A Documentary a Day Keeps the Psychiatrist Away

Most people are put off by documentaries and nonfiction books because they fear they will be educational, especially the mind-numbing kind of education they were exposed to when sentenced to 13 years of hard learning back in their K-12 prison days.  And yes, many documentaries and nonfiction books are as painful as classes back in high school.  However, and I mean a really big however, some documentaries and nonfiction books are mind blowing far out fun and entertaining – if you get off on learning about new things about this world and reality.  A good documentary should educate, but a wonderful documentary will entertain, and a great documentary will inspire.

As I have gotten older, I have become jaded to normal television entertainment.  It takes Breaking Bad quality to make me watch fictionalized television shows, so to fill up my old TV watching time I’ve turned to documentaries.  I’ve discovered if I can find the right documentaries I’m far more entertained than by watching 98% of fictional television shows.  More than that, I’ve discovered that watching a great documentary is uplifting for my mood, even if it’s about a depressing topic.  And the best documentaries inspire me with hope.  Documentaries can be elixirs for the soul.

For instance, last night I watched Touching the Wild on PBS Nature, about Joe Hutto spending seven years with Wyoming mule deer.  It took Hutto over two years of patiently following a herd of mule deer daily before they accepted him.  Eventually, he got to know them so individually that he named them.

Touching the Wild is about more than making friends with wild animals.  It’s an extremely profound philosophical work, about existence and death, about mind, language and intelligence.  One of the things that I’ve been learning from all of these documentaries is science is discovering that that animals are much closer to us mentally than we ever wanted to believe.  We are not God’s chosen creature.  We have no right to claim dominion over all the other creatures of this planet.  Nor can we claim our intelligence makes us superior. 

I am not a religious man, but this film was Biblical in its impact.  Strangely, I had seen Noah this weekend, and it makes you wonder if there was a creator, if he wouldn’t despise humans and want to wipe us out.  Christians babble on endlessly about being saved from sin, but I think it’s a childish cop-out to want to be forgiven.  We need to stop sinning to atone for our sins.  Watching Touching the Wild is like walking in Eden, we can blame the serpent all we want, but it is humans that are destroying paradise.

I was going to write this essay by listing dozens of great documentaries I’ve seen lately, but that would be too wordy I think.  I think instead I should tell you how to find great documentaries.  The highest qualities documentaries on TV are on PBS.  The next best source is streaming Netflix.  For instance I showed my friend Olivia Samsara yesterday that’s from Netflix.  She was blown away.

Cable TV has a lot of channels with documentaries and nonfiction shows, but most of its crap.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Some of it’s okay, but be careful.  The History Channel has such great potential, and sometimes it even has good shows, but all too often it has suspect information.  I wish it was peer reviewed by actually historians.  It would be great if actual Ph.D. historians had a chance to evaluate their documentaries in follow-up shows, because it would be enlightening to teach folks how they are being misinformed.  The History Channel has some good shows among the schlock, like The Universe, but they aren’t as well made as the science shows on PBS.  They tend to endlessly repeat the same animations and information.  Fox has redeemed it’s news division with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13 episode series currently appearing on Sunday nights, that would make Carl Sagan choke up with pride for his protégé Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Like I said, PBS is where it’s at, when we’re talking about documentaries on regular television.  Currently Wednesday nights are called Think Wednesday, that start with Nature and NOVA, and follow up a three part series called Your Inner Fish, based on Neil Shubin’s book of the same name.  Your Inner Fish should give creationists apoplexy and intelligence designers their worst nightmares, but for people who understand evolution it’s a thing of beauty.  If only Darwin could have lived to see it.

NOVA has been running a series on animal intelligence and last night show was about dogs.  Anyone who loves dogs should watch it, especially if you’ve wondered why your favorite pet knows when you are coming home.  By the way, if you have a Roku, get the PBS channel, and you can watch these shows if you missed them.  The Roku PBS Channel keeps current shows around for a few weeks like Hulu.

Throughout the week, PBS has fabulous documentaries.  Just take a chance and try some of them out.  They cover every subject you can think of, and more than you can’t.

The variety of documentaries at Netflix streaming is practically endless.  New ones appear faster than I can keep up.  If you add one to your queue, Netflix will recommend ten more on the same topic.  Often when I add one documentary, I’ll end up adding eight or ten because Netflix is good recommending more that fit my tastes.  And if you aren’t a documentary junky, you’ll be surprised by how many documentaries are being made each year.   Just look at four music documentaries I recently watched.  The variety of all documentaries makes the word diverse quaint.

I’m not much of a traveler, so documentaries are my lazy-ass way of traveling the world.  I’m also on the shy side, so documentaries let me meet people I never would in real life.  But you have to be careful, some documentary film makers are very persuasive, and it’s easy to be convinced into believing bullshit.  We’re so used to fiction, that we accept what we see on TV.  That’s bad.  Being educated can be thrilling, and it doesn’t have to be boring.

What you really want, is to be inspired.  And sometimes you’ll find inspiration in the strangest places.  I’m not into fashion, but I found the documentary on Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, who is in his eighties and rides a bike around Manhattan, as very inspirational.  That’s the best thing about documentaries – seeing stories about people who stand out in their effort to achieve their ambitions.  Quite often I watch shows about people that overcome so many obstacles that aren’t in my way and still do things I only dream about.  They make me want to be a better person.

If I’m feeling blue and watch an inspiring documentary, my mind and soul will be uplifted.  If I’m feeling tired and watch a great documentary, I’ll be energized.  There’s more to TV than cop shows and sitcoms, and before reality shows, there were documentaries – shows about the real reality.

JWH – 4/17/14

What’s the Relationship Between Memory and Profession?

I’m wondering if how much we can remember is related to what we become in life.  Generally we think the careers we pursue are selected by interest, the ability to conceptualize the work, and talent.  But what role does memory play?  Does the ability to remember details accurately influence what we choose to do in life?  Could engineers, surgeons, mathematicians, composers, physicists, become who they are without good memories?  Could actors and singers work without the abilities to remember lines and songs?  Could salesmen and politicians succeed without remembering people’s names.  How well could people in law enforcement do their jobs without a knack for remembering faces and cases?  Isn’t becoming a lawyer all about memorizing precedents and laws?  Well, what about absent minded professors?  Maybe to remember all the important facts of their discipline it’s vital to forget all the piddling practical things?

I can remember all the things I wanted to be as a kid, and looking back I can see I never had the memory skills to do those things.  I became a programmer when I failed at being a scientist.  And I’m only a so-so programmer.  I have a certain knack for programming, but that’s because I can remember commands and algorithms to a degree.  If I could have mastered mathematics I would have liked to have been an astronomer, or robot designer.  My fantasy careers were to be another Robert A. Heinlein or Bob Dylan.  I have great difficulty holding plot ideas in memory, and the only song I can remember is Happy Birthday, and I usually flub the 4th line.

Our whole K-12 educational philosophy is to prepare individual children to know everything that an ideal adult should know – as if everyone should be the same.  We expect kids to memorize a body of knowledge we consider essential for a well rounded citizen, when in fact, everyone specializes, and everyone has varying levels of brain processing powers.  Some people are Intel i7s, while others are Motorola 6502s.

The hot topic in education right now is the Common Core State Standards.  The initiative’s mission statement says:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

Currently, the Common Core standards focus on mathematics and English language arts, which is also what the national standardized tests cover.  In other words, this initiative is a massive effort in coordinated memorization.  By focusing on the Common Core standards we can evaluate students, teachers and schools through comparisons.  The assumption being if kids in school A rank higher than kids in school B, then teachers and administrators are doing a better job in school A.  But what if everyone learns the same standards equally well, but one school does better than another?  How much education comes from outside of the school?  Does growing up in a well-to-do family confer more opportunity to learn?  Or what if some kids have better parents or mentors that push practice and memorization?  Education isn’t just about the particularly facts we learn.

There are only so many facts we can stuff into our brains.  We grind through our school years cramming for tests, but how much of this essential knowledge is really essential later in life?  In last month’s Harper’s Magazine Nicholson Baker wrote “Wrong Answer: The case against Algebra II” – not available online, but nice summarized at Popular Science as “Should Math Really Be A Required Subject?”  Baker pleads for us to abolish the Common Core State Standards for Algebra II because few people use it later in life, and many students suffer from studying it.  But isn’t that true of most of what we studied in school?

What if pushing memory skills helps with careers?  Advance math requires remembering years of previous mathematical techniques.  Most of what you learn in school can be studied days before the test, but not advanced math.  Passing Algebra II reflects great memory skills.

How successful in life we become is determined by how much we can remember.  Kids who master Algebra II go on to become scientists, engineers, economists, doctors, lawyers – whether or not they actually need advance mathematics or not.  The ability to remember and process complex concepts correlates well with success in many fields – and I think it’s because it reflect memory skills.

Also in the news was the Bullitt County 1912 Eighth Grade exam, that made 2013 smart people feel stupid.  Not only could I not pass this 1912 test, but I doubt I could pass any 2013 Common Core tests.  I read lots of books and consider myself reasonably educated, but if I had to rate my intelligence by tests then I’m a dummy.  I love pop culture, but do miserably at trivia games.  Facts just don’t stay in my head, and I think that’s true of a lot of people.

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I’ve read dozens of books on the history of physics and cosmology, yet I doubt I could talk about this topic in anything but the vaguest way. I often write blog posts stuffed with facts that I hope to retain by writing about them, but never do.  Some bits of information do stick, but I have no control over what facts get filed in permanent memory and what don’t, and whether or not I can recall the stored facts in a timely manner.

What I do is consume knowledge and shit out the solid facts, maybe digesting a bit of their nutriments, and I hope I become a bit wiser overall.  My opinions will change but I can’t substantiate my beliefs with regurgitated references.  My love of information is more akin to binging on sweets.

Knowing this makes me wonder why we spend so much money and effort forcing children to pass tests regarding knowledge they don’t retain.  Obviously, a good education leaves a lot of knowledge sticking to the ribs of their brains, but a surprising amount gets immediately discarded.  I do remember a fair amount of arithmetic but damn little algebra, geometry, trigonometry, statistics and calculus.  My guess is the old adage, “use it or loose it” applies.  So anything I learned fifty years ago that’s still in my head is there because I’ve had to use it.  So why not build an education system focused more on doing and less on testing?

Now that I’m retiring next month, I hope to study math again.  I’ve always regretted not working harder at learning math, and I’m wondering if I use it again, will some forgotten aspects magically come back, or will I have to memorize the old facts all over again?  My guess if I work at it for a year I’ll develop some skills I currently don’t have, but if I stop working at it, those same skills will quickly disappear.  Whether or not I’ll find some hobbies that actually need math skills is another matter.  I’ve always wanted to program some computer animation and that does take math.  If I apply the math, I might remember more, and for longer.

Sure, I might discover I hit a math barrier quickly.  I might not have the memory skills to go very far this second time around, but I am going to take a different approach.  It won’t be to pass tests.

Are our minds more like a hard drive where we store files, or like a computer program where we load information into memory to process?  We generally think of memory and mind as one, but what if that’s not true?  Is my personality reflected in how I react to experiences, or how I remember them?  Recently I fell in love with the song “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” sung by Joan Osborne.  Do I love that song because of who I am, or because of the 1966 Jimmy Ruffin version of the song imprinted on my brain for life as a mood memory and listening to the new one stimulates that old memory?

Even after playing this song over a hundred times recently, I can’t remember the words, nor could I hum the melody.  However, something has been recorded in my brain that remembers the mood of the original song.  Hearing the Joan Osborne version pushes the same button in a deeply emotional satisfying way.

What’s weird, I’m obsessed with the song right now, but in a few weeks I’ll have completely forgotten it – until the next time I hear the music.  Even when I want to preserve a memory, to hang onto a cherish feeling, I can’t.  I supposed if I sang the song myself every day it would eventually become a part of me.  And that might explain why I forget so much – I’m constantly consuming new songs, new books, new movies, new television shows.

There are limits to memory I can’t overcome, but I could master more facts if I was willing to narrow my consumption of new data.  I’m a hummingbird flitting from one flower to the next, with no memories of the last.  Maybe if I tasted fewer flowers I’d remember more of them?

If humans were robots and we stored our memories in mechanical devices, we’d still have limitations, even if we could consciously control what we retained.  I’ve always read about people with eidetic memories in awe.  In my mind, they must be a superior species.  Obviously, we’re all different when it comes to how many facts we can maintain at our fingertips.  We’ll never be robots, and most of us will never have photographic memories, but who we are is defined by our limitations of memory, and not what we remember.

I believe my hobby is blogging now because of the limitations of my memory.  I can look up facts and quotes on the internet as needed.  If I could remember lyrics, chords, notes and melodies, I’d be playing music as my hobby.  If I could hold a lot of entangled concepts in my mind, I’d probably be writing novels.  If I was good with trivia I’d spend more time with my wife going to trivia games.  If I had a great memory, I’d probably be programming with languages that have large libraries of powerful functions.  I’m really amazed at the synergy between my poor memory and using Google with writing blog posts.  Even the length of the post is hitting the wall with how much I can conceptually handle at once.

I believe our memory abilities define what we choose to do.  But I also believe that the limitations of my memory confines me in explaining this.  I hope my memory power at least hints at what I want to say.

JWH – 9/17/13

How Much Education Can Our Heads Hold?

As far back as I can remember, the United States has been in a state of educational crisis.  You’d figure by now educators would know exactly how much stuff we can squeeze into a student’s head, and the best methods for cramming all that knowledge in quickly and efficiently.  Since we hear so much about dropout factories and the failure to produce enough qualified students to meet the needs of our technologically evolving society, I have to assume pedagogy is a colossal failure, but the truth is we’re smarter than ever.  I’d even say the dumb kids are smarter than the dummies of the past.

The problem is we want to put more data in brains that haven’t gotten any bigger in the last million years.  Urban legends claim we only use five percent of our brains, but scientists know that’s not true.  It doesn’t take much living in our modern rat races to fill those suckers up.

Scientific American has produced a special report, Learning in the Digital Age for its August issue, but you can read it all by following the link.  It appears large corporations and wealthy philanthropists want to develop computers that instruct students and monitor their progress so computer programs can automatically adapt teaching methods on the fly, and thus constantly improve the spoon feeding of young minds.  Sounds painful to me, and makes me glad I’m not a kid in school.

Remember the movie The Matrix, where Keanu Reeves, who plays Neo, is taught new skills via a jack in the back of his head?  Well, these teaching machines are essentially trying to do the same thing via the eyes and ears.  Want to know Calculus?  Sit down at this machine and watch and respond.

Here’s my question:  How much can we learn?  The storage space in our brains is finite.  Comprehension is more than recording facts.  But let’s imagine we have a machine that is the perfect teacher, one that completely understands the student, and can feed a kid, byte by byte, the data they need.  Let’s also imagine that we want to teach kids Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Algebra II, Calculus, Linear Algebra, Statistics and Number Theory. In The Matrix that might have taken a couple of hours, but that was a fantasy.  How long should it take to cram in all the math skills we think the average 21st century kid should know?

I had through Calculus I in college, but I never really used any math after my last test, other than ordinary dollar processing and to take the GRE.  As far as I know all my Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, Statistical knowledge is gone.  Should we waste time packing information into brains that won’t be used later?

What is the basic dataset that every citizen of planet Earth should possess?  I believe we should be striving to define the essential basic knowledge, rather than develop techniques for squeezing massive amounts of education into little minds quickly and cheaply.  And to be honest, much of the furor over education is about cost.  I think a lot of new theories about education are inspired by reducing the costs of K-12 schooling, or by companies that want to get a piece of ever expanding educational expenditures.

Then there is the battle over science versus religion.  The faithful know a good liberal education equals the eroding of faith.  If we perfect teaching machines to mentor K-12 kids from ignorance to scientific enlightenment would we mandate their use?

Everyday I live with the regrets of what I haven’t learned.  Each night as I drift off to sleep I wish for more time for reading and contemplation, thinking I’m getting close to achieving the general unified theory of everything.  If I could only find time to read another thousand books, things would make sense, but hell I know that’s not true.

I think we should be teaching something different, something less head filling.  I think we should teach how to learn, how to research,  how to concentrate, how to write, how to stick to a task until it’s done, and then let kids go to work at age 12.  Start giving them real world jobs and problems to work on.  If they need trigonometry, chemistry, carpentry, mechanics, electronics, they can pick it up quickly as needed.

It’s not until you go to work that you learn what you really want to know.  Why waste all those years learning everything you might need?  I think we’ll develop the technology for individualized education very soon.  What we need to do now is teach people how to absorb knowledge quickly and apply it right away.  Sort of just in time learning.  Education has always been lifelong.  Why assume it’s K-12 + 4 years of college?

JWH – 7/23/13

How To Change The World?

I want to change the world
I want to make it well
How can I change the world
When I can’t change myself

“Change Myself” by Todd Rundgren

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn has dozens of real life stories about exceptional women changing the world.  Kristof and WuDunn are two Pulitzer Prize winning reporters who have traveled the globe, gathering thousands of facts culled from hundreds of research articles and interviews with leaders about the problems we face making women truly equal to men.  Half the Sky is a gut wrenching chronicle of real life suffering, more horrific than the wretched that Victor Hugo wrote about in Les MisérablesHalf the Sky is a book that will make many readers want to change the world too, although I’m afraid most will want to hide away in escapist fiction.  This is an intense book about the nature of our reality.

For all the misery that Half the Sky presents, it’s important to know Half the Sky is a positive narrative about heroic women changing themselves and their communities.  I doubt there will be any readers not humbled by this book.  Changing the world is tremendously difficult.  We’re talking theory of relativity hard, but not impossible as these stories prove so dramatically.  Helping others is far more difficult than writing a check, although you should write plenty.  Charity is a complex endeavor.   Often helping others causes more misery, and just giving money can be corrupting.

Half the Sky is about finding the right way to help others.  Half the Sky is not about helping the helpless, but finding the right female outlier who is willing to change herself dramatically with just the right amount of help.  Often this is minimal to individuals, but it can be very expensive getting resources to the right women.

We need to change the way we see charity.  Changing the world is about changing ourselves.  And we all know how well we do with New Year’s resolutions.  To help others, we have to help ourselves first, and reading Half the Sky is a start.

I’ve come to this 2009 book late, but I’ve yet to meet any of my bookworm friends that’s read it.  A few months ago, PBS presented a two part documentary based on this book.  It’s now available for sale and on Netflix streaming.  Half the Sky is becoming a movement.  I highly recommend reading the book first, because its far more educational. It will prepare you to appreciate the documentary all the more.

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Americans Have Already Won The Lottery

It’s hard to think about so much suffering worlds away.  We have plenty of poverty and injustice in this country, yet compared to the rest of the world, most Americans have already won the lottery – in money, freedom and equality.  And we spend hundreds of billions every year on protecting our country, either through defense, foreign aid, or influence.  And after eleven years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and trillions of dollars, we have not eliminated terrorism.  Kristof and WuDunn point out, time and again, that terrorism is a product of male dominated societies, and that we could more effectively fight it far cheaper by just promoting the equality of women in these cultures.  I don’t know if they are right, but we should try.  Our expensive testosterone solutions haven’t worked, have they?

Americans are quite charitable, we give away billions of our own money to help others, but how effective are our dollars?  In case after case, Kristof and WuDunn show how insanely hard it is to actually help people, even when we have the money and volunteers.  You can’t just buy equality.  You can’t just pay men to stop enslaving and raping women.  And even when our hearts and money are in the right place, like with Three Cups of Tea and the education of girls, things get corrupted.

Read Half the Sky carefully, because it’s about creating effective business plans to change the world.  That means changing ourselves.  We have to help people help themselves.  It’s about teaching people to fish, rather than giving them fish.  It’s about education.  But it’s also about how we help ourselves, our country and our culture by uplifting women in distant lands.

Even though America is a leader in gender equality, we still have a long way to go.  As long as Americans bitch about paying property taxes for education, or can’t understand concepts like Title IX, or why fifty percent of Congress and corporate leadership shouldn’t be women, then we do have a long way to go, but we can still help the women elsewhere.  The battles won by the women portrayed in Half the Sky should inspire us.  I don’t have one millionth of the guts and determination of some of these women I read about, and I’ve had a million times more money and opportunity than they have.

With every TV show you watch, with every movie you attend, with every book you read, with every song you hear, observe closely and ask yourself do you see gender equality, freedom from sexual oppression, equal opportunity for women?

Until women are truly free and equal everywhere, most of the problems we face as an evolving species won’t be solved.  It will take one hundred percent participation, and quite often as I think Half the Sky so effectively proves, it’s the inequality of women that’s causing our bigger problems.

JWH – 1/12/13

The Privatization of Education–The Hidden Political Battleground of the Conservatives

The United States of America was an early adopter of public education – free education paid for by tax dollars, and managed by local governments.  Now conservatives want to change that and privatize education – free education paid for by tax dollars, but run by corporations.  Education costs, both K-12 and higher education, are skyrocketing into unaffordable realms.  You can’t really blame big business for looking at very large public budgets and thinking there’s a gold rush in education.

K-12 education has been getting bad grades for years, and resentful taxpayers want change.  K-12 education is a fascinating concept.  Basically it prepares each new generation to function in society.  We spend monstrous amounts of money on education, and we’d like to produce very functional citizens.  But does anyone know what constitutes a good education?  The new trend is teaching core content, and that sounds like a dandy idea.  But the history of education is a trail of dandy ideas that have failed miserably.  Will shifting teachers paid by the city and states to profit making corporations solve our educational woes?  I have no idea.  I do think it’s a fascinating problem – but we need some ground rules.

Conservatives and the rich have been hard selling the idea of charter schools and vouchers for some time with no real data supporting their ideas.  Their sales pitches are appealing.  Their ideals are appealing.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure their motivation is anything other than greed.  Conservatives have a one track mind:  pay less taxes.  It galls them to pay for anything that other people get for free.

To reduce the education tax requires reducing the costs of education, but because these corporations also want to make money, lots of money, and reduce taxes, they will have to slash educational costs dramatically.  That means cutting teachers salaries, using fewer teachers, shrinking administrative systems, shrinking the infrastructure of schools, and shrinking every other line item that goes into funding education.  I can’t help wonder how they can produce a better product.

Of course, if they can do more for less, shouldn’t we welcome their revolution?  Sure, but they haven’t proven their methods work, and it appears all we’ll get is badly educated students and new class of teachers that are paid more like fast food workers than professionals that teacher deserve to be.

Like I said earlier, we should have some ground rules for this great social experiment.  I think the number one key to analyzing the success or failure of this experiment and all future educational experiments is doing away with grading by educators and moving to national standardize tests that are administrated by other private corporations that have no ties to the public or private education systems.  This would allow any city to try out any new-fangled educational system they want and tell if it’s effective or not.  Of course, this means experimenting with a whole generation of kids.

Back to that core content idea.  At a national level we have to decide what every kid should know.  Most people will think about the academic content, but I think we also need to add social skills, work stills, health and physical education, etc.

The next idea hasn’t been mentioned yet, and that’s responsibility.  I don’t think the weight of education should fall totally on the educational system.  I think students and parents should be held accountable too.  There is no pedagogical system that produces 100% success, even if teachers, students and parents give 110%.   I believe public education often fails not because of teachers, but because of students and their parents, but the teachers get all the blame.  So in setting up this grand experiment, I believe we need to assign a degree of accountability to students and parents.

Students need incentives to work harder, and grades are no real incentives.  Nor do students equate education with later success in life, because such delayed rewards are no incentives to young minds.  We need to find ways to reward kids for working hard.  Parents should have the built-in incentive to work harder for their kids, but that genetic incentive isn’t trustworthy either.  Parents need their own carrots.

If I was a kid and was told summer starts as soon as I finish the core content for the year, even if that’s two months after the academic years starts, I think I’d study harder, especially if failure means no summer and Saturday classes, ever even Sunday classes for falling behind.  Or if I was told I could play sports, video games, take music lessons, read, or pursue other free activities each day as soon as I finished up my assignments, I’d study harder.  I believe the real incentives for students to get a better education is the reward of less schooling.  This will only work if the core content is practical, manageable, and efficient.  One failure of education is we try to teach too much.

Many of these corporate ideas for schools involve virtual schools and online education.  Most parents want K-12 schools for free daycare, so there’s going to be a real clash there, except for the parents advocating home schooling.  Many of these corporate teaching systems advocate fewer teachers and larger class sizes – and that’s only going to work if students are motivated by self-study.  Their hope is video lectures will replace live lectures, and teachers will be used as guided homework helpers.  Whether this idea has merit is yet to be proven.

If all privatization of education is going to give us is overcrowded schools, with low paid teachers, we can’t really expect much.  And the only way these privatization advocates can prove cheaper education is better is by test scores.  However, anything less than standardize tests conducted by separate national corporations can be scammed.  Grade inflation and cheating is the scourge of education.  Separating educators from testing is the only possible way to solve this problem.  And this kind of testing only works if we have a national core curriculum.  Many advocates of privatization of education secretly want to control curriculum for religious reasons, so this will be another battle.

There will be other corporate opponents too.  Education involves a lot of money and lots of people want get their hand into the pie.  Textbook costs add a lot of red ink to educational systems.  A national core curriculum could hurt the textbook industry and they will fight that with all the lobbyists they can buy.  Privatization advocates know you can’t make education cheaper without reducing all the factors that go into the total cost of education and textbooks are a major issue.  Since many cost reductions depend on the Internet and online education I expect the core content to be public domain in the future.  However, there will be a booming business to sell supplemental textbooks, computer programs, videos, and other training material to parents of affluent students that will give the rich an edge competing with the poor.

There will be side-effects to the core content theory.  If everyone has a good core content education how can the exceptional stand out?  With standardize national tests, with no grade inflation, we’ll actually know what every individual is capable of and comparisons between individuals will be easy, but will an array of standardize scores covering a variety of subjects really let employers hirer the right people they need?  Maybe, if they want math wizards and science geeks, but I image they’ll want more, and thus even with national core content we’ll find ways of making society un-egalitarian.

Personally, I think a good education for all will cost more and not less, but I can’t prove that.  It’s only a hunch.  However, I believe the tide is shifting quickly towards the idea of educational privatization.  We’ll just have to try it out for a generation and see how it works.  I don’t think most people know about the political battles that are going on right now.  It’s not a very newsworthy topic, but the battles are being fought and won in state capitals around the country.   Liberals don’t have a clue.  Liberals don’t work at politics like conservatives do.  That’s why I think the conservatives will get their way.  Most people focus on presidential politics when the real political decisions are being made in the shadows of the political limelight.

Keep an eye on ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).  ALEC is leading the effort of the privatization of education.  If you do a Google search you’ll find many conservative and libertarian think tanks devoted to this topic.  This is a very political topic.  And ALEC is revolutionary, so many other corporations oppose it because ALEC ideals conflicts with their efforts to make money from education the old fashioned ways.

To understand more, read these links:

For more, just search Google for “ALEC Education”

JWH – 5/14/12

How To Turn Smart TVs in Genius TVs, But Will They Become HAL 9000s?

In recent years TV makers have been adding features from the Internet (Netflix, Pandora, etc.) to their sets and calling them Smart TVs.  Let’s imagine the trend continuing so that we have Genius TVs – what features would they have?  Do we really want them?

Right now we have many devices, services, apps, sites that all work in different ways.  Smart devices are ones where two technologies blend together, like Bluetooth consoles in cars recognizing Bluetooth smartphones so you can have hands free phone calls while driving.  To make them smarter, they can also be GPS screens, rear view videos, engine monitoring, radios, CD players, etc.  Genius devices are one that blend in many technologies and make them work together.  Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Broadband, USB, TCP/IP are all enabling technologies that bring electronic devices together.

In a way, all of this is very scary because we’re making machines smarter and smarter.  If you’ve ever read John Varley’s classic story, “Press Enter ■” you’ll know what I mean, but for right now we’re all rushing headlong into convergence of intelligent machines.  Most people love their gadgets but often get overwhelmed in how to manage them.  That’s why inventors work so hard to let machines talk to one another so they can figure out how to work together without human intervention.

This also reminds me of scenes from the dystopian film Fahrenheit 451, based on the classic Ray Bradbury novel, and of course, Big Brother screens in Nineteen Eighty-Four.   I’m in love with gadgets, but such gadgets haven’t always been portrayed well in science fiction.  And there was HAL 9000 of course.

fahrenheit-451_2

Our machines are getting smarter to make it easier for us to be dumber.

Here’s an example.  When I sat up my new Roku I had to add each channel I wanted, and for each channel the Roku would give me a code that I had to enter in at a web browser.  For Netflix I went to http://www.netflix.com/roku and entered the code, and then went back to the Roku to see that I had been validated.  In the future I could validate my identity with the Roku, and then it could go down its lists of channels and automatically check with each service to see if I had an account and configure the Roku device for me.  The smarter Roku would know more about me, and have access to my accounts.

With a Genius TV, I should be able to identify myself and it should configure itself automatically for everything I like to do with its designed features.  It will be a video phone, and so it will get my contacts from the cloud, so I can say, “Call Connell” and it will know who I want.  Or I could say, “Take me to the next episode of Breaking Bad I want to watch” or “I want to look at all the photographs of my father” and it would know what I want to do.  Of course, I’ll be developing a symbiotic relationship with my Genius TV.

If you’ve ever used the program Zite on the iPad you’ll know how a program can consolidate your interests with articles appearing on the Internet each day.  I should be able to tell my Genius TV that I’m interested in learning about how people lived in Boston from 1850-1875 and it would go get me diaries, photos, newspaper articles, books, etc., and format them in an interesting way to process all the data.  This goes way beyond Google.  I’m talking about a digital Jeeves like in the P. G. Wodehouse books who is smarter than me, and who can take care of all my needs.  Siri is the first step to a Genius TV.  But what if we all had our own personal Siri that really knew us?

A Genius TV must be completely Internet aware, not just design to work with a few services like a Roku box.  It needs to be voice activated.  It needs to integrate with my Internet provider, phone provider, my TV provider, broadband provider, my cloud services, my home security provider, utility provider, security cams, home network, cameras, and even local over-the-air TV and radio.  I mean, this sucker’s got to be aware of everything.  Before we all run headlong into this future, I really do recommend reading “Press Enter ■” if you can find a copy.  [There are no legal copies I can link to, but just remember my warning.  There are dangers to the future we’re all heading into.]

We won’t have an Einstein level Genius TV for years, but TVs on sale today are getting smarter all the time.  So this essay should help you think about the possibilities the next time you buy a new TV.  The simple way to look at it is to think about what devices that you own now that you can eliminate.  Think how smartphones have eliminated so many older gadgets, well the same thing will happen to smart and genius TVs.

Here’s all the devices that’s connected to my current entertainment center in my den.

  • 56” TV
  • Blu-ray player
  • CD/SACD player
  • Receiver
  • Roku
  • Home Theater PC
  • Old game unit
  • Ethernet switch
  • 5 speakers

I picture a Genius TV being a larger wall mounted screen with maybe or maybe not a visible speaker bar, and that’s it.  Elegant and simple.  It can see me and I can talk to it.

I can buy the physical setup now if I’m willing to give up CD/DVD/BD discs and go without the computer and better sound I get from the receiver/amp.  Right now Smart TVs don’t have PCs built into them.  My current HTPC is bigger than the receiver, but I could buy one that’s smaller than a Mac Mini.  Music, movies and radio are all available via a computer now, so I could do a lot of consolidation now by buying a smart TV from Sony or Samsung, and a Zotac mini-PC.

I could fake the start of a Genius TV by buying a Smart TV and adding a small computer like this one,

Zotac-ZBox-mini-PC

However, a real Genius TV will have a fully functional computer built-in.  An iPad screen has more pixels than a HD TV, and smartphones and tablets now have 2 and 4 core CPUs.  They are small and getting smaller and cheaper.  Adding one to a TV set is a no brainer.  Just think of of a smart TV as a 60” iPad.  Once you have a computer inside your TV you are connected to the world.  You don’t need a stereo receiver to get local AM/FM radio because you can get internet radio from all around the Earth.  TVs are built with 5.1 surround sound now, so we can jettison the receiver.  See how it eliminates older devices?

Most people have already given up CDs and DVDs, and BDs never really caught on.  But we’ll also give up game discs, paper photographs, and even paper personal records, books, newspapers and magazines.  The closer we get to Genius TVs, the less clutter we should have in our lives.  We’ll have different size screens.  Now’s the time to ask if this is good or not, because we’re already moving in this direction as fast as inventors can invent.  Machines have eaten our music, and they are about to eat our books.

Contemplate everything you use a TV or video screen for now.  How could you converge all of these activities into one elegant device?  One that would integrate or replace your other devices.  You’d still need a smartphone, and maybe a tablet, but all the TVs and computers in your house could be replaced by a Genius TV in each room, like the wall screens in the houses in the classic film Fahrenheit 451 shown above.

What all do you do with your TV, computer, phones and other gadgets in the house now?

  • Watch over-the-air TV
  • Watch cable/satellite/broadband TV
  • Watch DVD/Blu-ray discs
  • Watch Roku, AppleTV or similar Internet TV devices
  • Play video games with Xbox, Wii, Playstation
  • Use a computer connected to your TV or display
  • Skype
  • Video picture frames
  • Play family videos
  • Look at family photos
  • Listen to AM/FM/satellite music with a receiver hooked to TV
  • Listen to subscription music via the internet
  • Listen to ripped music on a hard drive
  • Watch pay-per-view TV
  • Run computer programs
  • Use tablet/smartphone apps
  • Use smartphone
  • Read books
  • Take an online course
  • Play DVD courses from The Teaching Company, or other educational training
  • Record shows with DVR
  • Medical monitoring
  • Web cameras
  • Security cameras

Okay, you get the picture.  Now think of the electronic components involved:

  • Screen with 1920×1080 resolution
  • TV tuner
  • Ethernet networking, wired or wireless
  • Cable/satellite tuner
  • Roku/AppleTV/etc. tuner
  • Computer
  • Sound/speakers
  • Hard drive
  • DVD/Blu-ray drives
  • Lots of clickers to control each device
  • Computers, tablets, ebooks, smartphones, GPSes, etc.

But let’s simplify this system.

  • 1920×1080 screen (or 2048×1536 or 4096×2160)
  • Electronic brain – or TV/CPU
  • Soundbar

Like the old component stereo systems of old, it’s easier to build and maintain a system from parts, that way you can upgrade or replace any part without replacing the whole.  The TV/CPU would have components itself.  Power supply, motherboard, memory, SSD drive.  It’s time to get away from optical drives, so let’s just assume our Genius TV won’t use DVD or Blu-ray, but the TV/CPU could have a slot for a drive for be backward compatible for those people who collected thousands discs and can’t part with them.

hal-9000

Den and living screens would be wall mounted, and they would include a video camera.  I picture soundbars now, but even they could be shrunk or hidden so all we see is the big screen.  That leaves us to imagine the TV/CPU.  They could be designed to easily hide in various kinds of furniture or also wall mounted.  They would need two wires, one for the power and the other for TV/Internet, which is now coax, but that wire could be redesigned into a wireless network.  Computers are becoming powerful enough, and wireless networking fast enough, that we might only need one TV/CPU brain to control all the screens in the house.  Our Genius TV could be completely hidden away, near where the fiber optic cable comes in from the street.

Of course, the controllers (clickers, keyboards, mice, game controls, motion sensors) for each screen in the house would be wireless, and we’d need them until which time we perfect human-machine verbal communication, and the video cameras that watch us can read our every movement and intent.  One day it will be just intelligent screens and people.

I think TVs should have full computer power, but not need Apple or Microsoft operating systems.  They will use those OSes for the foreseeable future, but eventually that will change.  I picture Genius TVs more like giant tablets with personalities.  The current iPad has more screen resolution than a HD TV.  Imagine if your TV had a library of apps like you find at the Apple or Android app store and could talk to your as easy as you talk to your friends?

Isn’t it time we have a world standard operating system?  So any screen size can run the same apps?  Once the screens become Geniuses, it won’t matter what OS they run, they will be smarter than us anyway.

If all our data is in the cloud, would we even need a SSD drives?  Wouldn’t 16-32gb of local memory for each screen  handle it all?  After the optical drive disappears won’t hard drives disappear next?

Can you imagine the opening menu on this Genius TV?

  • TV
  • Movies
  • News
  • Magazines
  • Music
  • Audiobooks
  • Internet
  • Apps
  • Videophone
  • Games
  • Photographs
  • Videos
  • Documents
  • Security
  • Medical

Or would we even need a menu if it was completely voice activated?   Most people can’t imagine the possibilities.  I’m sure I’m just barely scratching the surface of what’s possible.  Could you have have imagined the iPhone back in the 1990s?  Look at the video on this page about Pebble watches.  It’s a Bluetooth watch the integrates with your smartphone.  This synergy between two devices, watch and smartphone, creates surprising spinoffs.  Combing TVs, computers, internet, cable TV, phones, AI, etc. will produce some surprising spinoffs we can’t foresee now.

One thing that’s sweeping the country right now is online education.  At first in colleges but also for K-12 schooling too.   If you seen TED talks and Khan academy videos, imagine what a Genius TV could do for education.  Combine it with Skype and Google Hangout and home schooling becomes more social.  But instead of studying with children from the same school, or district, it would be possible to find other students anywhere in the world to form a study group.

If you have a 14-year-old kid who is fascinated by chemistry, you can hook them up with other 14 year-olds also fascinated by chemistry, and have them watch lectures from the very best chemistry professors in the world, and then have them remote view chemistry laboratories that are doing real chemistry.  Suddenly a TV becomes a lot more than a TV.  And computers become more than computers.

What happens if politics becomes truly participatory?  Why let just 100 senators vote on a bill, when anyone who is interested could participate?  TV has always been passive.  The Internet and computers are active.  Combining live events with the internet and TV screens should produce endless forms of real-time two-way/multi-way social networking.

What happens when your computers, TV, utility meter, security system and medical monitors mind meld into one system?  Is it a computer?  Is it a TV.  Do we need a new name?  Let’s not pick HAL 9000.  We’ll interact with large wall sized screens, so we’ll think we’re talking to a TV, but one that’s very smart.  Not some box that just passes on hundreds of video feeds.  As we add more intelligence to these devices won’t they seem more intelligent and individual?

Read Wake by Robert Sawyer.  No, I mean it.  You need to be prepared for the future.  There are science fiction stories that can help you imagine this future better than I can.  Read Rudy Rucker’s The Ware Tetralogy.   People are all nuts over vampires, zombies and werewolves right now.  Those undead creatures aren’t real and won’t happen.  Intelligent machines are happening.  Pay attention.  We’re all gadget crazy, but what happens when our TVs do become geniuses?

warescover

JWH – 4/16/12

How iBooks Author is a Game Changer Apple Didn’t Plan

Apple wants  iBooks Author to revolutionize textbooks publishing.   Let’s be disruptive and give iBook Author a different purpose.  Look at this video and read my plan.  Which goal is a more revolutionary?

iBooks Author can revolutionize education but not for textbook publishers.  iBooks Author looks so easy to use that kids could use it.  Apple got the purpose of iBooks Author back-asswards.  It’s not for creating textbooks for kids – it’s a program for kids to create textbooks.

Learn by teaching – that’s where it’s at.  Instead of requiring school kids to read textbooks, we should require school children to write their own textbooks.  And with some extra support this could be a totally new educational paradigm.

If we gave kids stock portfolios of photos, videos, illustrations, graphs and told them their assignment for the year in each subject was to create their own textbook, using their words and provided multimedia, would they learn more by doing instead of reading?  Teach them to take content from wherever as long as they rewrite it in their own words.  Teach them the same rules non-fiction writers follow to be professional, legal and ethical.   Homework is writing the textbook, not reading it.  The content is out there to find in libraries, books, magazines, on the net, or by interviews.  They just need to shape what they learn in a persuasive way, and develop their own lesson plans, activities and end of chapter questions.

Let’s say we have a class of 8th graders studying American History. Not only will they learn history, but writing, research,  grammar, punctuation, publishing, graphic design, rhetoric, lesson plans, and so on. Wouldn’t they learn more than just reading a text book on American history? Wouldn’t it be more fun?

There are problems.  We have to make sure students don’t just cut and paste from the Internet. And we have to teach them about intellectual property rights. The Internet is full of multimedia they could steal, but that’s not the message we want to teach. We should teach them the problems faced by editors and writers, like dealing with plagiarism, libel, fact checking, writing level, target audience, and more.  All they need is access to portfolios of legal stock multimedia.

Students studying literature could use Project Guttenberg to create their own anthologies and write introductions, study guides and annotations.  Wouldn’t math be more fun if you could write your own textbook that used real world examples you care about, like The Mathematics of Interplanetary Flight.  Imagine being in school and one of your assignments is to develop a textbook called Nine Decades of Popular American Music?  I always had a hard time remembering the rules of grammar – would I have done better if I had to write them into a textbook with my own favorite examples?

Try and imagine the world of 2025 where the high school graduation requirement is the authorship of 24 textbooks.  Imagine starting college having written 24 textbooks!

JWH – 1/21/12

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