I Haven’t Studied Biology in a Classroom Since 1967

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 5, 2019

How old is your knowledge? That question can be taken in two ways. The years since the last time you studied a subject, which for me and biology is 52. Or, the age of the subject itself. For example, Euclidean geometry is two thousand years old. And dating the ages for either isn’t precise. I’m sure when I studied biology in the tenth grade (1966/67) my textbooks were not up-to-date, and far from chronicling the current discoveries in biology. Thus, my simple-minded memories of cell structure might be about two hundred years old.

In the first third of life, we go to school and college to prepare ourselves to be functional adults for our middle third of life, but how much do we need to know for our last third of life? What is a useful education for our retirement years? I certainly could sneak by without knowing any more biology, but should I?

I’m reading The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen for a book club. Reading it makes me feel ashamed of how little I know about biology while blowing my mind with new information. It makes me wonder just how current my knowledge should be in various important subjects, subjects that help me understand my place in reality. Just because I might be leaving this reality soon, doesn’t mean I should fall into oblivion knowing so little.


The Tangled Tree starts out by announcing “recent” discoveries in biology, such as horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and the third domain of life called archaea and how they are disrupting our old image of an evolutionary tree structure, thus the title of his book. Both discoveries occurred after my last biology class. I had heard of archaea since and seen the graph above. I’ve read about prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (plants, animals) but I couldn’t remember those labels. They say to really learn a subject you should be able to teach it, but I could only confuse small children with the vague ideas about biology.

Of course, I’m not totally ignorant of later biological developments. I regular watch PBS Nova and Nature, and over the decades read books like The Double Helix, The Selfish Gene, and a few popular books about the history of evolutionary theory, but they don’t require the same kind of learning that taking a class does. To really know a subject, even at a fundamental level requires knowing the words that describe it. As an adult, I’ve read many books about physics and astronomy, so I know some of their vocabularies, but I know very little of the terminology of biology. Quammen describes many fields within biology that are new to me, like molecular phylogenetics. I’m savvy enough to know what molecules and genetics are, and I could guess that ‘phylo’ concerns their taxonomy, but I’m totally clueless about how scientists could go about classifying these wee bits of proto-life.

Before jumping into the work of Carl Woese, Quammen succinctly describes the history of how the idea of evolution emerged in the 19th-century with various scientists using the tree metaphor to illustrate life emerging out of an orderly process. And he gives passing references to those scientists that developed taxonomy systems to categorize all living things. This lays the groundwork for understanding why Carl Woese wanted to develop a tree model and taxonomy of bacterial life.

1837_notebookb_cul-dar121.-_040Quammen grabbed my interest by describing how 19th-century scientists first started drawing trees to describe their theories. He even describes a page from Darwin’s notebook saying his first tree was rather simple. I was shocked when I saw it though, it was too simple looking, but the basic idea is there. I’ve vaguely remembered seeing this before, but to be honest, I’ve never tried to learn all of this information in a way that I’d memorize and use it. I put my faith in science, in evolution, but I know very little of the actual science. What I know probably compares to what the average Christian knows about this history of Christianity.

This got me to thinking. Should I study biology before I die? I doubt I’ll need it after death since I’m an atheist. So, what should my educational aspirations be in my retirement years? I’d like to pass from this world knowing as much about reality as possible. Why leave in ignorance? Why live in ignorance? There’s no meaning to our existence, but why not try to understand our situation to the fullest extent possible?

linnaeusWe’re a bubble of consciousness that has accidentally formed in reality. That’s pretty far out. Most of the matter in this reality is unconscious stuff like subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, and a smidgeon of biological living things. Reading The Tangle Tree makes me want to do more than reading over the subject and forgetting it again. Like Linnaeus, I want to organize what I should know into categories, into a Tree of Knowledge I Should Know. But I realize I am limited by time and energy – the time I have remaining to live and the dwindling personal energy I have each day.

How would I even go about studying the subjects I deem time worthy? I do have access to free university courses. And there are countless online courses, and I already subscribe to The Great Courses on my Amazon Fire TV. I could pick out some standardized tests for my goals, and thus limit the scope of what I want to learn. Or I could start studying and then try to teach what I learn by writing essays for this blog. That sounds more doable.

Other than the history science fiction, I don’t think there’s a single topic I could teach. I’m not even sure how many other topics I’d like to study — at any level. I do feel a sense of challenge that I should work on biology. At least for a while. Maybe read a few books on the subject this year. Maybe take a Great Course.

That makes me think I could choose a topic each year to study. I can’t promise much, but I think I should try.

Thus I declare:  2019 is the year to learn about biology.



How Much History Can I Handle?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 4, 2016

Every subject we study requires studying history.

My problems:

  • Compulsive news reading online
  • Compulsive book buying
  • Compulsive magazine buying
  • Curiosity about too many subjects
  • Can’t keep up with my reading


My goals:

  • Simplify my reading habits
  • Decide on the subjects I care about most
  • Learn more about those subjects
  • Focus on fewer topics for writing

I’ll never be an expert on any subject. Primarily because I’m starting too late in life, but also because I’m interested in too many topics. The best way to explain my problem is with an analogy. Have you ever noticed the difference between the magazines Popular Science, Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist and Science? This will work for any array of subject periodicals. The magazines that have wide appeal with the public will have mostly snippets of news stories, and a few short articles. Reading Popular Science or Discover often feels like reading the sponsors off a race car. When you finish an issue you remember little, even though you’ve just been told a 100 fascinating facts.

Now Scientific American and American Scientist do have pages of newsy snippets, but their compelling content is a handful of longer articles. If takes effort to read those essays, but most people can understand them if they try. When you’re finished, you feel you’ve learned something, and you’ll probably remember a good deal more from reading the first two magazines. You’ve covered fewer topics but gained more knowledge.

Finally, there’s Science. It is magazine scientists read. Its articles are terse, and very hard to comprehend. Science is readable by any well-educated person, but its so technical, and jargon filled, that few people do. Magazines like Science or Nature are general science magazines for people trained to be science specialists. Their specialized training allows them to read across disciplines at a much higher level than the average popular science reader.

The point I’m making here is my daily reading for all the subjects I’m interested in is too close to the Popular Science level.

Mentally, my curiosity flitters around like reading magazines at the dentist. If I make myself, with the aid of Google, I can read an issue of Science, but it’s no fun. It’s just too specialized. I want to discipline my mind to function around the intensity of a Scientific American article, or at least a longer article in Discover. I want to be able to write about my favorite subjects at that level. That means knowing those subjects in greater detail, which means knowing much more history.

Think of it this way. Let’s imagine we have 100 brain cells to use. Popular Science requires one cell for a 100 different news items. Science requires all 100 to understand one article. Scientific American assigns 20 cells to five topics. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my brain cells more carefully.

Each day, how is your mind applied? Is your consciousness like a reader of People magazine, or The Atlantic?  And for every pet topic you pursue, how much history do you know? We all know people who pontificate about their beloved subjects – their minds appear bloated with information. But that’s what it takes to be knowledgeable about a particular subject.

This bit of navel gazing came about because of an offer from Biblical Archeology Review (BAR) to subscribed for $7. I have a hard time resisting cheap magazine subscriptions. People who know I’m an atheist, might be puzzled why I would even be tempted by this magazine. Although I’m not a believer, I find history of The Bible fascinating. The Bible was written during a time when humanity was transitioning from pre-history to history. Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Bible began as oral storytelling, and then over the centuries, its stories were written down, eventually becoming canonized into the book we know today. I’ve even been wanting to write an article called, “Bible Study for Atheists,” and figured a subscription to BAR would be helpful (even though it is controversial).

No, my problem is not lack of interest, but lack of time. If I had all the time in the world I’d roam up and down history studying everything. But I don’t have that much time. Even though I’m retired, and have all my time free, it’s still not enough time. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my time spent exploring the history of my pet interests. I can only handle so much.

Rock and roll music is what got me interested in history. I started listening to AM Top 40 rock in 1962. As I grew older, I realized there were many wonderful tunes before 1962 to be discovered, so I began exploring jazz, blues and folk music of the 1950s, which led to Swing and Big Band music of the 1940s and 1930s, which took me to a different kind of jazz in the 1920s. When I get the time, I’d like to go even earlier, to the Tin Pan Alley era.

Once I learned how to move backwards in time, I began to incorporate those skills into chasing the origins of everything else I loved. In college I majored in English and studied books from the 19th and 20th century. My sense of history through novels goes back to the historical times of Jane Austen. A love of movies takes me back to the 1910s and 1920s. A love of science fiction takes me back to the 19th century again. I keep trying to get into classical music, but for some reason I have a hard time pushing into the 17th and 18th century. But the more I get into the history of science, which takes me back to the late 1500s and early 1600s, the more classical music becomes relevant. Studying The Bible jumps me back to the first millennium BCE, and connects me with Egypt, Babylon, the Levant, Greece, and then Rome, which brings me back to The New Testament, and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries, which then leads me towards Byzantium, and the Middle Ages. Which connects me with Europe rediscovering the classical Greeks, and jumping back to 400 BCE. Because Plato and Aristotle impacted so many people in the 19th century, that  jumps me forward to the Transcendentalists, and then back to the Enlightenment.

I also spend a good deal of time reading science fiction, which also means tramping around the future.

This morning, while taking my shower, and thinking about how I failed to clean out my growing pile of unread magazines yesterday, I felt crazed to think I should subscribe to more magazines. Yet, I wanted to – badly. It just became obvious, that no matter how addictive my curiosity is, I can’t consume all of history. I need to specialize. But in what? And why?

Sometimes I think I should just stay closer to home in time, like anytime after 1951 when I was born. I love westerns from the 1950s, so they would be in the territory of history I could cover. But then I think about writing a piece called, “Should Westerns Be Historically Accurate?” which means prowling around the 1800s. And I really would hate to give up Austen, Dickens and Trollope. That makes me think I should extend my range of history to the year 1800. I’d get to keep Darwin, but not Newton. I might  handle that. I’d have to give up the Founding Fathers, but I’d still have The Transcendentalists and Abraham Lincoln. Not too bad of a trade. Plus I’d get to keep the The Impressionists in Europe. I’d have to give up the Roman Empire, but at least I’d have the best part of the British Empire. I’d have to give up most of the history of mathematics, but I’d get all of the history of computers.

Could I really go on a history diet and only read about events that happened after 1799? I just swiveled around in my chair and scanned my bookcases. Not much of a sacrifice – most of my books cover topics that happened since 1800. I could thin a third of my unread books if I moved the cutoff date to 1900. I easily have a quarter century of unread books that fit into that time period, which probably translate into “the rest of my life.” But there goes Tolstoy and Louisa May Alcott. But that might finally give me time to read Proust and and finish reading Virginia Woolf.

I’m probably bullshitting myself here. I have so many contemporary topics I’m interested in, that if I made the cutoff date 2010, I couldn’t keep up with all the things I’d want to read. Every time I go to the library I scan the new book shelf. I could literally spend the rest of my life only reading books published in the current year about current affairs, and still not read everything I wanted.

Maybe it’s not what I read, or the history covered, but how I read. I could simplify my life by only reading books that appear on the library’s new books shelves, and give up reading magazines and web pages. That has a lot of practical benefits. I wouldn’t have to limited myself to particular times in history, and it would give me lots of variety. And yet, it would narrow the amount of reading I feel compelled to pursue. If I actually read all the magazines I currently get, in physical and digital form, I would never have time to read books. Hell, if I just read the free articles I get from News360 and Flipboard each day, I’d be reading 24×7.

Sometimes I think reading off the internet has ruined my mind. The internet is the heroin of information.

I can’t read everything I want. I can’t study every fascinating subject. There’s too much history for every topic. Trying to tidy up my reading habits is like using Marie Kondo to tidy up my house – it’s extremely difficult. But if I want to get away from a Popular Science level of concentration it will require tidying up what I read and how. I can clean out topics I’m hoarding, or somehow limit the fire hose of information I’m drinking from. Or both.


Information Overload and Getting Old

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I was cleaning out old magazines and stopped to read about Empress Theodora in The New York Review of Books. Evidently much of history about Theodora comes from ancient gossip, and a new book puts things right. The past is like today. Procopius, an ancient writer we use to remember Theodora, would have loved Twitter and shaming. Trying to get an accurate picture of Byzantine court life, politics and actual events is extremely difficult. Real history is information overload, and most of accepted history are Tweets.


Here’s the thing, I’m suffering from a monstrous hangover caused by information overload. I want to know everything and can’t. I don’t know why read magazines anymore, especially ones like The New York Review of Books, where their essays are comprehensive, written by extreme experts, that make me think I’m completely uneducated. Reading one issue feels like I’ve learned more history than all I studied in K-12 schools. And it hurts. Often I can only read one essay before my head seems like a fission bomb reaching critical mass.

But if I stop trying to learn, living feels like killing time watching television while waiting to die. I can’t win either way. I’m starting to wonder if internet reading isn’t shorting out my neural pathways. Mostly I headline graze. There’s got to be some kind of happy median between Ph.D. scholar and Tweet view of every topic.

Generally when I feel this way, I return to science fiction, a cozy little artificial reality I discovered in my youth. I used to think the science fiction universe was small enough to comprehend, but in the last week, I’ve discovered inflationary events have expanded it well beyond my limits of observation. Now I understand why people dwell on highly focused specialties. Being a generalist is impossible. That also explains why the human race is too stupid to survive. Our brains are too tiny to comprehend even a vague model of larger reality. Our politicians think in sound bites because that’s the limit of their ability. We disagree with them because our 140 character capacity sees the same reality differently.

Part of my overload agony comes from growing older and sensing my brain slowing down. I hate giving up on keeping up. Yet, I also realize to survive aging I must jettison what I can’t mentally carry. I have to discover a practical diet of information consumption. I need Marie Kondo to declutter my mind. And I need to stop beating myself up because I can’t lift knowledge I once easily pressed.

Dirty Harry revealed exquisite wisdom when he said, “A man must know his limitations.”

Since I’m retired I assume I have all the time in the world, so I should be able to keep up. But it doesn’t work that way. Every new fact requires time to digest. If I don’t think about what I’m learning I forget it immediately. And even when I do contemplate new insights, it appears my brain is erasing something old to squeeze in something new. I not getting ahead anymore. Reading an essay from The New York Review of Books gives the illusion I’m learning something significant, but it’s going to be gone after I go to sleep tonight. I hate that. I truly hate that. I’m living in The Invasion of the Mind Snatchers.

Currently, I can comfortably manage one book, one audiobook and two or three documentaries a week. I just can’t make myself finish magazine articles anymore, or even read longer news reports on the web. I graze web pages. I’m not sure if internet reading is good for me. I’ve learned it’s better to spend my mental energy on fewer topics. I waste too much time chasing too many subjects. Web surfing is a very pleasant diversion, letting me think that I’m keeping up with the world, but I’m fooling myself to believe I’m actually learning anything.


Classroom Learning v. Online Learning

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 15, 2015

This week I started a continuing education class in beginning drawing. It’s the first classroom learning experience I’ve had in over a decade. Of course, folks my age don’t usually go to school, but I was still taking some graduate courses in my fifties. In recent years I’ve been using online courses from Coursera and Udemy, or I sometimes buy Great Courses on DVD. And whenever I want to learn something quickly, I go to YouTube and find a How-To video. Plus, I’ve been an autodidactic my whole life, and learn on my own with books.

Taking this drawing course is way off my beaten path because I’m trying to learn something I have absolutely no previous experience with in any context. Even my expectations for what the class would be like was completely different from what I experienced. I assumed the teacher would start us with pencil and paper and teach us the rudimentary skills of line drawing. Instead she had us create two 1-10 gray scales with 9B pencil and black Conte crayon. Then she had us “draw” from still-life objects by using shading rather than lines. She took us through a tour of the building where the walls were covered with student artwork and showed us how it’s possible to draw without lines, and explained the lines we see in reality are just edges to various levels of shading.


[See the power of the pencil]

It was when we actually got down to work that I realized the difference between classroom learning and online learning. Nine-seven percent of my time I worked alone, but when I did get the teacher to come by to show me something it caused a big leap in my ability. Unfortunately, my teacher didn’t spend that much time with me. She had to lecture and visit the other students. Now this one little insight is the intent of this whole essay. I have found numerous videos online that teach drawing. They are all equal or better to classroom lectures when dealing with information. The same is true for books, although seeing someone demonstrate drawing techniques works much better in videos than from the printed page.

Where the classroom wins is when you get feedback. Sadly, most classroom instruction is built around lectures, and the reality is most video lectures come from top tier instructors. I also watched my fellow students in class and realized if I could work with them, all of whom had more experience drawing than I did, I could learn from them as well. This reminds me of when I went to computer school back in the early 1970s, at the State Technical Institute in Memphis. Classes were three hours. The first hour was lecture. The next two hours were programming. The teacher hung around to give one-on-one help, plus students worked together and helped each other. This method was perfect. This is how Pythagoras and Aristotle taught over two thousand years ago. This is not how most of my university classes were like. It was better decades ago when classes were lectures and discussions, but unfortunately, someone asshole invented PowerPoint, and things got real boring. That’s why my last stint at college was taking fiction writing workshops.

My guess, the best way to learn is with a tutor, with one-on-one instruction. And I’d advise colleges and professors who don’t want to be put out of business by online courses to spend more time interacting with students while they work. Leave the lecturing to the folks who are most eloquent in front of a camera. Instruct while walking between your students, and having them work on something you can guide them personally. Stop by each student often to see how they are progressing. Give the students time to work together. Spend as much time as possible away from the front of the class. Online learning can’t compete to this kind of instruction.

Here are some samples of online lectures. Notice how the video deletes dead time—some of these seven minutes lessons would be a whole class period in the real world. It’s very easy to go back and repeat parts. It’s also easy to find other teachers covering similar topics. What the videos can’t do is give instant feedback and guidance. It really helps to have a human say, “That won’t work, try this.”

My continuing education course would actually be far more effective if it was built around a computer lecture series, and all the time I got to spend in class was interacting with a teacher and my fellow students.

JWH – #973

Time Management for Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 21, 2015

My working friends think I have unlimited free time because I’m retired. Hell, before I retired I thought I’d have a time bonanza too. It didn’t work out that way. I’ve got so much I want to do that I fantasize buying Microsoft Project to run my life. Living by impulsive is turning out to be frustrating. It’s low stress, something that my inner-hippy loves, but totally unproductive.

Everything we do takes time. It’s much easier if we only have one passion to single-mindedly chase, because it’s then a snap to know how to apply our free time. But if you chase many goals, that takes juggling. For example, the other day I got an ad in the mail for the local paper. I haven’t taken the paper in years, but the price was so low that I thought maybe I should give it a try. I feel guilty for knowing so little about my city and state, especially the politics and business. This Sunday I bought the paper as a test. I can’t find time to read it. One reason I cancelled the paper all those years ago is because they would pile up unread. Taking on any new activity requires shifting old ones around. That abundance of extra time I thought I’d have after retiring doesn’t exist.

Time Management 

I figure it takes about an hour a day to properly read the paper. Especially if you want to value what it offers. Just quickly flipping the pages and scanning the headlines isn’t worth wasting its carbon footprint. But where would that hour come from? Either I’d have to expand into another activity’s timeslot, or I’d have to read less on the internet, magazines or books. It’s just not practical for me to take the paper right now. I could, but I’d have to become a newspaper reader and give up being an internet addict. That’s like becoming a different person.

When you’re retired it feels at first like you have all the time in the world, but that’s not true. Half the day is taken up with body maintenance. Another quarter of the day is taking up with socializing and fun. I can’t remember I how squeezed in eight hours of work. Of course the numbers above are rough approximations. I’ve averaged them for the week. I often spend whole weekends in social activities, so I’m spreading activities across a single 24 hour clock as my pie chart.

When I look at this schedule I realize why I’m not getting much writing done. Three hours a day feels about right for how I’m doing things now. I have to work hard to get those three hours. It’s very easy to just fill the day with all the other stuff. I could cut out two hours a day of television and give it to writing, but I’m not sure that would work. Watching two hours of TV before bed every night seems almost a necessity for my body and mind’s upkeep, as valuable as sleep and eating. My mind is shot for the last few hours of each day, so I don’t think I could do anything ambitious.

And the older I get, the more reenergizing my cells need to keep going. All those naps and eye resting moments help recharge my batteries. I’ve recently read that sleep is the time when the brain flushes out toxic byproducts accumulated from mental activity during the day. That sounds true because when I take a nap it erases a mental fog that’s developed from writing.

I’ve been thinking about taking on two new activities – drawing and studying math. I want to push myself to learn something completely new and different. Actually, I get impulses to pursue all kinds of new activities. Writing this essay makes me realize that I’m not devoting enough time to writing, and I shouldn’t take on anything new. But I think I will try learning to draw. I need to find other things to give up, because I think always learning one new thing is essential to mental wellbeing. Thus, I need to make room.

What’s required is performing activity triage. I wonder if drawing is something I can do when I’m intellectually tired? I’m currently taking a Coursera course, “Learning How to Learn” based on A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley. In the book and course she teaches techniques for more efficient learning. And I think her insights points to ways to solve my time management problems. Learning them will make me more efficient at pursuing all my ambitions. I need to stop wishing for more time, to stop hoping to can do more things, and learn to do fewer things, but being better at each, and doing so with greater efficiency.


Kindle DX versus Netbook as Textbook

The holy grail of ebook visionaries is the electronic textbook.  Textbooks are huge, heavy and expensive and some poor school kids carry more weight on their backs than soldiers on a march.  It’s as common to see backpack humps on college kids backs as seeing cell phones in their hands.  Ebook promoters see dollar signs whenever they spot one of those humpback students lugging around all that printed matter.

And those ebook promoters are right.  Why carry forty pounds of paper when you can carry 1 pound of electronics?  But is the Kindle DX the answer?  I don’t think so.  First, let me give you a little story.  Years ago, before audio books were even common on cassette tape, I took a two semester Shakespeare course.  We covered almost 20 plays, each tested with a very detailed 10 question quiz.  I remember how I faithfully read and studied the first play and was shocked when I only got six of the ten questions.  The professor had a pattern.  Half of the questions could be easily answered with a fair reading of the play.  One question was always about a very obscure detail that kept most people from getting a perfect 10, and the other four questions divided the class between those who really got into the play and those who didn’t.

I realized a quick reading the night before class wasn’t going to cut it, so I went to the library and got each play on LP.  They came in boxed sets of 3-4 discs.  The records were old and scratchy, but usable.  This was in the early 1980s.  I’d play the records while reading the play – it took hours.  After that I always got perfect 10s on those quizzes.  Now my magic retention rate only worked if I faithfully followed the words on the page while listening to the same words spoken.  Reading or listening by itself didn’t work.  Other than these two Shakespeare courses I never used this learning technique again in school.

However, when I started using my ears as my main sensory input for reading back in 2002, I started playing around, experimenting with each form of input.  I paid attention to what I noticed when just reading with my eyes.  Then I paid attention to what I noticed, just from listening with my ears.   I would then read something I had just listened to, or vice versa.  Each time I’d found details I had missed with the opposite method.  I discovered what the eyes learned was different from what the ears remembered.

One book I did this experiment on was Emma by Jane Austen, a book I was reading for a book club.  I listened for an hour.  Then I reread that hour with my eyes.  Listening was great for getting a sense of character and dramatic action, but it was poor on retaining words.  Austen immediately introduced too many characters – that made the story confusing.   Each character live in a house with a name, often set in a different village, with another name to remember, so I was overwhelmed by people and place names.  Seeing all those names in print helped clear up many issues. 

Again, I concluded that to study a piece of writing for academic purposes, I needed to see it with my eyes if I wanted to memorize words and spellings.  However, by listening, I experienced the nuances of conflict, characterization and plot better.  Hearing stories helped me to to imagine 3D action and settings.  I saw color and details better when I heard the words rather than read them. 

Listening, which is far slower than reading, forced me to concentrate on the subject, and that was especially reinforced when I watched the words while also listening to them.  Seeing a word and hearing it made me think about it’s pronunciation and spelling more than when I just read it with my eyes.  But listening alone is terrible for learning spelling.  There are many books I’ve only heard that I have no idea how to spell the character’s names. 

I think these observations are key to the success of future etextbooks.  Strangely enough, the Kindle now offers to read books to their owners, but they also allow Kindle users to play MP3 or Audible.com audio books while reading, although I think few people take advantage of this feature.  I sold my Kindle 1.0 to my friend who prefers to read with her eyes and loves to travel, but I do have the Kindle reader software on my iPod touch and do some reading with it.  However, iPods can’t multitask, so I have to play the audio book on my Zune and read it on the iPod touch.

From this one anecdote you might surmise that the Kindle DX will make a great etextbook, but I’m not so sure.  I found the e-ink technology clumsy for random reading, which is often what people do when they study.  Also, kids studying will be taking notes for writing papers or passing tests, so I think the future of etextbooks will be on netbooks, and those little devices are great at multitasking, allow reading and note taking and even cutting and pasting of quotes.

To really memorize details for a studied subject, I think you need to see it, hear it, and then write about it.  iPhones and Kindles don’t help here.  When I write this blog I keep a browser window open, with tabs to Google, Wikipedia and OneLook (a dictionary gateway site).

The computer literacy movement of the 1980s promised so much but delivered so damn little.  I’ve always wondered why programmers couldn’t write programs that taught math.  Kids will play video games for hours, games that mesmerize them into deep rapt attention, tricking them into learning a myriad of details from game play.  Teaching mathematics via interactive computer animation should be a no brainer, but most software that attempted the job came up with dull drills and tedious flash cards.  That doesn’t mean the concept of computer aided learning is a bust.  Anyone who has played with Mathematica should shout they’ve seen the light.

What’s needed is a synthesis of many learning techniques and technologies.  First, I think etextbooks won’t be ebooks.  That’s way too lame.  Etextbooks should combine video lectures, film clips, audio, computer CGI, and photos to go with old fashion black on white text, plus add tests, quizzes, puzzles, word problems, virtual worlds, games and any other interactive method to get kids to practice math.

If I had the money and resources to create etextbook on mathematics I would build my course around the history of math.  I’d take it from anthropological ancient history to theoretical here and now.  But I’d build it as a suite of components, usable on different platforms in different study environments.  So if the user only wanted voice, in iPod mode, they could spin through the centuries to find MP3 podcasts about the history of math.  If they were in a mood to play with their Nintendo DS, they could load up a mathematical game, or install a challenging game app on their iPhone.  If they were in the mood for a documentary, I’d let them stream video to their television sets.  Hell, I’d even offer to print puzzles for when they have to sit on the pot.

I’d also find some way to create a scoring system, especially one that could be tied to a Elo type rating system, like they use in chess, so students would feel challenged to compete.  It would be great if the American Mathematical Society had a way to rank people’s knowledge of the various Mathematics Subject Classifications.   Kids love video games because they enjoy beating friends with a specialized skill, and they also love competing against a computer too.  Traditional schooling is so boring and passive. Etextbooks need the challenge of competition, but it would be so tired if all they did was offer time competitions on who could finish solving ten equations first.

What if a Civilization type game required various mathematical skills to play, so if a student wanted to build a pyramid in the game he’d need to know geometry, or if she wanted her little Sims to sail across an ocean, she’d have to use celestial navigation to advance the game.

In other words, if publishers are only going to take the text from their printed books and put it in an ebook, that’s not going to work.  Even if the Kindle had full color and resolution to match the printed page, so a Kindle book could contain all the photos and illustrations of the real textbook, I still don’t think it will be equal to using paper volumes.  Modern textbooks are gorgeous compared to what I remember I had to use as a kid.  If I had the choice between 5 books, weighing 40 pounds, and 1 Kindle weighing less than a single pound, I’m afraid I’d shoulder the burden, because real textbooks are far easier to use, and much more spectacular to look at.  I kid you not.  If you haven’t seen a text in forty years, go find a kid and look at theirs.

When I owned my Kindle and subscribed to Time magazine, I found it easiest to read from page one to page last, and endure the time it took to page past articles I didn’t want to read.  There were navigation links, but between flipping back to the table of contents and to an article to see if I wanted to read it, it was just easier to stay in linear mode of page, page, page, page….

Etextbooks will only be better if they offer a variety of ways to study.  Ultimately, I don’t think individual etextbooks will be the answer.  I think students will subscribe to an online textbook service, and pay $4.99-$19.99 a month per course, and access a myriad of multimedia features, paying about the same as buying a textbook for a one semester course.

The old way to going to college involved scheduling a class with a professor and studying a book together in a room with other students for a few months.  Online instruction means studying on your own with a professor you might never meet who shepherds unseen students through a system of requirements.  Wouldn’t you prefer a textbook service that gave you podcasts to listen to at the gym or grocery store or while doing the dishes, and video lectures to watch before bedtime, and online games to play against your classmates, and ebooks to read on your iPhone at break at work.  Local college professors may stop lecturing, and end up becoming educational gurus who help their students find their way to enlightenment in the subjects they paid to master.

The textbook of the future will have to be very flexible.  I don’t even go to school, but I study all the time.  I just finished the audio book The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg about cosmology of the early universe just after the big bang.  I’m about to read the hardback and listen to the audio book of The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, which will go deeper into many documentaries I’ve been watching lately on The Science Channel and PBS, but I also want something more systematic, so I’m going to get a DVD set or two from The Teaching Company.  Their great DVD courses would be fantastic to keep on a netbook.

The more I study cosmology and physics, the more I feel the need to study mathematics.  I wish I could find something like the RosettaStone language courses to help me.  I also wish I had something that tested and rated my knowledge.  I don’t feel the need to go back to college and major in physics, but if an astronomical association offered online testing, with amateur rankings, I might be tempted by their challenge.  Our K-12 upbringing made most of us to hate learning, mainly because they made gaining knowledge all about passing crappy tests.  Video games are a form of test taking, a fun kind, that addict kids.

It’s a shame that most adults study new subjects like snacking on potato chips.  We constantly nibble on information but are never challenged to do anything with our empty data calories.  People will spend 60 hours a week playing online video games that require an amazing amount of study just to slay imaginary dragons or build pretend lives in Second Life.  Why not set up servers and let players build an historically accurate virtual Tudor England, so they could apply their hobby history scholarship to a challenge.  What if teachers told their students, “Your homework for this week is to create a virtual Mayflower, and show why the Puritans came to America.  Each of you must flesh out one historical character and show that person in twenty scenes from their life interacting with the characters your classmates create.  Please tell you’re parents they aren’t allowed to play this week.”

See why I think existing invention of the textbook shouldn’t be converted into a gadget that only displays electronic words and images on an electronic page because it’s lighter than a bulky book?  Modern textbooks are already bursting their bindings trying to become multimedia experiences.  E-ink would be a huge step backwards.  Go find a 2009 textbook, and flip through it.  What I’m saying will be obvious.  It will also be obvious that the weight of all the knowledge within that tome won’t be easily consumed by your darling rug rat.  Today’s kids chow down on HD video and 1080p Xbox games.  The Sirens of virtual worlds call to kids and the printed black letter on white paper, or gray e-ink, just won’t charm them.

JWH – 7/3/9