Stupid things

Popular websites by the alphabet

With Google giving results instantly while you type, it is easy to find the most popular website for a given first letter… and since this blog lacks originality, quality, and readership, why not blog those results? Some of this depends on my location, so you might get different results… what fun!

A – Amazon
B – Bank of America
C – craigslist
D – Dictionary.com
E – eBay
F – Facebook
G – Gmail
H – Hotmail
I – Ikea
J – JetBlue
K – Kohl’s
L – Lowe’s
M – MapQuest
N – Netflix
O – Orbitz
P – Pandora
Q – BrainyQuote
R – Washington Redskins
S – Southwest Airlines
T – Target
U – United States Postal Service
V – Verizon
W – Weather.com
X – Xbox
Y – Yahoo!
Z – Zappos
1 – Nineteenth Amendment on Wikipedia
2 – Year 2010 calendar
3 – 30 Rock Comedy TV Show
4 – 4 (number) on Wikipedia [what a lame result!]
5 – 500 Days of Summer
6 – 60 Minutes
7 – 7-zip
8 – 84 Lumber
9 – 9:30 Club

By S P Hannifin, ago
Stupid things

Banned Books Week is stupid

From tweets and Facebook comments, it seems to be “Banned Books Week”!  What is Banned Books Week?  Maybe it’s actually a commercial ploy to sell books.  However, according to BannedBooksWeek.org:

Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries.

During the last week of September every year, hundreds of libraries and bookstores around the country draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events. The 2010 celebration of Banned Books Week will be held from September 25 through October 2.

The purpose of this Web site is to help the public join the celebration of our freedom to read.

What, as if censorship is always bad?  As if the content and messages of certain books being challenged is bad in and of itself?  Of course disputes will arise in any society full of people with different beliefs and values.  That’s not a problem, and it’s not bad, as long as we can deal with it civilly.

But I don’t think anyone disagrees with me on that.  So I guess Banned Books Weeks isn’t really about “the problem of censorship” or an attempt to stop books from ever being challenged.  I think it’s just about getting people to talk about books and their moral issues.

What it turns into is more of a: “Hey!  Pat yourself on the back for liking this book that some other group dared to say was bad!  Can you believe it?!  Some people!  Hooray for freedom of speech at the level that most of us agree it should be at!”

I think it’s great to encourage people to think for themselves, and not accept censorship blindly.

But I think if we need a “Banned Books Week” to remind ourselves of that, then we’re awfully stupid.

Hmmm… Banned Comics Week anyone?

By S P Hannifin, ago
Philosophy

The Khan Academy is not that good

UPDATE (March 24, 2011): The Khan Academy has changed a bit since I originally wrote this. My original post appears right below, followed by some updated observations.

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It seems there are plenty of people, both students and parents, who are unhappy with our current education system, myself included. Unfortunately everyone seems to have different ideas of what exactly is wrong with it and how to fix it.

Google had a link on their homepage to their Project 10 to the 100, in which they gave millions of dollars to organizations that won voting contests. You can see they’re giving Khan Academy $2 million. A lot of people really love Khan Academy (including Bill Gates) and think that it is a great step in the right direction. [The Khan Academy is basically a large collection of cheaply produced educational videos. Being videos, they can only teach fact-based material, like math, science, and history. They can’t teach skills that require feedback.]

I don’t think Khan Academy is bad, but it’s not a replacement for our current education system. It’s not that good. It’s not worthy of praise from Bill Gates (or maybe it is, since he seems to have completely wrong ideas about what steps the education system should take), and it’s not worthy of this $2 million gift. Khan Academy is great because it makes a lot of educational material available for free. But education is not about just knowing stuff.

The big thing people seem to forget or ignore is that everything ultimately comes down to employment… whether or not you can do a job, and whether or not employers will recognize that you can do a job and hire you. Unfortunately people seem to think education is about getting a degree. But the only reason a degree has any value is because employers give it value. It has zero value by itself.

Or people think education is just about knowing stuff, and the more you know the better. The more facts you can cram in your head, the smarter you are. But knowledge is useless if you don’t use it. Oooh, there’s a profound idea! But people don’t always seem to believe it. Going through Khan Academy’s resource is just, in the end, really not that helpful. You’re just not going to use most of it in everyday life, even when you’re employed. It’s a nice resource to have available if it turns out you do need to learn some of it someday, which is the same reason it’s nice for colleges to have libraries. But it doesn’t replace or change anything important in the education system. It’s just a nice reference resource.

Which leads us to what is wrong with our education system. It’s become thought of as separate from the life you’ll live after it, and thus has little focus. Rich people and rich organizations can throw all the millions of dollars they want at it, but until there’s a widespread fundamental shift in employers’ and educators’ and students’ attitudes towards it, things aren’t going to get much better.

The Khan Academy does plan to expand and offer more than just videos, so we’ll see what happens with it. Ultimately it’s currently just a library. A library is a great resource because it means you don’t have to learn stuff; if you ever need certain info, you can go find it in the library when you need it. The point isn’t to try to learn or memorize as much of it as possible.

————————-

Updated comments from March 24, 2011:

(Really this is just copied from one of my comments, but I thought it was important enough to move it up here with the original post.)

Since I first posted this, I think the Khan Academy has added practicing software and coaching abilities, so it’s no longer just a bunch of videos, but does include some form of feedback. If they continue this trend, adding more features that allow more personalized feedback, I think they can certainly come pretty close to replacing the classroom experience, maybe even making it better in some ways: no more needing permission to go to the bathroom, no more disruptive paper airplanes, children can work better at their own pace, etc. There would still be a great deal of challenges (funding probably a big one), but if Khan’s goal is to replace the classroom setting with something more personalized, I think it’s definitely possible with today’s technology and we only await someone with enough tech savvy, time, and money to get it going.

But making a bad education system virtual doesn’t really help. It’s like adding new fancy fonts and pictures to a poorly written textbook.

That is, my main criticism isn’t that the Khan Academy is (or was) just a resource. The specific information is still mostly useless to most students, no matter what form they learn it in, whether it’s a physical or virtual classroom.

If you’re just learning something so you can spew it back out on a test and then forget it next year, that information is serving you no real purpose. You’re just wasting your time learning it. (I shudder to see “California Standards Test” lessons now listed at the Khan Academy.)

The Khan Academy videos seem like Mr. Khan spent some time learning the content out of a textbook and then just regurgitated the material in video form. That *can* be useful in some situations, but to me it implies that Khan, like most public education systems in general, doesn’t really question the applications of the content, doesn’t question why or how that specific content is worth the teachers’ and students’ time and effort. In many cases, it’s just not.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Non-fiction books

Problems with this non-fiction book and such

So I’m reading a book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.  Overall, I’d say it’s a pretty good book, though sometimes a bit repetitive, as if the author just wanted to make the book longer, or make extra-sure he got his point across.  The book firstly argues that “genius” and “giftedness” and “skill” are not innate, people aren’t just born more special than everyone else (though we seem to like this idea in fiction).  Expert skill can be acquired by almost anyone who is willing to put in the enormous amounts of time and effort.  (Of course, this really isn’t a world-changing view; plenty of people, including my genius self, have already concluded this.  And, as I said in one of my earlier blog posts, The Talent Code feels like a sequel, or at least a companion book, to The Genius in All of Us. (By the way, I know these books might sound like cheesy self-help books, but I don’t think they’re that bad…))

The book also talks about the importance of the brain’s myelin.  (It mentions it over and over and over… yes, myelin, I get it!)  The book argues myelin, which insulates the axons of the brains neurons, plays a key role in developing skills.  Developing skills is, in fact, all about growing myelin around the proper neurons in your brain.  (OK, maybe not all about growing myelin, but its certainly a vital factor.)  But beyond that (and beyond repeating it 12 billion times), it really doesn’t go very in-depth about the science of myelin, nor does it talk about any ways to get more myelin, besides good practicing, which would be the obvious way to gain skills anyway.  So I’m really not sure why the author chose to make myelin such a big theme of the book.  Coyle could’ve talked about it for three or four pages and then moved on; it doesn’t seem to really add that much to his point.

The book also talks “deep practice” … that is, practicing that counts.  Just going through the motions does not provide the best learning experience, you have to sit and contemplate what you’re doing, mentally recognizing some mistake you keep making, some thing you can improve on, and consciously working on it.  (I’ve played some kids in chess, and some of them, after learning how the pieces move, just play the first moves that pop into their heads instead of taking the time think.  It seems useless to play like that; they’re never going to get any better without thinking.  I’d actually go so far as to say that there are these huge institutions which encourage (and spend millions of dollars on) “shallow practicing” … in these institutions, people just read some material, hear a lecture on it, take a test on it, and they’re done.  They never apply much of their knowledge to anything.  These institutions are the American high school system and the American college system.  (Plenty of exceptions of course, but overall, these institutions are centered around very stupid ways to learn useless things.))

I’ve just started the chapter “The Three Rules of Deep Practice” … can’t say much about it yet, ’cause I haven’t read it yet!  But it looks interesting.

Anyway, I came across some quotes from the book that I don’t quite agree with.  Overall, it’s an interesting book, and I’d say it’s “good” … but these quotes really annoy me.

On pages 49-50, Coyle writes:

A famed 1956 paper by psychologist George Miller, called “The Magical Number Seven, Plur or Minus Two,” established the rule that human short-term memory was limited to seven pieces of independent information (and gave Bell Telephone reason to settle on seven-digit phone numbers).

OK, this quote isn’t that annoying, but I wonder if this notion that “telephones numbers have seven digits because of short term memory studies” is just a myth; I’ve never seen any evidence of it, and the author here doesn’t cite anything. Is he just repeating something he read somewhere without checking up on it?

Even if this notion was true, it wouldn’t make much sense. The digits of a phone number are not “pieces of independent information” … you can remember a sequence of 12 or 15 digits (or plenty more) very easily if you use them enough; you remember them as a sequence, or maybe even as an image or one big chunk. And if the goal was to make phone numbers easy to remember, shorter is always better, so why not make it shorter? Or why not disregard number length completely and just use easy to remember sequences? For example, 11111 is easier to remember than 59834. You don’t have to actually remember 1, then 1, then 1, then 1, then 1. Instead you just remember “5 1’s” … so you could perhaps have sequences like 444-555-1. Then you just remember “3 4’s, 3 5’s, 1” … the 1 being the “end” symbol. Then we could have a ton of possible numbers with very little remembering to do.

I’m sure there are some problems with that system, but my point is that 7-digit phone numbers could just be a coincidence. I’m not convinced a huge amount of psychological thought went into choosing how many digits to make phone numbers; I think people just used what they were comfortable with. Maybe they did put a ton of thought into it and labored over scientific papers on short-term memory, but I haven’t seen any actual evidence of it, besides people mentioning it in passing when they talk about the “7 items in short term memory” thing.

Anyway, that’s just a small annoyance. A bigger annoyance is what Coyle writes next on page 50:

When one of Ericsson’s student volunteers memorized an eighty-digit number, the scientific establishment wasn’t sure what to think.

Ericsson showed that the existing model of short-term memory was wrong. Memory wasn’t like shoe size–it could be improved through training.

But I just read about this in The Genius in All of Us! Yes, these student volunteers learned to memorize huge sequences of random numbers, but did that really improve their short-term memory? Not necessarily. Give them random sequences of letters, or animal names, or DNA code, and they become normal again. They weren’t really “improving their short-term memory,” they were teaching themselves number-chunking skills. If you chunk 7 and 8 and think “seventy-eight,” 7 and 8 are no longer independent entities; you remember them as a group, one number. But what’s most striking is the non-transferability of these students’ memorization skills. Ultimately their skill is useless because we have very little need for memorizing large sets of numbers. But they don’t have the skill to memorize just vast amounts of anything on the fly. So I’m not sure I really buy the notion that “the existing model of short-term memory was wrong.” Maybe it was, but Ericsson’s study is not direct evidence of that, as far as I can tell.

(On a side note, transferability is a huge topic in psychology and education. It’s easy to look at a really good piano player and notice other things he does well and reckon “ah, playing the piano helps your math skills” or whatever. Maybe it does in some amount, but people forget that correlation does not prove causation. You cannot see such cause-and-effect in the complexity of human behaviour so completely just with passive observation. Yet schools (and people trying to sell educational material) do this all the time. “Playing chess will help your logic reasoning!” “Listening to Mozart will improve your math skills!” etc. (Again, not that it doesn’t, but it’s much more complex than just playing chess and suddenly applying logic in more places. Transferability of skills is simply not so simple. (It would be interesting to read a big scientific book on the subject, but I’m not sure if it’s been written. I’ll have to look around.)))

This next annoyance isn’t really Coyle’s fault since he’s just quoting someone else. On page 66:

“Why do teenagers make bad decisions?” he [George Bartzokis] asks, not waiting for an answer “Because all the neurons are there, but they are not fully insulated. Until the whole circuit is insulated, that circuit, although capable, will not be instantly available to alter impulsive behavior as it’s happening. Teens understand right and wrong, but it takes them time to figure it out.”

*Sigh* … more teenage brain bias based on no evidence. Firstly, this doesn’t explain teens who made no more bad decisions than adults, like, gee, I don’t know, me. Nor does it explain adults who make worse decisions than teens, or pre-teens who make better decisions (as they would also have less myelin). Secondly, there doesn’t seem to be any actual science behind it. OK, we know there’s myelin, we know it helps, we know teens have less of it (in general, at least, though I’m not even sure how much evidence of this there even is), but, as usual, correlation doesn’t prove causation. You can’t just say “Ah, teens have less myelin, therefore that is the cause of their bad decisions! Makes sense to me! And I’ve seen teens make bad decisions, so it must be true!” It seems it’s just old people generalizing teenage behaviour and assuming little can be done about it, it’s just innate, and must be countered with parental control. It’s quite sad and disturbing and ultra-annoying.

Then, on page 67, Coyle quotes Bartzokis as saying:

“Sure, you can teach a monkey to communicate at the level of a three-year-old, but beyond that, they are using the equivalent of copper wires.”

Er … if you read up on the science of monkeys learning language, I’ve yet to see any convincing evidence that monkeys are even close to learning language at a three-year-old level. Mr. Bartzokis’s credibility, like the list of Gandalf’s and Elrond’s allies after the betrayal of Saruman, grows thin.

Anyway, there are some quotes from this book that I like (as I said, overall, I think this is a good book). For example, the author at times seems to recognize the complexity of human behaviour. Coyle talks about David Banks, “a Carnegie Mellon University statistician.” Banks realizes that geniuses (at least famous geniuses) tend to appear throughout history in clusters, not regular intervals. He wonders about why this is. He says that conventional wisdom might say that the certain cultures, certain political environments, certain cultural wealth, etc., all make the environment perfect for nurturing geniuses. Banks, however, does not see any strong correlations. So Coyle writes on page 63:

Banks’s paper neatly illustrates the endless cycle of tail-chasing that ensues when you apply traditional nature/nurture thinking to questions of talent. The more you try to distill the vast ocean of potential factors into a golden concentrate of uniqueness, the more you are nudged toward the seemingly inescapable conclusion that geniuses are simply born and that phenomena like the Renaissance were thus a product of blind luck. As historian Paul Johnson writes, giving voice to that theory, “Genius suddenly comes to life and speaks out of a vacuum, and then it is silent, equally mysteriously.”

See, isn’t that a good paragraph? Or am I just using confirmation bias? No, I think it’s a good paragraph.

On page 53, Coyle writes:

In the vast river of narratives that make up Western culture, most stories about talent are strikingly similar. They go like this: without warning, in the midst of ordinary, everyday life, a Kid from Nowhere appears. The Kid possesses a mysterious natural gift for painting / math / baseball / physics, and through the power of that gift, he changes his life and the lives of those around him.

That quote made me laugh, it seems pretty true, doesn’t it? In fact, how many stories in general, even if not involving a “genius” character, involve some main character (or set of characters) that is just more special than everyone else? And why is that? To feed our natural desire / daydreams to be that kind of person? Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; I enjoy reading those kinds of stories and have some novel plots like that. But we should also realize that the “specialness” of characters in stories is not like real life…

Consider Pixar’s awesome movie The Incredibles. (By the way, I talk to one of the animators from that movie every week, brag brag brag, ha ha!) Firstly, the movie centers around characters who are definitely more special than everyone else… they have super powers after all. When you imagine yourself in that movie, would you imagine yourself being a regular non-powerful person? Maybe a non-super friend who learns their secret but is happy to keep it with them? Probably not. (Disney channel shows love doing that, giving one or a few characters special abilities and having their friends happily accept their side-kick roles.)

Anyway, there’s a part in The Incredibles in which Elastigirl (the mom) tells her son, Dash, that “everyone is special.” To which Dash replies “which is another way of saying no one is.” Beyond that the movie doesn’t really resolve the issue. Very quotable. How I resolve it: Yep, it’s true. Yep, sorry. No one is special. Everyone is. Live with it. What, Dash, you have to be more special than everyone else? Selfish conceded jerk!

Yet, in fiction, we don’t really live with it. We pretend it’s not true. We imagine stories of characters who really are more special than everyone else. The “chosen one” syndrome, as I might call it. I’m not sure why we do it, but we should at least recognize that we do. (Or maybe only I do since I am more special than everyone else.)

(Think about other exchanges Dash and Elastigirl could’ve had: “No one is special, Dash.” “Which is another way of saying everyone is!” or “The glass is half empty, Dash.” “Which is another way of saying the glass is half full!”)

(On a side note, Coyle also points out in the footnotes that the notion of the “Heroic Artist”–the genius artist that is more special than everyone else–may be a more recent phenomena in the course of human history, something that perhaps emerged in the Renaissance? Culture now supports the worshipping of geniuses of the past, putting them on pedestals: Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, da Vinci … such great works of art they produced! These people were not like us, they were geniuses high above us!)

OK, whew, didn’t mean for my post to get so long, but I think those are all the points I wanted to make today!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Stupid things

Imagination!

Here’s some good exercise for your imagination. You can’t do it now, sitting in front of your computer or whatever. You’ll have to wait until night and you’ve been in bed for at least 10 minutes, trying to get to sleep.

If your bed is next to a wall, this works better if you are facing the wall, your back to the rest of the room.

It is also best to keep your bedroom door unlocked, maybe even your house door (without setting the alarm, of course).

This also works better if you have a fan going, or the air conditioning, anything that creates some white noise in the background. With a good imagination, you’ll be able to hear things in the white noise.

OK, now, as your lying there, eyes closed, all relaxed in the complete darkness, imagine someone slowly opening your bedroom door. You don’t know who this person is, but he or she is very very dangerous. And the person is here to kill you, to murder you in your sleep.

Lie very still as the person slowly approaches. In the white noise, you can hear the person’s footsteps very faintly, you can even hear the person’s slow nervous breathing. Closer and closer the person comes.

The person is right next to your bed. The person begins hovering over you, perhaps to make sure you’re really asleep. The person is about to murder you. You can almost feel the person’s warmth.

Now… quickly sit up and scream “NOOOOO!!!”

And murderer will vanish in thin air! Or so we hope.

If not, I hold no responsibility for your untimely death.

Have fun using your imagination!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Stupid things

Should school days be longer?

I recently realized that Bill Gates is on Twitter.  For some reason, I find it unbelievable that he would be on Twitter; maybe it’s his personal assistant or something.  I guess I just have him on too high a pedestal.  Does one of the world’s wealthiest people really have time for Twitter?

Anyway, he posted a link to this article: The Case for Saturday School.

Firstly, I’ll say I hate the modern state of public education.  But I’m a bit skeptical that just increasing or decreasing the amount of hours or days a kid goes would do much.  I think doing either could have some very bad consequences.  I’d rather changes be made in the grading systems and the curriculum.

These are some reactions I had while reading the article:

(And please excuse any typos, because I’m going to go to bed after writing this rather than reread my writing.)

The article states:

In the face of budget shortfalls, school districts in many parts of the United States today are moving toward four-day weeks. This is despite evidence that longer school weeks and years can improve academic performance.

OK, but what exactly is “academic performance”?  Isn’t that measured by the tests the academics are giving?  If so, isn’t it obvious that such performance would benefit from increased instruction?  I mean, that’s what the instruction is for.

To me, “academic performance” seems kind of meaningless in and of itself.  We have to define how it relates to the rest of the working world.  After all, isn’t that the entire point of school?  To prepare students for the world of not going to school?  When you get out of school, when and where does “academic performance” apply?  There aren’t many objectively defined math tests in the real world.  While it may be important that you understand certain mathematical concepts for certain jobs, spending more time studying for and doing better on a math test isn’t necessarily going to increase your long term mathematical aptitude.

So I’m suspicious of “improved academic performance” being an automatically good thing.  The term is simply too vague.

Later on, the article states:

“Summer learning loss” is no joke. When they return to school in late August or early September, many children, especially the least advantaged among them, have shed a sizable portion of what they had learned by May—a full month’s worth, by most estimates, adding up to 1.3 school years by the end of high school.

No, it isn’t a joke.  And if you think forgetting stuff over the summer is bad, what about when school is over?! What about “life learning loss”?  And herein lies one of the biggest issues I have with our modern education system; they teach too many things that students just don’t use in everyday life.  There are two solutions to this “summer learning loss” problem, besides what the article is suggesting: 1) stop teaching useless stuff and 2) let students participate more in society so they have a chance to use their knowledge.  (And maybe 3) let students have more control over what they want to learn in school.)  Now, 1 is pretty simple, you just teach less.  2 would require some work to figure out.

But this is assuming that the point of school is to prepare students for the non-school world, for the world in which they’ll have to do some kind of work in exchange for money to exchange for food.  The purpose is not to try to make kids as smart as possible for as long as possible.  Or is it?  Maybe it actually is?  And if so, what is the point of that?

The article says:

The typical young American, upon turning 18, will have spent just 9% of his or her hours on this planet under the school roof (and that assumes full-day kindergarten and perfect attendance) versus 91% spent elsewhere. As for the rest of that time, the Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that American youngsters now devote an astounding 7.5 hours per day to “using entertainment media” (including TV, Internet, cellphones and videogames). That translates to about 53 hours a week—versus 30 hours in school.

Wow.  Perhaps I was far from typical, then.  I never spent 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media.  The most I could manage was probably 2 or 3.  Then again, I’m not sure how well I can recall my elementary school days.  If I wasn’t doing homework, I was probably playing around outside.  That was probably just as noneducational as watching TV, though.  By the time I was in high school, most extra time I had was spent sleeping.  Homework took up A LOT of time; it was extremely depressing.  I mean, during the high school years, life revolved around high school.  It was horrible.

Anyway, that’s not really important, because, again, why should 91% of time spent elsewhere matter?  It’ll just end up increasing to 100% eventually.  Shouldn’t we be focusing on how to make that time spent elsewhere matter more instead of just trying to decrease it?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on how to make that time spent in school matter more, for that matter?  Since when is just more hours spent in school automatically good?  Oh, because of this “academic performance” thing?

In 1994, for example, economist Robert Margo reported that historical differences in school-year length for black and white youngsters attending segregated schools accounted for much of the gap in their adult earnings.

I’d be interested in that study; how does one conclude such a cause-and-effect?  What about the effect of the children’s home lives?  I would think that would matter just as much, if not more.

Examining the days forfeited to snow and other “unscheduled closings” in Maryland in 2002-2003, [University of Maryland analyst Dave Marcotte] concluded that two-thirds of the elementary schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” (the federal benchmark under “No Child Left Behind”) in math that year would have done so “if they had been open during all scheduled school days.”

Firstly, how in the world do you analyze what “would have” happened?  Secondly, doesn’t that sound like more of a failure of a curriculum being designed to prepare for a benchmark assessment test?

Where things start to get complicated is that time spent in school does not equal time fruitfully applied to learning basic skills and core content—a mismatch that looms larger in the U.S. than in most other places.

Yeah, that’s what I said!

Our deeper problem is the enormous amount of time that typical American schools spend on gym, recess, lunch, assembly, changing classes, homeroom, lining up to go to the art room, looking at movies, writing down homework assignments, quieting the classroom, celebrating this or that holiday, and other pursuits. It’s not all wasted time but neither are these minutes spent in ways that boost test scores…

UGH!  How many times do I have to tell you?  The education system is not about boosting test scores! And they don’t represent so simply what people want them to represent, which is how well a student knows material.  It measures other things: how well the student knows the material at the time, how well the student knows that specific material, how good the student is at taking tests, how good the student is at cramming the night before, etc… good test scores are not necessarily good.  Stop blindly being guided by them.

Over the long run, technology holds much potential to boost student learning time in flexible ways and at modest cost. We can stipulate that kids are addicted to it; that “virtual” instruction can happen at very nearly any time or place; and that well-designed distance-learning programs (and suitable hardware) enable greater individualization of learning, with each child moving at his/her own pace, diving deeper when warranted, and going back over things they didn’t quite understand the first time.

Eh… I’m not sure “kids are addicted to it.”  They might like to play computer games, but they can certainly tell the difference between a game and boring old instruction just printed on the screen instead of paper.  I think it can have just as many problems, if not more, than traditional classroom education.  The key is it being “well-designed.”

Disadvantaged youngsters really need—for their own good—the benefits of longer days, summer classes and Saturday mornings in school. But nearly every young American needs to learn more than most are learning today, both for the sake of their own prospects and on behalf of the nation’s competitiveness in a shrinking, dog-eat-dog world.

Maybe disadvantaged youngsters just need to be out of there disadvantaged homes with their not-so-intelligent disadvantaged parents.  If a school is a richer learning environment, even if time isn’t necessarily spent on strict formal lessons, they will be better off for just being around the educationally stimulating environment.  In which case, I’d actually agree that more time in school would be good.  *gasp*  But not necessarily for advantaged children with smart parents, who can create a better learning environment in their own homes.

Whew, wasn’t that fun.

Of course, I think this article is in support of this KIPP program, which Bill Gates seems fond of, either because he actually believes in it or because he’s got some kind of stake in it (or both).

By S P Hannifin, ago
Purchases

Short Wicked review and other boring things

Seeing Wicked

My family and I went to see the musical Wicked yesterday.

wicked The bad: Going in, the lady person (at the Landmark Theater in Richmond, VA) handing out the programs wouldn’t give me one. She said “Oh, it’s only one per family! Snicker snicker snoody-doo!” I made that second sentence up, but $55 for way-in-the-back seats and you don’t even give me a program?! You pathetic loser booger-heads! We did end up getting more; who doesn’t like to collect programs of the performances you’ve seen? One per family. Tsk tsk. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Secondly, the seating at the Landmark Theater in Richmond, VA is just pathetic; at least up in the balcony seats. (I think the place was built in the 1920s or something.) It was like stadium seating, but extremely squished. Not designed for tall people at all.  The seats in front of you dig into your knees. It’s just really poorly designed. I would recommend nobody ever going there again for anything. Pathetic, you fail, Landmark Theater!

The good: The musical itself. After familiarizing myself with the Wicked soundtrack for the past few years, it was great to finally see the entire story behind it, which was a quite engaging story (should make a good movie someday – I doubt much story editing would be needed). I loved the whole fantasy feel to the whole thing, in the set designs and the costumes and the lighting. The big talking Oz head is just awesome. You don’t get that stuff on the soundtrack.

A bit of trivia (that I found online; probably old news to die hard fans): the first seven notes of the tune “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” are hidden in the musical. Stephen Schwartz used them for the “Unlimited” theme. The rhythm and harmonies are different, so you don’t recognize it at all, but it’s awesome that they’re there.

Album art

In other news, here is a preview of what my first album’s cover will probably look like. The manufacturers are estimating they will be done manufacturing the thing by March 31st. That’s, of course, just an estimate, and then it will still require some time to ship. But we’re getting closer and closer! Maybe this whole process becomes more mundane after you do it a few times, but for a first time it’s extremely exciting!

Alice in Wonderland soundtrack

alice Speaking of albums with awesome music (heh), I recently bought Danny Elfman’s score to the newest Tim Burton film, Alice in Wonderland. Even though the movie as a whole was kind of meh, the music is fantastic. It’s some of Danny Elfman’s best work in a while. The first track is kinda like the first track on the Coraline soundtrack, except in Elfman’s score the children’s choir is singing in English (in Coraline it sounds like they’re singing in gibberish). Both utilize children choirs singing hauntingly beautiful melodies with delicious epic orchestration. Ahhh… awesome stuff. So… you should buy it.  At least buy the first track “Alice’s Theme” on iTunes or something.  It’s Hannifin recommended.

Blah blah

It still feels like it should be an hour earlier…

By S P Hannifin, ago
Music

A little thought on consciousness and stuff

I hope this blog isn’t becoming too self-conscious… aha… ahahaha…

Ahem…

On pages 39-40 of Daniel C. Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained, Dennett writes:

Some people are convinced that we can’t [understand consciousness] in any case. Such defeatism, today, in the midst of a cornucopia of scientific advances ready to be exploited, strikes me as ludicrous, even pathetic, but I suppose it could be the sad truth.

It might be the sad truth, but that won’t be the failing of science, it will be the failing of consciousness itself. For example, we can theorize about the big bang, about the nature of time, about string theory, but we can’t conceive four or more spatial dimensions, we can’t think about time not existing, we can’t even imagine ourselves not existing. (If you’d like to get religious: we can’t understand the nature of God.) These are the limits of our mind. Why do these limits exist? Are they based on limits of the real physical world, or are they purely mental? A dog can’t conceive suicide, yet he might run out in front of a car. Just because he can’t conceive it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Is it the same with humans?

So… what if consciousness fits into this category? Well, we know it exists, that’s not the issue. The issue is why? How? Perhaps that is beyond our consciousness’ ability to know; it is not a failing of our reasoning or our science, it is just a limit of the nature of our existence.

Funny Leo Laporte videos

Lastly, since I’m now going to post Stuff I Found stuff here (and kill that blog), here are some funny videos of clueless people calling Leo Laporte (former host of that wonderful show of my yesteryears, The Screen Savers). Enjoy.

Phantom of the Opera sequel

I’m listening to the Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies, on Rhapsody right now and it’s… uh… interesting. I hate how musical soundtracks these days have no reverb. I like the old musical recordings, when it sounded like the singers were on a stage, when it made me feel like I was in a theater. Music wise, it’s good, but not very Phantomy… or at least with a huge atmospheric twist, since the story takes place on… Coney Island. Not very… gothicy… more like the haunted fairgrounds of a Scooby Doo episode. It’s just… odd. A very different spirit to thing.

I wonder if they can get Michael Crawford to sing some of the songs… just to hear what it would’ve been like.

Gah, so annoying with no reverb…

By S P Hannifin, ago
Philosophy

Why In Fact Publishing Will Not Go Away Anytime Soon: A Play in One Act

CHARACTERS:

ELTON P. STRAÜMANN, a modern-thinking man with exciting ideas
SEAN, a humble wannabe writer

Act I

SCENE OPENS ON STRAÜMANN and SEAN, standing.

STRAÜMANN: Do you want to buy this self-published book?

SEAN: No.

STRAÜMANN: Obama is awesome.

CURTAIN FALLS

John Scalzi wrote a longer version on his blog that goes into a bit more detail on the subject, but really I think it just comes down to marketing, and the whole business of that.  A catchy professional-looking cover is part of marketing.  Potential readers have to expect that your book will be well-edited.  And having bookstore shelf-space is pretty huge.

Scalzi seems to miss one thing (which is not to say he doesn’t believe it; I just didn’t notice him mentioning it): a self-published book is NOT automatically worse than a professionally published one.

That said, from my few observations, self-published books definitely TEND to be of lower quality.  The few self-published books I’ve looked at have been so unspeakably awful that I’ve lost most faith in them.  I’m not very likely to buy one.  Ever.  At least if things stay as they are in terms of quality.  See this older post.

That said, I do think there are unpublished writers out there somewhere who’s works of fiction I would enjoy immensely; I do not believe publishers and editors are the almighty gods of determining what writing is good and bad.  I am that god.

So what self-publishers really need if they want to prove Scalzi wrong (though the character Scalzi created would never be so adept) is to 1) actually polish their writing (I think editors are a huge help, but not the end all be all, and certainly NOT the reason publishing will not die soon) and 2) market better.  Now, how exactly one “markets better” is a huge subject, and not one that I claim to have much of a clue about.  However, starting a Twitter following campaign is probably not the way to go.  If you are dumb enough to market like that, then of course your writing must be garbage.  (As in many arts, it’s a lot easier to recognize what not to do.)

It would be nice if there was a way for self-published books that aren’t garbage to get noticed more easily.  I’m sure there are some people out there working on this problem, perhaps through blogs or sites that review self-published stuff, or at least track sales.  And there’s the whole book-podcasting thing.

But can self-publishers ever market with the power of the big publishers?  I don’t see how, unless they just overwhelm the market with quality content, which I can’t see happening.  The big publishers have the money to market.  If your self-published book does well and a publisher becomes interested in your material, you’d have to be a complete idiot to refuse… and though you’d benefit from that, you’re also making them stronger.  Not that that’s bad.

All this talk kind of makes me want to be a publisher… but I can’t really afford such a gamble right now.

The only other thing that remains to be seen is the effect of book piracy.  When publishers aren’t making money, will that even the playing field?  Will there be enough pirates to do that?  How popular will ebook readers become?  I still think ebook readers and ebooks are a bit of a rip-off, so I don’t see myself switching any time soon.  I can’t predict the future very well (I thought the iPhone sounded like a dumb idea… (so does the iPad for that matter…) but I was right about blu-rays winning the high-def format war) but if a lot people think like me, ebooks and ebook readers will either have to become drastically cheaper, or remain about as popular as they are now, which doesn’t seem very (though enough that publishers are continuing to pursue it).  But… who can know?

A rather lengthy aside: if ebooks do become much more popular, I have a very very tough time believing publishers and distributors wouldn’t have to change their business models drastically.  If I were a published author, and the publisher and distributor were no longer dealing with a bunch of physical inventory, then their roles would be completely different.  I’m not even sure why I should need the distributor at all if all they’re doing is hosting digital files, besides to make my book easier to find.  But shelf space becomes infinite.  And certainly the publisher shouldn’t need as much $$$$ if they don’t have to deal with paper.  Look at this recent fight between Macmillan and Amazon regarding ebook prices.  Macmillan wants to charge $15 for some ebooks?  What morons out there are buying ebooks for that price?  (I shudder to think.)  I have to side with Amazon on the issue… but even $9.99 is too much… what in the world are publishers thinking?! I guess they just don’t how to work this business yet and are trying to be safe… and rip people off while they can… (Or are they trying to counter ebook piracy losses early on?  And punish the legitimate buyers?  Nah…)

Another aside, as I browse Scalzi’s blog… Scalzi wrote about the Amazon vs. Macmillan and wrote a post about supporting authors.  I guess I might seem cold-hearted, but… NO.  Ever hear the phrase “don’t quit your day job”?  Yeah, well… Not that I think stealing is the way to go, but when I buy a book, it’s a trade for my benefit, not the author’s.  If you [authors] want more $$$$, maybe find a way to cut out the middle men with all this new technology?  Oh, but no, you don’t want that… well don’t go whining about financial troubles to me then.  (Not that Scalzi is really whining, I’m just being dramatic.)  If Amazon’s move was against authors (as Scalzi seems to claim), it was also for readers.  So are the authors against readers?! What do authors think about Macmillan’s pricing?  If they think $15 for an ebook is OK, then I’m not sure I want to read their books because they obviously don’t mind being published by a company who would like to rip-off customers.  Thanks!  Don’t ask us, the audience, to do something about it.  You do something about it.  You’re the ones getting paid.

OK, I digress…

Anyway, to sum up my point, publishers won’t go away anytime soon simply because most people who buy books buy them from professional publishers.  That’s really all it comes down to.

Now you must admit that my play is better than Scalzi’s, right?

By S P Hannifin, ago
Stupid things

Disney Records is evil and stupid

Me whining

The new Pixar movie Up just came out.  I haven’t seen it yet, but look forward to sometime in the next couple weeks.  Can’t wait to see Pixar animation goodness in 3D!

Right now, as far as I can tell, Pixar is the only good part of Disney.  (Well, them and the theme park rides.)  In fact, Disney executives should just fire themselves and let Pixar take over.

Anyway, I’m pretty angry with Disney right now.  I saw that Michael Giacchino composed the score the Pixar’s new film, Up.  Giacchino also did the scores for The Incredibles and Ratatouille.  These are two of my favorite film soundtracks of all time; Giacchino is just brilliant.  I was really looking forward to adding the Up CD soundtrack to my collection . . . but NOOoooOOO . . . according to this post, Walt Disney Records doesn’t plan on releasing a physical CD.  They’re selling the score as download only, through iTunes and Amazon and such.

What the?!  Why?!?  Is creating physical CDs that expensive?  Do they think all the people who would have bought the physical CD will just as happily download the album for only $3 less?  Did they think it was just about the music?  No, no, no . . . if it was just about the music, there’d be no reason to buy anything.  For physical CDs, it’s about having something physical, something collectible, something you can easily play in any CD player.  For digital downloads, it’s about convenience.  One click (or a few) and you got the music you want.  These are non-transferable.  If I can’t have a physical CD, what incentive at all do I have for purchasing a download?  That’s not what I wanted.

So thanks a lot, stupid Walt Disney Records!  I hate you now!  And I’m not buying a digital download for this movie soundtrack!

Or . . . who knows?  Maybe the blog post is wrong, or maybe they’ll release a physical CD in a few years?  Well, by then it will be too late!  You big pathetic losers!

Stinks.

By S P Hannifin, ago