Tag: education

Book Smart

close up photo of stacked books
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Is it cheating if your experience comes from books? Say, you’re chatting with friends and during the course of the conversation, someone comments on the beauty of Westminster Abbey. You jump in and agree to its beauty, but what really astounds you is a certain place in the Nave where you find yourself standing among the final resting place of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday and others. Your friends nod in agreement. Suppose then that one of the friends asks when you’d been to Westminster? You’d calmly say you’d never been there, never even been to London. You’d read about Westminster Abbey in a book and the picture painted with words on the page was so vivid, it was as if you had been standing among those luminaries of the ages. Does it count? Is it cheating?

I have been to Westminster Abbey, but there are plenty of places I haven’t been, and plenty of things that I haven’t seen or done for which I consider myself fairly well-versed from the reading I do. Indeed, it seems to me that nearly every conversation I engage in conjures memories of a book I read that relates to the subject at hand. Last weekend, I was chatting with a group of friends and the conversation veered into pandemics and vaccinations. I mentioned that despite being more technically advanced than we were 250 years ago, the people of Boston at the dawn of the American Revolution were extremely wary of the smallpox vaccine, despite how devestating the disease was. I knew this, not because I lived in Boston in 1776, but because I’d read about it in David McCullough’s John Adams and in Stephen Fried’s Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father and most recently in Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming.

The conversation drifted to masks, and I mentioned how prevalent masks were in San Francisco during the Spanish flu of 1918-19. One the folks turned to me and asked, “Do you know where that flu started?” and without hesitation, I said, “In Kansas.” I knew it, not because I lived in that small Kansas town 103 years ago, but because I read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza.

I remember a time when I was very young–possibly before I could read–back when my parent’s still read to me, my mother explaining that books could take you anywhere. I took that literally back then and my attitude hasn’t changed much today. People call this “book smart.” Book smart is often seen as derogatory, as in, “that fellow is book smart, but he’s got no street sense.” Of course, there is something to that, but that doesn’t mean that street sense can’t come from a book. When I read nonfiction, I am always on the lookout for practical lessons. One example out of countless: after reading William Manchester’s massive, 3-volume biography of Sir Winston Churchill, I went through my notes and teased out 3 productivity tips from Churchill himself.

I learned why keeping a diary can be useful from Isaac Asimov (via his memoirs). I learned how to keep a diary from John Quincy Adams (reading his diaries and using them as a model). I learned about commonplace books from Thomas Jefferson I didn’t learn any of this in school. It came from reading book, after I was finished with school and my real education began.

I have written before in my belief that grade school taught me how to read well, high school taught me how to think well, and college taught me how to learn well. When I graduated, I was ready to begin learning. Since then, I’ve read 1,102 books. I could read them well because of grade school. I could think about what I was reading thanks to high school. And I’ve learned far, far more than I ever learned in my K-through-college years thanks to college. I feel like I’ve gained a wealth of practical knowledge from the books I’ve read. And so I don’t see being book smart as a bad thing. After all, books have made me smarter than I might otherwise have been. And we can use all the smarts we can get.

The question is: can reading a book ever provide the equivalent experience to doing the real thing? Can you ever know what it is like to wander the Nave of Westminster Abbey and feel the weight of all those who came before? Does it even matter? People sometimes seem offended when I tell them that my experience with some place came not from being there in person, but from reading about it in books. When this happens, I think about the countless people who don’t have the means to travel anywhere, but can walk to their local library and read about places and take pleasure from that reading. Is that experience any less for that person than actually visiting the place?

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5 Interesting Reads – 9/11/2021

Here are some of the more interesting reads I’ve come across the the last few weeks. Let me know if any of these stand out for you. And if you have interesting reads of your own to recommend, please drop them in the comments.

  1. After “hearing” many of our kids’ classes while they were remote last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what eduction is today, and what I wish it would be. I think Seth Godin is on the right track with his “Modern Curriculum.”
  2. James Fallows has an interesting piece on presidential speeches, “Eloquence is Overrated.” In it, he writes,

effective orators sometimes succeed by making their language practically invisible. For them it serves as a pane, allowing the undistorted meaning to shine through.

This reminded me of how Isaac Asimov described his own writing style which he called his theory of “the mosaic and the plate glass”:

There is writing which resembles the mosaics of glass you see in stained-glass windows. Such windows are beautiful in themselves and let in the light in colored fragments, but you can’t expect to see through them. In the same way, there is poetic writing that is beautiful in itself and can easily affect the emotions, but such writing can be dense and can make for hard reading if you are trying to figure out what’s happening.

Plate glass, on the other hand, has no beauty of its own. Ideally, you ought not to be able to see it at all, but through it, you can see all that is happening outside. That is the equivalent of writing that is plain an unadorned. Ideally, in reading such writing, you are not even aware that you are reading. Ideas and events seem merely to flow from the mind of the writer into that of the reader without any barrier between,

I. Asimov, p.222
  1. Cal Newport recently had a great piece in the New Yorker on “Why Do We Work Too Much?” It touches on a feeling I’ve often had, what Newport describes as “a nagging sense of irresponsibility during any moment of downtime.” Also worth looking at is a follow-up he did, asking “What Would Happen If We Slowed Down?
  2. Ryan Holiday writes about the importance of his nighttime routines as a means to set him up for success the next day. This is interesting in part because he outlines 9 things that he does that align with practices of great stoics from ancient times. It was also to read it in the context of my own evening routine.
  3. Fiction: Adam-Troy Castro has a heartbreaking story in Lightspeed Magazine, “Judi.” Adam-Troy lost his wife, Judi not long ago. It was sudden and unexpected and the story reflects that. I knew Adam-Troy casually, and had breakfast with him, and his wife, Judi at a World Fantasy Convention years ago. There are wonderful people.

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Finished Reading: The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin

The main reason I read so much is to learn. So I couldn’t pass up a book with the title The Art of Learning. The author, Josh Waitzkin, was as chess champion and the subject of the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer. After his years in chess he moved into tai chi and its martial form, push hands. He became a world champion there as well. In the book, part memoir, part a distillation of Josh’s analysis of his own performance and how he tried to learn from it over the years. This is the art of learning to which the title refers.

When I read, I’m usually on the lookout for two things. The first is pure education: what I can I take away from my reading that I can use to improve myself. Sometimes these are concrete ideas. One example was the way Tom Kelly, in his book Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module, talked about how he used notebooks to capture his work and thoughts on the development of the lunar lander while working for Grumman. I read that book in 2001, and it changed the way (to say nothing of the volume) I take notes. Sometimes the takeaways are more abstract. A books like The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is, one the surface, a history of a scientific and engineering marvel (or terror). Beneath the surface, my biggest takeaways were all on how manage large scale projects. It is why I consider it one of the best books on project management I’ve come across. Finally, education is sometimes just that: filling in gaps in knowledge of whatever subject I might be reading about.

The second thing I lookout for is affirmation. When I read something and recognize that it is something I do that seems to work for me, it often affirms my methods. This is what I found most of in The Art of Learning.

Early in the book, Josh breaks down intelligence into two types, entity and incremental intelligence. He writes,

Children who are “entity theorists”… are prone to use language like “I am smart at this” and attribute their success or failure to an unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a think that cannot evolve.

Incremental theorists, or “learning theorists”,

are more prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.” A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped–step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.

The latter definition was the first affirmation I encountered because this is very much my style of learning, even today. The best example I have of this was when I was learning calculus. I remember trying to break the problems in the book into categories: these one use this rule, these other ones are special exceptions to that rule, and so on. Once I had a set of problem types, I didn’t try to just tackle each problem outright. Instead, I tried to develop a set of steps that would work for any problem of that particular type. First do x, then y, then z. When I studied for tests, I would first go through a set of problems and classify them into the types I had identified; then I could attack each one using the method I’d come up with for that type.

Another affirmation came when Josh discussed how he had to adapt his study methods for chess. Noise had bothered him, and could throw him off his focus, and take his mind down a rabbit hole away from the particular chess problem he was trying to solve. Rather than get frustrated and try to eliminate all noise, Josh took the opposite approach:

I took the bull by the horns and began training to have more resilient concentration. I realized that in top-rank competition I couldn’t count on the world being silent, so my only option was to become at peace with the noise.

This has also been my approach. In my post productive years of writing (in terms of variety of what I wrote and where I sold stories) I wrote every day for 825 consecutive days. I never missed a day. At the time, the Little Man was 4 and the Little Miss was two. The house was a constant flurry of activity and noise. One of the things I had to get used to was working while sitting in the midst of all of that noise. I had to get used to interruptions in the flow of my writing. Up to that time, I always told myself I needed quiet to write, but I had no choice. I forced myself to adjust and that adjustment allowed for some of my most productive writing. Being adaptable was important. I wrote about this for Adobe’s 99U when I had passed 350 days of my streak.

Later in the book, Josh describes his competition for the world push hands championship in Taiwan. Reading his descriptions of the event can be frustrating: he describes how the rules are continually changed (or ignored) to favor the local heroes as opposed to the foreigners. Some of this is tactical. If you can get under your opponent’s skin, you have a clear advantage. So Josh had to learn to anticipate these antics and deal with them without losing his cool. It reminds me of what we have tried to teach the Little Man.

When he loses points on a test for something that he considers unfair (“the teacher said this wouldn’t be on the test”) the Little Man can get worked up. What we have tried to teach him is that life constantly throws curves. Preparing for anything is often more than preparing for just what you expect. You have to prepare for the unexpected as well. When something goes sideways, you have to do your best not to let it rattle you. Good preparation goes a long way here, but even the best preparation can’t anticipate everything. That’s when you sometimes have to let things go. It is actually a great lesson in equanimity.

I enjoyed Josh’s book. His insights are keen and valuable, but most of the lessons in the book seem geared to the highest performers, the elite few who are already close to the top of their game and are looking for that edge to bridge the gap to the top. I am certainly not in that category, but I found many things in the book that affirmed practices I already had, and that much felt good.

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We Need More Practical Lessons

While reading Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breaker, I was particularly struck by some seemingly minor details. The book is a fascinating look into the modern process of scientific discovery, and there was some discussion of how a discovery written in a lab book and then signed by witnesses in order to document the dates of the discovery. When do scientists learn to do this?

I took AP biology, and AP physics in high school, as well as physics, chemistry and organic chemistry in college and no one every taught me how to properly use a lab book. Indeed, what was implied, at least at that level, was that what the teaching assistants and grad students who led the labs really wanted was nice, neat copy in our lab books with clear results that were easy to grade. I remember many of my fellow students had two lab books: the one they worked stuff out in, and the one they turned in after everything was cleaned up. I couldn’t spend the money on two lab books, so mine were messy.

It seems to me that the mechanics of a lab book–its true purpose and how it is used the real world–is a practical lesson that any burgeoning scientist should learn. But who teaches this? Are there upper division chemistry classes that focus on this? Certainly o-chem didn’t.

This got me thinking about other practical lessons that I would have benefited from, but was never formally taught. How to read a newspaper is one example that I’ve written about before. What about keeping a diary or journal? I don’t ever remember this being taught in school. I don’t ever remember a class in which the pros and cons of journals were discussed. I would have found these things very useful. Instead, I learned how to keep a journal by following (initially) the example Isaac Asimov described for himself in his autobiography.

Lab books are useful tools outside of the laboratory. For the first half of my career, I didn’t keep any kind of notes about the code I was writing. If I had to recreate something, therefore, it was often hard work. At some point, it occurred to me to keep notes as I worked. When I do something particularly complicated, I often list it out in my notes in high level steps, and then fill in the details as I work. I keep one simple idea in mind: a person new to the organization should be able to take my notes and reproduce my work. Technical debt is a big problem in I.T. People come and go and leave behind lots of undocumented code in their wake. You’d think lessons in keeping good notes would be part of the training process, but I’ve never seen it.

For that matter, how about something as simple as keeping a to-do list? I was never taught this in any of my classes.

There was one class I had–a 7th grade science class–in which our teacher spent quite a bit of time teaching us how to organize our work. We learned how to keep our science folder, and how to keep our notes and assignments organized in the folder. It was practical information that served me well through the rest of my pre-college schooling. Beyond that, most of the practical things I learned from books.

I can’t remember a teacher teaching how to take notes: how to identify the important points, and highlight them; what to leave in and what to exclude from the notes; tricks of shorthand to capture information more succinctly. All of this I had to figure out on my own. I read a book between my sophomore and junior years in college, and one chapter was all about note-taking. It changed the way I take notes and I use that method to this day.

I try to pass on some of these practical lessons to my kids. The Little Miss keeps a journal and I encourage that, and allow her to look at my journals in order to take ideas, but mainly so that she understands she can make it whatever she wants it to be. The Little Man could benefit from a daily to-do list, and I’ve tried on a couple of occasions to suggest it, even offering to help him get started by reviewing it together. He resists it, but he is at the age where he doesn’t think he needs it. (He does.)

It seems to me that in addition to classes in science and math and reading and English and history and art and physical education, there should be some practical classes on topics like these. Better yet, practical lessons could be merged into the existing classes.

  • In science, you could learn how to keep a lab book while you do your experiments. The lessons would be about the purpose–not to show you got the right answer, but to be able to reproduce your results, whatever they were.
  • In English, there could be a section on the literature of diaries and journals. There are plenty to choose from: John Adams, Samuel Pepys, Henry David Thoreau, Anne Frank just to name a few. Discussions could ensue about why to keep a journal, the practical value, and the literature can provide examples of what other people have done.
  • In home room, you might learn how to better organize your day, keep track of your work, and manage stress.

We need more practical lessons. I certainly would have benefited from them earlier than I did.

Good luck, Norm!

Norm (of the infamous vickyandnorm clan), defends his Ph.D. thesis tomorrow, and then graduates from UConn on Saturday.

Not to belittle the professions (doctors, dentists, and lawyers), but a Ph.D. is the highest academic agree awarded for original research. (True, M.D.s spend years in school, but it is technical training, and usually does not involve original research.) We’ve already got one Ph.D in the group, Doctor rmstraus, and I am exceedingly eager to welcome our second, when this weekend, Norm will officially change his first name from “Norm” to “Doctor Norm”.

I must be perfectly honest and admit that I am fearfully envious of both Norm and Ryane. I have often dreamed about going back to school and getting a Ph.D. in some subject that fascinates me. Alas, there are too many subjects to choose from (astronomy, computer science, history, and physics to name just a few), and too little time. And besides, I have grown use to my lifestyle and it would be incredibly difficult to change things now. I’ve had some achievements of which I have been proud (graduating from college, getting my pilot’s license, selling a science fiction story) but getting a Ph.D. makes these achievements pale in comparison in my mind. I am exceedingly lucky to have such hyper-talented friends and I am thrilled for Norm and I wish him the best of luck on his defense tomorrow, although I’m certain he doesn’t need it.

Is the world flat or round?

I don’t follow the gossips shows much, but I came across this item this morning, regarding Sherri Shepherd of the TV gossip program, The View. Apparently, earlier in the year, Ms. Shepherd created quiet a stir when she said she didn’t know if the earth was round or flat. Earlier this week, she created another stir when she argued that nothing predated Christians, insisting there were Christians around in ancient Athens.

Anyone who has ever watched a sailboat sink over the horizon has a pretty good idea that the earth is not flat–to say nothing of the millions of people who have satellite TV.

Is our education system really failing us so much that someone can be uncertain of the shape of the earth and not realize that the ancient Greeks were around before the Romans and they in turn were around long before Jesus was born?

UPDATE: I was curious as to what people were saying about Sherri’s comments so I checked out her website. If your bored, take a look at this discussion.

A nation of cowards?

Yes, I am referring to our nation. Anyone who says that our freedoms are not shrinking daily is either deranged or so completely out of touch with reality that they might as well be deranged. It’s always the little things that bug me the most because they are insipid. When seemingly harmless activities are banned, you know big trouble is just around the corner.

Take for example, the ban on hugging at an Illinois middle school.

Yes, you read that right. A ban on hugging.

Why? Two reasons are given: (1) hug lines were forming outside hallways and students were late to class; (2) hugging students are sometimes too close to one another and it can be deemed inappropriate.

So it seems that we really are a nation of cowards, when something as innocuous as 6th graders hugging scares us so badly that we ban it. Consider what’s been banned from schools since I was in middle school: many schools have uniforms because teachers and parents are afraid of students whose clothing stands outs. Schools have banned baseball caps because they are afraid of gang affiliations. Schools have banned cell phone use because, like China and Myanmar, they are afraid of what might happen to students if they are influenced by the outside world. Some schools still ban books because they are afraid of what students might read. I say this without any hyperbole: schools will soon be banning thought.

There is a solution to all of this and that is to teach. Teach students about appropriate behavior and where to draw the line. Teach students about respect for others. Teach students why some books are deemed more risque than others. Teach students about sex and take the mystery away. Teach students about drugs and why they are bad. Teach, teach, teach. There is a reason why teaching is one of the noblest professions. Teachers who teach are brave.

But we live in a nation of cowards. Cowardly principals, cowardly school boards, cowardly parents, and yes, cowardly students.

And it damn near breaks my heart.

Space, education, and the second half

For those who follow these things, there has been much chatter about s.f. writer Charles Stross‘s blog essay in which argues why he thinks we will never colonize space. He has some good arguments, but I’ve been somewhat disappointed that no one has taken up the other side of the debate. And then I saw today’s Washington Post Parade magazine which contained an essay by Neil deGrasse Tyson called “Why America Needs to Explore Space“. It’s not exactly a rebuttal of Stross’s essay, but it is a good, well-thought argument for why we need to continue exploring space. The most frequently made argument against this is that we have too many problems to solve down here; here is where we should be spending our money. As Tyson points out, we do. 99 cents out of every tax dollar goes to programs other than the space program. Less than a penny goes to space. Even at the height of the Apollo missions, American’s were paying 4 cents of every tax dollar to the space program.

Education columnist Jay Mathews has a novel idea to eliminate homework in grade school in place of an hour of reading each day. Apparently, studies show that prior to junior high school, homework assignments in grade school do little to improve learning or test scores. Attempting to make reading a habit–rather than a chore–during these early years might just lead to other improvements in education down the road. I like the idea, but apparently, there are some parents that would be unhappy with this. I would mean that they would actually have to read to their children.


So much for what I said I was going to do today. I didn’t go downtown, didn’t even do much reading. I sat at home, ordered a pizza (bad idea!), watched a movie, did some quick grocery shopping, and then eventually, watched more TV. Ugh! I feel lazy!