Wednesday, December 19, 2007

If I'm too good to discuss hubris...

An interesting trend that I'm noticing as I move through the collegiate ranks is the transition from the closed to the open universe: from what are essentially solved problems to problems that are actually worth trying to find the answer to. The biggest area where this is showing up is of course research, but also in other classes; it's nice to get the occasional Transport problem where I'm allowed to remember that what I do just might be applicable to something. Take an optimization problem, for instance: the focus isn't so much on "getting the answer right," mostly because there isn't a right answer. There is, however, a right method, and that's what's being tested.

One class that I might have the opportunity to take next year is something about "undergrad thesis writing." Very much the "unsolved problem" approach--there's clearly a right and wrong way to write a thesis, at the same time as there's no right or wrong thesis. I looked at a sample syllabus online, and it included a revolutionary lesson plan: discussion. I didn't think you were actually allowed to do that at Tech, until I remembered I had something similar back in good old English II.

Maybe you're not allowed to have these "discussions" outside of LCC classes.

LCC, of course, is the school that offers mandatory English classes, the thesis writing class, and various artsy film classes that I'm not sure anyone actually has time to take. It stands for "Literature, Communication, and Culture," and hosts the much-maligned STAC ("Science, Technology, and Culture") degree. That said, an LCC class was one of only a few occasions in my educational history--until recent advanced engineering classes--where the "closed problem" approach was avoided entirely. There were no tests. There were quizzes, to make sure we were actually keeping up with our reading, that counted for relatively little of the final grade. Then there were papers, where we developed ideas and wrote about them, drawing off examples from the books.

In other words, I had learn-discuss-prove you understand.

Contract that to earlier English classes, which were more like learn-memorize-okay, did you memorize well enough? The best part of English, of literature, heck, of the entirety of liberal arts, is the ability to scrutinize a problem and discuss it both subjectively and objectively. This is the one field in all of academia where "what you think" is actually valid. (Try expressing a personal opinion in engineering, or economics, or law.) Too many English classes discard this concept entirely. It would be like treating fluid mechanics without calculus, or ethics without Aristotle.

Take high school lit staple The Odyssey. Fine book. Immense cultural and historical significance. Plenty of material for discussion, except that it's presented as a solved problem. "Children," a thousand high school teachers might be saying in unison, "this is hubris."

"Is that going to be on the test?"

A much better method would, of course, expect students to understand the role of hubris in the context of Ancient Greek society and religious beliefs, and write an essay on it with things like citations to the text. Is that too much to ask of students, particularly ones in high school?

And is thinking having "hubris" shoved down one's throat in itself hubris?

"Children, this is irony. Yes, it's going to be on the test."

Currently listening: Songs for Christmas, Sufjan Stevens

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I'm an xkcd man myself.

A couple wise friends--former residents, actually--once told me that there's a webcomic out there for anyone. Doesn't matter who you are, what you're into, what your style of humor is. If you're on the internet, there will be at least something that you can throw your support behind. Or fifteen somethings, if you're a few friends of mine.

My immediate reaction to most webcomics is that, while they're generally amusing in most cases, they're also not something that I'm going to expend effort to inspect every day in most cases. Several have distinguished themselves to my friends and colleagues as "awesome" and things that they think I'd "really enjoy if you gave it a chance." Probably true. The thing is, I don't necessarily want to have to give something that much of a chance. I want to be stricken, right away, with "wow, this is legitimately funny, I will make a concerted effort to keep reading this comic three/five/seven times a week from now on."

It's odd, too, because most of these webcomics deal with topics and inside humor that anyone who knows me halfway would think I'd be rolling in laughter over. RPG jokes? Video game jokes? I should be all about that sort of thing, right? In general. I think the main sticking points are these. First, I was never really into comics, as such, especially ones with recurring storylines. I much prefer my comics to be witty one-panelers, in the general style of Rhymes with Orange, or Non Sequitur at its funniest. (I don't care much for graphic novels at all. Nothing against them, really, just not my style. And I've yet to see a film adaptation of one that I've enjoyed in the least. Exempli gratia, 300.) I can take some week-spanning stories in my comics, but anything that requires me to follow something like a plot over many weeks has lost my attention. It's no longer comedic; it's become a chore.

And many of these webcomics touted as "hilarious" by my friends require that same sort of dedication. It's why I don't like WoW, except maybe on a much smaller scale: if you miss one day, you can't really enjoy the next without some make-up work. For example, I generally like the Order of the Stick that I've seen. It makes for an entertaining and generally amusing read. But it's often long, has a lot of words, and requires explicit knowledge of all the characters and past several comics to understand why it's funny. I actually really admire something that relies on contextual character interactions to drive humor. But that seems more like a novel than a comic.

Second thing I'm less than enthusiastic about is some manner of implied knowledge of all things esoteric that the webcomic author deems it necessary that I know about. Take this recent Penny Arcade. It relies on you knowing not only what Kane and Lynch is but also Jeff Gerstmann and his review. Perhaps I'm simply not the target audience for this comic, then, but I find it hard to believe that half the people exhorting me to read Penny Arcade got the joke either. (As for Mr. Gerstmann, the review isn't all that scathing, at least compared to half the user comments.)

I mentioned earlier that I like xkcd. There are a few things about it I do not like so much. It's "1337" week of comics was perhaps the least funny I've ever seen xkcd, because it combined both of my gripes over webcomics: a story that I'm supposed to follow, and supposition that I know who Richard Stallman is. Here's the thing: that strip was immensely successful to the xkcd hardcore. They know who Stallman is, and probably have lararia to him next to their computers. (I read the Wikipedia about him, and rolled my eyes more than anything.) Oddly, though I'd consider myself a fan of xkcd, I like it the least when it's truest to its most loyal audience.

Still plenty of science jokes to go around, though, like in the latest one. No knowledge of idealistic internet-rights movements implied here, just good old fashioned making fun of physics.

Currently listening: Messiah, Handel

Monday, December 03, 2007

Oh, ES&T Elevator, Why Do You Confuse Up With Down?

In the category of "Things Georgia Tech really ought to be good at, seeing as how it's an engineering school..."

Generally, when one pushes the "up" button on an elevator, one expects the elevator to in fact go up. Not so in the ES&T (aka Ford, or Environmental Science, or CHBE building). For the ES&T elevators lack the usual discrimination that most elevator-users have come to expect from their machines. I swear, that thing is programmed somehow to sweep all the floors that I'm not standing on, pick up passengers, drop them off if convenient, and finally show up to my floor. But wait! That's only to find that the elevator is headed to L2, and not 2 or anywhere else that might be construed as "up" like I asked.

I've mentioned this one before, but it continually perplexes me how poor Tech's water situation is. This has nothing to do with the drought that's plaguing northern Georgia at the moments. In fact, by all considerations, you wouldn't even know that drought existed while you were sitting on Tech campus. After all, what's a faucet that leaks, a shower that won't turn off, and another shower that takes about three minutes to heat up?

Oh, only thousands of gallons of water. I don't know why a shower can go from working one day, and having the handle spin impotently on its stem the next day, with no discernible way to shut off the stream of water that it's wasting. Not to mention the heat. I have never heard of this happening before, but I've had the pleasure of having Glenn's hot water line break over the past couple of weeks. Literally. I didn't know pipes did this. Maybe only in eighty year old dormitories.

On the topic of making things hot and cold, Facilities assures us that we "have the power to control energy costs." A charming little magnet that each resident has the chance to swipe annually during Opening (what a non-housing person would call moving in) tells us that we need to keep the temperature around 68 during the winter.

Truly, that's a wonderful idea. If only our HVAC units didn't insist on radiating heat when it was 60 degrees outside, maybe we would in fact have the power to control energy costs.

Currently listening: "Sonne," Rammstein