notated.org notes on learning, design, tools, & life

Charlie Owen on React

Charlie Owen at her best:

If React was used as one of many technologies, purely for non-critical user journeys, augmenting server-side rendered markup, then I don’t think most of the issues we have seen of late would arise.

There’s a lot of provocative stuff in here, but these points especially got me:

  • These new devs were heavily trained by a combo of corporate-sponsored online materials, blog posts, video courses, and by the formation of bootcamps.
  • The Web That Was, a place of chaos and malleability, was suddenly seen as an impediment to this process of training sacrificial developers, as it required acknowledgement of variety and empathy with the infinity of technology and human combinations.
  • The Web That Was was seen as needing a lot more artisanal work.
  • Big Corporates twirled their non-existent mustaches and realized that it’s easier to train people to use to work on a factory production line, learning a set of APIs, than it is to train them to see the Web as a precious resource that is inherently chaotic in nature.
  • BTW, I’m not blaming developers in all this - under Capitalism you always need to follow the money, and web development suddenly became a well-paying career. It was always going to happen.

I’ve been working adjacent to web development bootcamps for the past several years and have watched as the classes next door have moved from Ruby on Rails (server-side rendered) to primarily React-focused. I remember the first time I had a conversation with one of the web development instructors on the way into work and discovered that he had never even heard the words “progressive enhancement” used together.

Charlie’s definitely right that although it is possible to use tools like React in server-rendered ways, that’s certainly not what’s being taught to students in the bootcamp settings that I’ve seen. And it doesn’t seem to be where so much of this loud vocal energy in a certain part of the community online is either.

I’m trying to remain patient while the pendulum finds its way back, but this time really does seem to be taking longer than I’m used to this cycle running for. And honestly, the last time I felt this way about a technology overstaying its welcome, was 2008–2017 when I was convinced that Facebook couldn’t possibly continue to be so popular and widespread for so long.

A Short Guide to Building Your Team’s Critical Thinking Skills

Matt Plummer writing for Harvard Business Review:

Here is how to assess the critical thinking skills of each of your team members, how to help those who are struggling, and how to know when a team member has mastered one phase and is ready for the next.

I like how his breakdown echoes the scaffolding in Bloom’s Taxonomy: “ the ability to execute, synthesize, recommend, and generate.”

I imagine these development stages would also be a good framework to reflect independently on your own skills.

Reactive User Interfaces Syllabus

Rune Madsen has done a great job of making his design courses available for others to peruse and take inspiration from, which feels like living up to the original purpose of the web. The whole thing is available on github.

Mirroring: how to design for Arabic users

Gaby Piñeda delivers an amazing deep dive into designing for Arabic-speaking audiences.

Stéphanie Walter

I’m glad that I can still be really impressed by the creativity and professionalism someone like Stéphanie puts into her website. Thoughtful touches in the writing, the illustration style, her positioning, and just overall presentation. I especially like the details on links and button styles.

And on top of that, she shares excellent links and useful resources on a regular basis. Very inspiring.

SQL Murder Mystery

This looks fun!

There’s been a Murder in SQL City! The SQL Murder Mystery is designed to be both a self-directed lesson to learn SQL concepts and commands and a fun game for experienced SQL users to solve an intriguing crime.

Anti-Oppressive Facilitation Guide

A must read:

Even organizations with great meeting process inadvertently perpetuate barriers to full participation and access to democratic process. This happens through group dynamics of power, privilege and oppression that often marginalize women, people of color, queer, trans and gender non-conforming folks, people with disabilities and those with limited access to the cultural cues and financial resources that come with class privilege.

Whether or not you act as facilitator at meetings you attend, building your facilitation skills will help you make your meetings better, more inclusive, and more fully democratic! Here are some foundational tips and suggestions that can have big impacts on your meetings.

I especially like the “Community Agreements”:

  1. One diva, one mic
  2. No one knows everything; together we know a lot
  3. Move up, move up
  4. We can’t be articulate all the time
  5. Be aware of time
  6. Embrace curiosity
  7. Acknowledge the difference between intent and impact

This strikes me as thoughtfully and lovingly put together, battle tested. I’ve used some similar ground rules in class in the past, but am looking forward to trying more of this language in the future.

Africa’s Lost Kingdoms

Howard W. French:

It may remain a little-known fact, but Africa has never lacked civilizations, nor has it ever been as cut off from world events as it has been routinely portrayed. Some remarkable new books make this case in scholarly but accessible terms, and they admirably complicate our understanding of Africa’s past and present.

There is still a lot of world out there, and a lot of history. The more I travel and read and learn, the more I realize just how ignorant and biased I am.

Khoi Vinh on How His Blog Amplified His Work and Career

Khoi continues to inspire:

For years I wanted to be the kind of writer that could write more often, more quickly, more succinctly than I do. But throughout it all, I’ve been drawn back to writing the same kind of posts, which are sort of like opinion column-style essays of 500-plus words or so, and that always takes me way more time to write than I would prefer, if given the chance. Ultimately, I just learned to accept that that was the kind of writer that I am, for better or worse.

A Lovely Letter From Susan

Donny gets a letter:

Your work is beautiful and your passion for our language is quite inspiring. I have never seen this sort of appreciation for Vietnamese by a Vietnamese person before. I’m glad to have found Vietnamese Typography and I’ve donated $5 via the support page. I wish you all the best, Donny.

This is how we can win back the web, one person at a time. Take some time to create something you care about and share it with the world. The world might just find you and thank you for it.

Borges on Life and Death

Lovely interview with Amelia Barili in 1981.

Cynicism, Not Gullibility, Will Kill Our Humanity

Mike Caulfield has been working on teaching web literacy, in part as an effort to address misinformation spread and impact. These preliminary results from some of his classes, and his conclusions, are compelling.

Front-end development is not a problem to be solved

Robin Rendle’s ending is the best part.

My answer: I don’t know.

Prototypes and production

Jeremy Keith differentiates:

So these two kinds of work require very different attitudes. For production work, quality is key. For prototyping, making something quickly is what matters.

B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

Audrey Watters:

Design matters. Engineering matters. But so too does the context and the practices around technology. Culture matters. All of these systems and practices have a history. (That’s one of the key takeaways for you, if you’re taking notes.)

Why does the cursor blink, for example? How does the blink direct and shape our attention? How is the writing we do – and even the thinking we do – different on a computer than on paper, in part because of blinks and nudges and notifications? (Is it?) How is the writing we do on a computer shaped by the writing we once did on typewriters? How is the testing we take, even when on paper, designed with machines in mind?

Audrey has been working on a book, Teaching Machines, and gave this talk last month in Florida. I won’t try to summarize the whole talk here, because I think you should just go read her transcript. I’ll just whet your appetite with a couple more selections.

On B. F. Skinner’s influence (over Seymour Papert’s):

I maintain, even in the face of all the learn-to-code brouhaha that multiple choice tests have triumphed over democratically-oriented inquiry. Indeed, clicking on things these days seems to increasingly be redefined as a kind of “active” or “personalized” learning.

And just for fun:

“The most important thing I can do,” Skinner famously said, “is to develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us,” adding that he intended to develop “the social infrastructure for community – for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”

Oh wait. That wasn’t B. F. Skinner. That was Mark Zuckerberg. My bad.

See? I told you—go read.

Tobias Rechsteiner’s GT Zirkon

Everything about this is beautiful. I love the deep cuts in the letterforms, I love the weird growths on the website. And I love the simplified black and white user interfaces in the illustrations.

A boring education

Speaking of Lisa, her dissection of student needs vs. wants is withering:

It is obvious that the problems of the customer-service model of education continue to expand. The larger question is how it has become accepted wisdom that students require motivation in the form of entertaining behaviors on the part of instructors, that not to do so means being boring, and that boring is not OK and needs to be fixed. Regardless of what a student may need in terms of acculturation, self-direction, and scholarship, it has become more important that they be entertained into learning, then get a degree as quickly as possible to avoid wasting public monies.

Education should not adapt to such support goals, nor adapt to fit what students say they want.

Since I work in for-profit education, I see this bad habit of thinking of students as customers crop up all the time. I do believe that we should take a service-centered approach in supporting student learning. But I believe any input from students has to be filtered and interpreted, and that we have to rely on more sophisticated and less biased methods to determine what is working and what isn’t.

There’s an analog in user experience: designing for the user isn’t about giving the user whatever she wants. If you ask people what they want from their software, you’ll often hear very different things than you’d catch if you watch someone actually use their phone.

I learn more about improving my class by observing students work and asking them to explain things to me than I ever could by sending a survey asking them for suggestions. I do surveys like this, yes, but these are inputs I largely treat as noise that’s required by the larger organization—by people who aren’t in a position to do the boots on the ground work of figuring out what students need.

Lisa’s approach to learning outcomes

Lisa M. Lane:

An SLO is a Student Learning Outcome. Now, before you roll your eyes, be aware that when the History department was given the task of creating SLOs for all our courses years ago, we were given significant latitude. In our wisdom, we decided to make our SLOs skills-based rather than content-based. Instead of saying what content would be covered, what names and dates and events students had to learn, we would base our SLOs on what skills we wanted students to practice as historians.

Love this approach. Personally, I prefer to go a bit broad and overlappy at this high level, because it allows you to have a dialog about shared goals across subjects.

Beyond Digital Ethics

Cal Newport :

It’s hard to imagine companies of this size voluntarily reducing revenue in response to a new brand of ethics. It’s unclear, given their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, if they’re even allowed to do so.

By contrast, I’ve long supported a focus on culture over corporations. Instead of quixotically convincing some of the most valuable business enterprises in the history of the world to behave against their interests, we should convince individuals to adopt a much more skeptical and minimalist approach to the digital junk these companies peddle.

We don’t need to convince YouTube to artificially constrain the effectiveness of its AutoPlay algorithm, we should instead convince users of the life-draining inanity of idly browsing YouTube.

Maybe I’m just in a cynical mood, but I don’t personally see either of these approaches working. Honestly, anything that requires individuals or groups of people to shift their behaviors by first changing their minds sounds like tilting at windmills to me.

I’d love to be wrong about this.

On a less cynical note, I believe behavior is currently naturally shifting away from the excesses alluded to by Newport. Anecdotally, I see fewer students distracted on their phones throughout the day than I used to. And it’s clear people have to started to pay attention to the man behind the curtain in terms of advertising and content suggestions online. Give it some time, people know how to take care of themselves, and are surprisingly resilient.

Mathematics for social good

Dylan Kane:

Most of my students don’t see themselves as mathematicians because they can’t see pathways for mathematics to positively influence their lives. What if, as one small step toward creating richer perceptions of what mathematics is and creating a discipline that has a more positive influence on humans, we chose to center “mathematics for social good” as a core part of what we see as math?