Making Sense of a Zillion Pieces of Advice

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 17, 2014

Have you ever notice how much advice the Internet offers?  The web probably has more advice articles than the complete history of women’s magazines.  From how to organize your life, to the most healthy foods to eat, to the best cities to live in, the quickest meals to fix, to how to fight memory loss, or meet the love of your life,  or which smartphones to buy, and so on, and so on. Some of the advice is based on scientific studies, but most of it is from personal experience, and probably a good deal is just some blogger making shit up.

What if we could consolidate all that advice into meta-lists so we could discover what the most common tips reveal? If one dietician says eating broccoli is great for your health, would you start eating it three times a week?  What if 2,000 different scientific studies proclaimed the virtues of broccoli? What if they said broccoli increases your sexual stamina, reduces cavities, clears your skin and conquers constipation?  At what point are we willing to take notice and act on advice? We’re all failures at keeping New Year’s resolutions, so is all this advice wasted on the undisciplined? Or are we all slowly evolving and improving from all these studies?  It’s taken about fifty years for most people to stop smoking.  And even with a Mt. Everest pile of evidence, many people still light up. When and how does advice become overwhelmingly convincing?

memory-loss

Memory Loss

The 800-pound gorilla squatting in my generation’s living room is memory loss. I don’t know how scary dementia is to people under 55, but for us folks over 55, it’s scarier than a serial killer with an idling chain saw. “Memory Loss From Alzheimer’s Disease Reversed For the First Time With Lifestyle Changes” is one article that grabbed my attention.  It’s based on this press report from the Buck Institute on a very small trial of ten patients.  Nine patients with varying degrees of dementia improved after 3-6 months following a specific 36-point  lifestyle guideline.  The tenth person with late stage Alzheimer’s didn’t improve.  The full report in PDF was published in AGING, September 2014, Vol. 6 No. 9.  Scroll down to Table 1. Therapeutic System 1.0.  The entire system is not easy to describe, but here’s a summary.  How many of these pieces of advice are you willing to follow to save your mind?

  • Give up all simple carbohydrates and gluten
  • Give up processed food
  • Eat more vegetables and fruits
  • Eat wild-caught fish
  • Meditate twice a day
  • Do yoga
  • Sleep at least 7-8 hours a night
  • Take CoQ-10, fish oil, melatonin, methylcobaliamin and vitamin D3 supplements?
  • Use electric toothbrush and flossing tool
  • Take hormone replacement therapies
  • Fast at last 12 hours between dinner and breakfast
  • Don’t eat 3 hours before bedtime
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week

How many articles have you read in your life that recommended some of these lifestyle changes?  Over the years I’ve seen some of these recommendations hundreds of times. Why didn’t I start following them in my twenties, thirties or forties?  Why did I wait until my sixties to get down to business? Even though this report in AGING came out in September, 2014, its advice is quite common.  Just read these other articles.

This is just a half dozen articles out of whole libraries devoted to the subject. Yet, if you take the time to read them, you’ll see consistent pieces of advice show up time and again, and even interesting contrasting advice.  Such as sleep at least 7-8 hours, but it’s bad to sleep more than 9 hours.

It’s key in evaluating articles on the Internet to understand where the knowledge comes from. First check if it’s based on a scientific study, and see if you can track down the original study. Popular articles summarize scientific studies, and sometimes they slant their summaries.  See if there are other articles from other sites that take a different slant. Great essays will cover multiple studies, and even explain conflicting studies.

Most articles aren’t based on scientific studies. In those cases you have to evaluate the expertise of the person giving the advice. If you’re reading dating advice, what experience does the romance guru have? Is it just personal, or do they have a relevant degree, or work for Match.com? Plain old personal advice can be valuable, especially if that person’s insights are savvy and practical, and they fit your own observations and experience.

My point here is not to write specifically about memory loss prevention, but to show that there’s a tremendous amount of knowledge, and maybe even wisdom to found on any subject.  How do we evaluate the wealth of information?  Most people find it confusing that on so many topics there’s lots of contradictory advice.  So, how do we decide which recommendations are valid? Wisdom doesn’t come easy.

That’s what I’m wishing for here, a web site that collects and contrasts all the studies and averages them out for every issue we want to consider. I want a Meta-Advice site, a one-stop-shop for evaluating advice, organized like Wikipedia, that has an army of specialists hammering out summaries and comparisons of all the research for any specific subject people want advice on. Google is great, but if you use Wikipedia a lot, you’ll understand why it’s structural approach is better for organizing advice information.

Imagine going to this Meta-Advice site and looking up memory loss and CoQ-10.  Let’s say it evaluates 57 different research studies. The summary might not be conclusive – science rarely is – but it would give us the best current answer, even if it’s only a statistic like in 63% of cases using 23,204 subjects, memory retention was improved when CoQ-10 was used in trials varying between 6 months and three years.  I’m making up these numbers, but you should get what I mean.

When research scientists or PhD candidates want to explore new territory they do a literature review of all the previous studies. They need to find the boundaries of what’s known and not known. This Meta-Advice site should do the same thing, and make it understandable to the layman where the boundary of knowledge is, and what they can learn from it.

It is possible for an individual to go to Google Scholar and do a search on “Alzheimer’s and Dementia Prevention.”  But the results are overwhelming. Only the truly dedicated will wade through the massive number of articles available. That’s why a site like Wikipedia, where knowledgeable editors can predigest the information for the average reader would be a huge help. The Internet is coming up with all kinds of new ways of doing things. We have no idea what cognitive tools will be invented soon. If you think of the effective nature of what Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, IMDB, Flickr, etc., they all make managing information easier. I believe advice management is in need of an Internet makeover.  

JWH

Intergenerational Book Sharing

I got the idea for this essay after reading John Scalzi’s blog post “An Anecdotal Observation, Relating to Robert Heinlein and the Youth of Today.”  Scalzi is a successful young science fiction writer who gave his daughter a Heinlein novel to read that was a favorite from when he was her age.  The novel was Starman Jones, and it was a favorite of mine too.  His daughter didn’t care for the Heinlein book.  My wife and I don’t have kids, but over the decades I’ve known an lot of parents who have tried to get their kids to read books they enjoyed as a kid.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  What’s great about this article is the hundreds of responses Scalzi got that provides a wealth of examples.

There’s a lot going on here.  For example, many people claim books become dated.  Well, that’s true if the child has grown up enough to know the book is dated.  Many readers said they read their favorite books to their kids when they were quite little and their kids loved the stories.  If you are seven years-old, do you know the difference between Treasure Island and Starman Jones?  Do pirates and space explorers have any context to date?

Many other people pointed out that young readers have much better books to read today.  If I could time travel back to 1964 and give my younger self a set of Harry Potter books, which would I prefer:  Heinlein or Rowling?  I’m thinking the 1958 Have Space Suit-Will Travel was the perfect book for me to love at age 12 in 1964, but it probably won’t mean much to many 12 year-olds today.  Even the Harry Potter loving kids might have a hard time getting their kids to read the Rowling classics.

If you’re thirteen years-old and discover The Beatles, does it matter if it’s 1964 or 2014?  Teen love doesn’t seem much different today than it did then, and today’s pop music isn’t that much more sophisticated except for the four-letter words and explicit sexual references.  Sure a teen in 2014 can tell there’s a major pop-culture difference between The Dick Van Dyke Show and Breaking Bad.  So some books might be timeless like a Beatle song.

kiss me deadly

When I was twelve, my dad read westerns and Mickey Spillane type thrillers, and my mother loved mysteries.  They didn’t try to get me to read what they liked.  And of the books they read as a kid, they were pretty silent.  My dad once mentioned The Hobbit, which came out around the time he graduated high school, and my mother always talked about Little Women, but I’m not sure at what age either of them read these books, but I’d guess in the 1930s.  Neither meant much to me in the early late 1950s and early 1960s when I started reading, and when I read them both when I was older, they were good, but not defining.

Now my parents hated rock music, and tried to get me to like their favorites like Perry Como and Dean Martin, but I declined.  And my sister and I were always at war with my parents over what to watch on TV.  I’m afraid we were selfish little shits.  My dad loved Bonanza, but we’d throw teenage tantrums if we couldn’t watch The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  We were probably too self-centered to take reading recommendations.

What’s weird is now that I’m 62 I’d be cool with listening to Frank Sinatra and reading Kiss Me, Deadly.  My dad died when he was 49 and I was 18, and like I said, we never had kids.  So I’m an island in the intergenerational pop-culture sea.  I’ve always loved the Heinlein juveniles, and wished they had become classics that all kids love—but that’s a silly sentimental desire on my part.  I’m not sure if they deserved to be read by all kids.  Of course, I’m not sure if all kids need to read the College Board Recommended Novels either.

Why do we want our kids to read the books we loved?  To make them like us?  To share what we liked?  To give them a leg up on finding the good stuff?  Most of the people who posted replies to the Scalzi blog listed books they discovered and loved as kids.  Are our literary first loves so important?  If you look at the College Board list of recommended novels below these are evidently what society thinks kids should read and know.  I’m skeptical.  I can’t believe these are the absolute best 100 novels everyone should experience as cultural literacy.  Maybe these are the ones easy to teach.  I’d do a lot of arguing over these titles.  I’m an atheist, but even I would expect The Bible to be on the list.

I’m not sure the College Board list is any more valid than Scalzi and I wanting kids to read Heinlein.  I’m fond of Heinlein for sappy nostalgic reasons.  What would be the real reason to make a kid read a book?  I’m a life long bookworm in my social security years and have only read 42 of the College Board books.  Let’s get real.  How many classic books should a kid read before he gets out of high school?  This is only a recommended list anyway, so few people actually expect kids to read them all.  But how many books should a well educated kid read that represents a well rounded cultural education?

I’d cut the list down to 24, and make sure those 24 are books everyone should know as adults and would speak from one generation to the next.  But that’s me playing king of the book world.  There’s only one book from the list below that I’d claim should definitely be on the list of 24 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. 

When I think about it, there’s damn few books I think we should make kids read, and what they would be would be hard to decide.  My second book for the list would be Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and it’s not even on the College Board list.  My two would be it for 19th century English novels.  Picking two 19th century American novels would be very hard and inspire me to write a very verbose essay.

Is there a minimum number of books everyone should read?  That’s getting too much into common core thinking.  Are there books so good we should try to get everyone to read them?  Are there books we loved that define our childhood that we should expect our kids to read? 

I do find that I feel closer to people who have read and loved the books I loved.  My friend Charisse has read most of the books on the College Board list, so we have lots to talk about.   I feel Charisse and I have a stronger connection than I do with people I know that we share no books in common.

Maybe society is putting too much hope in specific books, and what’s important is we all read a lot of books and then try to find out the books we’ve each read that connect us.     

Beowulf
Achebe, Chinua Things Fall Apart
Agee, James A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul The Adventures of Augie March
Brontë, Charlotte Jane Eyre
Brontë, Emily Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert The Stranger
Cather, Willa Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen The Red Badge of Courage
Dante Inferno
de Cervantes, Miguel Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo Selected Essays
Faulkner, William As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von Faust
Golding, William Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph Catch-22
Hemingway, Ernest A Farewell to Arms
Homer The Iliad
Homer The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik A Doll’s House
James, Henry The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair Babbitt
London, Jack The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel García One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur The Crucible
Morrison, Toni Beloved
O’Connor, Flannery A Good Man Is Hard to Find
O’Neill, Eugene Long Day’s Journey into Night
Orwell, George Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel Swann’s Way
Pynchon, Thomas The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William Hamlet
Shakespeare, William Macbeth
Shakespeare, William A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare, William Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles Antigone
Sophocles Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Swift, Jonathan Gulliver’s Travels
Thackeray, William Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David Walden
Tolstoy, Leo War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard Native Son

JWH – 7/21/14

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.

bcschoolexam1912sm

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.

half-the-sky

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