Learning about the Internet (An introduction for the curious)

I am often surprised when I meet incurious people. As a curious person myself, I am always trying to understand. I love to know the particulars about a subject, but I often find that the most useful knowledge is general – how do the basics of banking work? What are the main types of animals and plants? About how many people live on each continent?

Antarctic Penguins

And how many penguins?

This kind of general knowledge lends insight into daily questions – underlying concepts help frame new data. For instance, knowing a tiny bit about how the international money supply works means that when I see the headline “IMF’s global forecast is most optimistic since crisis,” I know that

  • IMF is the International Monetary Fund, and that
  • if the global forecast is optimistic, they may be more likely to lend, which will probably
  • impact negotiations in and about Ukraine.

Not that this particular information changes things, but you can see how earlier curiosity about the general Way Things Work pays off.

So, what are the basic things everyone ought to know?

This question has plagued me and many others since forever. Should we read all the Classic literature? How far do we need to go in Math? Science? Geography, History, Politics? Pop culture? Classic Movies? I call the general problem of ‘what content to choose’ the Selection Problem. I don’t have a name for this specific subproblem, the “what should everyone know?” question, but I have thought about it lots and still only have musings, not a solid answer.

The big, starry universe.

It’s a big ol’ place. And complicated! (image not to scale)

It seems likely that we ought to know the basics about the big stuff – the things we interact with every day, the things that shape our lives. We ought to know how our food and water get to us, how people and the universe work. A passing familiarity with money and politics and geography and history are likely candidates. From the post title, you can probably guess that I would also include a basic knowledge of the technology underneath the Internet.

With the onward march of technological progress, there has been a growing movement for young people to learn more about technology, particularly coding. It’s mostly worked! Lots of people have at least seen code, and maybe written a little bit. They still don’t know the big picture stuff, but at least they know that computers are good at following specific directions and bad at knowing what you want them to do.

Even if you have seen some code and you’ve remember from somewhere that the Internet was started in 1969 by some scientists or the military or someone somewhere,

1) You are reading this on a computer, and probably 2) have only a fuzzy idea of how the words got to your screen.

Lucky for you, I just built a website (knommon.com – go check it out!) and through that process, I learned a ton about how the internet works! I’m here to share what I learned with you.

(Note: This is just an intro, and might be flawed: there are lots of other places to read about this, in any level of detail. Search on the terms mentioned here to find literally thousands of pages explaining what’s going on)

So, the Internet is a series of tubes. Right? Haha, ah, hahaha. ha.

All jokes aside, tubes is not a very useful analogy. I think a much better image is a food court! That’s the one I’m sticking with.

A food court

A fancy one, with lanterns! (also not to scale, though it is closer)

So, you have your computer, and there are lots of other computers around the world. Some of the computers are like yours – desktops, laptops, phones – in our analogy, the hungry mall-goer looking for a bite to eat. There are also big, professional computers, the ‘servers’ that you have heard about but maybe not grokked. They are like the kitchens behind the food court storefronts, ready to produce your food for you.

What does a meal consist of? How do you find it and get it? In a food court, it’s pretty easy. On the internet, it’s less familiar.

Let’s start with what you already know – what you do to access the internet.

You fire up a web browser, Chrome or Safari or Firefox or Explorer or Opera (okay, not many of you are on Opera). You use the search engine or enter a url into the address bar. The page shows up, or it gives you an error. You do whatever you came to do, browsing, reading, clicking links, playing games, signing in and out, adding items to a virtual shopping cart – generally, conducting transactions.

What happens back in the kitchens that lets you get the food you want? Underneath the pretty layout of your browser, and floating in ‘the cloud’ is the cool software that makes web browsing possible. Step by step:

1. You enter a url (Uniform Resource Locator – the address you type at the top, it starts with ‘http’)  in the browser. This is like you deciding what type of food you want to eat – for this example, Chinese. But, your browser doesn’t know where to look to find that page – so it has to look!

2. The browser tries to find out what server that url represents. To find out, it does a Domain Name System (DNS) lookup. DNS is big and hairy and complicated (like some of the mall maps I’ve seen), but you can think of it as asking some mall staff person where to get Chinese food – they might know, or might not, but if they don’t, they’ll at least point you to someone else who knows. Your browser sends a message to the local DNS server, probably the one provided by your internet provider e.g. Verizon, which might or might not know the location of the server you want – it might ask some other DNS server.

3. DNS lookup returns the Internet Protocol (IP) address that corresponds with the url that you entered. The IP address lets your browser locate and send messages to the server where the webpage you want is stored. It’s like knowing which restaurant in the food court to go to if you want Chinese food.

4. Your browser sends a request to the server located at the IP address it found through the DNS lookup. Once you know where to get the food, you go and put your order in. With the request, your browser sends useful information, like your computer’s IP address, so that the server can send back what you want.

5. The server responds to your request. For most websites, the server does some internal processing on the information from your request, so that it knows what data to send back to you. Server side processing, like all of the topics I am introducing here, is a huge topic that I can’t even begin to do justice to here. Some of the things it might involve are:

  • Finding, adding, updating, or removing information in a database
  • Complicated math to make sure your data is secure from hacking
  • Piecing together information and code and turning it into the response it will send to your browser

All of this is like what is going on in the kitchen and even in the business office of the Chinese Restaurant. They buy food, they prepare it, they cook it, they do all kinds of steps necessary to making your dish that you don’t have to worry about. Servers are like that too, only even less visible.

6. Your browser interprets the response from the server and renders a beautiful webpage for you to view and interact with. The response it gets is usually in the form of a page of HyperText Markup Language (HTML) with some other files that help make it beautiful and useful. These often include Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), Javascript files, and resources such as images or videos which populate the page. The browser knows the rules to put all of these files and resources together, and it follows them, like you putting the sauces and toppings on your food just how you like it.

Then you eat! Of course, unlike at the food court, you probably want to visit lots of sites and many different pages on each one – like ordering six items at nine restaurants at an enormous food court with millions of options.

The basics are still the same – when you click a link, your browser sends a request to the server. If it already knows where the server is, it doesn’t need the whole lookup process, but links to other sites do. When you fill out a form online, your browser turns it into a different kind of request for the server (POST instead of GET), but the general steps of the process are the same.

Sometimes, the server will send along extra data, so that when you click a button or through a slideshow, your browser already has what it needs, and doesn’t need to request anything more from the server. This is particularly true for games and videos, where a large file will load with a single request.

What’s best, your browser handles all this for you! And you didn’t have to cook.

Chinese-style fish

Just like this fish. Don’t worry about it.

So that’s how it works! Of course, there are lots more details to learn if you want to really get it. It took actually building and getting a website hosted for me to understand what I do understand about the internet. If for you it means sitting down and writing some code, I highly encourage it! If it means reading more blogs and articles, that’s good too.

I introduced this post by talking about curiosity, and how we ought to be curious about the world we interact with. Here’s a much better post about curiosity over on LessWrong, which, if you haven’t stumbled on before, is a great site for learning and being smarter.

Curiosity is better than solemnly valuing The Truth. Hopefully I have, through my wonderful analogy, made the inner workings of the Internet a little bit less intimidating, so your curiosity can carry you the rest of the way. I could point you to some links, but, wouldn’t it be better if you explored on your own?

Go forth!

Understand ALL The Things

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Learning to listen (part 2)

Communication is hard. We have all of these pictures in our mind, and we try to put them into words. Even when we say what we mean, whoever’s on the other end has other pictures in their head, and the words don’t always match the same pictures. (And sometimes we promise follow up posts in two days and don’t post for two weeks…)

When I wrote about listening in part one, I was talking about the act of listening; the mental process of turning sounds we hear into meaning, especially in conversations. But when people say ‘listening,’ they mean all kinds of things besides that. Today’s post is about some of those other meanings – particularly, what adults mean when they talk to children about listening and what we mean when we talk about listening to a group’s perspective.

‘Good Student’ Listening

When humans sit in rows, there are expectations and norms of behavior. The one at the front is important, those sitting must be silent, attentive (head up, facing forward, perhaps taking notes), obedient. Throughout formative years in western schools, the successful students, the ones in rows, learn to meet these expectations, to listen this way, and they are called ‘good students’. Those who cannot sit still and face forward silently face mounting consequences. They are called ‘bad’ and ‘disruptive’ and made to go to principals offices and their parents have conferences and the letters they take home make them feel inadequate and insecure. This is one mode of listening we learn.

This kind of listening skill is useful to have – those who learn it can attend college and conferences, rise in tax bracket and status, move to nice neighborhoods whose schools have children who sit in their rows and listen.

I’ve said that communication is difficult. Even one-on-one, we all too frequently need to clarify our meaning, restate and reframe our sentences. Teachers in classrooms have a Sisyphean task, to corral the students into their silent, forward-facing rows, and then somehow communicate with them, transfer knowledge to all of them, unilaterally.  If the students are very good, they will appear to hear everything, and perhaps take notes. As is often the case, however, their questions after the fact and their quiz and test results reveal a tragic lack of hearing.

Didn’t I go over that in class? Weren’t you even paying attention? Were you listening?

Some of the difficulties in communicating come from bad estimates of inferential distance. You should click the link to find out more, but in short, we assume that others have a similar frame of understanding that we do, and will therefore understand what we are talking about. More often, those we speak to don’t have our background knowledge or assumptions, so much of what we say falls short in conveying the intended meaning.

Teachers and lecturers run into this problem all the time – they expect students to have read and comprehended more than they have, or know that their students lack prerequisite knowledge and have to reteach. Moreover, those at the front face rows of students with different backgrounds. Whether or not they know the inferential distance between them and their students, juggling the expectations and abilities of a heterogenous group is nigh-on impossible. Some students get left behind, while others are bored with coverage of concepts they already know. Some teaching strategies and assumptions and examples work with some students, but not with others.

What’s the point here? Listening in classes is hard for students and speaking to rows of very different individuals is hard for teachers, but what do we do about it, besides recognize that it is hard?

I wish that I had a way to make all classrooms places of genuine communication and learning, but I am long on problems and short on solutions. I have been a fan of learning models that get away from rows and lectures. You’ve probably heard of Montessori and not heard of Sudbury or Summerhill. For some, rows are a ludicrous proposition for learning, and they are done away with. I don’t know if the free school model would work for everyone; it has its own problems.

Listening to groups

Another meaning of ‘listening’ is giving time, weight, and credence to the perspectives of a group of people. Commentators talk about listening to “the experts,” politicians talk of listening to their constituents, social justice peddlers talk about listening to the downtrodden, education reformers (some education reformers) talk about listening to teachers or, in rare, shining moments, listening to students.

It turns out that in order to help people, the necessary first step is to listen to them. I can’t say it better than people who are very very good at talking about listening, but I can repeat what I’ve heard my experience and send you off to better sources.

You are likely clever and already see where these listenings overlap, and what conclusions I intend for you to draw from reading all this, but bear with me as I spell it out.

The ‘good listening’ we learn as students is not really listening, and it prevents the kind of listening we need in order to help kids learn. If we care about changing things, we have to listen to those in need, not sit them in rows and tell them to shut up and listen. While this group listening concept applies to any sort of world-saving you might want to engage in, I care about education most, and you, reading this, probably care about it at least a little.

There are some signs that students are slowly having a say in the conversation about their education. Not all is bleak. But there is a long, long way to go if we want to get out of the rows.

 

Confessions of a former grammar prescriptivist

[Edited: Links added]

Disclaimer: posted from the road, coming back from New Brunswick. Tomorrow or Tuesday I will come back to this post and the previous one to add links. Stay tuned!

I love words. As a lil tyke, I tore through series of all kinds, hardy boys and treehouse and animorphs and Lotr and Harry Potter and all the rest. Words were (and still are) the atoms of the worlds I escaped to.

I started learning the rules of grammar, both in school and from my parents and grandparents. Grandpa would make a loud ‘bzzzt’ if any of us grandkids used ‘like’ as a filler word, and Ms. Kopp had us diagram compound complex sentences. As a middle schooler, I took these rules for granted. While I liked to argue with teachers, having real, solid rules let me, with my advanced knowledge of said rules, hold a kind of power or superiority over classmates and siblings.

I looooooved to correct people’s grammar. I got in trouble at some point for passing a note in class, informing a classmate that ‘irregardless’ was not grammatical, at the expense of a teacher.

But I was wrong. Doubly wrong in that particular case, as ‘irregardless’ is a properly grammatical synonym for ‘regardless’. But I was wrong in a deeper sense, about what I was doing. It may not have been my fault; I had learned to correct grammar from a young age, and idolized, for instance, the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. There remains a part of me that grows frustrated with “improper” punctuation or usage.

But I have learned the error of my ways. Grammar, spelling, usage, all of these language elements: we made them. And we can break them.

See, the top-pro grammar folks study linguistics. How people come to understand each other and the complex meanings we can evoke with sound or sign or text. They take it as an axiom that language is not some unmoving monolith; the rules of grammar and punctuation were not inscribed on some tablets outside the universe and handed down to us.

We made them so that we can communicate, and if we can do that effectively, all the rules in the world don’t mean diddly.

Now, if you are a naturally skeptical mind, you might challenge me and say: but we need consistent rules if we are going to understand each other!! We need teachers to teach the grammar that my teacher taught me and that my pappy’s pappy taught him, straight from his King James!

Is our quest really for understanding? Or is it to keep in place the power structures that privilege those who descend from privilege?

See, if grammar is something that you can get ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ then those who learn from their parents ‘how to talk right,’ (or even ‘how to speak correctly’) will have the advantage over those who only ever used words to get their point across. Just another way for discrimination to work.

Natural language has rules. Those rules are the object of study of scientists, but should not be the aim of instructors. If you had certain students who grew up in a null-g background, you would not teach them to obey the rules of gravity or punish them on tests if they could not stay down.

Teaching English has a place, for sure. I know well the difficulty of communicating, and how much difference it makes to practice and keep on practicing, to see the powerful examples of language superusers, the Kings and Dickensons and Foster Wallaces.

But we gotta cease with the prescriptivism, guys. We gotta recognize the rules for what they are; outdated, mistaught, misunderstood relics from an era when we thought we could know everything, and that people who didn’t know what we did we less than we were, less than good, less than human. It’s hurting real people!

In media res

“You know what else you forgot?!”  The soles of her boots slammed into his chest and arm. He fell, hard. She somersaulted into a ready stance, palms up and eyes alert, just as Master Splinter had taught her all those years ago. She saw the damage her dropkick had done, and dropped her hands.

 “Your face.” 

L brushed the stray hair from her ponytail, turning her back on her fallen former friend and lover. Never again would she let a man get so close. Never again would she share her secrets.

Everyone is coming to this blog from a unique starting point. All blogs are like that – you usually come in backwards, start at the end and scroll down towards the beginning. Most of the time, you get a small amount of context and head back out the way you came. In that way, reading a blog is very much in the middle of the thing. 

More than you, though, there’s me; I am hardly at the start of my learning. At 22, I am many years, many schools, many teachers and textbooks in. Even if I write lots of posts, and even if you read alllll of them and even if you know me outside of the internet, I won’t be able to provide all of the context I have for any of my thoughts, and I will even less be able to write with knowledge of where you are coming from as a reader, what experience you have and what will make sense to you.

I’ll take a page from the writers of action stories and use it as an advantage, dropping hints at the origins of my perspective, and hopefully by the end spelling out the whole story and tying up loose ends. I haven’t storyboarded the whole blog, so who knows if the loose ends will ever get tied. I’ll also try to make the drop-in to the blog soft and easy, accessible: if you stumble in out of the cold, it shouldn’t be too confusing and tied to all sorts of esoteric knowledge you can’t find. I’ll link and tag things so it’s navigable too.

I think three new posts (real ones) are coming this week, so keep your eyes open!