Facts and Feelings

We are living in an age when information is no longer scarce. The Internet gave everyone access to the information. It was sold to us as an information superhighway. Think of all of the wonderful resources you have right at your fingertips with this fantastic, revolutionary technology. Then, interactive web tools came along and made it really easy for anyone to post content online. We moved away from broadcast media, where a single entity informs the masses, to a system where everyone has a voice. It’s a democracy of information. Finally, mobile technologies became practical, so those tools are now available to us wherever we are.

Information is free, in both senses of the word. Questions no longer go unanswered, opinions no longer go unshared. It’s truly a wonderful and amazing time to be living.

flat-earth-1054350_960_720But there’s also a problem. We are overwhelmed by content. When I was in school, we used to struggle to find enough information to write cohesive research papers. Now, finding enough information is as easy as a Google search. We have to be able to filter that information to find the most relevant content, evaluate the accuracy and reliability of the content we’re finding from disparate sources, and build on that knowledge to spark new ideas and new solutions to complex problems.

You’re probably still with me at this point. If you’re working in higher education, you have an anecdote to insert here about kids these days thinking that “Google” and “Research” are synonyms. Many in K-12 are thinking I’m rehashing old ideas, because we’ve been doing all of these things for years and talking about 21st Century Skills since the 21st century started. If we’re sitting in a room having this conversation, this is the point at which someone will disparagingly refer to Wikipedia. After all, anyone can change it. How reliable can that be? Once we’ve made that turn, we’re off on a track that leads to me ranting about how Wikipedia is actually a pretty reliable source because of their insistence on citations and their transparency about where the information comes from. My challenge to Wikipedia haters is to change a basic fact on the site to be wrong, and see how long that lasts before someone fixes it.

But that’s not where we’re going today. I want to talk about something more important than whether your ninth grade English teacher will let you cite Wikipedia as a source.

What if you want to mislead people? Everyone on the Internet has a megaphone. Everyone can be a content creator. Everyone can be a publisher. Let’s say I want to convince people of something crazy. Maybe I want people to think that the Earth is flat. How would I do that?

I could start by referencing the ancient Greeks, who believed the Earth to be flat until the Pythagoras came along to cause trouble. I could also refer to ancient Indians (prior to the year 300), American aboriginal traditions, or China up until the 17th century. These were smart people, philosophers and scientists, and they wrote about the world being flat all the time.

I could reference 19th century literature by the likes of Washington Irving, whose romanticized history of Christopher Columbus includes the idea that 15th century Europeans thought he would fall off the edge of the Earth.  Or, I could write about the work of Samuel Rowbotham, whose “scientific” work in Zetetic Astronomy proved the Earth is flat in 1849. Moving to the modern age, I can reference the Flat Earth Society, which has been advocating for a flat Earth model since the days of Sputnik. Finally, I can top it off with 21st century author Thomas Friedman, by taking his best-selling book’s metaphor completely out of context.

Maybe I’ve convinced you. Maybe I haven’t. Now it’s time to fire up the social media machine. I start tweeting about the Earth being flat. I post conspiracy theories on Facebook, and make catchy memes about it. People tell me I’m crazy. They start arguing in the comments. They bait the troll. I shoot back. Now, I start focusing on the buzz. People are talking about whether the Earth is flat. Look at all these conversations on the Internet about the flat Earth. Why is big media assuming that the Earth is round? Where’s our equal time? Where’s our fair and balanced?

At this point, it’s time to discredit our own strategy. Anyone can put anything on the Internet. You can’t trust what you read online. We’ve been burned so many times by misleading and biased content that we’re quick to agree with the cynical view that everyone has an agenda. Everyone is against us. Those fact checkers who say the Earth is round? They have an agenda. They’re out to get us. The impartial media? They’re not so impartial after all. They only tell one side of the story. This so-called science that proves the Earth is round? Well, we all know what they say about statistics. You can make the numbers say anything you want.

Now, this is the part that’s new. It’s time to change the story. Many people believe the world is flat. Lots of people are talking about the flat Earth. The news reports the facts. The politicians cite the facts. The fact-checkers check the facts. But the facts have changed. Did you catch the subtle shift? People are talking. That is a fact. People believe. That is a fact. This politician said. That is a fact. The Earth is flat. It doesn’t matter if that’s a fact. It’s just the object of the talking and believing and feeling. So you can say things like “Lots of people think the world is flat” and “Flat Earth proponents feel like they’re underrepresented in media.” Both of those statements are true. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to fall of the edge of the planet.

Distinguishing between fact and opinion is a lot harder than it used to be. We have to teach our children (and our parents, and our peers) to recognize those triggers of “feel”, “believe”, and “think”. Opinions are valuable. Beliefs matter. They shape our view of the world, and our actions in it. But people can be wrong. If one wrong person convinces 99 others, then we have 100 wrong people. The fact that there are 100 of them doesn’t make them less wrong, even if they feel like they’re not being heard. It’s a lot easier now for a few people to use “feelings” to mislead others. Part of being an informed digital citizen is recognizing when that’s being done to us.

 


Post script: Did you notice that almost all of those links about the flat Earth go to the SAME Wikipedia article? The links may make the text look more reliable, but cited sources are only as good as the person checking them.

Photo credit: JooJoo41 on Pixabay.

 

Coding != Career

Thirty years ago, when computers were still new, we didn’t know what to do with them. There was a sense — in that half generation between the widespread availability of computers and the advent of the Internet age — that the world was changing in fundamental ways. No one was sure what was really going on, but this was big. Really big.

Apple_II_plus[1]Schools bought computers because they thought children should be computer literate. They didn’t really know what that meant. They were struggling to prepare students for a world that no one understood. So they scraped together money from the media budget and grants and the PTA and they bought a few computers that they set up in a lab.  The digital age was here.

As students, we played a little Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand. We practiced our math facts. And then, we learned BASIC programming.  Programming seemed… important. This was a skill we would need. Everyone would have a computer when we became adults. Everyone would need to know how to program it. Plus, the computers came with programming software. It was one of the few things we could do without buying additional software, and those costs weren’t anticipated when they bought the computers.

I learned BASIC in fifth grade, and by sixth I had forgotten it. I learned LOGO, but just the turtle parts of LOGO, not the really cool list handling stuff that made it a useful language. I learned to type on a typewriter, which I then used through high school. Computers didn’t help me learn other things. They were a subject all to themselves. Our school didn’t have enough of them to teach students much of anything about them. And they didn’t know what to teach us anyway. So after sixth grade, I didn’t use a computer again until I was a senior in high school, when I took programming (in Pascal, this time) for fun.

Half a decade later, I found myself with a minor in Systems Analysis and half a dozen different programming languages under my belt. I was teaching a middle school computer applications class. My predecessor had spent about 80% of the course teaching programming. Having no actual curriculum to follow, I scrapped all of it, and focused on applications instead. I felt that students needed to know more about word processing and spreadsheets and presentation software than BASIC.  A year later, I was emphasizing Internet research, evaluating online resources, documenting sources, and using the Internet to disseminate content. These were things my middle school students needed to know. They’re still things they need to know.

source-code-583537_640At the dawn of the new millennium, I was teaching a high school programming course. It was an elective. It was a neat class for students interested in programming. But students don’t need to take auto mechanics to drive a car. They don’t have to study structural engineering to work or live in a high-rise building. They don’t need a degree in economics to work at the bank. The course I taught was an introduction meant to spark interest in the field. I never felt like I was teaching a necessary (or even marketable) skill.

The early 2000s confirmed that. Remember The World is Flat? Friedman talked about going to the drive through fast food restaurant, and talking to someone in India or China to order your food, which you then pick up at the window. Auto companies were making tail light assemblies in the US, shipping them to Malaysia for cheap, unskilled labor to put the light bulbs in, and then shipping them back to go into new cars. Software companies were focusing their systems design efforts in the US, but outsourcing the routine coding to India.

Programming is an entry-level skill. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s the kind of position that is more “job” than “career”.  Sure. There’s a bubble right now, and programming skills are in demand. There are also some good reasons to teach programming, because it helps students learn logic, reasoning, and problem solving. But if schools are reacting to the media hype around coding by teaching programming to a generation of would-be programmers, they’re preparing students for a future of unemployment.

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay.

 

Address Space

One of the problems faced by the designers of the Internet was the ability for computers to find one another. If a global network of computers were to function in a decentralized way, there needed to be a way for any computer to send information to any other. An address scheme was created in the late 1970s called Internet Protocol. With this system, each computer on the Internet is given a unique address, called an IP address. This address is a 32 bit number, divided into four octets. Each octet narrows the location further, allowing traffic to be efficiently routed between any two computers.
Usually, the octets are written as a sequence of four numbers, each ranging from 0-255. For example, 134.53.7.10 was the server at Miami where Mrs. Schinker and I met. Our web server at school is 208.108.152.49. Theoretically, there are about 4 billion of these addresses, making it possible for the Internet to route traffic among 4 billion computers.

In 1983, when this system first started seeing wide adoption, this was plenty. There were about two million computers in the United States, and almost none of them were connected to this network. At that time, there were about 4 billion people on the planet. The idea that every person on earth would have a computer on this network was inconceivable.

These days, of course, that 4 billion number is looking smaller and smaller. With more cell phones on the planet than people, some estimates indicate that there are as many as 9 billion devices online now. We exhausted that 4 billion address space a long time ago. The thing that has kept the Internet from grinding to a halt for the last decade is a workaround called “network address translation” (NAT). If you compare an IP address to the street addresses we’re all familiar with, then NAT is like assigning apartment numbers. In this online city, though, almost every building is a high-rise apartment.

Take, for example, my school district. We have about 6,000 devices in our schools, almost all of which are connected to the Internet. But because we use NAT, every computer appears to use the same IP address, 208.108.152.6. So, from the Internet’s perspective, it just treats our whole school district as one computer. That’s how we can get 9 billion devices with only 4 billion addresses. But that only goes so far. At some point, we are going to need more addresses.

The smart people who keep the Internet working saw this problem coming twenty years ago. They created a new address scheme, called IPv6, which uses 128 bits instead of 32. That means there are 340 undecillion possible addresses. That’s 3.4 x 10^38 addresses.

The bad news is that much of the current Internet still doesn’t support IPV6. Android devices have a lot of problems. Mac OSX 10.7 – 10.10 tries not to use it. Windows didn’t support it until Vista. Cisco switches didn’t support it until version 15. Hardware manufacturers were slow to adopt it because nobody was using it. Nobody was using it because, well, no devices supported it.

But the time has come. With no more old addresses available, we have to transition. It’s going to be painful and expensive. It’s going to take a lot of time. Hopefully, most people won’t even notice.

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The good news is that we will only ever have to do this once. The new system has plenty of addresses. 340 undecillion is a really big number. It’s enough to give everyone on the planet their own private Internet without even scratching the surface. It’s enough for every grain of sand on earth to have as many addresses are there are grains of sand on the earth. If the old address scheme supported an Internet the size of a golf ball, the new one would be the size of the sun. If every atom on the surface of the Earth had an address, there would be enough left over for 100 more planets. I think you get the point. There are lots of addresses.

I can’t imagine a world where we could ever possibly use that many. Just like they couldn’t in 1983.

Photo credit: Penn State University