What should I do next?

Well, what do you think?

My enjoyable time with the group behind WatchKnowLearn.org and ReadingBear.org is winding down, and soon it will be over. My benefactor of the last four years has kindly given me some time to finish up my remaining work and find something else to do. As much as I enjoyed developing WatchKnowLearn and Reading Bear, and as much good as I think those websites will do for kids, it is always nice to start something new. I’m a serial starter; it’s a process I enjoy.

Making my situation even more interesting is that this will be the first time since 2002 that I don’t have something lined up. Back in 2002, I was another unemployed Ph.D. philosopher. Now, I can put on my resume that I am a founder of Wikipedia, Citizendium, WatchKnowLearn, and Reading Bear. So, naturally, I’m very curious what’s available to me. I thought I would put the question out to you, readers of this blog. What should I do next? And, of course, please spread the word that I’m available and looking!

I have far more ideas about things I’d like to do than I have time to pursue them. I just don’t know which one I would love the most, or which is most likely to work out. I’ll put these roughly in order of my excitement level, although all of these are exciting to me. I’m sure I’m leaving out 3-4 ideas that I’m just not thinking of right now.

1. Textop! I’ve been dreaming about this since 2006. Imagine taking the Great Books of philosophy, history, law, and so forth, cutting them into paragraph-sized chunks, describing the chunks, and then organizing them in an outline of ever-increasing detail and depth. That is the core idea. It sounds very wonkish and scholarly, and I suppose it is, but I believe this idea will prove to be deeply revolutionary; I think few people understand just how much so. It has the potential to change the nature of scholarship, research, education, and ultimately everything forever. It would be more revolutionary than Wikipedia. It would be a brand new kind of reference work. It’s a project I really want to work on, more than any other. I’ve thought of approaching various reference publishers, universities, tech companies, etc., but I suspect it will be a hard sell.

2. Policy Analyst or Writer for education or ed tech thinktank/nonprofit. I’ve long wanted to try this. I almost got into it in the 1990s. Education is a long-standing interest of mine, and I do enjoy writing about it, as any reader of this blog knows very well. I’d love to write a book titled Why Knowledge Is Important, defend homeschooling against hare-brained attacks, and go to the mat for back-to-basics curriculum married to the liberal arts as well as for vouchers and school choice. Basically, I think education is easily one of the most important institutions in society, and I want to enter the marketplace of ideas and improve it.

3. Crowdsourcing spaced repetition. Having used SuperMemo for the last five months with my 6-year-old, I’ve got some ideas about how to bring spaced repetition into individual classrooms and schools and thus into the big time. One thing that needs to happen is that we need to start working together on making the best sets of questions for common texts. Memorizing random, contextless information in the form of stacks of flashcards is tiresome. Memorizing information that you have already properly learned, by reading well-written books, is where it’s at, I think. I haven’t thought so much about this one, but it is certainly a problem I’d be interested in working on.

4. A filtered version of Wikipedia. No, not Citizendium redux. It would be involve me, a filtering company, and possibly another party or other parties. The main feature would be that Wikipedia’s pages are displayed in up-to-the-minute versions, with images cleverly removed within the page rather than blocking whole pages. One company demonstrated to me how this might be done. I was quite impressed. In addition, we can use a “filtered Wikipedia” website to gather professional feedback on Wikipedia articles and, perhaps, fork selected articles once there is enough interest in doing so. Such a website would be a version of Wikipedia that would be recommendable to school districts and so would constitute a natural source of traffic and revenue. The Wikipedia community and the WMF have really fallen down on the job in developing Wikipedia to its potential. Providing to the world an up-to-the-minute version of Wikipedia with features that that community refuses to add, on principle, is personally my best hope of making Wikipedia into something that I really can get behind and be proud of.

5. Children’s philosophy books. I don’t think it would take me very long to write a general introduction to philosophy for children, and another general explanation of ethics for children. In fact, I have worked on the beginnings of these books, off and on, for a while. I don’t think I’ll ever finish them properly without lots of free time (which I don’t have), and I think the world needs them. Adolescents, especially, need a clear explanation of what is right and wrong, and why we should be moral. I think I can explain it to them. This is important work, and it makes me sad that I don’t have an opportunity to do it (while, of course, supporting my own family).

6. A news wiki/a crowdsourced news summary/opinion project. One of the things that, early on, we discovered that Wikipedia does very well is to aggregate news reports into a massive summary of a sort that ordinary news outfits are not capable of developing. This is why Google links to Wikipedia’s articles about events in the news: they just lay everything out. I’ve been approached by one veteran journalist and, separately, the journalism department of a major southern university to develop a crowdsourced journalism site. Since I was otherwise occupied at the time, I had to pass in both cases. But I wouldn’t rule that one out. I think the world needs a more even-handed news source, one in which biases are explicitly acknowledged. I’ve got ideas about how to do it (of course)… Another, related idea is an opinion wiki, in which people collaborate on, not factual articles, but arguments, position statements, etc., about everything. This has been attempted, but not in a way that attracts a lot of eyeballs. I’ve got ideas about how to do this sort of thing right, too.

7. Facebook for traditional tunes (a little like this site). Each has its own page. Users can submit versions in ABC format, which are displayed in sheet music form and voted on by other users, and the top vote-getter is displayed at the top of the page; they can also submit recordings and videos (of themselves or their bands). They can also “teach” the tune via a different set of videos. There are other features. I was approached by one of Ireland’s top fiddlers about starting an Irish trad website, but I to my ever-lasting regret had to turn him down because I was heavily into Citizendium and WatchKnowLearn at the time. Of course, now, there should be a big app component of the site, I imagine. TheSession.org does a good job of this, by the way…but lacks a lot of the features I’d like to see. It is easy to imagine that, with the right level of funding and partnerships with, say, the Irish Traditional Music Archive and the Traditional Tune Archive, this could become an essential resource for traditional music. Anyway, something like this should exist and I’m kind of surprised that it doesn’t yet. There’s no reason it would have to be limited to Irish traditional music, too. You can imagine similar sites for similar styles, and instruments (think bluegrass, solo piano, and cover bands).

8. Joining an existing company or recent startup. I wouldn’t be too proud to write or develop ideas for others, or to work on somebody else’s ideas. Of course, my preference is to work on stuff that I really believe in and can get behind. Various things have come to mind:

  • Editor/Project Manager for reference or education publisher.
  • Director of Innovation for any of a number of different kinds of company, but I guess reference, ed tech, and social media would be most in line with my background.
  • Project Manager for the same.
  • Professor, probably in a Communications or Computer Science department–maybe a Philosophy department–focusing on theory of technology.
  • Public Speaking on topics I’m knowledgeable about.
  • You tell me!

So, what do you think? Where should I put in most of my effort? I would really love to develop and get funding for an idea of my own, but a lot of these are long shots; I want to make sure I can pay the bills

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 163 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

14 Responses to "What should I do next?"
  1. Reply Pat P. November 9, 2012 05:45 am

    Of the ideas you list, I like the filtered Wikipedia. Also, I like the thought of your teaching at college level, or writing on philosophy.

    I like the idea about book outlines too, but I’m not sure that all people who might like to participate in that would actually be good at it. The difference between people who think they can write and whom *I* think write well comes to play in this opinion.

    Good luck!

    • Reply Larry Sanger November 11, 2012 10:53 am

      Thanks, Pat–you know me pretty well, and I respect your opinion. I think I’d enjoy those jobs, particularly writing. You’re absolutely right that Textop would require people who know how to write and think very well, and frankly there aren’t a lot of people like that. I’m rather inclined to think that it would have to be a scholarly project. I’d have to pay, or otherwise motivate, academics to participate.

      Basically, Textop is a long-term project with no short-term payoff. Unless some billionaire shows up and becomes a Textop convert, like me, then it won’t happen. The other solution is that I get rich. So that’s my plan. I’ve never tried that!

  2. Reply Stephen Gilbert November 9, 2012 15:39 pm

    Textop seems extremely ambitious. I’m not yet convinced that it would as revolutionary as you claim, but perhaps that just means I don’t fully understand it yet. In any case, if you’re ever going to get it going, you’d best start as soon as possible. Maybe now is the time. Go ahead and convince me!

    • Reply Larry Sanger November 11, 2012 10:54 am

      Thanks, old Wikipedia colleague! That I will…eventually.

  3. Reply Larry Sanger Blog » Technical Co-founder Sought November 11, 2012 10:31 am

    […] all the time, and it is not every day that I have an idea that makes me this excited. Now that I am casting about for new things to do, I’m trying to decide which idea to work on, and this one is, I think, at the top of the […]

  4. Reply Adrian Raddatz November 14, 2012 12:27 pm

    Here’s an idea; come back to Wikipedia. I really do understand the issues you have with it, but I don’t think you’ll be able to create another version which effectively removes these – many years of trying have left you unsuccessful. Since Wikipedia is very much community-run, you could make that difference from within. There is a need for some change, but Wikipedia is already firmly established, so I don’t think that change is possible from the outside.

    • Reply Larry Sanger November 14, 2012 13:24 pm

      (1) Fat chance. (2) They wouldn’t take me in if I wanted to.

  5. Reply JoAnne November 15, 2012 16:41 pm

    So would Textop be an online version of the Syntopicon by Mortimer Adler?

    • Reply Larry Sanger November 15, 2012 17:11 pm

      Very good for noticing the connection there! It would be a little like that. But it would be much much more fine-grained–rather than organizing passages, it would organize individual paragraphs, and it would eventually include zillions of books in a database. But yes, you’re right, in that same genre.

  6. Reply Ewa December 6, 2012 17:14 pm

    My favorite idea is number 3. I came across with SuperMemo when I was in high school (about 10 years ago) and I thought and still think something like you suggested is the future. It would be so much easier for students to learn. I think one of the many problems in current education is lack of repetition. Teachers presents the information and very often don’t have time to make sure you repeat it. I believe that when you repeat you actually learn things. I would really like you to find funding for that, and eagerness from politicians to actually implement it at school level. I’m not from USA, but I imagine it must be hard to implement such idea on national level. In Poland where I am from, there is a company which uses SuperMemo system for teaching languages (http://www.supermemo.eu/) and also introduced few other topics as well. I am not associated with the company, but I was using their English courses for learning vocabulary. They use a bit more simplified version of SuperMemo than the original one, but it still does the job. I am wondering how would you proceed with the idea if you had the necessary funding for that and how would you suggest to implement it at schools.

  7. Reply John Michelsen December 31, 2012 11:07 am

    How about a website to teach spelling (and work on phonics/typing speed) using the reading bear word lists and audio and spaced repetition? It could be called Spelling Bear. I’ve noticed from homeschooling my kids that reading and spelling skills are quite distinct – they can read and understand a much larger set of words than they can spell correctly.

    Here’s how it could work: After the student goes through some kind of typing tutorial such as Dance Mat Typing and listens to a short audio introduction, the site would play the audio of a word, show a picture and use it in a sentence, then ask the student to type it. If they did it correctly, the site would go on to the next word in the phonics set. If they spelled it incorrectly the site would play the audio of the word again, this time showing the text of the word with the synchronized underlining of the syllables, and ask the student to type it again. It would then follow a spaced repetition algorithm to know which word to show next, adding new words until the full 1200 are mastered.

    • Reply Larry Sanger December 31, 2012 11:20 am

      Interesting idea–I like the idea of a spelling part of the quizzes. We might well add that to Reading Bear. I just don’t see why it would have to be part of a typing tutorial. The typing programs that are out there are good and I don’t have any ideas about how to improve on them. Basically, the spelling part of the Reading Bear quizzes (or maybe it would simply be a new spelling quiz) would require kids to type in the letters using whatever skills they have developed, or maybe drag and drop them. The point is that while trying to teach spelling and typing with the same program seems problematic, I love the idea of a Reading Bear spelling tutor. Now if I can get the philanthropist behind RB to fund it–that’s the question!

  8. Reply John Michelsen January 7, 2013 10:36 am

    I didn’t actually say it would be a typing tutorial, just that kids should do one before they started so they knew how to type with their hands in the right position. They could gain some speed then, by trying to answer quickly. I’d design it to not need the mouse to go from one question to the next (just push enter after you type the word) and allow the audio/video part to be cut off and start at the next word when you pushed enter.

    On the funding side, I’m a software engineer and would be willing to take a crack at it as a volunteer if you’d like. Every time my kids misspell a word I wish they had something like this.

    • Reply Larry Sanger January 7, 2013 16:01 pm

      Oh, wow! Well, in that case, we should talk!

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