Some Thoughts on Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, digital superhero.

Like many people, I’ve been fairly shocked at the suicide of Aaron Swartz a couple days ago.  Here’s some background, if you haven’t read anything about it: Cory Doctorow’s obit post, and Lawrence Lessig’s Prosecutor as Bully.

I have two trains of thought on all this: On the first, I think back to being in high school and coming up against systems that just carried on, not bothering to question their relationship to their underlying purpose.  Like an ‘American literature’ class which involved almost no actual reading, instead focusing entirely on grammar exercises.  Or an ‘independent study’ art class which led, by a strange run of events, to a suspension from school after the Columbine shooting, as the school administration cast about to get rid of any student who reminded them too much of the tragedy in Colorado.  The thing I had been working on was a comic book about the incredible tedium and irrational boundaries of life in an American suburb.  Through my time in school I developed this sense that the vision of the people running the show was too narrow to understand what was possible: the admins were so interested in maintaining a status quo that there was no possibility of examining underlying assumptions, or addressing the contradictions in a school that treats its students like prisoners.

And then I moved on, and life got better.

Aaron Swartz was constantly running up against the contradictions between the old world and the new digital society, and taking concrete actions that exposed those contradictions and forced the conversation forward.

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Looking Backwards

Playing a local game (something like checkers-meets-tic-tac-toe) with a friend from Kibera. You can see Dominion: Prosperity is also on the table…

The term has come to a close, finishing the first half of my Fulbright year, which provides a bit of time to look back over what I’ve done, what’s worked well, and what’s worked less well.  A big part of the plan for the first time was to try out the existing structures, get to know what’s going on in the university, and figure out interesting ways forward that might work in the local context.  There were a lot of failures this term, places where things didn’t work as expected, where it’s clear that things need to happen differently next time around.  So if this post sounds bleak in some ways, rest assured that I’m already working hard on projects for next term that will try to get around these difficulties in one way or another.

  • Teaching Face-to-Face

    Despite my mandate to work on electronic education, I felt it was very important to teach a face-to-face course in order to better understand the undergraduate students and their context.  To that end, I co-taught Foundations of Mathematics with David Stern.

    The course went reasonably well, but has definitely made me consider the degree of work necessary to really address the problems in the education system. We were working with first-year students, which is ideal in many ways. It’s easier to do something revolutionary with first-years, simply because they haven’t lowered their expectations too far yet. (This was true even when I was teaching at the University of California; the first-years are a lot more open to non-traditional techniques, simply because they expect University to be different from secondary.) Continue reading

Fun with the Raspberry Pi

A raspberry pi. I still can’t get the HDMI output working, which makes it a bit anticlimactic. Need to pick up a component video cable….

One of the many projects we’re planning to run involves getting some Raspberry Pi computers into rural libraries and/or community centers and giving youths a chance to learn programming.  We’re particularly looking at bringing on just-graduated students, who typically hav about eight months of dead time between the end of secondary school and the start of university.

So I’ve gotten my hands on a couple RP’s; the last few days I’ve really started hacking around with one in particular.  My short-term goal is to get a working Sage binary together, built for the Pi.  (Admittedly, I haven’t tried the ARM binary at, but it claims to not be built for the particular processor in the Pi.) It will generally be a good public service to get a Pi-ready build of Sage out there in the world.  One will probably need an 8gb sd card to run it properly, though, as the binary will probably weigh in at a bit over 2gb.

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Computational Problem Solving Workshop

Portrait of Euler, shamelessly lifted from Project Euler.

One of the things that we believe strongly is that there needs to be better use of computers in math education, in part because computers play such a huge role in how math is actually done these days.

To that end, I ran a one-day workshop on mathematical problem solving using Sage today. The idea is to run this workshop as a kind of seminar series next term, once we get back from South Africa, and today served nicely as a dress-rehearsal. The students who came today were all in first-years in computer science; it should be interesting to see how things play out with math students next term, who haven’t necessarily been exposed to the programming side of things as much.

Here’s how things went down:

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David Ssevviiri Visit

A Colubus monkey, from Kakamega forest.

Dr. David Ssevviiri was in Maseno the last couple days; he’s a Ugandan mathematician currently in Kampala, educated in South Africa. David’s an incredibly bright guy, very interested in a kind of narrow research area of prime ideals (and prime modules) in ring theory.  But he has a voracious appetite for learning new things, and seemed very happy to soak up as much algebraic combinatorics as I was willing to throw at him.

One of the things that was really clear in our conversations was the need for easier connections between African mathematicians and the rest of the world mathematics community.  South Africa has been doing quite a lot (with plenty of international support) to ensure chances for the best mathematical brains in Africa to get a quality graduate education.  Unfortunately, when the resulting mathematicians go back home, they are often cut off almost completely from the broader research world.  This is because the research communities in most African countries are very small, and most of these countries don’t have a science budget to support research activities.  Since much of the research funding in the developed world comes from national agencies like the NSF (in the US), this means there are very few opportunities for Africans to receive funding.  Additionally, for international grants they are in direct competition with international researchers, and the University systems in Africa largely aren’t preparing people (yet) to be able to compete on level footing for these kinds of grants.

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Explore, Conjecture, Test, Prove.

A spider web in Kakamega forest. Good accompaniment for a mathy post?

I’m spending the afternoon grading student papers from the Foundations course, and realizing that it might have helped to separate out the process of mathematics a bit more.  We gave them a take-home assignment to write up a proof that we discussed in class, in detail.  The issue is, though, that our classroom discussion included a lot of exploration and kind of side-conversations, which have worked themselves into the submitted proofs in interesting (in the not-great sense) ways.

There’s a great course in the Budapest Semesters in Mathematics program called ‘Conjecture and Proof,’ which combines a proof-writing class with a problem-solving class.  (But it’s really focused on the problem solving.)  In Foundations we’ve been striving to get across the importance of rigor and proof, while teaching basics of proof-writing and techniques of proof.  Inevitably, though, such a project has to be mixed with some problem solving alongside: students need to write proofs that they haven’t seen before, and that involves solving problems.  So we’ve ended up a bit reversed from the C&P structure, which places a lot more emphasis on the problem-solving than the proof writing.  (And I feel a bit like we’re falling on the wrong side of history in this sense…)

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Crescent Island

Uma Kambhampati wanders near some giraffes.

Elizabeth came into town on Thursday, which has been really fun!  On Saturday we took a trip to Crescent Island, on Lake Naivasha.  It’s where the film Out of Africa was filmed way back in 1985.  There weren’t any animals living on the island, though, so they shipped in a bunch of charismatic megafauna: zebra, gnu, Thompson’s gazelles, antelope, and, yes, giraffes.  There aren’t any predators to thin out the herds, so the island, while small, is really packed with animals.  And they’re pretty tame: one just walks around amongst them, no big deal.

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Election Day (US Edition)

With Fulbright Scholar Erik Nordman and his wife Jen at the US Embassy’s election party.

I spent the morning of Wednesday, November 6th at the residence of the US Ambassador, where a big election-viewing party was taking place.  There were maybe three hundred people at the event, all told.  I went with a couple great Fulbrighters, leaving our hotel at 4:30 am to get to the residence at 5.  Of course, our travel calculations included time for traffic, which for some reason wasn’t bad at that hour, so we actually got to the show a bit early.

It was a very nice morning!  The party featured a mock-vote, which resulted in 166 votes for Obama, 44 for Romney, and 1 write-in vote for Hillary Clinton.  The crowd included lots of people working at the Embassy; I met people from USAID, the CDC, and the consulate, amongst others.  There were also around thirty or so secondary students who had been invited, along with some law students from the University of Nairobi who were very friendly.  And yeah, lots of free coffee.

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Teaching programming… Without computers.

Blue vervets are probably one of the most photogenic species of monkey.

At the main maths camp this year, we had five different topic areas that we structured the camp around.  All of them used computers in a big way, except one: Programming.  The justification for this was that we had really nice, user-friendly programs for illustrating ideas in statistics, geometry, and so on, but actually throwing the students into a programming environment would almost certainly be too overwhelming.  A significant number of the students had never touched a computer before, and really taking them into a code environment seemed a bit of a stretch for people still figuring out the idea of a right-click.

That’s not to say that good computer tools don’t exist; just that we haven’t managed to review them yet.  (MIT’s Scratch, for example, looks well worth checking out.)  Furthermore, given the time-scale we were working on, I think there was a lot of value in separating the programming concepts from the physical object of the computer.  This makes the concepts available in a larger context than the computer, which, as a maths camp, we were eager to do.  The idea of setting some basic rules from which we can extrapolate is a basic idea of mathematics.  Getting across the idea of the need for precision was also of key importance.

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