An objection to the feasibility of simulation

I used to have this fantasy about being able to predict the future by entering all the relevant data about the real world, down to the location of each atom, into a supercomputer and letting that supercomputer simply run a simulation of the world at a rate faster than actual time.  My inner materialist loved the idea of every geological force, weather system, human brain and every therefore manifestation of the emergent property we call a “soul” being predicted (something about my needing to take the stuffing out of humanity as a teenager), and I believed that doing this with the power of computing was eminently plausible save for our lack of complete data.  I now realize that it is impossible.  No, not because I’ve stopped being a materialist.

Any computer used to run a complete simulation of the real world must be at least as big as the system that it will be used to simulate.  That is, a complete simulation of an amoeba would require at least an amoeba-sized computer, a complete simulation of a human would require at least a human-sized computer, and a complete simulation of a planet would require a planet-sized computer, etc.  This is for a reason that is a “bit” obvious once you come to see it, as I did sometime during my undergrad years (if my memory of conversations over AOL Instant Messenger serves).  Data is instantiated in computer memory in chips as 1s and 0s, or bits, which have mathematical operations performed on them which in aggregate give rise to more complex operations, everything from blogging to Microsoft Flight Simulator.  At the moment, each of those bits needs at minimum a single atom with a charge to represent its value (the details of the bleeding edge of computer memory are quite fuzzy to me; replace “atom” with “quantum particle” in this argument as you see fit).  Any atom in a simulated universe would need great amounts of bits to represent its various properties (number of neutrons, location(s), plum pudding viscosity, etc.), and thus many atoms of real-world silicon would be a minimum to represent a single simulated atom.  Because all matter is composed of particles that would need at least that number of particles of computing hardware to simulate them, hardware must always be at least as physically big as the physical system that it simulates.  So much for running a predictive version of Grays Sports Almanac on my Windows computer.

But maybe not all that information is needed.  Maybe not all aspects of the system need to be accurately represented in the simulation for the result to be close – the number of neutrinos flying through the Milky Way surely can’t have that much to do with whether Leicester beats Arsenal 2-1 or 2-0. But consider that that game takes place in a universe where neutrinos definitely exist and people know and talk about them.  Some proportion of viewers, players, or advertisers are surely affected by the existence of scientific research being done in the city (Leicester and London are both home to renowned universities) where they live, even if indirectly – universities are huge employers with large real estate footprints.  Seen in the broader picture, the existence of neutrinos seems like a variable actually capable of affecting the outcome of a soccer match.  Even a single sporting event isn’t really a closed system – consider how directly they are affected by weather.  And of course the types of simulated realities that are en vogue recently thanks to Black Mirror are earth-like or at least have environments capable of fooling complete human simulacra, which means that the humans in them need referents for the things that they talked about when they were still flesh and blood – can you imagine a physicist being confined in a San Junipero happily if the rules of atomic motion are not part of the virtual world?  What would you do for fun when the 80s nostalgia wears off?

It’s an open question whether a simulated mind deserves moral consideration even if it has the subatomic workings of its nervous system simplified in order to make it run on a smartphone. The point I mean to make is just that it’s impossible to have a completely simulated anything without building a computer of at least that physical size in the real world.

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Grammar Mining (and the collected Mark SLA Lexicon)

Many of us agree that teaching “at the point of need” (as I believe Meddings and Thornbury put it) is an ideal context for formal grammar teaching.  Students’ trying to communicate something provides clear evidence that they need the grammar that would facilitate communicating it, and depending on how close they come to natural expression, evidence that their internal representation of English is capable of taking on this additional piece of information.

In interlanguage punting, I conjectured that taking a guess at grammar students may need in the future and organizing a lesson around a particular grammar point was justifiable if the lessons you used to introduce that grammar would be memorable long enough for a “point of need” to be found before the lesson was forgotten.  At the time, I was teaching weekly 1-hour grammar workshops with rotating groups students at different levels, and as I could not teach reactively I had to justify my grammar-first (formS-focused) approach.

Read on for the last post before the new semester starts.

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Stuff I will miss 3: Intensely bitter grapes

I’ve been out of Japan, my home for almost all of my adult life, for a year now.  There are now some things I’d legitimately think of planning a vacation around to experience again.  Some of these are of the nostalgic flavor variety, and others are more profound.

(If you had had the power to predict back in 1987 that one of the effects of a global information network would be that everything textual had to be organized as a list, would that have helped you to make any wise investments?  What could you do with that information besides corner the market on scroll bars?)

Air conditioning.  People tend to think of Japan as an ancient country.  I disagree with the concept of “ancient countries” on philosophical and historical grounds (“ancient” being but one of many possible stances a modern person can take on the history of a current political entity), but in any case, you see no evidence of this claim living in an apartment in Japan.  It’s quite rare to find any domicile more than 30 years old, and the facilities within any given residence are bound to be either brand new or from around the same time the domicile itself was built (again, not a very long time ago).  Modularity is the philosophy of most interiors, leading to replaceable fluorescent ceiling fixtures, temporary flooring (often the rugs, tile, and the wafer-thin floor itself), and detachable wall AC/heating units.  The philosophy of housing in Japan seems similar to the philosophy of food in the US – ultrarational and at the convenience of industry.  My current residence in the US is older than any building I lived in in Japan, and its AC sounds like a fleet of Huey helicopters.  The idea that American buildings are old and sturdy and Japanese buildings are new and full of ad hoc fixes clashes with stereotype, but more importantly, sometimes slapdashness has perks in easy upgrades.  My AC in our school in Japan was practically silent in comparison.  If only the walls had been made of material capable of keeping heat in.

Unsweetened food choice architecture.  I still believe the point that I used to make, that the stereotype about everything in the US being incredibly sweet is false.  However, the sweet things here are definitely more prominently placed and almost always the first thing you notice on any given supermarket shelf.  There are croissants among the danishes and donuts, and plain yogurt next to the vanilla and strawberry yogurt, but the sweeter options are at least 2/3 of the options available and always hit the eye first.  This doesn’t technically force you to buy sugar-coated or HFCS-filled products, but it does make them harder to ignore.  Shopping here tends to nudge you towards cavities.  At least the dentists wear gloves here.

Meiwaku.  Interaction has a steep transaction cost in Japan.  Initiating random conversation, asking an off-script question to someone whose job isn’t specifically answering questions, mingling, sharing, and basically doing anything that anyone else might conceivably see all come weighted with fees.  Those fees come in the form of aversion to and fear of being called out for disturbing others (迷惑 meiwaku).  I don’t remember if meiwaku was in that book on Cultural Code Words, but it definitely should be – if there’s any single word that explains public behavior in Japan, it’s meiwakuMeiwaku, to me, is why people don’t usually talk on trains, get up to leave during the credits at the movies, or call out or loudly resist perverts on public transportation.  I see the threat of being accused of causing meiwaku as an additional burden that one feels in every public action, encouraging fairly extreme adherence to rules because the threat looms so large.  If it were a monetary cost, it would be a sales tax of 20% on all verbal transactions, pretty strongly disincentivizing public garrulousness.  The thing is, the revenue raised by this tax also allows for quiet and well-maintained (or at least not willfully destroyed) public spaces and a priority placed on social order, and it is something you can begin to miss in its absence.  Its near-complete lack in the US produces something also undesirable – reckless and risky behavior brought on by a lack of cost for disturbing other people – a recklessness subsidy, accompanied by a widely accepted cultural value on confidence and asserting onself.  In public in the US, all options for public behavior are available to everyone at no cost in face or shame.  As a result, people avoid boring, on-rails conversations but are much more likely to engage in all manner of misanthropic behavior because of how highly weighted self-expression is over public order or consideration of others.

The dream of a pretense of post-racial society.  Japan’s mainstream concept of itself is explicitly racial.  Not “we hate other races”, but “Japan’s story is the story of our race”.  I’ve come to think that most countries are this way, and a legalistic, “our club is the best but anyone is welcome to join as long as they follow the rules” definition of citizenship is a distinct minority of countries.  Now, if one squinted at US history and let the bloody details fade into the background, one could have said that this was the story Americans have always told themselves – that America is an idea that rises above race and class.  In fact, it was true until recently that even the most conservative politicians publicly espoused a legalistic rather than blood-and-soil definition of citizenship.  I worry that having had to defend this president will cause larger parts of conservative America to abandon even the rhetoric of equality.  Cognitive dissonance and all that.

I knew there were elements in the US who envied the easy worldview offered by an explicitly racial view of their nation, and sought to tie Americanness to a mythic concept of “whiteness” just as Japan’s is to “Japaneseness”. I didn’t think these people would ever have a voice in polite society or have their chosen candidate win a national election.

Of course, it seems silly to say I miss the rose-colored view of my home country that I had while I was away from it, but that is the truth.  I miss having the US as an example of a country that didn’t mythologize itself as the work of one uniquely virtuous race while I lived in one that did.

Shallow roots.  The US is unique not in its newness (its government is actually very old compared to that of most countries) but in its inability to pretend to be ancient.  Most people, when asked the age of a country like Japan, will inevitably answer in the thousands of years.  If you consider a claim like this in practical terms, that means either that the denizens of these islands have imagined themselves to be part of a Japanese polity before they even grew rice or that a series of governments, even without continuity from one to another, have been able to exercise control over these islands since the bronze age without the benefit of any communication faster than a pony (or in the earliest days, any form of writing).  Nonetheless, part of the current cultural software in some countries like Japan is a claim to continuous existence back into antiquity, made plausible by some historical facts (people really have lived here for a long time) and some guessing enabled by lack of evidence (nobody knows what these people did besides live in huts and make cord-inscribed pottery).  The US, with all of the history of its current government being part of the written record, cannot feasibly claim any of this.

Belonging to an “ancient society” weaponizes many of the arguments conservatives tend to make in every society – that our way of life has been ever thus, distinctive and characteristic of our land and people, until vulgarians and foreigners infiltrated it and began its corrosion.  Of course, you hear these arguments in the US too, but the difference is that in an “ancient society” everyone starts the discussion by ceding most of the conservatives’ points.  Yes, our way of life has existed unperturbed for millenia, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to give women maternity leave.  Yes, our culture is unique and distinctive, but a little labor flexibility would help our economy’s competitiveness.  Progressives need to start with an acknowledgment of what they are breaking with or they will lose most people’s sympathy.  As I said, the US has versions of these arguments, but people often have to outsource their roots (“Western” or “Judeo-Christian”, nothing on this continent) and the mists of time don’t seem to reach much further back than 1955.  A loss of national or cultural identity can be quite freeing.

Of course, this is a list of the things I miss, and like in the last entry, moving here has certainly disillusioned me of my fellow citizens’ resilience in the face of appeals from antiquity.  The president seems to come to his particular flavor of chauvinism simply by liking things the way he’s used to (white by default and free of the burden of empathy), but others, even progressives, have come to embrace the framing of conservative vs. liberal as traditional vs. non-traditional or continuity vs. interruption.  I suppose I had hoped I would be coming back to a society that saw interruption as its tradition.

Let’s end on something light…

Natto maki.  More sour beans than sour grapes.

natto-maki
Source.  I’ll be sure to try them if I’m ever in Ho Chi Minh City.

The things that nobody teaches teachers (my turn)

Inspired by Sandy Millin’s blog post of almost the same name:

Technical problems

The copier in one building requires a login to operate and breaks often.  The one in the next building doesn’t.  This turns out to be the most consequential piece of information in the entire community college system.

SLOs, whatever they are, are crucial.  One of those words (like コマ koma in Japanese university) that everyone knows and treats as incredibly important but never appears anywhere in any training literature.  From what I gathered at staff meetings for the first few months I was working here, SLOs are things that the state regards as even more important than grades and you have to give a special test for, but are often curiously at odds with what everyone you know actually thinks you should be doing.  If you’re wondering what SLO stands for, that’s another of the things that nobody explains.

Students may be using computers for the first time. This being 2018, most of them know how to use a smartphone, but when it comes to using a computer, your students may sometimes make you feel like a desktop publishing teacher from 1993.  Each convenience afforded by LMS like Canvas comes with even more class time devoted to how to use it and an even yawning-er generation gap separating the college-age students from the parents and grandparents.  Here are a few of the misunderstandings I’ve run across:

  • Double spacing does not mean hitting enter twice every line (a classic)
  • A 2 page essay does not need to be 2 separate MS Word files
  • “Here” on the Internet means “click here and then follow more instructions”, not “post your homework as a comment on the announcement”
  • Contrary to the rules of good design in most other media, an essay should have a ton of text on the page, no curly borders and no colorful sidebars
  • Emailing an essay as the text of that email makes it very hard to tell if you followed MLA format (this was more common in Japan)
  • Turnitin.com’s similarity scores are more convincing than your assurance that you totally didn’t copy (and on a related note, and this is an area of genuine interest for me, the phrase “in contrast with” is not plagiarism even if copied from the Internet, while non-idiomatic non-chunk 3-word phrases definitely are.  It’s probably not obvious to students why this should be true).

The air conditioner is the seat of power.  Aside from the copier, no device has held the power to completely ruin the atmosphere (literally and figuratively (is “atmosphere” meaning “ambience” not literal?)) of a class like the air conditioner.  I’m a believer in Dogme and conversation classes; a broken projector is like a golden opportunity.  The AC on the other hand has both physical and psychological power over the students.  The physical power is obvious, although you might not expect the difference between 73 and 76 degrees to produce such epic ranges of comfort in your students.  The psychological power is what really threatens to tear your class apart, though, as students challenge each other for the right to sit near the AC controls and take up the responsibility or opportunity to choose who is comfortable and who is not.  This was a problem for me last semester, and I eventually had to make a rule that only I can touch the AC controls, and later that I would only listen to AC-related requests once per hour.

Classroom facilities may be new-ish or may need exorcism.  Back in Japan my university had one wi-fi router per floor (of 10 or so classrooms that fit 50 or so people each), projectors that rejected all input like a stubborn grammar-translator, and chalk boards.  Here in California some of my classrooms have remote desktop workstations which seem like a good idea in theory, some have decades of accumulated teacher skin cells on the teachers’ keyboards and mice (mouses?), and some have large, space-taking file cabinets on which sticky notes declare the entire contents to be the property of another adjunct.  Many of the classrooms and facilities are also modern and easy-to-use, but almost all of them have no white board markers within a 5-km radius.  Part of the job is being prepared for whatever type of classroom, with its random array of functioning and non-functioning equipment, you will be working in.

The classroom phones might not be able to dial outside lines.  The aforementioned generation gap sometimes plays out in older students not doing coursework that is presented online, not being able to login, and sometimes not being able to reach you or be reached through electronic means.  You may need to call these students to ask why they haven’t shown up in a week, but you probably don’t want to use your personal number for this, leading you to pick up the classroom phone.  But surprise, these only call on-campus extensions.  There is a rumor that a phone in one of the break rooms can call outside, but nobody knows which one.

Students can’t access the LMS from China.  In ESL, students sometimes have emergencies (or just plan their vacations rather poorly) and have to fly off in the middle of the semester for a week.  This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if one country in particular didn’t block access to most of the Internet by default.  Your students in China will be even more out of touch than you might expect while they’re gone.

Finals week doesn’t stop the parking lot from having a lot of cars in it.  The rest of the world doesn’t care that you have a test.  People will have tailgate parties in the parking lot while students 20 feet away in the classroom are struggling to distinguish between “felt” and “failed” on a listening test.

Teaching in society

The meaning of your job depends on the society you live in.  JALT, the main language teachers’ professional organization in Japan, is full of worldly types who are accustomed to being automatic social deviants due to simple demographics.  They take a job that is stereotyped as unskilled yet impossible for Japanese people to do (native-speakerism in a nutshell) and try to find some professional pride in it by taking it ostentatiously seriously.  To most people in Japan, a university English teacher (at least a “native speaker” teacher) is half exotic transplant and half effete intellectual, and JALT members seem to take both of these identities on board – even the Japanese ones.  In California, ESL teaching at community college or university, which nominally requires the same qualifications as teaching university in Japan, seems to carry none of the same connotations.  Here, the job seems to be defined half by peace love and understanding and half by grammar pedantry.  I know a few teachers here who enjoy getting into the relationship between explicit and implicit knowledge, but the public face most ESL teachers put forward seems to be “I’m here to heal the world through adjective clauses”.

(Remember in Homeland when Carrie briefly quits the CIA and becomes an ESL teacher as part of her emotional healing?  It seems a lot more plausible now.)

Adjuncts need to balance attention with time.  Back when I was the owner of my school, I started each workday 10 feet from where I was going to be teaching all of my classes, with all my materials, board games, books, and office supplies close by.  It was easy to imagine making custom materials for each of my classes, if not each student, and spend some time reading stuff that was turned in afterward, as there were few official hoops I had to spend time pushing them through.  Now, if I need to use any office supplies or the copier I need to leave 90 minutes before my first class rather than 60, and the class after that might be in another city.  The time spent creating custom materials needs to be weighed against the time you’ll definitely need to take later checking them (especially if you made them open-ended, as I really, really love to do) and the possibility you’ll have to re-write them in coming semesters if they are too topical, not to mention the time they’ll take away from grading essays and answering add/drop request emails.  The point is, being a good teacher used to seem like simply a matter of having the best practices and applying them individually with each student and each situation.  Now, it seems like a matter of having the best practices that you can apply in 20 minutes maximum.

The 405 is the very worst of LA and Orange Counties.  The 405 and the 5 both go through Orange County, where I work, as do a few others.  Although I’ve been spending hours a week on both of them, I haven’t seen a major accident on the 5, while the 405 has accidents (including a crashed plane once) nearly every time I’m on it.  The 405 seems to have a perfect equilibrium of BMW-driving golems of entitlement, raised pickup trucks with custom rims that are more mobile advertisements for Limp Bizkit than modes of transportation, and Teslas which, like BMWs, seem to require the deposit of your frontal lobe to lease.  All of those exist on the 405 along with streams of normal people who are by some odious force only active on that freeway made to want to fill any space in front of the cars on either side of you at every opportunity.

It’s also name-dropped in my favorite SNL sketch ever.

Teaching in the classroom

Students come to play a role.  One of the first realizations you come to teaching English in Japan is that people who are regarded as “good learners” come to class looking to engage with the content silently in their own heads, not to interact with you in real time.  Back in the US, students from different backgrounds all have their own versions of what a “good student” and a “responsible teacher” look like.  ESL classrooms often feel like everyone’s been handed a different script that happens to have the same setting and characters.

Students react differently to your attempts to address affective issues.  A corollary of the above is that your attempts to “fix” students’ apparent reticence, overparticipation, or misunderstanding itself may have meaning to them that further affects how they see you and the class.  A stereotypical example from Japan is “NEST grows exasperated at quiet students -> NEST gives exasperated entreaty to PLEASE TALK -> Students now regard NEST (Native English Speaker Teacher) an overemoting foreigner”.  A slightly more advanced version is “Students don’t cooperate in NEST’s class -> NEST copies Japanese discipline styles -> Students are discouraged because NEST is no longer authentically a NEST to them”.  The general outline of addressing affective issues in the US is to give students more individual attention, more focus on them as unique people with unique stories, and overall more interaction, which may all be felt as bizarrely chummy and unprofessional.  Some students react how you might imagine to the teacher basically trying to fix what’s broken by breaking it even more – addressing mismatched expectations by going even further from the expected teacherly behavior – by withdrawing even more from the class.

You need to share.  When I was a school owner, I mostly just shared my students with public school teachers who had radically different objectives and methods than I did.  Here, I have a group of students for about 4 months, before and after which they’ve studied or will study with another teacher.  Their other teachers may be very Focused on FormS, very project-oriented, or take a much more holistic view of education than even I do, and I can’t very well spend time bashing other methods to create buy-in for the ones we’ll be using in my class.  This sounds obvious, but in eikaiwa, naming your house method, putting it in all of your fliers and on your website (a whole discussion in itself), and doing your best to set yourself apart from other forms of English education is simply a matter of survival.  Self-promotion (including things like blogging) has very little role to play in the community college system unless you’re trying to get classes at a new school or trying to move into a full-time job.  Likewise, your materials and methods are no longer what separate your school from your competitors, but ways for you to ensure students taking the same class from other teachers aren’t having too radically different an experience.  For the same reason, you need to steal from your colleagues as much as possible, and the students will be better for it.