversations “Mom, the reason I don’t go to church is I don’t believe in God.” when she’s asked, but somehow the answer never sticks. It never sticks with my high school friends either — it’s come up a couple of times, but I’m not pushy about it, and the next time we talk it’s clear they are assuming once again I am just a “lapsed” Catholic.

But if you’re an Atheist, it doesn’t really matter if others get it right, so why be an ass about it, right?

This has turned into  a bit of a ramble I guess.

What I’m leading up to I suppose was until recently I never understood my Atheism as a positive belief. Society doesn’t let you, really. The very meaning of atheism is “Without God-belief”.

And that’s how I understood it until recently — I operated without something that other people had.

The odd thing is when my Dad died this summer, in the midst of heart-wrenching days where nothing else could comfort me I turned to my Atheism. And it gave me comfort when nothing else could. Despite the frame society puts on it, it is not the absence of belief. It’s a belief so strong you are willing to see past prettier thoughts and take comfort in the truth. To me, at least, it is the strongest belief there is, to know the randomness of the world, to know that it bears no essential “meaning” outside what we ascribe to it, to know that there is no greater plan and that the consciousness we raise up and deify is a fortunate side-effect of this creaky frame we walk around in — to know all that and still to love, and cry, and laugh.

It’s not the absence of belief. It’s not something we lack, or a deficiency, or a weakness, or an “inability to believe”. We aren’t people that “lack a balance”. We believe something you don’t. You believe something we don’t.

Atheism is not negative belief.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. An awful lot.

I don’t plan to talk about Atheism here much more. But I felt I needed to mention this somehow, if only because most atheists never say a word.