On My Top Books of 2021

Following on from my top books of 2020, here were my top books of 2021:

  • This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I found this absolutely beautiful, as much poetry as novel. I’ve always admired science fiction and fantasy that can create a compelling world without going into extreme detail.
  • The Friendly Orange Glow by Brian Dear. I received this as an advanced promotional copy, and I almost gave it away because I just didn’t think I’d ever go for such a long book about the topic. But then an audiobook came out and I decided to give that a try—and holy cow I’m glad I did. Phenomenally informative and fascinating in so many ways: it’s like all of computing history played out once already, and now we’re just repeating it.
  • Vicarious by Rhett C. Bruno. One of the most imaginative and original science fiction books I’ve read. It’s like The Truman Show meets Ready Player One meets probably a bunch of other books I’ve never read, but it’s fantastic. (And proof sometimes you can judge a book by its cover: I bought it in part because of its gorgeous cover design).
  • Infinite2 by Jeremy Robinson. The book that cemented Jeremy Robinson as one of my favorite authors—though if it wasn’t this book, it’d be another Jeremy Robinson book I read this year. I love his mix of action, humor, philosophy, and fourth-wall breakage.
  • Failure to Disrupt by Justin Reich. It’s easy to talk about the potential of technology. It’s far harder to dissect and investigate why certain technologies don’t catch on. Justin manages to do that not only for some technologies, but entire classes of technologies.
  • Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth by Avi Loeb. I’m not convinced of the thesis, granted—Loeb hypothesizes that Oumuamua was an extraterrestrial spacecraft, with the reason being the object is too much of an outlier to actually be an instance of a known object like a comet. I think he adequately supports the idea that it’s not of a class of objects we already know about, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say he supports the hypothesis that it’s an extraterrestrial spacecraft—just that it’s definitely something new we don’t understand. But beyond any of that, it’s a fantastic book about how science is done, how different hypotheses are tested and reasoned through deliberately, etc. It’s fantastic not for its argument that Oumuamua was alien technology, but for its depiction of how science as a whole progresses and its subject to the same kinds of trends and internal political pressures as other endeavors.
  • The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli. Anything by Carlo Rovelli is what happens when a poet takes a wrong turn and ends up in physics, but continues to write about it with the eloquence of a poet.
  • Indexing & Indexing: Reflections by Seanan McGuire. I listened to these back-to-back so I can’t separate them easily, but these books were amazing: a premise simultaneously original and familiar, executed brilliantly. I wish this was made into a TV procedural; it’s the perfect candidate.
  • Minds Online by Michelle D. Miller. The best book I’ve read about teaching online, grounded in learning sciences and cognitive sciences. It’s always nice to read a book that gives you evidence supporting those things you suspected but hadn’t investigated or tested.
  • Master of Formalities by Scott Meyer. I love Meyer’s writing style and characters, and this was the best of the ones I’ve read. Luke Daniels is also the perfect narrator for his writing style.

There are also come books worth noting that I have trouble really comparing to others, so I’ll mention them here:

  • Whale Day by Billy Collins. It’s unfair to use a spot on anything by Billy Collins because there’s always going to be one. I read a lot of other poetry books this year, but his are by far my favorite.
  • Heaven’s River by Dennis Taylor. It’s hard to rank this separately from the rest of the Bobiverse, but I found this to be the most mature and nuanced of the books. This series deserves a spot among the historical best of science fiction.
  • Making Money and Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett. Similar to Heaven’s River, it’s hard to rank these individually compared to the Moist von Lipwig saga as a whole (and Discworld as a larger whole), but it’s my favorite Discworld subseries.
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson. I love graphic novels, but I find I always go through them quickly enough that they don’t leave as lasting an impact. I remember thoroughly enjoying this at the time, but it hasn’t left as durable impression, I think just because the amount of time it commanded. (I could say the same about On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden.)
  • An Atlas of Extinct Countries by Gideon Defoe. I learned later he took some liberties with history to make the writing funnier, which knocks it down a peg, but it succeeded at being hilarious and informative, if also a tad bit misinformative.

On the Spiraling Relationship of Technology and Education

I’ve been giving a lot of talks recently on the relationship between AI and education, and as part of that I usually start by discussing a little about the overall history of how technology and education interact. My visuals for describing that evolved over time into a sort of model that I’m calling the Technology and Education Spiral. That said, I feel like something like this has probably been proposed before. I googled around a bit (and also asked ChatGPT), but most of the things I’ve seen are more attempts to capture the way technology and education work at any given point in time—not how they influence each other over time. So, if you know of someone or something that has proposed this idea more eloquently already, please do let me know.

That said, here’s the basic idea:

We start at the top, with teachers teaching some skill. Then, technology comes along that can do that skill for students. “Technology” in this context represents a huge number of different things, though: calculators, for example, perform the skill of graphing parabolas, replacing the skill of finding x- and y-intercepts by hand. Spell checkers perform the skill of fixing spelling mistakes, replacing the skill of looking up words in the dictionary for their proper spelling. Washing machines perform the task of washing clothes, replacing the skill of adding soap, mixing clothes, and… well, whatever else went into washing clothes before washing machines weren’t as common. And of course, ChatGPT performs the skill of generating text.

Based on the arrival of the new technology, teachers then “panic” about what and how to teach. I say “panic” because the media picture usually exaggerates the panic; but for every article that talks about teachers panicking about AI-generated plagiarism, I find there are several more that instead advocate for embracing it.

But regardless of whether we say that teachers “panic about”, “thoughtfully contemplate”, “reluctantly address”, or “eagerly embrace” what and how to teach with the new technology, there nonetheless comes a phase of reflection about how the new tool changes things, which leads to a change to our curriculum. Sometimes it truly does replace old skills altogether, the way calculators replaced learning to look up estimated logarithms in the back of a math textbook or the way digital search engines largely removed the need for physical card catalogs.

More often, though, the new technology recontextualizes the skill, forcing us to focus more on why we had students learn to perform the skill in the first place: graphing calculators can graph parabolas with ease, but we still teach students to draw them by hand because we recognize a value in deeply understanding the relationship between the formula and the visualization in a way that we generally believe will not develop if students overrely on a calculator too early.

And in the most exciting cases, the new technology more fundamentally changes what we can do as educators. Once we teach students to graph parabolas by hand, we then move to teaching them to do so on a calculator because we recognize the tool will allow them to practice more problems, get even better, and move on to even more advanced problems. Students equipped with the tool end up doing more than students without, even though they still learned many of the same skills along the way.

And that’s why this is better described as the Technology and Education Spiral rather than cycle:

Curriculum comes out of this process with a new end point, a level of achievement and skill attainment that would have been impossible without the new technology. Students today learn more in several fields than they did a few decades ago not because they’ve gotten smarter and not because the fields themselves have changed, but because of the role technology plays. It equips them to learn more, learn faster, and thus achieve more in less time. We routinely have undergraduate students solve problems that once perplexed the greatest geniuses of their era—and while part of that is because we can prepare them better given that those geniuses already found the answer, part of it is that our students have access to tools that can help enormously.

There are reasons that ChatGPT feels more revolutionary than these previous developments. I’ll probably talk about that in a separate post. But fundamentally, we’re seeing the same cycle play out again: a technology has emerged that can do some of the things we historically have asked students to do themselves. That forces us to ask: which of these things no longer need to be taught at all? Which of these things should be taught initially, but then offloaded onto AI once the student demonstrates their own mastery? And what things can we do now that we have this new tool that we never could have done before?

With scientific calculators, the answers to those three questions were: looking up logarithm estimates in a textbook; graphing parabolas to represent an equation; and solving advanced problems for which the work to do them purely by hand is impractical. What will be the answers for generative AI?

On My Top Books of 2020

For Christmas in 2018, my daughter bought me Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. She was only 3 at the time, but when we would go Christmas shopping I would give her a bag to secretly put my present in, then we’d tell the cashier to ring up the contents of that bag and not show it to me. She bought it because it had a turtle on the cover. But I read it—the first book I read cover-to-cover in about five years—and I adored it. It kicked off a love of reading that is still going strong, five years and 544 books later.

Starting in 2020, I began compiling lists of my top ten books that I read in the previous year—not books published in the previous year, but that I personally read in the previous year. Here were the books from 2020, in no particular order, with a little added regarding what I remember about them now. But first, the way I prefaced this list back in 2020:

I read a lot, but I don’t usually write book reviews because I don’t really think my perspective is useful to other people broadly. The fact that I thoroughly enjoyed Small Teaching Online is irrelevant to the 99% of people I know who don’t teach online. The fact that I disliked Eleanor & Park is more indicative that I’m probably not the book’s target audience. Plus, a lot of the books I read are more than a few years old; what’s the point in a review for something that old?

But as part of my year in review this year, instead of the painstaking genre and medium breakdown I did last year, I figured I’d just choose my personal ten favorite books I read this year. This isn’t meant to suggest anyone else will enjoy these, but just that these are the ten books that I remembered most fondly when scrolling through the list of 105 books I read this year.

  • Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees. There are six universal constants that physicists cannot yet derive from other fundamental laws. If any of these constants were different by just a little bit, life in the universe probably couldn’t exist. It’s a fascinating look at physics itself, but unlike most physics books, it has a beautiful focus on what we don’t know.
  • God’s Universe by Owen Gingerich. Similar general topics to Just Six Numbers, with an added wrinkle observing how bizarrely comprehensible the universe is when it didn’t need to be.
  • Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby. It’s like an entire book of things I learned the hard way as I got started teaching online. Plus, it was the first experience I ever had with reading a book and unexpectedly finding myself quoted—which will always hold a special place in my heart.
  • Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. I love Terry Pratchett, but the Moist von Lipwig is my favorite sub-saga of the lot, and Going Postal is probably my favorite book from that portion.
  • Ten Drugs by Thomas Hager. I’ve always loved books that retell the history of the world through a particular lens. One of these days I plan to marathon a series of “A History of the World in [Something]” books. But in the meantime, Ten Drugs—essentially a history of medicine in ten notable drugs—is one fantastic example.
  • The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson. This was the first experience I had with a book I truly couldn’t put down—I finished it in a single night—and to date one of only a handful of examples of that phenomenon. Most of which have come from Sanderson. And speaking of which…
  • Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. With the benefit of hindsight, I can recognize in general what I loved about this book in particular: Sanderson writes the level of fantasy that I like, interesting and fantastical without feeling like you need a bestiary and a dictionary alongside to understand it. He also treads the line of fanservice beautifully, giving the reader enough satisfying developments to stay engaged without becoming utterly predictable. I’ve gone on to feel the same way about Mistborn, and I can already tell my daughter and I will love Skyward.
  • Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky. This was my first experience with a book of poetry that also tells a story, and it’s stunning to me how effective the medium is for something more narrative.
  • City of Endless Night by Milo Hastings. I picked this up to read on Kindle because, frankly, it was free, given that it’s 100 years old and in the public domain. I was stunned by both how interesting the story was, and by how prescient some if its predictions were. This was a book released in 1920 whose entire basis was the developments in the world after World War II against Germany. You read that correctly: it was released in 1920, based on how the world developed after World War II against Germany.
  • The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. If I’m ever interviewed and asked my favorite author, the answer is Erin Morgenstern. It almost feels wrong to say given that she’s only written the two books—by comparison, I’ve read more than a dozen each by Terry Pratchett, Billy Collins, Neil Gaiman, and Jeremy Robinson, and several by other favorites of mine like Becky Chambers, Max Barry, Leigh Bardugo, David Wong/Jason Pargin, Rhett C. Bruno, Yahtzee Croshaw, Mark Forsyth, Stephen Fry, Sam Kean, Seanan McGuire, Scott Meyer, Kaoru Mori, Randall Munroe, Oliver Sacks, Brandon Sanderson, and Dennis Taylor (okay, that was mostly an exercise in brainstorming my favorite authors), but Morgenstern’s two books have left the most indelible memories in my mind.

On Having a Multi-Monitor Setup

I take most of my meetings from my home office, and as a result, about once a month I reference having six monitors on my home setup. Now, while having six or more monitors isn’t exactly rare nowadays—there are dedicated rigs and brackets and braces specifically for setting up six or more—I find most people I talk to haven’t personally met someone with six.

So, they ask to see my setup. My webcam’s cord isn’t long enough to just pick it up and pan it around my office. So, instead, I have to do one of four things:

  • Spend 5 minutes of our meeting scouring my Twitter history to find that one time I posted a picture of it.
  • Spend 5 minutes scouring the pictures archives on my computer to find a picture I’ve already taken of it.
  • Awkwardly take a picture of it to send right then.
  • Promise to send one later, then forget.

So, I’m writing this post to add option #5, which hopefully I’ll remember as the best option going forward:

  • Link them to this blog post.

So, if you’re here because I sent you a link to this post, hi! Sorry it’s taken this far into the post to get to the picture. Giant rubber duck for scale:

On a typical day, it looks something like this:

I tend to keep the tall vertical one on the left for email, while the far right one is split between Microsoft Teams on top and Slack on the bottom. Across the bottom are three Raspberry Pi monitors—two 7″, one 10″—but I just have them hooked into a standard DisplayPort for extended monitor space. The small one on the left usually has my to-do list and notes; the small one on the right is usually Messenger for chatting with family; and the middle one lately has just had ChatGPT open all the time. If I have a script running syncing grades or something it’s usually on one of those bottom ones.

The big curved monitor in the middle is a Samsung CJ890, and it alone cost as much as the entire rest of the computer—at the time that seemed silly, but it’s definitely been worth it. Microsoft PowerToys is a lifesaver with managing screen real estate, though.

But while this set-up is nice, I have to admit I’m still more proud of my six-monitor set-up that I originally created 11 years ago, back before this was nearly as common:

The two square ones on the ends came from yard sales. The two vertical ones on my current set-up are the same as the two vertical from 11 years ago, but what you can’t see is the upper middle monitor there held up by three drinking glasses and a pair of toy blocks:

Definitely more character to the old one. But nothing compares to this monstrosity that first got me into multi-monitor set-ups in high school:

Though I don’t know what’s worse: the setup, or color I chose for the wall of that room.

On Providence by Max Barry

I’ve just finished reading Providence by Max Barry, and it has quickly become one of my favorite books of the year. I previously read Jennifer Government and Lexicon (after spending way too much time and emotional energy on the old NationStates game as a kid… which is apparently still around!) and thoroughly enjoyed them, but Providence is my favorite so far.

No spoilers, but a couple things strike me about the book. First, in terms of similarity to other authors, it reads to me like Becky Chambers meets Orson Scott Card. Like Card, it touches on some of the more philosophical elements of science fiction, like the morality of such a war—updated for a modern audience where social media and propaganda are such prominent issues (which, granted, Card touched on too, but Barry touches on these with the benefit of actually knowing what social media is going to look like in 2020 rather than just being surprisingly prescient like Card). But like Chambers, the book is surprisingly tender in its depiction of the individual characters. It benefits from focusing on a crew of only four to be able to really explore each of them individually.

Second, it touches on some interesting issues clearly relevant to my own interests. Throughout the book, the trustworthiness and explainability of AI come up a lot, even bordering on questions like the definition of life and consciousness. It sort of throws out thoughtpieces* to explore certain such questions in depth, like the ship making decisions it can’t explain and its crew attempting to interpret them. Its treatment of sending media home for public consumption and the role of that media in the war effort is handled really interestingly as well. But what put it over the top for me is the undercurrent of questions about human-AI interaction that come up a lot; one of the pivotal developments connects to how AI and humans communicate with one another, and the treatment of the question is impressively sophisticated.

So, highly recommended for fans of science fiction, those interested in human-AI interaction, or anyone who just wants to read a good book.

* – thoughtpiece. noun. a plot development specifically set up to explore some philosophical, psychological, ethical, etc. dilemma. Similar to how movies and video games often set up sequences specifically to explore certain settings or situations. See: Becky Chambers’s Monk and Robot duology.

On the Pedagogical Role of Peer Review

I use peer review a lot in my classes. There are lots of tools out there dedicated to facilitating peer review. Canvas, Coursera, edX, and other learning management systems have their own in-built tools. I use a tool called Peer Feedback, but there’s also PeerStudio, TurnItIn’s PeerMark, Peerceptiv, Peergrade, and probably a half-dozen more platforms that have launched between when I wrote this and when you’re reading this.

First, to get this out of the way: I only use peer review for review, not for grading. There’s significant literature out there on how to design peer review activities that can generate reliable grades, but the require a ton of effort and oversight—not to mention the generally only work at specific fields and levels. So, this isn’t about using peer review to generate grades, but rather just as a learning activity for writers and recipients.

In my experience, peer review in general has a mixed reputation. On the one hand, in more systematic surveys, students in my classes generally reflect positively on it. One of my end-of-course survey questions is “On a scale of 1 to 7, please rate your agreement with the statement: “The Peer Feedback system has improved my experience in this class.” In my three classes that used peer review last summer, 69%, 54%, and 59% of students selected 5 (“Agree Slightly”) or higher (“Agree” or “Strongly Agree”). Those numbers appear consistent over time: in summer 2020, they were 69%, 55%, and 58%.

At the same time, though, when you look around reddit and other places students share their feedback, there’s a general feeling that peer review isn’t helpful. The evidence cited for that is that students don’t feel their classmates are putting much effort into the peer reviews they write. This has become more pronounced recently as students who previously might have written a short throwaway review instead submit a long, vague, clearly AI-generated review.

Now, first, every semester I go through all the peer reviews I see submitted in my class. I generally see them break down into thirds: one-third are truly insightful and substantive, with multiple takeaways for the reader; one-third are a bit light, but with at least one piece of actionable feedback; and one-third are either entirely or borderline non-substantive. A portion of this last third (typically around a third of this third) aren’t even given credit for participating. So, I do see that on average, every student receives some good feedback every assignment (although that fraction diminishes a bit over time).

But that aside: embedded in this critique is the assumption that the chief value of peer review is in the feedback one receives from one’s classmates. Personally, though, I see four primary pedagogical roles for peer review:

  1. To see others’ approach to a similar problem. There is pedagogical value in learning from others’ examples, in seeing how others would approach the same task and comparing it to one’s own approach, and in seeing the space of possible answers to a question or task.
  2. To alter one’s mindset from the generator of content to the critic of content. There is a fundamentally different thought process at work when one looks at existing work and tries to identify its weaknesses than when one generates some content on one’s own. This different process yields differently learning outcomes.
  3. To remind one that they are surrounded by a community of peers. The weekly reminders that there are dozens—or hundreds, in my case—of other students going through the same assignments yields some sense of connection. We can see the converse of this in MOOCs: when I complete a MOOC, I’ll often submit an assignment and then have to wait months to receive a peer review. It’s a lonely feeling. Seeing classmates’ work weekly is a reminder that one is part of a broader community.
  4. To get additional feedback on one’s own work from one’s peers.

This breakdown is why I see tremendous value in using peer review in education even when one might not receive great feedback from one’s peers: three of the four pedagogical benefits of peer review come from the act of giving a peer review, not from the act of receiving one. In fact, in my upcoming book, I even recommend teachers use generative AI to generate text solely for students to review and critique—not because the AI will learn from their criticism, but because critiquing AI-generated text still captures the first and second pedagogical benefit above.

I can completely understand the frustration that can come from feeling like one is giving great feedback but getting little in return, but the act of giving that good feedback is such a valuable learning activity on its own. This is, similarly, why I give grades on the peer reviews one submits: not just because they give credit for helping one’s classmates, but because a good peer review is a proxy for what one learned from the process of giving such a review.