Hello! My name is Nathaniel Woodward (né Raley). I am a sometime educator, researcher, and statistical consultant at UT Austin. In both my teaching and my research, my guiding purpose is to improve people’s lifetime learning outcomes—to provide students with meaningful learning experiences that lead to durable, flexible knowledge; to show them how enjoyable learning can be so that they are motivated to pursue knowledge for its own sake; and to give them the cognitive and meta-cognitive skills they need to pursue their independent inquiry effectively and efficiently.
Here’s my life story as an elevator movie-pitch (mind the twee): school goof1 meets the quiet girl in HS academic competition, studies hard2 to impress her;3 opposites attract, then mesh perfectly:4 they fall fast in love but tragically separated by college scholarships; they endure this trial, get married, together ever since, happily ever after! Plot twist: all the while he remains obsessed with studying, continues to go to academic competitions as awkward adult, teaches himself math to better model/predict learning and memory, becomes learning researcher and statistician, aspires to share love of learning with everyone, dreams of optimally educated humanity that solves All The Problems and safeguards the future! Protagonist then makes website and types brief, clichéd account of his life at the top.
In all seriousness, I love learning5 and I really love learning about learning6—the love of learning infuses my every moment with excitement and personal meaning. When you love learning, life is transformed from a thing that happens to you into a first-person quest for truth, beauty, and goodness: new experiences are mingled with old ones in the crucible of your imagination, producing ever-better mental models of reality, connecting previously unrelated ideas to form new patterns, new visions about the way things are… Once set aflame, this passion for personal truth is continually stoked by the small thrill of every realization and sustained by our profound need to bring order to ourselves and to the cosmos—the conviction that the universe will prove to make some final sense. A joy of learning suffuses life with meaning! It is the essence of education and the prerogative of every human being! We should all feel the tug of curiosity, the engulfing flow of discovery and problem-solving, the sheer awe of finally “getting it.” Every little epiphany is worth its weight in gold: the final product of your every lesson-learned is far more what you know, it is who you are!
But if you are reading this, a lot of “life” has already happened to you: many formative experiences are now well in our past, and from them, relatively stable identities have emerged. Along the way, our schools and workplaces have communicated the view that life is a series of repetitive, unenjoyable duties done grudgingly in exchange for material rewards or social status. But life is not about following directions, or even giving them; no, it is about making new directions, your own directions! To do this requires freeing one’s soul from the sedative cocoon of daily routines and instant gratification long enough to realize that there is still real mystery out in the world, still an infinitude of unrealized possibilities for your future self, still countless unanswered questions and fundamental problems that have become hidden underneath all the artificial cruft of modern life. The first task of an educator is to inspire students, to bring these timeless human issues and ultimate scientific questions into the light of day and to make a case for alternative lifestyles that are guided by them (I leave these as a short exercise for the reader7). If these questions do not pull all students into their orbit, then at least they have given prominence to human incompleteness and conflictedness: discontent and the awareness of alternatives form the starting-point of much meaningful intellectual activity! In the words of Allan Bloom,
“The passions should be bound up in the glorious project of fulfilling human nature and searching for final truths, and this binding should be the goal of education.”
Students who love to learn will seek meaning, truth, and enjoyment in everything they do—and they will find it.
Why blog? Initially it was just to have a place to externalize ideas so I wouldn’t forget them—a digital creel to take fishing in the stream of consciousness. Life’s too short for fleeting thoughts; here I could pin them all down side by side and, under the loupe of scrutiny, come to determine (and revise!) what it is I believe.8 Good old Plato would’ve called sites like these hypomnemata; they work like a prosthetic memory for one’s musings (the amusing, bemusing, c-musing…), serving as a record of the person I was for the people I will become. I can now look back and see how, in each post or upload, I have unconsciously embedded aspects of my identity-at-the-time. When we write, the billions of experiences we’ve had since birth are brought to bear, and so the author leaves a residue even as he is changed by the process itself.
“How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?”
–E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
You too can see what I say: the internet has created a sort of reverse-voyeurism where I get to say Important Things behind a one-way (or is it two-way?) mirror and pretend you’re watching… even an imagined audience can cause reactivity and I’m a people-pleaser besides! Sunk costs being what they are (e.g., domain registration fee, hours of my life getting this thing up and running), I hope to channel loss-aversion into regular updates and upkeep so drop by and hold me to account9 (or I can just imagine that you’ve been by)!
In August 2017, I migrated my blog and personal website from blogger/AWS to GitHub/Netlify so I could blog stats stuff more simply straight from R Studio using the blogdown package developed by Yihui Xie. Indeed, this site is adapted from his adaptation of J. Rutheiser’s original theme. I have tweaked it considerably (and wasted much time in doing so), including the addition of bigfootjs for fun footnotes.10
Despite the impression you may have gotten from my prose style,11 I am extremely economical and I abominate wastes of any kind, especially those of time (the thing I value most highly) and money (which I have to sell my time to get).12
“Oh, I’ve plenty of time. My time is entirely my own.”
I am also very risk-averse, so I seldom go out anywhere unless compelled by strong arguments: the chances of my meeting an untimely end (or of having my time/money wasted!) go up dramatically when I leave the hearthstones cooling behind me and venture out among my fellow man,13 so I try my best to avoid it.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?”
Besides, I like indoor activities best! I enjoy pestering my14 three15 cats,16 juggling,17 puzzling (sweeping mines,18 crossing words19), quizzing, recreational reading and mathematics (here’s a fun one I saw recently), eating spicy and/or fermented20 things in accordance with lax (read: lapsed) veganism21 (basically, I eat cheese if it’s free, going to waste, difficult to avoid, etc.).
What else is there about me? If I were a nonhuman animal, I have it on good authority that I would be an umbrella cockatoo.22 I am a proponent of the Nordic theory of love.23 I have a child’s sense of justice that revolts at wrongful punishments, structural inequalities, and undeserved/unmerited fortune or fame. I hate when copy editors use ugly em dashes – like these hideous things – instead of their much prettier—and obviously correct—alternative. My sense of fremdschämen on behalf of humanity can be socially crippling, and I get positively irate about the residue left behind after peeling stickers off of jars. Yes I like to juxtapose, but give me the unity of opposites any day. I prefer my content in text form, and with few exceptions I don’t like movies or TV.24 I especially hated the film Amadeus (but I very much enjoyed Wall*E). Vis-à-vis fiction, the Recognitions is gospel and Suttree my book of sacred psalms. And though their respective Apostles have been perennially passed over for the prize (add Nabokov to their number), I think Chris Onstad deserves the next Literature Nobel solely for his achievements in the genre of webcomics. No one has ever asked my opinion of NPR quiz shows, but I have always wanted to give it, and now seems like a good time: “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me…” is cringey and excellent while “Ask Me Another” is cringey and terrible. I was fortunate to come of age in a period of excellent music (late 2000s/early 2010s).25 I guess I’m a cat person and a dog person, in that I like ~98% of the cats I’ve met but only about 10% of the dogs?26
for the first time in 12 years of formal schooling…↩
Wooster: “I mean to say, I know perfectly well that I’ve got, roughly speaking, half the amount of brain a normal bloke ought to possess. And when a girl comes along who has about twice the regular allowance, she too often makes a bee line for me with the love light in her eyes. I don’t know how to account for it, but it is so.”
Jeeves: “It may be Nature’s provision for maintaining the balance of the species, sir.”↩
whether in vivo, in vitro, or in silico↩
Candidates include old standards such as
* What is the meaning of life?
* Why are we here?
* Is there anyone Out There?
* If so, why haven’t we detected each other yet?
For those of a more political bent, we have
* What is the best form of government
* What does it mean to live a good life?
* What is human nature? Can we change it, and if so, should we?
* Are humans irredeemably evil; could they ever be satisfied with a perfectly good world?
* Could the evil be bred out of humanity over time, as society tames us? Would we still be “human”?
* Does concern for the collective good supersede individual self-determination?
* Should respect for another cultures practices take precedence over Human Rights?
* Can there be an economy not premised on human greed and carried out through symbolic violence?
* Is a healthy economy really a good thing if it means people are consuming more things they don’t need and filling the world with waste?"
* Should there be total equality among people or should unequal talents receive disproportionate rewards?"
If you’re feeling philosophical about life, we have
* Can there by goodness without evil; happiness without sadness?
* Is there a real difference between right and wrong, or is it all relative?
* Do we have free will or is everything pre-determined?
* Are ethical truths necessarily religious truths?
* Is there such thing as moral progress?
Other questions are more scientific nature:
* What is the physical nature of the universe? How did it originate?
* What is infinity
* P=NP? * Is the universe ultimately intelligible to humans
* Are there parallel universes in which all alternate possible histories and futures are real?
* Has everything that could have possibly happened in our own past, but didn’t, actually occurred in the past of some other universe?
* If we die, does our consciousness live on in one of these parallel universes?
* What is mean for one thing to cause another?
* Can there be causality if the behavior of subatomic particles is irreducibly probabilistic?
* Can every even number greater than two be represented as the sum of two primes?
* Can every problem whose solution a computer can check easily also be solved easily?
* Are there other intelligent beings out there? If so, where?
* What is consciousness? Are other animals conscious?
* What makes humans different from other mammals?
* What makes humans different from each other?
* What is human memory and how does it work? What are we without our memories?
Perhaps the most enticing are the hypothetical, futuristic ones:
* Is technological progress inherently good; does it have unforeseen consequences?
* Can we live for ever? Should we?
* If we could eliminate pain, should we? On the flip-side, if we could maximize pleasure, should we?
* If your own specific human consciousness was instantiated in a computer simulation, would it be human? Would it still be you?
* What is randomness?
* Is complexity really computationally irreducible?
* Do we experience randomness and complexity because the systems we analyze are just as sophisticated as we are? * Can a computer become conscious? If so, will it then be human? With human rights?
* What if these intelligent machines lack human cognitive limitations: will they be more than human?
* What if one is smart enough to be able to reprogram itself and improve its own abilities, which make it even better at improving itself, and so on recursively?
* If you believe that AI is possible and that hastening its development would solve humanity’s problems, is it moral to devote one’s life to the cause?
* Should you devote your life to building an AI because you realize that a future AI will itself realize that you will have realized this but failed to act, therefore wittingly delaying the creation of a life-saving superintelligence and anticipating its wrath, and thus giving it every reason to retroactively punish you to correct the cosmic balance?
* Is our reality in fact a computer simulation carried out by some technologically advanced post-human civilization?
sorry about all these weird animal-hobby metaphors…↩
as soon as I get discus working…↩
Cormac McCarthy: I always knew that I didn’t want to work
Oprah: How did you manage that? Most people would like to do that.
C: Well, you have to be dedicated, but it was my number one priority
O: That you didn’t want to have a job?
C: Yeah, I thought, you’re just here once, life is brief and to have to spend every day of it doing what somebody else wants you to do is not the way to live it. I don’t have any advice for anybody on how to go about that, but if you’re really dedicated you can probably do it.
O: So you have worked at not working?
who, if not always actively menacing, are always unpredictable and are usually texting while driving!↩
I sporadically worked the NYT puzzle in college; I happened to sit down to this one on the morning of my 20th birthday and came across my first name (24 across) and former middle name (76 across) were in it! It also features one of my favorite movies.↩
sourdough, tempeh, beer, kombucha, wine, idli, dosas, pickles, gochujang, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut…↩
My own personal voice-inside-my-head reasons for a plant-based diet are ethical in nature and can be summarized as follows: “I am an animal, but a unique kind of animal who can understand what it means to feel pain and to die and who doesn’t want that to happen to himself or to any other animals. My unique kind of animal can also live a happy, healthy life at very little personal expense without causing other animals to feel pain or to die.”
I don’t believe other animals, even other mammals, have anything like human consciousness. Nor do I believe they should be accorded human rights. But I know that at the end of the day, biologically I am a mammal; if you’re warm-blooded and you’ve got hair and a neocortex, then I’m really going to avoid hurting/killing you. If you have a spine and a pulse, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt (especially since the benefits of eating meat are… what again?)↩
“That authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.”↩
And despite their being “active” passtimes, I don’t like “video games” much either, but if I did, I would like real-time strategy games or RPGs↩
…when Girl Talk released Feed The Animals and All Day, Lady Gaga was everywhere and everything, the New Pornographers had at least 3 amazing albums, Das Racist was still together…↩
and < .001% of the humans. Ah but don’t worry, I like you though!↩