I have a gradually strengthening opinion that the best indicator that someone has absorbed the most important lessons of history is a great reduction of the frequency of asking “How could these people have been so stupid?” History is most learned when one grasps the conditions, forces, and influences that cause people and groups of people to take actions and support causes and leaders they have come to evaluate as reasonable that to one’s local context appears ridiculous. The recognition of these patterns during one’s life is history’s most valuable takeaway.


Two Forms of Argument I Don’t Buy at All

I’d like to mention two forms of argument that I really, really dislike and in which I do not acknowledge any validity. I find them frustrating because they’re utterly nonsensical to me but for some reason they seem widely accepted as actually legitimate points. They are rather similar, although they are definitely essentially different.

Here’s the first: “A is often responded to with B, and even though A is good, B is more bad than A is good; therefore A is not a good choice.” I’ll actually provide an example: the first argument presented here.

If B isn’t a necessary result of A, but rather just a tendency of happening in response to A, then problems are the fault of those that bring about B, not the people doing A that causes some people to decide to do B. The fact that people tend to decide to bike more riskily if they’re told to wear helmets should not be a reason to stay away from prescribing helmet use. They have the ability to not decide to bike more riskily; if they make that choice, that’s their problem. Drivers of cars acting more riskily around bikers wearing helmets, on the other hand: that is a legitimate argument, because the drivers acting more riskily is not within the bikers’ control.

(I consider the later points valid, and I actually agree with the proposition being made, but due to the reason that I staunchly support the freedom to do anything risky to oneself that doesn’t causally harm others.)

But there’s a second form of argument I often find being presented that is somewhat related.

“It would be better if everyone did B than if everyone did A, but it would also be better if everyone did either than if some people did each. Therefore, with many more people doing A than doing B, people doing B should be convinced to do A.”

This form of argument outright angers me. If everyone doing B was truly better than everyone doing A, people doing A are the problem, not people doing B: they’re doing the worse thing, and it shouldn’t matter what the actual proportions of people doing each are. Proponents of getting people to switch from B to A are literally telling people doing a better thing to do a worse thing. This is the sort of mentality that impedes progress and helps to further solidify suboptimal status quos, which need lowering of activation energy to leave for better situations, not heightening. This makes society stall.

The Unjustified Condescension of Anti-Anti-Sports

Hank Green recently released a video titled “Sports are Dumb” (with a thumbnail that says “Sports aren’t dumb?”, to preface the content of the video), suggesting nerdy-types should attempt embracing sports more, a video of surprisingly bad quality compared to what typically comes from Hank Green. All in all, the video takes part in a recent trend of treating anti-sports academic types as having shallow, impulse reasons for their avoidance of sports, when there are multiple solid reasons for not partaking, or even being actively against, sports.

Arguments in the video are not very good. The video makes it seem like eventually generalized hand-waving will stop and a concrete reason for supporting sports will eventually be pronounced, but the hand-waving pervades the entire video punctuated by occasional not-very-justified raw thoughts. Let’s note the problems in the parts of the video that are points.

1. No one is required to give a reason for being uninterested.

Hank’s claim that it’s hard to rationalize being against sports is multiply problematic: there are good reasons to be against sports which Hank conveniently occludes by pretending he can’t come up with anything, but even before this, people shouldn’t have to explain why they are uninterested in something.

Imagine if someone asked you if you wanted to come see the movie tonight, you said you weren’t interested, they asked you why, and you can’t come up with much beyond that you just didn’t feel like it, and that someone judged you for being unable to come up with a reason for lack of interest. Beyond the difficulty of translating gut instincts, the fact that there are usually too many things in the world one could be involved in, and not the opposite problem, means that the burden of justification should be on being interested in something, not being uninterested. “Caring about stuff is good” is an empty statement—there’s only so much care any particular individual can give, so giving more care to one thing is taking away care from another. People don’t have a deficit in things to care about; people have an excess. “You should care more” is never more than “You should care about this instead of that”.

2. There is good reason to not just be uninterested in but against sports.

Hank alludes to the experience many nerds have of being bullied by more athletic types, and claims lack of interest in sports is due to internalizing feelings against sporty types. As for lack of interest itself, there’s the above, but even on top of this, I claim both that (1) sentiments against sports are completely justified for academic types and (2) there are real-life, tangible ways in which the major sports harm society at large.

Continue reading “The Unjustified Condescension of Anti-Anti-Sports”

A Contributional Solution to Uniqueness-Dependent Namespace Collisions

Once someone else has picked a username in a site, chances are you can’t have that username now. This is also true of several other namespaces, inside and outside of the computer world.

There are extensive problematic things about this. Perhaps you’ve been to a site that allows one-character usernames, and then modified the URL from a profile page to see who the lucky ones were that got the one-character usernames, and discovered many accounts where barely any activity has occurred beyond the creation of the account. What a waste! This could even be done maliciously, to claim an account that’s a natural moniker for someone before that person can get to it. There’s in fact this entire TLD that’s pretty much a namespace extortion market.

But this problem could be solved. A provider of a namespace could select a set of usernames that could be desirable, and assign pre-specified levels of contribution (maybe measured by posts, publications, victories, or some combination of what’s available in a site) necessary to actually be able to acquire that username permanently. Other usernames that one would expect would not be competed over can be guaranteed permanent upon acquisition, just not these particular ones, one-character and two-character usernames, and often-desired usernames like “dragon”, “monkey”, and “shadow”. (Bonus thought inquiry: is the state of password standards of the populace still so despondent that if you implemented this standard on the password field people would still fight for the convenience?) Thus, if you turn out to be a major contributor to the site (measured in some means), and someone just parked such a username and did nothing with it, you become entitled to have that username instead.

Thus, we have a system for which:

  1. One can’t successfully just prevent others from getting nice or appropriate usernames by parking an account.
  2. If one wants a permanent username but is worried about their level of contribution, there’s still a large set of usernames that one could choose from.
  3. One who picks a username that is tentative knows there’s a threshold after which they are safe and can be assured they have that username permanently, and doesn’t need to worry about future username-seizing by other users.

I’m curious why this seems to not have been implemented anywhere prominent yet, actually: I’m sure I can’t be the first to think of this. There is an alternative solution to this problem that I have seen, utilized by Discord, for example, where all usernames have a site-assigned number suffixed to them, so that multiple people can in fact choose the same username, and have them still be distinguishable. I like this solution as well, my only complaint (and a small one) being that one then doesn’t have full control over what becomes their particular unique identifier.

Gradescope is a Pleasant Surprise of Well-Thought-Out Design in Academic Software

Having been a TA for 3 semesters (and a college student for 11) has taught me that most academic software is insanely bad. Like, really, really bad. Gradescope is, among this vast wasteland of despair, not only an oasis, but a really pleasant one.

Given the baseline, I of course fear that I may just be judging Gradescope on too excessively low a bar. Am I giving it credit just for being able to have expected middle-click functionality?

I don’t think so. I believe that for a reasonable bar for software quality, Gradescope not only meets expectations, but exceeds them. Gradescope is actively nice to use, particularly from a staff perspective, and from what I’m used to with academic software, this is completely incredible, and deserves a treasure trove of praise.

In short: most software comes with negative surprises, realizations that it is harder to use than it looked like it was. Gradescope often comes with positive surprises, realizations that it is easier to use than expected.

Someone on the Gradescope team really understands quality user interface design. Elements of Gradescope typically do precisely what one expects them to do; they are given helpful names that well describe their functionality. Where one would want to directly click and edit text, one can in fact use such direct input. (To edit rubric items, one simply clicks on them and they become text boxes. It is not indirected via an edit button or the such. And oh hey! These text boxes support LaTeX!)

Common functionality comes with an assortment of hotkeys, exactly what a grader would be seeking once they have done the same actions many times in a row, and hotkeys that take the same functionality as buttons pop up upon mouse hover over the corresponding buttons. For hotkeys for rubric items, they are simply presented next to the items themselves, without hover even necessary, since as these are numbers, one would naturally want to be able to see the associated numbers at-a-glance rather than memorizing them.

A common regret of graders when grading papers by hand is realization upon certain submissions that a certain penalty or credit on the rubric is probably too harsh or too lenient, and then realizing that one would have to go through the entire stack of papers again to find the students whose grades one should adjust to meet a new standard. Does one have to do the same, but electronically, when using Gradescope? Of course not. Gradescope allows you to filter by a rubric item to see all submissions which have already been assigned that rubric item, and immediately have all the papers that should be reconsidered. If one is only changing the point value of that particular rubric item, one doesn’t even need to go through the papers; one just edits the score associated with it.

Both students and staff benefit from an easy-to-use regrade request feature, which allows for a nice communication channel with which to deal with regrades. As staff, you could have all the submissions in front of you and compare one student’s submission with others and more quickly decide what a fair thing to do is.

Gradescope is software that actually makes grading massively more efficient; there is none of what the rest of academic software does in making you wish you were still doing things the old way.

And every so often, Gradescope rolls new updates. These updates are well tested, are actually features (more useful than shiny), and play along nicely with what has been around before. Recently Gradescope rolled out a prototype of a handwriting recognizer. I’m already really happy with how many names it successfully recognized that we don’t have to manually match anymore.

Gradescope is proper technological innovation.

Slamming Donald Trump

What do you criticize, joke about, or insult Donald Trump for? Is it one of these things…

List A

  • Funding a costly, useless, and inflammatory border wall
  • Creating a fraudulent university
  • Bragging about sexual assault
  • Withdrawing from the Paris climate deal
  • Incredibly high frequency of lying
  • Bragging that he could shoot someone and still not lose voters
  • (this list goes on)

…or is it one of these things…

List B

  • His hair
  • Being ‘orange’
  • His voice
  • Being fat
  • ‘Small hands’


If you take from List A, cool. If you on occasion take from List B, okay, people sometimes feel a need to make memetic references.

But if you sincerely consider yourself someone against Trump, and reference items in List B more than items in List A in your jokes and your slams, maybe you should take a moment and reflect on what it is about Trump that you are intending to fight against.

If you sincerely believe items in List B are more prominent disqualifiers than items in List A for Trump being in a position of power, than even though you’re against Trump and I’m against Trump, I’m very definitely not with you. In fact, I think I’m against what you stand for.

If you don’t sincerely believe so and believe List A has the important stuff, but you’re invoking List B’s items with greater frequency anyway, congratulations, it seems you and I agree there’s a nearly endless list of disturbingly problematic characteristics of Donald Trump you could pick on, and you decided that rather than anything in that list, you’d rather go for the low-hanging fruit of List B. In particular, you’re promoting the judging of people by their physical characteristics, rather than their actions, so you’re probably even exhibiting what you’re nominally fighting.

But everyone should reflect on why society has molded List B to indeed be the low-hanging fruit, the items that evoke the largest laughter or applause in the room. Think about how quickly people react or resort to the physical level, and that, in the supposedly mostly liberal circles in which anti-Trump is the normal, attacks on the physique stay. Maybe one should consider whether resorting to the such is naturally human, and whether one should really be dismissing judging on physical appearance as inhuman rather than a fault of humans to work against. And if one can have leeway for people making List B remarks on the left side, then one ought to consider possible exceptional natures of corresponding remarks on the right side.

And if you’re the type of person who watches liberal late-night comedy that’s saturated with List B insults, and pat yourself and your friends on the back for being the morally righteous ones, check what you pat yourself with.

Oh, and if what you make fun of is receiving golden showers in Russian hotels:

  1. So what’s your position on kink shaming?
  2. I hope you don’t complain about conspiracy theories. You’re invoking the literally unfounded, the sort of surmising that brings us delicacies like Pizzagate.