Finding the Tall Poppies

In a previous post I explained my process for keeping up with what’s going on the in world without turning on TV news. It’s pretty simple, very personal, and definitely not for everyone.

Recently I got a little reinforcement for my approach from a “futurist” whose approach for reading less news and being better informed was profiled in a Quartz article.

I disagree with some of his ideas – like getting off social media and “going dark” for periods of time. And I’ve never been comfortable in striking up conversations with random strangers.

But here are a few of his ideas I can completely endorse.

1. Practice selective ignorance

Trying to keep up with everything happening is a great recipe for frustration. So concentrate on finding better information on fewer but important topics.

3. Find the “tall poppies”
The futurist advises that each of us cultivate a network of curious and remarkable people who are hungry for interesting information and can guide our thinking. Such remarkable characters are called “tall poppies” in some companies, and Watson believes collecting these human blooms drives success.

Love that term “tall poppies”. For me, I also want poppies in my network who challenge my thinking in a constructive way.

5. Find sources you trust
Follow reliable, thoughtful, forward-looking publications and journalists online and let them do the heavy lifting, finding the most interesting info for you.

As I said in the earlier post, this is the core of my learning process. Creating reliable, thoughtful material takes hard work and time. You don’t get that from the talking heads channels.

Finally, he recommends travel, something more Americans need to do. Even if it’s visiting unfamiliar parts of your own country.

The image illustrates an article called Humans are Built to be Futurists on, a relatively new blog written by a futurist consultant.

Photo Post

Kathy and I had the opportunity to tour the greenhouses where the Smithsonian cultivates the flowers and plants used for exhibits and general decoration in all their museums. It was a wonderful way to spend a cold, windy afternoon. Below are a few of my shots. More of mine are in this gallery and Kathy’s much better work is on her site.


I was working with a macro lens for the first time and very happy with the way these apricots turned out.

Orchid 2

I don’t know what this plant is called (it was in the orchid house) but I just loved the otherworldliness of it. For some reason it reminds me of a character in the film Beetlejuice.


I see an eye formed by the water puddled in the center of this plant.

Rubber Gloves

Always looking for the odd image, although I have to give credit to Kathy for spotting this one.

Hey, Alexa. Explain Your Algorithms.

AI Cover

Lately I seem to reading a lot about artificial intelligence. Between all the self-driving car projects and many, many predictions about robots coming for our jobs (and our children), the topic is rather hard to avoid. The topic is interesting but also somewhat scary since we’re talking about creating machines that attempt to replicate, and even improve upon, the human decision making process.

One of the better assessments of why we need to be cautious about allowing artificially-intelligent systems to take over from human judgement comes from MIT’s Technology Review, whose Senior Editor for AI says “no one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do”.

If a person makes a decision, it’s possible (theoretically) to learn how they arrived at that choice by simply asking them. Of course it’s not as easy with children, but most adults are able to offer some kind of logical process explaining their actions. Even if that process is flawed and they arrive at the wrong conclusion.

It’s not so easy with machines.

There’s already an argument that being able to interrogate an AI system about how it reached its conclusions is a fundamental legal right. Starting in the summer of 2018, the European Union may require that companies be able to give users an explanation for decisions that automated systems reach. This might be impossible, even for systems that seem relatively simple on the surface, such as the apps and websites that use deep learning to serve ads or recommend songs. The computers that run those services have programmed themselves, and they have done it in ways we cannot understand. Even the engineers who build these apps cannot fully explain their behavior.

We’ve never before built machines that operate in ways their creators don’t understand. How well can we expect to communicate—and get along with—intelligent machines that could be unpredictable and inscrutable?

However, far below the level of television-ready robots and whatever Elon Musk is up to now, AI is a topic that educators should probably be watching.

More and more edtech companies are developing (and your school administrators are buying) “personalized” learning systems that include complex algorithms. These applications may fall short of being intelligent but will still collect huge amounts of data from students and then make “decisions” about the course of their educational life. 

It’s unlikely the salespeople can offer any clear explanation of how the systems work. Even the engineers who wrote the software may not have a good understanding of the whole package. Or know if there are errors in the code that could result in incorrect results.

And it’s not like you can ask the computer to explain itself.

The image is the logo from Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film AI: Artificial Intelligence, a somewhat mediocre example of the genre. And a movie would have been far different if Stanley Kubrick had lived to direct it.

The Real Meaning of Pi

Chalkboard with Pi

Today is Pi Day. Because the 14th of March could be written as 3.14, the first three digits for the irrational number we all learned something about in elementary mathematics.

Of course, this little bit of trivia only works if you’re writing the date as we do in the US. The whole exercise falls apart in most of the rest of the world where they traditionally write the day before the month. 14.3 makes no sense.

Anyway, beyond the fluff of memorizing lots of the digits and serving actual pies to math teachers (which we do appreciate), pi is a core mathematical concept with a long history and many important applications.

In this New Yorker article from three years ago, a math professor at Cornell University briefly offers a few reasons Why Pi Matters.

So it’s fair to ask: Why do mathematicians care so much about pi? Is it some kind of weird circle fixation? Hardly. The beauty of pi, in part, is that it puts infinity within reach. Even young children get this. The digits of pi never end and never show a pattern. They go on forever, seemingly at random—except that they can’t possibly be random, because they embody the order inherent in a perfect circle. This tension between order and randomness is one of the most tantalizing aspects of pi.

A little knowledge makes for a better Pi Day.

The image is from the header of the New Yorker article.

Understanding Blockchain. Sorta. Maybe.

You’ve probably heard of Bitcoin, the “virtual” currency that was all over the news when it shot up in value in January and then dropped off just as quickly in February.

You may have heard about Blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin and literally thousands of other virtual currencies. A concept that everybody says is going to change everything, but can’t exactly say how or why.

Do you understand any of it? I think I have a basic grasp of the blockchain concept but don’t hold me to that.

On his weekly dose of premium cable sanity, Last Week Tonight, John Oliver does an ok job of explaining all the pieces of the technology. But he does a great job of putting it all in context (“…if you choose to invest in the cryptocurrency space, just know that you’re not investing, you’re gambling.”).

The video is worth 25 minutes of your time. If nothing else, skip to the very funny closing that includes Keegan Michael Key.

However, even if you have no interest in the Bitcoin and cryptocurrency part of this topic, educators should at least have at least a fundamental understanding of the blockchain concept.

There is a lot of chatter about the technology having a big impact on education1 and edtech vendors are already finding ways to weave at least the word “blockchain” into their products.

When the marketing guys shows up at your door, one of you in the discussion needs to have a basic understanding of what you’re talking about.

HBO always posts John Oliver’s main segment to the Last Week Tonight YouTube channel. It’s worth subscribing to.

1. Audrey Watters’ guide on the topic, The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction, is two years old but still the best explainer on the topic I’ve read.