I've been sorting through old physical and computer files lately. I can't afford to read much of what I process, but occasionally something grabs my attention, and sometimes I find it worth sharing, as a glimpse into the past.

It always surprises me when they say so, but most people these days think of the 1980's as the distant past; it's shocking to me how few people now remember the Berlin Wall, for example. But here's a question I asked in 1989, and I think it's as relevant as ever. I addressed it to teachers, but it goes far beyond education.

I am becoming more and more convinced of the importance of self-confidence in the learning process. There's nothing mysterious about this, of course; I suppose it is quite obvious that it's easier to do anything if you think you can than if you think you can't. At any rate, this is why I was concerned a while back when one of our daughters went through a stage of being convinced—without cause—that she was stupid.

I remember having similar troubles in elementary school myself, but I thought that our children would be immune, because of the openness of their school about standardized test grades (I never knew mine) and the fact that they get letter grades on their report cards instead of the fuzzy comments that I remember.

I was wrong.

Our other daughter, with similar abilities and achievements, had no such difficulty in school, so I did some probing to discover the secret of her self-assurance. I'm sure that her good grades, high test scores, and the praise of her teachers must have some importance, but she dismissed them out of hand, saying, "I know I'm smart because I had third grade spelling words in first grade." Period.

I nearly fell over. In the school where she attended first grade, the children were grouped by ability, regardless of age or grade. Her reading ability put her in with second and third graders for reading and spelling. For reading, this was appropriate; for spelling it was not. Ten to thirty spelling words each week, seemingly random words (no phonetic consistency) that were harder than most of the words she had to learn in fourth grade at her current school. How we suffered (so I thought) over them! In my opinion that was clearly the worst part of her first grade year, one that I would definitely change if I could do it over again. But now she tells me that that was the basis for her positive view of her abilities.

Which leads me to wonder if we are not selling children short. Could it be that they realize that a high score is virtually meaningless if the test was no challenge? That they get more satisfaction out of struggling with something hard than from an unearned, easy success?

What do you say, teachers?

If I got any answer to that question in 1989, I don't remember it. What almost 35 more years of experience have taught me, however, is that (1) Yes, we consistently sell children short, and (2) It's not just a matter of giving children challenges, but of giving them appropriate challenges, because too easy and too hard can each be discouraging.

The question that remains—besides the unanswerable one of how such an individualized program could be achieved in a school setting—is, "How hard is too hard?" My memory of our daughter's experience with a spelling challenge two or three years above her skill level was utter misery that lasted till nearly the end of the school year, when the teacher agreed to back off a bit for her. And yet, and yet, in her mind—and I'm inclined to believe her—it ended up doing her a world of good.

Nobody ever said being a parent was easy!

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, February 12, 2023 at 8:54 am | Edit
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The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, 2017)

I read Live Not By Lies first. The Benedict Option was written three years earlier, and the two make good companion pieces for asking vitally important questions about our lives, our priorities, and our actions. In Live Not by Lies I preferred the first half of the book to the second; with The Benedict Option my reaction was the opposite. I find myself quarrelling with Dreher in a number of places, but nonetheless highly recommend both books, because he is observant, and he is asking the important questions. Dreher predicts very hard times coming for Christians—and others—as our society diverges more and more radically from its classical Western and Christian roots and values.

In my review of Live Not by Lies I mentioned that despite being specifically written for Christians, it's an important book for a much wider audience. The Benedict Option is less comprehensive in scope, especially the first part, but still useful. In Kindle form, it's currently $10, but if you use eReaderIQ and are patient, you can get it for quite a bit less. And don't forget your public library!

You know I'm not in the business of summarizing books. I don't do it well, for one thing. When one of our grandsons was very young, if you asked him what a book was about, he would instead rattle off the whole thing, word for word from memory. I'm like that, minus the superb memory. But secondarily, I don't think summaries do a good book any favors. The author has put together his arguments, or his plot and characters, in the way he thinks best, and trying to pull it apart and reduce it seems to me rude and unfair. Or maybe I'm just trying to justify my weakness, I don't know.

But if I were forced to write my simplest take-away from The Benedict Option, it would be this: Riding along with the current of mainstream culture may have worked all right for us when American culture was solidly rooted in Judeo-Christian and Western ideals, but that time is long gone. Doing the right thing—whatever that might be in a given situation—might never have been easy, but it's harder than when I was young, and it's on track to get much worse.

With that cheerful thought, here are a few quotes. Bold emphasis is my own.

Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation. (p. 12). 

I agree wholeheartedly about building communities, institutions, and networks. However, I don't think we should abandon political work. After all, for half a century, Roe v. Wade looked absolutely unassailable, and now there's at least a small crack. Prudence would say to do both: attend to politics (a civic duty, anyway), without putting our faith in political solutions, and at the same time prioritize the building of helpful communities, institutions, networks—and especially families.

The 1960s were the decade in which Psychological Man came fully into his own. In that decade, the freedom of the individual to fulfill his own desires became our cultural lodestar, and the rapid falling away of American morality from its Christian ideal began as a result. Despite a conservative backlash in the 1980s, Psychological Man won decisively and now owns the culture—including most churches—as surely as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, and other conquering peoples owned the remains of the Western Roman Empire. (pp. 41-42).

People today who are nostalgic for the 1960's are mostly those who didn't live through them, I think. It was not a nice time.

Legend has it that in an argument with a cardinal, Napoleon pointed out that he had the power to destroy the church. “Your majesty,” the cardinal replied, “we, the clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last eighteen hundred years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”
 (p. 49).

You can achieve the peace and order you seek only by making a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root. Divine grace is freely given, but God will not force us to receive it. It takes constant effort on our part to get out of God’s way and let His grace heal us and change us. To this end, what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it. (p. 52).

[T]he day is coming when the kind of thing that has happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith. This is why asceticism—taking on physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal—is such an important part of the ordinary Christian life. ... [A]scetical practices train body and soul to put God above self. ... To rediscover Christian asceticism is urgent for believers who want to train their hearts, and the hearts of their children, to resist the hedonism and consumerism at the core of contemporary culture. (pp. 63-64).

For most of my life ... I moved from job to job, climbing the career ladder. In only twenty years of my adult life, I changed cities five times and denominations twice. My younger sister Ruthie, by contrast, remained in the small Louisiana town in which we were raised. She married her high school sweetheart, taught in the same school we attended as children, and brought up her kids in the same country church.

When she was stricken with terminal cancer in 2010, I saw the immense value of the stability she had chosen. Ruthie had a wide and deep network of friends and family to care for her and her husband and kids during her nineteen-month ordeal. The love Ruthie’s community showered on her and her family made the struggle bearable, both in her life and after her death. The witness to the power of stability in the life of my sister moved my heart so profoundly that my wife and I decided to leave Philadelphia and move to south Louisiana to be near them all. (pp. 66-67)

Dreher wrote about his sister's struggle and the effect it had on him in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, which I have also read, and may eventually review. As with all of his books, I have mixed feelings about that one. He idolizes his sister and her choices in a way I find uncomfortable, and reduces almost to a footnote the damage those choices did, to him and to others.

Saint Benedict commands his monks to be open to the outside world—to a point. Hospitality must be dispensed according to prudence, so that visitors are not allowed to do things that disrupt the monastery’s way of life. For example, at table, silence is kept by visitors and monks alike. As Brother Augustine put it, “If we let visitors upset the rhythm of our life too much, then we can’t really welcome anyone.” The monastery receives visitors constantly who have all kinds of problems and are seeking advice, help, or just someone to listen to them, and it’s important that the monks maintain the order needed to allow them to offer this kind of hospitality. (p. 73).

Father Benedict believes Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise. “I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in than to point out how bad they are and bring them in.” (p. 73).

Though orthodox Christians have to embrace localism because they can no longer expect to influence Washington politics as they once could, there is one cause that should receive all the attention they have left for national politics: religious liberty. Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option. Without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values. What’s more, Christians who don’t act decisively within the embattled zone of freedom we have now are wasting precious time—time that may run out faster than we think. (p. 84).

I know the book was written for Christians, but I wish Dreher had also emphasized how important this is for everyone. No one can afford to ignore the trampling of someone's Constitutional rights, even if they don't affect us personally. If Christians lose their First Amendment protections, no person, no group, no idea is safe.

Lance Kinzer is living at the edge of the political transition Christian conservatives must make. A ten-year Republican veteran of the Kansas legislature, Kinzer left his seat in 2014 and now travels the nation as an advocate for religious liberty legislation in statehouses. “I was a very normal Evangelical Christian Republican, and everything that comes with that—particularly a belief that this is ‘our’ country, in a way that was probably not healthy,” he says. That all fell apart in 2014, when Kansas Republicans, anticipating court-imposed gay marriage, tried to expand religious liberty protections to cover wedding vendors, wedding cake makers, and others. Like many other Republican lawmakers in this deep-red state, Kinzer expected that the legislation would pass the House and Senate easily and make it to conservative Governor Sam Brownback’s desk for signature. It didn’t work out that way at all. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce came out strongly against the bill. State and national media exploded with their customary indignation. Kinzer, who was a pro-life leader in the House, was used to tough press coverage, but the firestorm over religious liberty was like nothing he had ever seen. The bill passed the Kansas House but was killed in the Republican-controlled Senate. The result left Kinzer reeling. “It became very clear to me that the social conservative–Big Business coalition politics was frayed to the breaking point and indicated such a fundamental difference in priorities, in what was important,” he recalls. “It was disorienting. I had conversations with people I felt I had carried a lot of water for and considered friends at a deep political level, who, in very public, very aggressive ways, were trying to undermine some fairly benign religious liberty protections.”

...

Over and over he sees ... legislators who are inclined to support religious liberty taking a terrible pounding from the business lobby. (p. 84-86).

Nothing matters more than guarding the freedom of Christian institutions to nurture future generations in the faith. (p. 87).

Agreed—except that I would put "Christian parents" or just "parents" ahead of "institutions." Dreher is a strong advocate for Christian schools at every level, especially the so-called Classical Christian schools with their emphasis on rigorous academics. However, he gives short shrift to home education, an option that is at least as important and in need of support.

Because Christians need all the friends we can get, form partnerships with leaders across denominations and from non-Christian religions. And extend a hand of friendship to gays and lesbians who disagree with us but will stand up for our First Amendment right to be wrong. (p. 87). 

Over and over again I have seen the importance of these partnerships. In all the "fringe" movements I've been a part of, from home education to home birth to small and sustainable agriculture, this collaboration with others with whom we had next to nothing else in common made progress for the movements, and—which was perhaps even more valuable—forced us to work beside and learn to appreciate those who were in other ways our political opponents.

Most American Christians have no sense of how urgent this issue is and how critical it is for individuals and churches to rise from their slumber and defend themselves while there is still time. We do not have the luxury of continuing to fight the last war. (pp. 87-88).

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 24, 2023 at 6:10 am | Edit
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I didn't expect to like this Wall Street Journal article about the board game, Risk. Unlike nearly all the rest of my extended family, I am not a fan of most board games, especially if they involve intricate strategy and take a long time to complete. It's even worse if I'm playing with people who care whether they win or lose. If I ever played Risk, it wasn't more than once.

But I enjoyed the article, and I understood most of it because of having been surrounded by so many people who love to play the game. The author makes a good case that playing the game taught many of us "everything we know about geography and politics."

A certain kind of brainy kid will reach adulthood with a few general rules for foreign policy: Don’t mass your troops in Asia, stay out of New Guinea, never base an empire in Ukraine. It is the wisdom of Metternich condensed to a few phrases and taught by the game Risk.

The game could be played with up to six players, each representing their own would-be empire, and could last hours. The competition could turn ugly, stressing friendships, but we all came away with the same few lessons. ... In the end, no matter who you call an ally, there can only be one winner, meaning that every partnership is one of convenience. If you are not betraying someone, you are being betrayed. Also: No matter what the numbers suggest, you never know what will happen when the dice are rolled. ... Regardless of technological advances, America will always be protected by its oceans. It is a hard place to invade. What they say about avoiding a land war in Asia is true. It is too big and desolate to control. Ukraine is a riddle ... stupid to invade and tough to subdue because it can be attacked from so many directions, making it seem, to the player of Risk, like nothing but border.

Here's my favorite:

The best players ask themselves what they really want, which means seeing beyond the board. I learned this from my father in the course of an epic game that started on a Friday night and was still going when dawn broke on Saturday. His troops surrounded the last of my armies, crowded in Ukraine. I begged for a reprieve.

“What can I give you?” I asked.
He looked at the board, then at me, then said, “Your Snickers bar.”
“My Snickers bar? But that’s not part of the game.”
“Lesson one,” he said, reaching for the dice. “Everything is part of the game.”

And finally, one amazing side note. The man who invented Risk, French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse, also created the award-winning short film, The Red Balloon.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 18, 2023 at 6:48 am | Edit
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It's that time again: Here's my annual compilation of books read during the past year.

  • Total books: 83
  • Fiction: 65 (78.3%)
  • Non-fiction: 16 (19.3%)
  • Other: 2 (2.4%)
  • Months with most books: February (27)
  • Month with fewest books: A tie between April and October (2 each)
  • Most frequent authors: Brandon Sanderson (24), Randall Garrett (23), Brian Jacques (9). As with last year, Randall Garrett is an anomaly; he makes such a strong showing because he was the subject of a particular focus and—thanks to the way I've accounted for them—his books are generally quite short. Actually, each of the runaway leaders was part of a special focus.  Both Jacques (with his Redwall series) and Sanderson (with his seemingly infinite collection) combine very interesting stories with books that my grandchildren are currently reading, which makes them especially attractive.  These two authors made up 40% of this year's total reading.  That's by number of books; if you count pages, Sanderson is immeasurably ahead.  (That's "immeasurably" as in "I am not going to bother to do the calculations.")

Here's the list, grouped by title; links are to reviews. The different colors in the titles only reflect whether or not you've followed a hyperlink. The ratings (★) and warnings (☢) are on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest/mildest. Warnings, like the ratings,  are highly subjective and reflect context, perceived intended audience, and my own biases. Nor are they completely consistent. They may be for sexual content, language, violence, worldview, or anything else that I find objectionable. Your mileage may vary.  Ratings in red indicate books I found particularly recommendable this year.

Title Author Category Rating/Warning Notes
...After a Few Words Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Anchorite Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
The Asses of Balaam Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Belly Laugh Randall Garrett fiction ★ ☢  
The Benedict Option Rod Dreher non-fiction ★★★★  
The Bible: Apocrypha Revised Standard Version non-fiction ★★★★  
The Bible: New Testament Revised Standard Version non-fiction ★★★★★  
The Bible: New Testament King James Version non-fiction ★★★★★  
The Bible: Psalter King James Version non-fiction ★★★★★  
The Bible: Tanakh Old Testament, Jewish version non-fiction ★★★★★  
The Black Stallion Walter Farley fiction ★★★★★  
The Black Star of Kingston S. D. Smith fiction ★★★★★  
The Blue Book of Tales J. A. Sommer fiction ★★★★  
Dead Giveaway Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
The Destroyers Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Elantris 1 Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★★ On Sanderson in general: Excellent writing combined with wanting to read what my grandchildren like makes an irresistible combination. Elantris is one of his early books.
Elantris 1.2: The Emperor's Soul Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★★  
Elantris 1.3: The Hope of Elantris Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Everything Sad is Untrue Daniel Nayeri non-fiction ★★★★ It's classed as fiction, and the style is fiction, but except for a little literary tweaking, it's non-fiction.
Fifty Per Cent Prophet Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Frazz: Cogito, Ergo Caulfield Jef Mallett other ★★★ Short Kindle book with commentary, not nearly as good as the regular Frazz books.
Hanging by a Thread Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Heist Job on Thizar Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Here Shall I Die Ashore Caleb Johnson non-fiction ★★★★★ Excellent history of Porter's ancestor Stephen Hopkins (who turns up in Colonial Jamestown, the Mayflower, and Shakespeare's The Tempest)
A Hunter-Gatherer's Guide to the 21st Century Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein non-fiction ★★★★ 90% fascinating, 10% weird, 5% dangerous
I Am Not a Serial Killer Dan Wells fiction ★★ Well-written, but disturbing and definitely does not belong on the YA shelves where I found it.
I Am Not a Serial Killer Dan Wells fiction ★★ Yes, I read it twice for purposes of discussion.
In Case of Fire Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Inheritance Sharon Moalem non-fiction ★★★  
Instant of Decision Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Librarians 1: Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming Rod Dreher non-fiction ★★★★  
Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents Rod Dreher non-fiction ★★★★ Important warnings from those who have escaped totalitarian societies.
The Man in the Queue Josephine Tey fiction ★★★★★  
The Man Who Hated Mars Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
The Measure of a Man Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Mistborn 1: The Final Empire Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★ This year I re-read the first Mistborn trilogy, and found it to make much more sense on the second reading, so I raised its rating.
Mistborn 2: The Well of Ascension Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Mistborn 3: The Hero of Ages Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Mistborn 3.3: The Eleventh Metal Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Mistborn 3.7: Secret History Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Mistborn 3.7: Secret History Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Mistborn 3.7: Secret History Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★ Yes, I read it three times this year, as I was figuring out the Mistborn world.
Mistborn 4: The Alloy of Law Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★★  
Mistborn 4.5: Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania, Episodes Twenty-Eight Through Thirty Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Mistborn 5: Shadows of Self Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Mistborn 6: The Bands of Mourning Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
New Morning Mercies: A Daily Gospel Devotional Paul David Tripp other ★★ I know people who will find this exactly to their taste, but I’m not a fan of devotionals, and this was generally too depressing for my current needs.
Or Your Money Back Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
Prince Lander and the Dragon War S. D. Smith fiction ★★★★★  
Psichopath Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
The Real Anthony Fauci Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. non-fiction ★★★★★ Whatever your politics, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to read this book.
Reckoners 1: Steelheart Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Reckoners 1.5: Mitosis Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Reckoners 2: Firefight Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★  
Reckoners 3: Calamity Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Redwall 1: Redwall Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★★ Technically a “juvenile” series, this one, like the Green Ember books, ought to be read by anyone who needs encouragement, i.e. everyone.
Redwall 2: Mossflower Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★★  
Redwall 3: Mattimeo Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★  
Redwall 4: Mariel of Redwall Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★  
Redwall 5: Salamandastron Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★  
Redwall 6: Martin the Warrior Brian Jacques fiction ★★★  
Redwall 7: The Bellmaker Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★★  
Redwall 8: Outcast of Redwall Brian Jacques fiction ★★★★★  
The Redwall Cookbook Brian Jacques non-fiction ★★★  
The Secrets of Stonebridge Castle Blair Bancroft fiction ★★★ Blair Bancroft’s books have this in common with Brandon Sanderson’s: The excellence of the writing keeps me coming back, even though there are parts I dislike.
Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Sixth of the Dusk Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★  
Stormlight 2.5: Edgedancer Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★★  
Stormlight 3: Oathbringer Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★★★  
Suite Mentale Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Thin Edge Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Time Fuze Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
The Unnecessary Man Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
Unoffendable Brant Hansen non-fiction ★★★  
Viewpoint Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
What the Left Hand Was Doing Randall Garrett fiction ★★  
White Sand (prose excerpt) Brandon Sanderson fiction ★★★ White Sand is a three-volume graphic novel. What I read is the prose story on which it was based. Somewhat interesting, but not enough to induce me to read a graphic novel.
With No Strings Attached Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
A World by the Tale Randall Garrett fiction ★★★  
A World Without Email Cal Newport non-fiction ★★★★ As with most of Newport's books, this is too business-oriented for my taste, but he always has an interesting perspective.
The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner S. D. Smith fiction ★★★★★  
Zao's Tales J. A. Sommer fiction ★★★  
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 3, 2023 at 6:54 am | Edit
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The idea that those who criticize Fauci are inherently on the right is insane and really makes the left look like a bunch of baboons, frankly, and you know, we're not—not all of us.

I think both left and right can smile at that. It is one of my favorite quotes in this excerpt from DarkHorse Podcast #143, though it's just one small part. The larger topic is the capture of our most venerable institutions, such as journalism, academia, and science, by ... Something. Bret and Heather don't have a name for it, but find it has become too obvious to be ignored. They leave out government, but maybe that goes without saying.  (20 minutes)

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, October 11, 2022 at 8:36 am | Edit
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It's time for another in my series of YouTube channel discoveries. I resent the amount of time it takes to get information out of the video/podcast format, but it's so popular these days that it has become a major source for interesting and helpful information. So I'm unapologetically recommending another video channel: Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying's DarkHorse Podcast. That link is to their podcast website, but I usually watch it via their two YouTube channels: Full Podcasts, and Clips. Full podcasts are long. Very long. They would be great on a car journey, not so much in everyday life, unless you have a lot of work to do that doesn't require much thinking. I can fix dinner while listening to a podcast, but I sure can't write a blog post. Clips, on the other hand, are much shorter (maybe five to twenty minutes). Focussing on clips means I miss good insights, but giving in to Fear of Missing Out is a pathway to madness.

I've mentioned Bret and Heather before, in my Independence Hall Speech post, so it's about time I gave them their due. I must also give due credit to the good friend who introduced me to DarkHorse, as well as to Viva Frei, and remained patient with me even though it was at least a year later before I finally got around to checking them out.  Thank you, wise friend.  (There's but an infinitesimal chance he'll actually see that, but still, credit where credit is due.)

By way of introduction, the following quotes are from their DarkHorse Podcast website:

In weekly livestreams of the DarkHorse podcast, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying explore a wide range of topics, all investigated with an evolutionary lens. From the evolution of consciousness to the evolution of disease, from cultural critique to the virtues of spending time outside, we have open-ended conversations that reveal not just how to think scientifically, but how to disagree with respect and love.

We are scientists who hope to bring scientific thinking, and its insights, to everyone. Too often, the trappings of science are used to exclude those without credentials, degrees, or authority. But science belongs to us all, and its tools should be shared as widely as possible. DarkHorse is a place where scientific concepts, and a scientific way of thinking, are made accessible, without diminishing their power.

We are politically liberal, former college professors, and evolutionary biologists. Among our audience are conservatives, people without college educations, and religious folk. We treat everyone with respect, and do not look down on those with whom we disagree.

Needless to say, I often disagree with them—sometimes strongly—but more often I find their insights at least reasonable. And it is always interesting to listen in on their conversations. I take great pleasure in hearing smart people interact with each other—assuming they're polite, which Bret and Heather always are. It's also particularly satisfying in the rare circumstances when I find I know something that these highly intelligent people, with much greater knowledge than I, don't. I love living in Florida, at least in its current free-state situation, but I've never gotten over the loss of the intellectual stimulation that came with having the University of Rochester within walking distance.

I find DarkHorse so diverse and absorbing that it's really hard to limit myself to three examples here. But you can always check it out for yourself. Here are a couple of hints: Bret and Heather's speech is measured enough that I can hear it at 1.5x speed, and Porter can manage 2x. I prefer not to speed it up, but it is a time saver. An ever greater help with the full podcasts is that, once the livestream is over and the video is set on YouTube, you can hover your mouse over places along the progress bar and see where a particular subject begins and ends. I sure wish more long videos would provide that information.

Warning: Objectionable language occurs, though rarely, in the DarkHorse Podcasts.

Multi-age education (11 minutes)

 

When science is not science (9 minutes) 

 

Wikipedia redefines recession (19 minutes)

 

I'll close with some advice from their website, which makes me smile every time I read it.

Be good to the ones you love,
Eat good food, and
Get outside.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, September 20, 2022 at 5:32 am | Edit
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A brand-new story is on its way from S. D. Smith, creator of the Green Ember series. There's a trailer at JackZulu.com, and I'm sure more information will follow.

In the meantime, two of the Green Ember books are currently free for Kindle, with more to come next week. But really, the regular Kindle prices are so low, it's not worth stressing of you miss the sales.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, August 30, 2022 at 10:52 am | Edit
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I've been writing these essays for more than 20 years. As with all writers (and other artists), I often look back on my work and shudder. Sometimes, however, I'm okay with what I've written. But how often does someone see a blog post from 2010? Current events may not be relevant anymore and can reasonably be forgotten, and most people don't care about our everyday lives. But I've also said a lot that I think bears repeating; book reviews, for example, are almost always just as useful now as they were then. So I'm going to start to bring back some of my favorites, not only because I believe they'll be useful to what is mostly a whole new audience, but also because I need to be reminded of the content myself.

I'll begin with the fascinating, and important, idea of neuroplasticity, which I first wrote about on May 18, 2010.


altThe Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge (Penguin, New York, 2007)

Neuroplasticity.

The idea that our brains are fixed, hard-wired machines was (and in many cases still is) so deeply entrenched in the scientific establishment that evidence to the contrary was not only suppressed, but often not even seen because the minds of even respectable scientists could not absorb what they were certain was impossible. Having been familiar since the 1960s with the work of Glenn Doman and the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, the idea that the human brain is continually changing itself and can recover from injury in astonishing ways did not surprise me. In fact, the only shock was that in a 400 page book on neuroplasticity and the persecution of its early pioneers I found not one mention of Doman's name. But the stories are none the less astonishing for that.

In Chapter 1 we meet a woman whose vestibular system was destroyed by antibiotic side-effects. She is freed by a sensor held on her tongue and a computerized helmet from the severely disabling feeling that she is falling all the time, even when lying flat. That's the stuff of science fiction, but what's most astounding is that the effect lingers for a few minutes after she removes the apparatus the first time, and after several sessions she no longer needs the device.

Chapter 3, "Redesigning the Brain," on the work of Michael Merzenich, including the ground-breaking Fast ForWord learning program, is worth the cost of the book all by itself.

Sensitive readers may want to steer clear of Chapter 4, "Acquiring Tastes and Loves," or risk being left with unwanted, disturbing mental images. But it is a must read for anyone who wants to believe that pornography is harmless, or that our personal, private mental fantasies do not adversely affect the very structure of our brains.

The book is less impressive when it gets away from hard science and into psychotherapy, as the ideas become more speculative, but the stories are still impressive.

Phantom pain, learning disabilities, autism, stroke recovery, obsessions and compulsions, age-related mental decline, and much more: the discovery of neuroplasticity shatters misconceptions and offers hope. The Brain that Changes Itself is an appetizer plate; bring on the main course!

For those who want a sampling of the appetizer itself, I'm including an extensive quotation section. Even so, it doesn't come close to doing justice to the depth and especially the breadth of the book. I've pulled quotes from all over, so understand that they are out of context, and don't expect them to move smoothly from one section to another.

Neuro is for "neuron," the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems. Plastic is for "changeable, malleable, modifiable." At first many of the scientists didn't dare use the word "neuroplasticity" in their publications, and their peers belittled them for promoting a fanciful notions. Yet they persisted, slowly overturning the doctrine of the unchanging brain. They showed that children are not always stuck with the mental abilities they are born with; that the damaged brain can often reorganize itself so that when one part fails, another can often substitute; that if brain cells die, they can at times be replaced; that many "circuits" and even basic reflexes that we think are hardwired are not. One of these scientists even showed that thinking, learning, and acting can turn our genes on or off, thus shaping our brain anatomy and our behavior—surely one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century.

In the course of my travels I met a scientist who enabled people who had been blind since birth to begin to see, another who enabled the deaf to hear; I spoke with people who had had strokes decades before and had been declared incurable, who were helped to recover with neuroplastic treatments; I met people whose learning disorders were cured and whose IQs were raised; I saw evidence that it is possible for eighty-year-olds to sharpen their memories to function the way they did when they were fifty-five. I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts, to cure previously incurable obsessions and traumas. I spoke with Nobel laureates who were hotly debating how we must re-think our model of the brain now that we know it is ever changing. ... The idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity is, I believe, the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy and the workings of its basic component, the neuron.

In Chapter 2, Building Herself a Better Brain, a woman with such a severe imbalance of brain function that she was labelled mentally retarded put her own experiences together with the work of other researchers to design brain exercises that fixed the weaknesses in her own brain ... and went on to develop similar diagnostic procedures and exercises for others.

The irony of this new discovery is that for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that children's brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty that strengthened brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory (hence thinking in language) and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably helped strengthen motor capacities and thus not only helped handwriting but added speed and fluency to reading and speaking. Often a great deal of attention was paid to exact elocution and to perfecting the pronunciation of words. Then in the 1960s educators dropped such traditional exercises from the curriculum, because they were too rigid, boring, and "not relevant." But the loss of these drills has been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols. For the rest of us, their disappearance may have contributed to the general decline of eloquence, which requires memory and a level of auditory brainpower unfamiliar to us now. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 the debaters would comfortably speak for an hour or more without notes, in extended memorized paragraphs; today many of the most learned among us, raised in our most elite schools since the 1960s, prefer the omnipresent PowerPoint presentation—the ultimate compensation for a weak premotor cortex.

Here are several (but not enough!) from my favorite chapter, "Redesigning the Brain."

[As] they trained an animal at a skill, not only did its neurons fire faster, but because they were faster their signals were clearer. Faster neurons were more likely to fire in sync with each other—becoming better team players—wiring together more and forming groups of neurons that gave off clearer and more powerful signals. This is a crucial point, because a powerful signal has greater impact on the brain. When we want to remember something we have heard we must hear it clearly, because a memory can be only as clear as its original signal.

Paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic change. ... When the animals performed tasks automatically, without paying attention, they changed their brain maps, but the changes did not last. We often praise "the ability to multitask." While you can learn when you divide your attention, divided attention doesn't lead to abiding change in your brain maps.

Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of preschool children have a language disability that makes it difficult for them to read, write, or even follow instructions. ... [C]hildren with language disabilities have auditory processing problems with common consonant-vowel combinations that are spoken quickly and are called "the fast parts of speech." The children have trouble hearing them accurately and, as a result, reproducing them accurately. Merzenich believed that these children's auditory cortex neurons were firing too slowly, so they couldn't distinguish between two very similar sounds or be certain, if two sounds occurred close together, which was first and which was second. Often they didn't hear the beginnings of syllables or the sound changes within syllables. Normally neurons, after they have processed a sound, are ready to fire again after about a 30-millisecond rest. Eighty percent of language-impaired children took at least three times that long, so that they lost large amounts of language information. When their neuron-firing patterns were examined, the signals weren't clear. ... Improper hearing lead to weaknesses in all the language tasks, so they were weak in vocabulary, comprehension, speech, reading, and writing. Because they spent so much energy decoding words, they tended to use shorter sentences and failed to exercise their memory for longer sentences.

[Five hundred children at 35 sites] were given standardized language tests before and after Fast ForWord training. The study showed that most children's ability to understand language normalized after Fast ForWord. In many cases, their comprehension rose above normal. The average child who took the program moved ahead 1.8 years of language development in six weeks. ... A Stanford group did brain scans of twenty dyslexic children, before and after Fast ForWord. The opening scans showed that the children used different parts of their brains for reading than normal children do. After Fast ForWord new scans showed that their brains had begun to normalize.

Merzenich's team started hearing that Fast ForWord was having a number of spillover effects. Children's handwriting improved. Parents reported that many of the students were starting to show sustained attention and focus. Merzenich thought these surprising benefits were occurring because Fast ForWord led to some general improvements in mental processing.

"You know," [Merzenich] says, "IQ goes up. We used the matrix test, which is a visual-based measurement of IQ—and IQ goes up."

The fact that a visual component of the IQ went up meant that the IQ improvements were not caused simply because Fast ForWord improved the children's ability to read verbal test questions. Their mental processing was being improved in a general way.

This is just a sample of the benefits that made me want to rush right out and buy Fast ForWord, even if it were to cost as much as the insanely-expensive Rosetta Stone German software I'm also tempted to buy. From the description, it sounds like something everyone could benefit from for mental tune-ups. Unfortunately, the makers of Fast ForWord are even worse than the Rosetta Stone folks about keeping tight control over their product: as far as I've been able to determine, you can only use it under the direction of a therapist (making it too expensive for ordinary use), and even then you don't own the software but are only licensed to use it for a short period of time. :( It works, though. We know someone for whom it made all the difference in the world, even late in her school career.

Merzenich began wondering about the role of a new environmental risk factor that might affect everyone but have a more damaging effect on genetically predisposed children: the continuous background noise from machines, sometimes called white noise. White noise consists of many frequencies and is very stimulating to the auditory cortex.

"Infants are reared in continuously more noisy environments. There is always a din," he says. White noise is everywhere now, coming from fans in our electronics, air conditioners, heaters, and car engines.

To test this hypothesis, his group exposed rat pups to pulses of white noise throughout their critical period and found that the pups' cortices were devastated.

Psychologically, middle age is often an appealing time because, all else being equal, it can be a relatively placid period compared with what has come before. ... We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before. We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger. Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, not learning. By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years.

That's why learning a new language in old age is so good for improving and maintaining the memory generally. Because it requires intense focus, studying a new language turns on the control system for plasticity and keeps it in good shape for laying down sharp memories of all kinds. No doubt Fast ForWord is responsible for so many general improvements in thinking, in part because it stimulates the control system for plasticity to keep up its production of acetylcholine and dopamine. Anything that requires highly focused attention will help that system—learning new physical activities that require concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material. Merzenich himself is an advocate of learning a new language in old age. "You will gradually sharpen everything up again and that will be very highly beneficial to you."

The same applies to mobility. Just doing the dances you learned years ago won't help your brain's motor cortex stay in shape. To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones.

This work opens up the possibility of high-speed learning later in life. The nucleus basalis [always on for young children, but in adulthood only with sustained, close attention] could be turned on by an electrode, by microinjections of certain chemicals, or by drugs. It is hard to imagine that people will not ... be drawn to a technology that would make it relatively effortless to master the facts of science, history, or a profession, merely by being exposed to them briefly. ... Such techniques would no doubt be used by high school and university students in their studies and in competitive entrance exams. (Already many students who do not have attention deficit disorder use stimulants to study.) Of course, such aggressive interventions might have unanticipated, adverse effects on the brain—not to mention our ability to discipline ourselves—but they would likely be pioneered in cases of dire medical need, where people are willing to take the risk. Turning on the nucleus basalis might help brain-injured patients, so many of whom cannot relearn the lost functions of reading, writing, speaking, or walking because they can't pay close enough attention.

[Gross motor control is] a function that declines as we age, leading to loss of balance, the tendency to fall, and difficulties with mobility. Aside from the failure of vestibular processing, this decline is caused by the decrease in sensory feedback from our feet. According to Merzenich, shoes, worn for decades, limit the sensory feedback from our feet to our brain. If we went barefoot, our brains would receive many different kinds of input as we went over uneven surfaces. Shoes are a relatively flat platform that spreads out the stimuli, and the surfaces we walk on are increasingly artificial and perfectly flat. This leads us to dedifferentiate the maps for the soles of our feet and limit how touch guides our foot control. Then we may start to use canes, walkers, or crutches or rely on other senses to steady ourselves. By resorting to these compensations instead of exercising our failing brain systems, we hasten their decline.

As we age, we want to look down at our feet while walking down stairs or on slightly challenging terrain, because we're not getting much information from our feet. As Merzenich escorted his mother-in-law down the stairs of the villa, he urged her to stop looking down and start feeling her way, so that she would maintain, and develop, the sensory map for her foot, rather than letting it waste away.

Brain plasticity and psychological disorders:

Each time [people with obsessive-compulsive disorder] try to shift gears, they begin ... growing new circuits and altering the caudate. By refocusing the patient is learning not to get sucked in by the content of an obsession but to work around it. I suggest to my patients that they think of the use-it-or-lose-it principle. Each moment they spend thinking of the symptom ... they deepen the obsessive circuit. By bypassing it, they are on the road to losing it. With obsessions and compulsions, the more you do it, the more you want to do it; the less you do it, the less you want to do it ... [I]t is not what you feel while applying the technique that counts, it is what you do. "The struggle is not to make the feeling go away; the struggle is not to give in to the feeling"—by acting out a compulsion, or thinking about the obsession. This technique won't give immediate relief because lasting neuroplastic change takes time, but it does lay the groundwork for change by exercising the brain in a new way. ... The goal is to "change the channel" to some new activity for fifteen to thirty minutes when one has an OCD symptom. (If one can't resist that long, any time spent resisting is beneficial, even if it is only for a minute. That resistance, that effort, is what appears to lay down new circuits.)

Mental practice with physical results:

Pascual-Leone taught two groups of people, who had never studied piano, a sequence of notes, showing them which fingers to move and letting them hear the notes as they were played. Then members of one group, the "mental practice" group, sat in front of an electric piano keyboard, two hours a day, for five days, and imagined both playing the sequence and hearing it played. A second "physical practice" group actually played the music two hours a day for five days. Both groups had their brains mapped before the experiment, each day during it, and afterward. Then both groups were asked to play the sequence, and a computer measured the accuracy of their performances.

Pascual-Leoone found that both groups learned to play the sequence, and both showed similar brain map changes. Remarkably, mental practice alone produced the same physical changes in the motor system as actually playing the piece. By the end of the fifth day, the changes in motor signals to the muscles were the same in both groups, and the imagining players were as accurate as the actual players were on their third day.

The level of improvement at five days in the mental practice group, however substantial, was not as great as in those who did physical practice. But when the mental practice group finished its mental training and was given a single two-hour physical practice session, its overall performance improved to the level of the physical practice group's performance at five days. Clearly mental practice is an effective way to prepare for learning a physical skill with minimal physical practice.

In an experiment that is as hard to believe as it is simple, Drs. Guang Yue and Kelly Cole showed that imagining one is using one's muscles actually strengthens them. The study looked at two groups, one that did physical exercise and one that imagined doing exercise. ... At the end of the study the subjects who had done physical exercise increased their muscular strength by 30 percent, as one might expect. Those who only imagined doing the exercise, for the same period, increased their muscle strength by 22 percent. The explanation lies in the motor neurons of the brain that "program" movements. During these imaginary contractions, the neurons responsible for stringing together sequences of instructions for movements are activated and strengthened, resulting in increased strength when the muscles are contracted.

Talk about unbelievable.

The Sea Gypsies are nomadic people who live in a cluster of tropical islands in the Burmese archipelago and off the west coast of Thailand. A wandering water tribe, they learn to swim before they learn to walk and live over half their lives in boats on the open sea. ... Their children dive down, often thirty feet beneath the water's surface, and pluck up their food ... and have done so for centuries. By learning to lower their heart rate, they can stay under water twice as long as most swimmers. They do this without any diving equipment.

But what distinguishes these children, for our purposes, is that they can see clearly at these great depths, without goggles. Most human beings cannot see clearly under water because as sunlight passes through water, it is bent ... so that light doesn't land where it should on the retina.

Anna Gislén, a Swedish researcher, studied the Sea Gypsies' ability to read placards under water and found that they were more than twice as skillful as European children. The Gypsies learned to control the shape of their lenses and, more significantly, to control the size of their pupils, constricting them 22 percent. This is a remarkable finding, because human pupils reflexively get larger under water, and pupil adjustment has been thought to be a fixed, innate reflex, controlled by the brain and nervous system.

This ability of the Sea Gypsies to see under water isn't the product of a unique genetic endowment. Gislén has since taught Swedish children to constrict their pupils to see under water.

The fact that cultures differ in perception is not proof that one perceptual act is a good as the next, or that "everything is relative" when it comes to perception. Clearly some contexts call for a more narrow angle of view, and some for more wide-angle, holistic perception. The Sea Gypsies have survived using a combination of their experience of the sea and holistic perception. So attuned are they to the moods of the sea that when the tsunami of December 26, 2004, hit the Indian Ocean, killing hundreds of thousands, they all survived. They saw that the sea had begun to recede in a strange way, and this drawing back was followed by an unusually small wave; they saw dolphins begin to swim for deeper water, while the elephants started stampeding to higher ground, and they heard the cicadas fall silent. ... Long before modern science put this all together, they had either fled the sea to the shore, seeking the highest ground, or gone into very deep waters, where they also survived.

Music makes extraordinary demands on the brain. A pianist performing the eleventh variation of the Sixth Paganini etude by Franz Liszt must play a staggering eighteen hundred notes per minute. Studies by Taub and others of musicians who play stringed instruments have shown that the more these musicians practice, the larger the brain maps for their active left hands become, and the neurons and maps that respond to string timbres increase; in trumpeters the neurons and maps that respond to "brassy" sounds enlarge. Brain imaging shows that musicians have several areas of their brains—the motor cortex and the cerebellum, among others—that differ from those of nonmusicians. Imaging also shows that musicians who begin playing before the age of seven have larger brain areas connecting the two hemispheres.

It is not just "highly cultured" activities that rewire the brain. Brain scans of London taxi drivers show that the more years a cabbie spends navigating London streets, the larger the volume of his hippocampus, that part of the brain that stores spatial representations. Even leisure activities change our brain; meditators and meditation teachers have a thicker insula, a part of the cortex activated by paying close attention.

Here's something completely different, and frightening.

[T]otalitarian regimes seem to have an intuitive awareness that it becomes hard for people to change after a certain age, which is why so much effort is made to indoctrinate the young from an early age. For instance, North Korea, the most thoroughgoing totalitarian regime in existence, places children in school from ages two and a half to four years; they spend almost every waking hour being immersed in a cult of adoration for dictator Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung. They can see their parents only on weekends. Practically every story read to them is about the leader. Forty percent of the primary school textbooks are devoted wholly to describing the two Kims. This continues all the way through school. Hatred of the enemy is drilled in with massed practice as well, so that a brain circuit forms linking the perception of "the enemy" with negative emotions automatically. A typical math quiz asks, "Three soldiers from the Korean People's Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them, if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?" Such perceptual emotional networks, once established in an indoctrinated people, do not lead only to mere "differences of opinion" between them and their adversaries, but to plasticity-based anatomical differences, which are much harder to bridge or overcome than ordinary persuasion.

Think the North Koreans are the only ones whose brains are being re-programed?

"The Internet is just one of those things that contemporary humans can spend millions of 'practice' events at, that the average human a thousand years ago had absolutely no exposure to. Our brains are massively remodeled by this exposure—but so, too, by reading, by television, by video games, by modern electronics, by contemporary music, by contemporary 'tools,' etc." — Michael Merzenich, 2005

Erica Michael and Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University did a brain scan study to test whether the medium is indeed the message. They showed that different brain areas are involved in hearing speech and reading it, and different comprehension centers in hearing words and reading them. As Just put it, "The brain constructs the message ... differently for reading and listening. ... Listening to an audio book leaves a different set of memories than reading does. A newscast heard on the radio is processed differently from the same words read in a newspaper." This finding refutes the conventional theory of comprehension, which argues that a single center in the brain understands words, and it doesn't really matter how ... information enters the brain.

Television, music videos, and video games, all of which use television techniques, unfold at a much faster pace than real life, and they are getting faster, which causes people to develop an increased appetite for high-speed transitions in those media. It is the form of the television medium—cuts, edits, zooms, pans, and sudden noises—that alters the brain, by activating what Pavlov called the "orienting response," which occurs whenever we sense a sudden change in the world around us, especially a sudden movement. We instinctively interrupt whatever we are doing to turn, pay attention, and get our bearings. ... Television triggers this response at a far more rapid rate than we experience it in life, which is why we can't keep our eyes off the TV screen, even in the middle of an intimate conversation, and why people watch TV a lot longer than they intend. Because typical music videos, action sequences, and commercials trigger orientating responses at a rate of one per second, watching them puts us into continuous orienting response with no recovery. No wonder people report feeling drained from watching TV. Yet we acquire a taste for it and find slower changes boring. The cost is that such activities as reading, complex conversation, and listening to lectures become more difficult.

All electronic devices rewire the brain. People who write on a computer are often at a loss when they have to write by hand or dictate, because their brains are not wired to translate thoughts into cursive writing or speech at high speed. When computers crash and people have mini-nervous breakdowns, there is more than a little truth in their cry, "I feel like I've lost my mind!" As we use an electronic medium, our nervous system extends outward, and the medium extends inward.

Ouch!

"Use it or lose it" is a common refrain in The Brain that Changes Itself, whether talking about specific knowledge and abilities, or the capacity for learning and the very plasticity of the brain itself. (There is some hope given, however, that knowledge apparently lost is recoverable, even if its brain "map" has subsequently been taken over for another use.) Do you worry, as I did, that these new discoveries mean that it really is possible to learn too much, that we need to save our brains for that which is most important? That learning German will drive away what little I know of French? Relax; that doesn't need to happen, although I must be sure to keep the French fresh in my mind or it will get shelved.

As the scientist Gerald Edelman has pointed out, the human cortex alone has 30 billion neurons and is capable of making 1 million billion synaptic connections. Edelman writes, "If we considered the number of possible neural circuits, we would be dealing with hyper-astronomical numbers: 10 followed by at least a million zeros. (There are 10 followed by 79 zeros, give or take a few, of particles in the known universe.)" These staggering numbers explain why the human brain can be described as the most complex known object in the universe, and why it is capable of ongoing, massive microstructural change, and capable of performing so many different mental functions and behaviors.

I'm tired of typing. Get the book.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, July 24, 2022 at 8:33 am | Edit
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At the recent mall shooting in Greenwood, Indiana, the law enforcement response was well-trained and fast. But what kept this event from being far more tragic was a 22-year-old already on the scene and apparently sufficiently observant, calm, trained, and equipped to stop the carnage almost immediately by taking out the gunman. As Greenwood police chief Jim Ison himself said, "The real hero of the day is the citizen that was lawfully carrying a firearm in that food court and was able to stop the shooter almost as soon as he began."

Once upon a time, 22-year-olds were accustomed to doing the work of adults, managing their own families, farms, and often businesses. As I'm fond of reminding people, the famed Admiral David Farragut took command of a captured British ship in the War of 1812 at the age of 11, and was given his first command of a U. S. Navy ship at 21. With training, experience, opportunity, and higher expectations, our young people can be far more competent at life that we usually give them credit for.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, July 18, 2022 at 8:40 am | Edit
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[This post was originally entitled, "Camouflage"; I've now changed that to make it part of my "YouTube Channel Discoveries" series.]

Here's another YouTube channel we've been enjoying: Chris Cappy's Task and Purpose. How on earth could I enjoy videos about military tactics, strategy, history, and weapons? Here's a quote from the channel's About section:

Chris Cappy the host is a former us army infantryman and Iraq Veteran. This YouTube channel is a forum for all things military. From historical information to the latest news on weapons programs. We discuss all these details from the veteran's perspective. The first priority with our videos is to be entertaining.

I guess it's the last sentence. Chris Cappy is knowledgeable and entertaining. He may bill himself as "your average infantryman," but he's not your average military college professor droning on in the front of an auditorium filled with bored students.

The video that hooked me is the one below, How Camouflage Evolved (15 minutes). I'm certain we have grandchildren who would find it as enjoyable as I did.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 25, 2022 at 10:40 am | Edit
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When our kids were in school, individual learning styles were becoming a big thing. They were each given a test that supposedly categorized them as Visual, Auditory, or Kinesthetic learners. We could see some truth in the results, though the skeptic in me wasn't sure it had any more basis in reality than finding some truth in the Chinese Zodiac descriptions you see on the placemats in cheap Chinese restaurants.

Here's a presentation that agrees with my cynical view (15 minutes):

The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning styles approach within education, and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing.

There's a large body of literature that supports the claim that everyone learns better with multi-modal approaches, where words and pictures are presented together, rather than either words or pictures alone.

Ultimately, the most important thing for learning is not the way the information is presented, but what is happening inside the learner's head. People learn best when they're actively thinking about the material, solving problems, or imagining what happens if different variables change. 

I call this just another bit of evidence for the harm we do when we label people. You're a kinesthetic learner, she has ADHD, he's "on the spectrum," I suffer from face blindness.... Sometimes labels can help us understand ourselves better, but more often they encourage us (and our parents, teachers, employers) to shut ourselves up in boxes and put limits on our abilities.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, June 5, 2022 at 3:40 pm | Edit
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My constant prayer during Pandemic-tide has been that we would learn to think outside our traditional, largely unquestioned, boxes of life. And so we have.

Many more workers—and their employers—have discovered that remote work can be a good thing. This is not new; back in the day we called it "telecommuting" and it came with both blessings (work from anywhere at any time) and curses (work from everywhere all the time). But, thanks to the pandemic restrictions, the number of people exercising this option has grown to where it's having a significant effect on the demographics of the country. Just ask the citizens of New Hampshire, whose real estate prices have been driven through the roof by pressure from Boston- and New York City-dwellers who no longer need to live in an expensive city to work there. Again: blessings and curses.

More exciting to me is the surge in home education.

A friend sent me this Associated Press article from mid-April, confirming what I've been hearing elsewhere: Homeschooling Surge Continues Despite Schools Reopening.

The coronavirus pandemic ushered in what may be the most rapid rise in homeschooling the U.S. has ever seen. Two years later, even after schools reopened and vaccines became widely available, many parents have chosen to continue directing their children’s educations themselves.

Families that may have turned to homeschooling as an alternative to hastily assembled remote learning plans have stuck with it—reasons include health concerns, disagreement with school policies and a desire to keep what has worked for their children.

[A Buffalo, New York mother] says her children are never going back to traditional school. Unimpressed with the lessons offered remotely when schools abruptly closed their doors in spring 2020, she began homeschooling her then fifth- and seventh-grade children that fall. [She] had been working as a teacher’s aide [and] knew she could do better herself. She said her children have thrived with lessons tailored to their interests, learning styles and schedules.

Once a relatively rare practice chosen most often for reasons related to instruction on religion, homeschooling grew rapidly in popularity following the turn of the century before [it] leveled off at around 3.3%, or about 2 million students, in the years before the pandemic, according to the Census. Surveys have indicated factors including dissatisfaction with neighborhood schools, concerns about school environment and the appeal of customizing an education.

As usual, even a good article gets some things wrong. Home education is no new phenomenon, but as old as the hills. Abraham Lincoln was just one of many homeschooled presidents, though in those days they called it "self-educated." And for a very long time it had nothing in particular to do with reasons of religion. Children were home-educated by necessity (schools unavailable, or children needed at home, e.g. Lincoln), because of an intellectual mismatch between child and school (e.g. Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein), because the atmosphere and philosophies of the schools differed significantly from those of the parents (sometimes associated with a particular religion, sometimes not), or simply because parents and/or children were dissatisfied with what the schools had to offer. In the last quarter of the 20th century, it is true, homeschooling ranks were swelled by Evangelical Christians who had discovered that the Amish were right: home education could meet their needs better than public or even Christian schools. This raised the public's awareness of an educational phenomenon whose adherents had mostly been trying to fly under the radar, and led to home education's establishment as a valid and legal educational approach—at least in the United States. This new familiarity—nearly everyone now knew a homeschooling family—opened the field to many others, with varied reasons for their choices.

The proportion of Black families homeschooling their children increased by five times, from 3.3% to 16.1%, from spring 2020 to the fall, while the proportion about doubled across other groups. [emphasis mine] ...

“I think a lot of Black families realized that when we had to go to remote learning, they realized exactly what was being taught. And a lot of that doesn’t involve us,” said [a mother from Raleigh, North Carolina], who decided to homeschool her 7-, 10- and 11-year-old children. “My kids have a lot of questions about different things. I’m like, ‘Didn’t you learn that in school?’ They’re like, ‘No.’”

[The mother from Buffalo] said it was a combination of everything, with the pandemic compounding the misgivings she had already held about the public school system, including her philosophical differences over the need for vaccine and mask mandates and academic priorities. The pandemic, she said, “was kind of—they say the straw that broke the camel’s back—but the camel’s back was probably already broken.”

I find it especially exciting that minorities are discovering that they are not locked by their circumstances into an educational system that is not meeting their needs. The pandemic restrictions have given families of all descriptions the opportunity to taste educational freedom*, and many, having made that leap unwillingly, have chosen to stick with it.

Choice is the thing. If the great relief expressed by many parents at the re-opening of schools is any indication, I'd say that home education is unlikely to become a majority educational philosophy in America. But it works so well for so many families, including those who opt for different educational choices at different times in their lives—we ourselves made use of public, private, and home education at one time or another—that I'm thrilled to see homeschooling on the rise all over the country, and even the world.

Our established educational system is understandably threatened by any challenge to its power. (Nonetheless, we had many teachers who cheered on our own homeschooling efforts.) But powerful monopolies—in education as well as government, medicine, transportation, information, and all other essential services—are dangerous, even to themselves. Healthy competition can only make our public education better.

One new homeschooling mother summed it up well:

It’s just a whole new world that is a much better world for us.


*I realize that many homeschoolers are cringing at the idea that the at-home learning offered by schools (public and private) during the pandemic bore any resemblance to the true freedom of home education, since it usually attempted to replicate as much as possible the restrictions inherent in formal, mass instruction. Nonetheless, it opened eyes ... and doors.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, May 29, 2022 at 1:34 pm | Edit
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Everybody in our family goes to college. That was true for us, our parents, some of our grandparents, even a few great-grandparents and beyond, plus our children, our siblings and most of their spouses, and our siblings' children and their spouses. We assumed that legacy would continue through our grandchildren.

So why am I thrilled that our oldest grandchild has chosen to eschew college in favor of a four-year apprenticeship as an electrician? For several reasons.

  • Colleges and universities are still recovering from COVID disruptions. Many have onerous vaccination policies, and less-than-stellar online courses. Things are getting better, I'm sure, but it seems like a good time to wait for a bit more stability.
  • His intellectual curiosity and ability are undiminished, and his unconventional home education has made him adept at learning whatever he wants to learn, using a variety of means. His memory and his breadth of knowledge are impressive. If someday he decides he wants to learn what college can best teach, I'm confident he'll manage well.
  • In the meantime, he's getting paid for his education, instead of accumulating debt.
  • He should come through his apprenticeship with practical skills that will generate a solid income and enable him to pursue other interests (e.g. music) without worrying about making a living from them.
  • What's more, those practical skills will be portable—electricians are needed everywhere—and very unlikely to be outsourced to foreign countries, as so many of my college-educated generation's jobs have been.

However, all this does not mean I've given up on college educations. We have other grandchildren, most too young to think about careers, but the two next oldest are leaning towards plans that would most likely require more traditional higher education.

There is, of course, another problem: the poisonous ethical, philosophical, and political atmosphere that now rules at most colleges and universities. It was bad enough when we were in school, worse in our children's time, and from everything I hear, unbelievably rancid and dangerous today. I remember reading an article decades ago about a disastrous college experience; the title was something like, "I Paid $50,000 a Year to Send My Daughter to Hell." As far as I can tell, today the levels of hell are much deeper and the price tag a lot higher. It doesn't surprise me that some people are actively encouraging their children to avoid college.

That's why I was happy to run into a couple of college professors who acknowledge the problems but encourage us not to abandon academia altogether. Both videos work from the point of view of conservative students facing the intense pressures of life at left-leaning universities, but really the advice is excellent for fish-out-of-water students of any kind.

This 3-minute video is an excerpt of a larger one. The original (20 minutes) is here.

This one's even better (5 minutes).

Here's my personal favorite of his suggestions:

Work hard. College faculty value hardworking, enthusiastic students. Period. The easiest way to win over your leftist professor is to do your classwork in a conscientious manner. That's your way of showing respect. Many teachers will respect you in turn. If you read the assigned materials, take part in class discussion, and show that you understand the key concepts, chances are you'll do just fine.

That's good advice for any student. Or employee, for that matter.

I'm solidly in favor of alternatives to college, and opposed to the bizarre idea that "everyone deserves a college education." I'm equally opposed to completely deserting the ship of academia, no matter how much it may seem to be sinking. As in so many other things, it all comes down to what's best for each individual student, and not locking anyone into a particular path.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, May 23, 2022 at 7:34 am | Edit
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My brother graduated from Oberlin College, which automatically gave it a place in my heart—well, that and the amazing Gibson's doughnuts he'd bring with him when he came home on vacation.

When our daughter was interviewing at colleges, the shine came off Oberlin a bit. The school openly bragged about its "progressive" reputation, but to my surprise we found it to be the least open-minded of all the schools any of our children had visited—especially when it came to home education. Every other college was happy to accept homeschooled students, but Oberlin was clearly reactionary and suspicious, putting up the most onerous barriers to their acceptance. But she chose to go elsewhere for other reasons, so I chose to remember Oberlin for the doughnuts.

Recently, however, I heard news of an incident that began over five years ago and is still dragging on, shaking my respect to the core. Probably I shouldn't be too hard on Oberlin, as my own alma mater disillusioned me years ago. But in this case, Gibson's Bakery is involved. Colleges have gotten away with many terrible things, but let them mess with good doughnuts, and I must speak up.

The excerpts below are from the relevant Wikipedia article. I know Wikipedia is hardly the most reliable source, and has its biases, but I chose it because of all the articles I read, its was the most positive toward the college.

The beginning, November 2016

An underage African-American Oberlin College student ... attempted to purchase a bottle of wine using a fake identification card. The store clerk, Allyn D. Gibson ... rejected the fake ID. Gibson noticed that the student was concealing two other bottles of wine inside his jacket. According to a police report, Gibson told the student he was contacting the police, and when Gibson pulled out his phone to take a photo of the student, the student slapped it away, striking Gibson's face. The student ran out of the store. Gibson followed and then grabbed and held onto the shoplifter outside the store after the shoplifter had also assaulted the store owner.... Two other students ... friends of the shoplifter, joined the scuffle. When the police arrived, they witnessed Gibson lying on the ground with the three students punching and kicking him. The police report stated that Gibson sustained a swollen lip, several cuts, and other minor injuries. The police arrested the students, charging all three with assault and the shoplifter with robbery as well. In August 2017, the three students pleaded guilty, stating that they believed Gibson's actions were justified and were not racially motivated. Their plea deals carried no jail time in exchange for restitution, the public statement, and a promise of future good behavior.

Oberlin's actions

Of course the college responded to the incident by disciplining the students involved, right? Not a chance. Students, faculty, and administrators united to attack the store.

The day after the incident, faculty and hundreds of students gathered in a park across the street from Gibson's Bakery protesting what they saw as racial profiling and excessive use of force by Gibson toward the shoplifter. The Oberlin Student Senate immediately passed a resolution saying that the bakery "has a history of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment of students and residents alike," calling for all students to "immediately cease all support, financial and otherwise, of Gibson's," and called upon Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov to publicly condemn the bakery. For about two months, the college suspended its purchasing agreement with the bakery for the school's dining halls....

Oberlin blamed the bakery for bringing the protests on itself, claiming that "Gibson bakery's archaic chase-and-detain policy regarding suspected shoplifters was the catalyst for the protests...."

The following, apparently, is what the college thinks should be done with students who steal:

Oberlin made a proposal to all local businesses that if a business would contact the college instead of the police when students were caught shoplifting, the college would advise the students that if caught shoplifting a second time they would face legal charges.

There's more, and worse. I went to college in the early 1970's; I know that students, and even faculty, can do some pretty stupid things. But in my day the administrators were a little more sane and stable.

The other side of the story

Local police records showed no previous accusations of racial profiling by Gibson's Bakery. Of the forty adults arrested for shoplifting from the bakery in a five-year period, only six were black. As a part of the three students' guilty plea in August 2017, each read a statement saying, "I believe the employees of Gibson’s actions were not racially motivated. They were merely trying to prevent an underage sale." Reporters obtained an email written by ... an employee for the school's communications department, telling her bosses that she found the protests "very disturbing," saying, "I have talked to 15 townie friends who are [persons of color] and they're disgusted and embarrassed by the protest. In their view, the kid was breaking the law, period... To them this is not a race issue at all." During the trial ... a black man who worked his way through technical college while working at Gibson’s Bakery testified that the racist allegations against his former employer were untrue. "In my life, I have been a marginalized person, so I know what it feels like to be called something that you know you’re not. I could feel his pain. I knew where he was coming from." ... [A] black man, employed at Gibson's since 2013, testified that he had observed no racist treatment of customers or employees. "Never, not even a hint. Zero reason to believe, zero evidence of that."

The latest judicial ruling

On April 1, 2022, the Ninth Ohio District Court of Appeals dismissed Oberlin College's appeal. In a 3-0 decision, the panel upheld the jury verdict that Oberlin College defamed, inflicted distress, and illegally interfered with the bakery. The damages were capped by Ohio state law at $25 million in total damages, in place of the jury's original verdict of $11.1 million in compensatory and $33.2 million in punitive damages. Oberlin was also ordered to pay $6.3 million in attorney's fees to the bakery.

Oberlin is still refusing to pay what they owe, and two of the owners of Gibson's Bakery have died awaiting justice.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 14, 2022 at 6:21 am | Edit
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Milestone note:  This is my 3000th blog post. That calls for something serious, but not depressing.  Here you go:

Fairy tales ... are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. — G. K. Chesterton, 1909 ("The Red Angel")

Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. ... Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let the villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. — C. S. Lewis, 1952 ("On Three Ways of Writing for Children") 

I write stories for courageous kids who know that dragons are real, that they are evil, and that they must be defeated. I don’t do that because I want to hurt children, but because children do and will face hurts every day. I don’t want to expose them to evil, I want to help them become people for whom evil is an enemy to be exposed. I want to tell them dangerous stories so that they themselves will become dangerous—dangerous to the darkness. — S. D. Smith, 2022 ("My Blood for Yours")

Smith's essay in video form (three minutes).

P.S. There's a new Green Ember book to be released soon, Prince Lander and the Dragon War. Time to reread the previous books in preparation!

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, February 27, 2022 at 3:20 pm | Edit
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