Update about the boys, March 2016

I have given a report about H. last Jan. 2, and now I have a little time to write about what's going on with E., who is now 5, and not quite old enough to be in Kindergarten this year.

First of all, E's Mama is homeschooling him, which means I know what's going on with him mostly second hand, although I see some of it since I work at home. Anyway, here goes.

The big change with E. is that since his fifth birthday, last fall, he has slowly transitioned to being actually homeschooled. Theoretically he's supposed to have at least 30 minutes' reading, 15 minutes math, and 15 minutes writing. But a typical day looks very different from that.

We're still not doing SuperMemo, because E. just doesn't like it much. H. didn't start until he was 6, so...

Reading/literature. Since the last report, and after his birthday, for his reading we let him read whatever he wanted, and he went through dozens and dozens of Berenstain Bears books, because they were on hand (left over from H.) and he likes them. He did read a few other things, occasionally science. He also read a pile of classic picture books, which I picked out for him. After going through all those picture books, I think he was bored, but not quite ready to tackle so many chapter books. Mind you, he can read them just fine (this is two years ago), but he hasn't been motivated and we're not going to push him. He did read Roald Dahl's The Witches (more about Dahl below). He doesn't read enough to my taste, probably not 30 minutes a day on average, but some days he reads for a few hours.

After his Mama insisted that he start something, a week or two ago, he did pick a chapter book and is now reading his hardest self-read book yet, The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, which he says he likes quite a bit. I remember H. read that book at about the same age.

Meanwhile, at mealtimes, I'm still reading to him most breakfasts and lunches. I finished reading the entire Harry Potter series to him—he rarely wanted to read anything else, and it took over a year to read them all, I think. Then we went through various other books, including Black Ships Before Troy, the fantastic prose adaptation of The Iliad, which was quite advanced. In fact, I started reading it to H., although H. is perfectly capable of reading it to himself. H. lost interest (often leaving the meal table before anyone else to run to his computer to work on his latest programming project), but E. was hooked, and asked me to keep reading, even though I thought it was too advanced. I did have to explain quite a lot of the words.

The same thing happened again more recently. I thought I'd try reading The Odyssey to H., the awesome, poetic, and relatively accessible Fitzgerald translation, knowing that E. would get a little out of it (he always surprises me in how well he pays attention when I'm reading to H.). So H. quickly lost interest and said he'd rather read it to himself (which I'll have him do after he's finished with A Midsummer Night's Dream). But again, E. was hooked. I said it's beyond him but he insisted that I continue, and for several weeks I always said we didn't have to read this, we could read something else, and he keeps asking for the Odyssey.

How do I read the Odyssey to a 5-year-old, you ask? (Sure, a precocious 5-year-old, but come on.) Basically, what I always do: as I read a sentence, I read the written words and immediately, parenthetically, insert glosses for the words that are easy to gloss. As to the more important, interesting, or hard-to-gloss words, we look those up in the handy on-screen dictionary (we read it on the iPad which makes this easy). When a whole sentence or phrase seems difficult, I retell the point in my own words. I'm rather proud of how much I seem to remember from my slender study of classics, lo, over 25 years ago. For pronunciation of names, it helps that H. and I have started studying ancient Greek at night (using Athenaze). I also do voices. The result is that the book (as glossed by me) still has E's attention, and we're up to Book 9 of 24. The cyclops part. Very exciting and gory. Perfect for E.

It helps a lot, and I mean it has been absolutely essential, that we read Tales from the Odyssey before, listened to it in the car as well, read a zillion other Greek myths books, etc. The gods and goddesses, Odysseus himself, and his story are all pretty familiar at this point. He can explain what's going on. A few times Mama has asked for clarification of some point, and E. will answer before I do.

Speaking of advanced stuff, on Sunday evenings I read The Pilgrim's Progress (this slightly modernized but gorgeously illustrated edition...I didn't know that it was actually modernized when I bought it, but I think that's actually not a bad thing in this case) to H. But E. as usual is paying close attention and so I try to bring this already somewhat simplified version down to his level in my glosses. Reading only once a week a half-hour at a time, we've gone through quite slowly but are now past the halfway mark.

But back down to earth: E. still likes reading easy stuff. I often catch him with my iPad looking at old Disney story apps, which he read when he was one and two, and the preschool-level Beginner's Bible. (Probably because of readings from Pilgrim's Progress.) Whereas H. said at that age that he was an atheist (pretty sure he still takes that position), E. says he believes in God. Go figure. E. is of a more magical and romantic cast of mind.

Math. He worked on 1st grade math (Splash Math) intermittently for over a year, I think, and after trying IXL for a bit, he started working on that instead, in 2nd grade. He's been playing Tower Math (the iPad app) lately which helps a bit with his math facts, but he's still counting on his fingers or quickly in his head, having memorized only a few. I think Mama has started using flash cards with him as well as LacerLinks, as I did with H. at that age, and maybe we'll get him going in Two Plus Two Is not Five, which seemed to help H. Anyway, although he seems talented at math—it comes to him pretty easily—he's not very motivated to do it, and again we don't insist too much at this point.

Writing. He's gone mostly through the Kumon Writing Words book, and his handwriting is getting reasonably good. Mama has taught him very well how to hold the pencil and write neatly. I encourage them to copy sentences, but they haven't really started that yet—sometimes. So he's not particularly advanced at writing yet. He's also rather less confident than H. was at this age as far as spelling goes. He is demotivated to write because he needs to know exactly how things are spelled and doesn't seem to believe us that he'll pick it up automatically by random practice. E.g. earlier today he wrote a couple sentences as part of a little Scratch program. So who knows, maybe we'll go through some sort of systematic speller with him, even if we didn't do that with H.

He also types, and has practiced typing rather well. He types more confidently than he writes, and he gets in all sorts of typing practice when he does Google searches, e.g., for funny cats, and other such occasions. We started him on different typing software but nothing seems to be working out (bugs and/or poor design). That's a problem I'm assigned to solve soon.

Latin and Russian. As with H., we started our Latin study with Rosetta Stone when he was three or four, but that didn't last long; unlike H., E. just wasn't that into Rosetta Stone. Then last year I discovered the easy children's Latin curriculum Minimus, a British production, and we fairly carefully went through all but the last couple chapters of book 1. It was great on the iPad, as audio and cartoons are built in, making it all a very gentle introduction. Anyway, for some reason toward the end of that book he started refusing to go on, so we gave that up. Not long after I decided we could start with one of the easiest public domain Latin readers, Mima Maxey's New Latin Primer. But we got several pages into that when the grammar started piling up, so to speak, and I figured it would be easier to just go through Getting Started with Latin, which I had used with H. when he was 8—it was very easy for him then. This book is somewhat challenging, but he's still OK with it, if not always enthusiastic, and he does seem to get a kick out of the progressive knowledge he's building up. This book is a great confidence-builder for kids, I highly recommend it. We're around Lesson 25 now (of 144). We'll see how it goes! My guess is that the next thing won't be D'Ooge or Lingua Latina, because those are both too hard for him now and require grammar he hasn't got under his belt yet. Instead, we'll probably go through another elementary curriculum.

As to the time Getting Started with Latin takes, we do it typically during lunchtime, once a day but usually skipping a few days a week. Still, we're making good forward progress. At this rate he'll be at big brother's level or beyond when he is that age.

E's Mama also reads stories, sings, and teaches him to read in her language daily. She also speaks to them in her language, and while they respond back in English, they do understand quite a bit, and E. can read simple stuff. Recently, after H. discovered Duolingo, E. decided to get into it in Mama's language. He's been (with my and Mama's help) starting to learn how to type/spell words, and this of course helps his English as well.

History. Mama is reading The Story of the World, Vol. 1, to E., and discussing it, as I did with H. around the same age. I think they're several chapters in. They started only a couple of months ago. I have read him a few history books at mealtimes; in the last few months, I remember one about Lincoln and a few about the ancient world. Also, E. watches a lot of videos about history (and other subjects) on BrainPop. He did BrainPop Jr. for a long time, which wasn't very interesting for H., so I decided to switch our subscription for a while to...

BrainPop. In other words, Tim and Moby. Turns out that E. likes these at least as much as BrainPop Jr. and for many months he was watching them religiously every morning as H. and I were doing Latin, something like 30 minutes a day or more. Then we sometimes watch one at the beginning of a meal. Similarly as H. absorbed loads of random facts from the Horrible Science series, then spewed the facts out at random intervals afterward, so E. watches dozens upon dozens of these middle school-level videos and later reports them back to me, often at inconvenient times, like when I'm trying to work. His favorite subject in BrainPop is...

Science, and in particular the human body and health. Often some quite advanced stuff. He paid fairly close attention as I read to H. about chemistry, and definitely picked some advanced topics up for a 4 or 5 year old. Also, since we switched to biology last fall, I started by reading H. What's Biology All About? by Usborne. This is for H. a very easy book (he is doing high school biology), but H. enjoys the review and I generally leave the book choice up to him. It helps E. that this is a book closer to his level, especially after all those BrainPop videos, so I sort of read it to E. as well. We read it 1-2 times a week at dinner. E. has been saying for over a year now that he wants to be a scientist when he grows up. Mama has been doing occasional experiments with him, which is a good thing because she used to shoo us out of the kitchen and bathrooms when H. and I tried to use them for experiments, and now she has no excuse as she is responsible for the mess. Another sciencey thing we do is Thursdays, we read from William J. Long, Secrets of the Woods, a book of the nature writing genre that I hadn't been exposed to since...maybe high school. Unusually and unexpectedly good book; the people on Goodreads who called it "wordy" are probably just in need of education themselves. The book is part of the Yesterday's Classics series we bought and which I highly recommend, if you can transfer the books to your tablet. It was just the first plausible of their "Nature" books that I found in our collection. E. has also taken to watching some cool science videos in the Kurzgesagt series, which must be over his head, but what the hell, he found them and he wants to watch them. He has watched an awful lot of Magic School Bus videos (and I read a few of the books, some while back, at the table to him), and Bill Nye. We went all the way through the Brain Games series on Netflix, and recently started How We Got to Now, also on Netflix, both very cool. Also, as of last week, MacGyver. That's science!

Art & Music & Poetry. Wednesday dinnertime is poetry; I read this ostensibly to H. but E. is often tuning in. Both seem to like poetry, and E. on occasion will request poetry during his (i.e., breakfast and lunch) reading times. Friday evenings is art and music, and again while I chose the books and media for H., E. tunes in closely and definitely learns quite a bit there too.

Bedtime reading. As much as he likes science, E. is totally into anything magical (like Harry Potter) and heroic (like The Odyssey). So at night, I've read him a series of Roald Dahl books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Danny the Champion of the World, and The BFG. (Did you know there's a British cartoon BFG on YouTube that as of this writing hasn't been taken down?) H. was never so much into these, but he has listened in on the last three. E. really likes Dahl. At the moment we are starting in on W.B. Yeats' Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland, beautifully told. I'm pretty sure we've read some others at night as well. We're almost done with The Tower Treasure, the first Hardy Boys book.


Fund me to make 50 educational videos for kids!

I have a Kickstarter project that will close in two days! Unless I get a bunch of pledges in that time, I won't raise the money. I haven't tried very hard (actually, almost not at all)—been busy with other things.

Some salient points:

• I’ve made 26 educational videos for kids in my spare time (put on YouTube).

• As a homeschooling dad, Ph.D. philosopher, and reader of vast quantities of children’s literature, I am the perfect person to write these videos. I like making them, too.

• My videos are popular with and praised by students, parents, and teachers.

• My videos each average 52 views per day, or 18,834 per year.

• My videos on high-demand topics average 92 views per day, or 33,580 per year, about 4 years after being uploaded.

• Working full time, I can make 2-3 of these educational videos per day.

• So I can make 500 educational videos in a year.

• I can limit myself to high-demand topics.

• This would work out to over 30 million views per year (on high-demand topics), 4 years after being uploaded. That’s a lot!

• The videos don’t get stale. The amount of traffic my videos get has been growing year over year.

• I am seeking funding just for myself to make these videos.

It would become a K-4 version of Khan Academy (which is mostly focused on high school and college level material).
The videos would supply background knowledge about everything needed to be a proficient reader.
The selling points:

• Massive traffic, based on years of clear, consistent data.

• Inexpensive: I make them quickly, by myself.

• High quality educational content.

This is a proven, massively beneficial project. What I really want is somebody to fund me to full-time until I get tired of making these things. In the meantime, funding 50 of these things would be grand, and I'll show yez what I can do.

Some thoughts, 15 years after Wikipedia's launch

It's been 15 years since I announced the opening of the new Wikipedia.com site, with a little message that said:

http://www.wikipedia.com/
Humor me.  
Go there and add a little article.  
It will take all of five or ten 
minutes.
--Larry

I am still sometimes called "Wikipedia's sharpest critic," but if you actually look at the panoply of Wikipedia criticism, you'll quickly see that that's not actually true. I happen to know some critics of Wikipedia, people like Gregory Kohs and Edward Buckner. They know a lot more (and care and are more "outspoken") about Wikipedia's assorted flaws than I do. Saying Wikipedia's co-founder is a critic does make a nice headline, though, which is why, when I did a long, nuanced interview with VICE recently, the headline writer (not the interviewer) called me "Wikipedia's most outspoken critic."

Some people might come to this page to see what have I been up since leaving Wikipedia 14 years ago, so let me fill you in. I taught philosophy for a while, I worked on somebody else's failed startup for a year, then transitioned to start Citizendium, which is still kicking six years after I left. I allowed myself to be poached from my own project by a Memphis-area philanthropist who wanted me to work on what became WatchKnowLearn. While developing that I was teaching my toddler son to read, and the video of his precocious reading inspired the same philanthropist to fund ReadingBear, which digitizes the method I've used with both my sons. Reading Bear was very difficult to develop, but I'm proud of it. You'll probably see some new features on the site soon—mobile compatibility, probably.

After that I decided to try my first for-profit funded startup, Infobitt; we ran out of runway, as most startups do, but we also learned a lot about how a volunteer, collaborative news summary site might work. Since last July I've been working part-time doing various fun projects for Ballotpedia as well as ReadingBear, and I've been wooed by a few different startups. I've been developing a few different exciting ideas, just to test them and make proposals to different organizations. Whatever I do, I want my next move to be into something that has a good chance of being long-term.

One idea I'm toying with a lot lately is educational videos like these, which my boys liked quite a bit and which surprisingly get a good bit of traffic. The best part is that they're fun to make and I can make them pretty quickly. I don't have a sponsor as such for them, yet, but making a bunch of such videos does seem like a worthwhile way to spend my time. I have various other interests that I've thought about parlaying into meaningful employment: writing a curriculum about philosophy for kids; free speech, a topic I'm greatly interested in; organizing a community to defend the fundamental ideas behind enlightenment Western civilization; writing superior reviews of homeschooling resources; and joining a news startup interested in letting me develop Infobitt further.

There are two grand ambitions lurking in the background, although the jury's still out whether I will ever have time and resources to work on them. One is Textop. The other is developing a system of philosophy roughly in the vein of Thomas Reid, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher of common sense.

I would love to hear from anyone with advice and help to move forward on any of these fronts.


Wake up, people! Minecraft sucks as an educational tool.

<rant>

You don't have to cite studies to me. I already know that various kinds of video games can have some positive educational effects. As somebody who has wasted way too many hours on video games since 1977 or so, this isn't surprising to me. The notions that it might help train kids to think ahead, improve reaction time and some processing abilities, or even occasionally (very occasionally) teach some actual subject matter fall into the "duh" category for me. I have watched my sons get hooked on Minecraft (I never, never should have installed it last summer! I rue the day!), and I freely admit that they have learned a little about getting themselves organized, planning ahead, and of course a little about such things as mining and building.

So why am I not on the "let's let kids play Minecraft for hours in class" train? It's one thing mainly. There is one argument that some educators and parents for some bizarre reason are constantly ignoring:

Opportunity cost.

Yes, boys and girls, opportunity cost. You know what? If there were a multi-billion dollar industry behind any number of other activities—cooking, say, or board games or television-watching—you'd find zillions of new studies showing that those activities are delightfully educational as well. Why do I say so? Because almost everything has some measurable educational impact. You must be doing something pretty goddamned mind-dulling, like watching Growing Up Kardashian, if you don't emerge just a little smarter.

So it's not terribly surprising that playing video games, and Minecraft in particular—yes the time-sucking bane of the young lives of so many boys, and some girls too—has some educational benefit.

The question is whether it's a wise use of time for educational purposes. And that is a matter of comparative educational benefit. You know what has more educational benefits than video games? Pretty friggin' much everything on the curriculum. It's all about efficiency, and qua efficient educational experience, most video games absolutely suck for most educational purposes—compared to the traditional alternatives.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think reading textbooks and doing worksheets and taking way too many quizzes and tests is pretty inefficient. This is why we homeschool. Reading a lot more meaningful books and keeping the busywork to a minimum is more the thing (that's what we try to do). My point is not that ordinary school curricula are wonderful, but only that adding heavy doses of Minecraft to it simply exacerbates an already appalling problem.

I can imagine a response: "But Minecraft is really inspiring to my kids! I can get them to write about their worlds, and we have worked in a lot of creative Minecraft lessons that the kids love!" I'm sure that's all true. If it stopped at a few lessons now and then, then heck, maybe we'd be doing it. But Minecraft is like crack for kids. They don't play for a half an hour. They play for hours and hours, until you drag them, kicking and screaming, from the computer. And I reiterate my point: There are all sorts of extremely fun stuff that we could be doing, which have some educational benefit. But we don't do them during study time, and why? Because we have better things to do.

If you want your kids to be well-educated, you'll think harder about educational efficiency and opportunity cost.

</rant>


Report about the boys, January 2016

I'll dive right into H's schooling. He's now age 9.

The new tasklist orientation. This past year the biggest problem has been motivating him to study enough. Until November, it was a struggle. Although Mama's helping quite a bit more, especially with E., H. still requires management and I still have to work full-time. While he can do quite a bit without being closely advised, if he's not monitored, he'll just do whatever he wants.

To get help with keeping him on track, we went through the long process of enrolling H. in Ohio Connections Academy. After testing he was admitted in the 8th grade in most subjects and 7th grade in math. So he was at OCA for one week in, I guess it was, November. I thought he'd be able to proceed through the curriculum at his own pace, but he really couldn't, i.e., they aren't flexible that way. OCA's advertising and protestations to the contrary are spurious. The tasks are not really a la carte, either. H. ended up saying that he could learn a lot more doing "Papa's curriculum," and I had to agree.

Digression about OCA and public school curriculum

An aside—public school curriculum as represented by OCA's Pearson texts (Connections Academy is owned by Pearson) looks very "meaty." Kids are constantly doing things that certainly look educational and they're hard to fault. The problem is that putting all that crap together amounts to a lot of busywork. A lot of assignments are basically repetitive or drilling what ought to be obvious or to be picked up on the fly. It's more efficient (it has been for us) to stick mainly to reading high-quality books and do straight writing, math, and language study; much of the extra crap kids are drilled on ancillary to the main curriculum is incredibly annoying.

Language Arts texts, ugh, don't get me started. H. was going to have to read just two chapter books for the semester. But on those books he was going to have to answer questions, take quizzes, do vocabulary sets, etc., etc., meaning he spent at least as much time with ancillary busywork as actually reading the book. Why not just answer some questions at the end the book, have him look up words he doesn't know, then read another book in the same time? Worse than that—much worse—are the textbooks. Here we have short stories, nonfiction essays, poems, etc., which altogether looks great (although nonfiction should be studied in history and science). The trouble is that there is two or three times as much material padding all the readings. It's appalling.

The history text was similarly ugh-inspiring. Don't get me wrong, it seemed to be fairly well-written and comprehensive. The problem was that there were a zillion sidebars, too many pictures and other bells and whistles, and the text itself was a compilation of facts rather than anything resembling a narrative. This is not how to teach history.

The math and science curriculum was a bit better, but also suffered from the padding problem, albeit less so. H. likes the CK-12 biology set-up we have going much more, though, and Khan+IXL for math is hard to beat, for H. anyway.

There was also way, way, way too much testing/checking/quizzes over everything. That takes time, time that could be spent actually learning. I'm not referring to standardized tests. I'm referring to everyday quizzes and exams. Just way, way too much.

But we did bring from our failed experiment the excellent technique of breaking down the school day's tasks into small chunks and getting them checked off (by me...hopefully to be passed on to Mama soon) regularly. The checklist discipline clarifies to H. exactly what we've decided he'll work on. He can decide in what order he does things in, but he has to complete a whole "day's" work before he moves on to the next "day." Generally speaking a "day" requires anywhere from one to two days, maybe 1.5 days on average. The checklist discipline also helps me to decide how long to allot to H. for a task, and how long to set a timer after which I check in with him. For example, this was a recent checklist:

  • Divisibility Rules (review)
    • IXL Math 7.A.4. (15)
  • Greatest Common Factor
    • Watch this Khan video and  this one and this one. (You can skip one of these if it seems too obvious (20)
    • IXL Math 6.E.7. (15)
    • IXL Math 7.A.5 (to 30*). (5)
  • Pick a new novel to read. (10)
  • Start reading it. (at least 20)
  • Read Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, next 4-6 pages. (20)
  • Make ~2 questions per three pages read about the presidents. (10)
  • Do 30-45 minutes of CK-12 biology quizzes (up to but not past  “Other Cell Organelles”). (30-45)
  • Answer the questions about The Hunger Games. (30)
  • Review to 100. (15)
  • Review to 50. (15)
  • Do next 15 minutes of Think Java. (15)

So far, so good: he's done more work on an average day in the last six weeks or so than he has at any time in the last few years.

Math. H. is now working concurrently on IXL.com's 6th and 7th grade math. So, this is kind of weird. In my high school back in the early 1980s, most kids did pre-algebra in 8th grade, algebra in 9th grade, etc. If you were in honors classes, though, you'd do pre-algebra in the 7th grade, algebra in the 8th grade, and geometry in the 9th. So here's the thing: IXL's sixth grade is on the advanced track. Then they have two years, the 7th and 8th grades, doing pre-algebra. Algebra is supposed to be a 9th grade activity. (IXL doesn't teach Calculus yet.)

As a result, and since the 7th grade stuff looked very doable, we decided to combine IXL's 6th and 7th grade. If the 7th grade stuff is just a review of their 6th grade stuff, as it often is, I just make him get his IXL score for the 7th grade version up to 30, and if he does so without any mistakes, he can skip the rest. Anyway, that's working out. The idea is that he'll do this for the next six or nine months and then tackle IXL 8th grade, which does introduce quite a few new topics.

Khan Academy's free videos at this level are finally quite good, so I just assign him to watch those before the topic comes up and lo and behold, he usually doesn't need much help from me. That's all we do for math now. Maybe when we get to algebra we'll switch to a textbook. But at this point, we've tried Saxon and Singapore and a few others, and this seems to be most simpatico to H. I wish he liked a more substantive curriculum, but motivation is key, and with Khan, he does seem to be learning the concepts pretty well.

Writing. It's been a long time since I had H. do anything like a systematic writing program, but I decided he needs systematic training in certain kinds of writing, even if he is able to put together decent sentences and paragraphs. So in November we started working on Writing with Skill. We're going through it very slowly, maybe too slowly, because I still let him do "own choice" writing every other day, and I give him special assignments like poetry or, as recently, a speech (his speech is about why you should have a pet dog). Another "break" we took was to get feedback from Fiverr on a long story he wrote, then rewrite the story incorporating the feedback. That was fun. Anyway, I'd say his writing is progressing nicely.

He's also occasionally been doing his own choice of IXL Language Arts topics and got hooked, for a little while anyway, on Vocabulary.com. He is still working in Cursive Writing Words (!) and I'm threatening to make him write some essays in cursive as soon as he's done with that. He can type pretty quickly...up to 50 wpm or so.

Literature. As to literature, for a long time I was having him do an hour a day, except that for most of this year, he rarely did that. He did maybe an hour a day three times a week. So instead, after the Ohio Connections Academy experiment, I decided to make the assignments more reasonable: I'm having him do half-hour of reading actually daily. This works out much better than requiring an hour, and he's made more consistent progress in his reading, with fewer of the "breaks" of many days that he used to take. Recently he finished The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Flies, and he's almost done with The Wind in the Willows. I'm not sure I could tell you what else he's read this year...definitely a fair few. E.g., he did read The Hobbit, and he read the first three chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring but decided that it was boring (as a Tolkien fan, I was scandalized by this but I let it go; he'll get the appeal later). I got him The Hunger Games after he read and enjoyed a few other dystopian novels, Anthem, Animal Farm, and The Giver.

Another thing we did (are still doing, too) was to compile an anthology of poetry. I'm not sure how we got into this. This was mostly his idea, and he's still quite gung-ho about it. The dream is to co-author and eventually publish a poetry anthology for young people (ages 8 to 15 or so). We were doing this for about 30 minutes per evening, most evenings, last fall; but then we decided we needed to get back into the evening reading (e.g., we still haven't finished Oliver Twist, which I started reading to him a long time ago). But we still work on it every so often and our intention going forward is to spend a couple of hours working on it on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. We work together at the same time on this Google doc. Of course, I work more efficiently than he does, so I guess most of what you see there is my work, but H. does make a lot of contributions to every aspect of the production. We've also worked on transferring this document to a better-formatted MS Word version, but the text so far is pretty much the same.

This inspired some interesting poems from H. recently, the first doubtless inspired by "A Swing Song":

The Sky
Sky, sky,
Up high,
No animal but
The bird is sly
Enough to venture
Into the sky.

Low, low,
Down below,
Where any foe
Would love to go
Who cannot fly high
Up into the sky.

=============

The Frog
There once was a frog,
Who loved to sit
On a particular log.
He liked it as no other,
And he didn’t even bother
To sit on any other.

There once was a frog,
Who loved to bathe
In a particular bog.
He liked it as no other,
And he didn’t even bother
To bathe in any other.

History. This is a subject that we started very well on, with the first 1.5 books of The Story of the World read alongside three other history books. Then we started slowing down and since then it's been pretty hit and miss. Under the new checkbox scheme, H. is finally making excellent forward progress in The Story of the World vol. 3 (done as of early January; soon to start vol. 4), as well as The Landmark History of the American People and Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, and occasionally something else. He also has to add questions to SuperMemo, which is one big reason why he's made relatively slow progress; but he does remember some history as a result.

Science. Last summer or so we finally finished our study of chemistry. This included What's Chemistry All About? as well as the two long sections about chemistry in the Usborne Science Encyclopedia (quite good). He read a big long book about the elements as well as How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients and some other things. Then we switched to biology last fall. This was quite cool, because his fairly in-depth exposure to chemistry prepared him to dive past middle school level biology and go straight to this free CK-12 Biology text. For the first time ever he's doing most of his science study without me, which is great. I still have been reading What's Biology All About? at the dinner table, which is very easy, but he still enjoys it. In addition to just reading the CK-12 text, I make him answer half of the comprehension questions, do all of the corresponding quizzes in the (stunningly good) CK-12 app, and add questions to SuperMemo.

Geography, etc. In an earlier version of this post I neglected to say anything about his geography study. Well, this has been a problem. We're still working on U.S. geography, and I don't think we're even halfway through the states. In our evening reading, among several other things, we were working our way through the National Geographic U.S. Atlas for kids, and our progress was steady, but quite slow. Then last fall we dropped all of that for the poetry anthology and, though H. did read a few short "True Books" about U.S. regions, for the most part geography was dropped. More recently I started him reading the atlas by himself, and making SuperMemo questions, and I think he did that for 2-3 states. But he complained that it was boring, so for Christmas I gave H. a geography workbook with map-labeling and fact-drilling work. He seems to like this better. Anyway, I do hope with the checklist method we'll get through U.S. geography this year.

H. has continued to do drawing and other art projects, mostly with Mama, at home—when given specific instructions, he has retained some of the ability he gained in his art classes, which he no longer takes (they were getting repetitive). He has also been practicing piano, but not very much; he's basically been treading water for the last year, although he has learned to play with two hands and it getting more confident anyway. But he declares he doesn't like it and we haven't insisted very often.

Java/programming. For a long time I've been telling my programming-crazy son that he really must go all the way through a programming tutorial. Well, I said to myself, if he isn't going to do it all on his own, I'll just "make" him. It turns out that he's very happy to be "made" to do this; he enjoys having the time (only 15 minutes per day) to do it. He goes through the text quickly—he started a few weeks ago and is around the end of chapter three of Think Java, which is written for high school preparing for the AP exam. He seems to be highly motivated and enjoying himself greatly, and so far isn't complaining about any problems. On his own he has thoroughly learned Scratch, and has made some inroads into Visual Basic, and bits of other languages. He wants to be a programmer when he grows up.

Latin and Greek. Don't ask me how, but in the nine months since my last update, we have gone through only pp. 39-63 in Benjamin D’Ooge’s Elements of Latin. We have also made more progress in  Maud Reed’s Juliaas well as Mima Maxey's Cornelia. In the last week or two, though, we put these down and started in on Orberg's Lingua Latina, mostly because H. says D'Ooge is boring. I exhaustively compared the programs, and I have to admit that LL might be better for us at this stage. Although it seems we have done only a little work on Latin, we have not really been shirking too much. We have actually gone over several things repeatedly, done a hell of a lot of review (we spend half of our 30-45 minutes each morning on Latin in SuperMemo review). The stuff that we've learned, we've learned to death, and that includes the stuff in Julia and Cornelia. We have mastered a lot more vocabulary than what appears in D'Ooge.

As of just a few days ago, we decided to let H. finish by himself the books we've started reading together at night. Instead, we've started studying (for 20-30 minutes per night) ancient (Attic) Greek out of the same textbook I used in college, Athenaze. We're still learning the alphabet...I'll let you know how it goes. I'm motivated and so is H. He thinks the alphabet is pretty cool and he infers (he realizes this is an invalid inference, however correct the conclusion is) that the language must be pretty cool too.

Supermemo. Here's one of our great success stories. At some point in November, I told H. he can finish 100 SuperMemo review questions in 30 minutes (why not?). I check after 15 minutes if he has finished 50, then after another 15 minutes I check if he has finished 50 more. A lot of the time I don't really have to check at all—he almost always does it without getting distracted. He writes down the number he has left to do after each three minutes on a snazzy spreadsheet, which automatically calculates his rate of review (instant feedback is very handy), and so I hardly have to monitor him at all. He actually chooses to do Supermemo first thing in the day sometimes, which he never used to do.

Dinner reading. I still do reading to H. at dinnertime. This includes Help Your Kids with Language Arts on Mondays (now mostly done), What's Biology All About? Tuesdays and Thursdays, poetry on Wednesdays, art and music on Fridays (shared between both boys), logic workbooks on Saturday (almost done with Orbiting with Logic, thus completing the Prufrock series—again, both boys are doing logic now), and, lately, a slightly modernized version of Pilgrim's Progress on Sundays. The amazing thing is that E. at age 4 and 5 absorbed quite a bit of the chemistry and biology I've been reading to H., and as a result he's doing very well on science; he wants to be a scientist when he grows up.

Anyway, that's all I have time to write up, for now...I'll add some info about E., now age 5 and addicted to "BrainPop," soonish.


Are we becoming indifferent to freedom and democracy?

I know, I know: That title sounds ridiculously click-baity. But if you'll look at my blog, you'll see that I don't really go in for click-bait titles.

Unfortunately, I mean it quite literally. It's an enormous problem that we aren't talking about enough. And I want to propose that one reason for it is a massive failure of civics education.

Support for democracy is declining. First, let's talk a bit about support for democracy—yes, democracy itself, as in voting for your leaders and representatives and holding them accountable in the arena of public debate. Only one in five Millennials aged 18 through 29 cast a ballot in the 2014 elections—the lowest youth voter turnout in 40 years, says the Atlantic.

As Vox recently asked, "Are Americans losing faith in democracy?" The article makes a series of points illustrating that Americans, especially younger Americans, are ignorant of and aren't engaging in American political life. The article's main source is a forthcoming paper by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk titled "The Democratic Disconnect," together with the World Values Survey. The writers summarized their own work in the New York Times last September.

Asked how much interest they have in politics (as Vox reports), Americans born in the 1930s said "very interested" or "somewhat interested" almost 80% of the time; for those born in the 1970s, the figure dropped to about 50%, and for those born in the 1980s, it was continuing to drop just as precipitously.

More sobering is the survey question about how essential it is to live in a democracy, rated from 1 to 10. The percentage of Americans responding "10," essential, has dropped from the 70% range for those born in 1930 down to the 30% range for those born in the 1980s. A 40% drop in support for democracy itself is a momentous generational change.

In case you think that's a mistake, compare that to a question asking whether "having a democratic political system" was a "bad" or "very bad" way to run the U.S.: while the percentage for those born in the 1950s and 60s hovered around 13%, for those born after 1970, in the surveys since 1995, the percentage rose from about 16% to over 20%.

Even openness to army rule—something we associate with banana republics—has climbed from 7% to 16% of all Americans.

Support for free speech in America is declining. This is incredibly important: the Pew Research Center found that 40% of American Millennials are OK with limiting speech offensive to minorities (up from 12% for seniors aged 70-87). A stunning 51% of Democrats want to make "hate speech" a criminal offense, and 37% of Republicans. If you have even a passing familiarity with First Amendment law, you'll know that these things are contrary to the First Amendment.

That is how it is possible—and not implausible—that 50 Yale students could sign a petition within an hour to repeal the First Amendment, as this video of Yalies showed:

What the video shows notwithstanding, Yalies are very smart. They can compare their attitudes toward offensive and hate speech with what they learned in their elite civics and history classes about the First Amendment, and infer that they're opposed to the First Amendment. If they're reasonably intelligent, self-aware, and honest with themselves, as some Yalies are, they'll recognize that their intolerance to certain kinds of speech commits them to an opposition to free speech.

The increasing hostility toward free speech among many of our future leaders at elite colleges like Yale has been frightening to many of us, and has sparked a national conversation—an example is here, summarizing some recent episodes and calling academe to return to free speech.

Here's a possible reason why: Civics education has been weak for years and recently declining even further. I don't pretend to know why support for democracy and free speech have been declining, but if our students for some generations have simply not been well educated about basic American civics, that must be part of the explanation.

In the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the "Nation's Report Card"—for 2014, only 23% of 8th graders scored at or above proficient in civics. While 39 states do require a course in American government or civics, only two states require students to pass a test in American government/civics to graduate from high school. As the Civics Education Initiative reports,

[T]he Civics Education Initiative...requires high school students, as a condition of graduation, take and pass a test based on questions from the United States Customs and Immigrations Services (USCIS) citizenship civics exam – the same test all new immigrants must take to become U.S. citizens.

To date, six states...have passed legislation implementing the Civics Education Initiative, with a goal of passage in all 50 states by September 17, 2017 – the 230th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

But, you wonder, if new immigrants have to pass this citizenship civics exam to get in the country, wouldn't American high schoolers be able to pass it? No. In studies, only 4% of high schoolers in Oklahoma and Arizona passed it.

The National Council for the Social Studies published a position statement summarizing the sobering truth: "Sadly, the narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred over the past several years combined with the scarce attention to civic learning in a number of state standards and assessment measures has had a devastating effect on schools' ability to provide high quality civic education to all students."

According to a 2011 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, ignorance was not rectified at the college level:

beyond mere voting, a college degree does not encourage graduates to become actively engaged in more consequential aspects of the political process. Said another way, among persons with equal civic knowledge, those having earned a bachelors degree do not demonstrate any systematic and added political engagement beyond voting. ... A college degree appears to have the same negligible participatory impact as frequently listening to music, watching prime-time television, utilizing social networking sites, and emailing.

Knowledge of basic political facts among the general public is shockingly low. For example, only 40% of Americans surveyed in a recent survey by Pew knew which party controlled each house of Congress, and only about a third of Americans could even name the three branches of government.

Civics isn't easy, and political philosophy is even harder. But both are necessary. If this purported decline of commitment to the basic American system is real, and if it's rooted in poor civics education, it doesn't seem surprising to me.

For all the emphasis on reading and the massive, feature-rich language arts textbooks, American public school students don't have to read many books, period. Most of them are not prepared to read and comprehend the Constitution, much less the complex historical works such as The Federalist Papers, Common Sense, and Democracy in America that explain and defend the American system.

Education matters. It is likely that we will face more battles in higher education and, increasingly, in the public sphere over the necessity and advisability of maintaining robust democratic institutions and adherence to free speech. I fear that as we answer more and more attacks, reference to the Constitution and American political principles will not be sufficient. Part of the problem can be laid at Jefferson's doorstep, when he wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." The fact is that they aren't self-evident, that philosophers have argued for and against them quite a bit, and in the years ahead, the better the pro-freedom side acquaints itself with those arguments, the better chance we'll have.


Our Moral Abyss

First, let me state my basic thesis poetically. To some, it will sound unoriginal, implausible, and overwrought:

We in the West are falling in a moral abyss. We are in mid-fall. It's been long since we careened off the precipice, though we have not hit bottom.

abyssPoetic language is vague, so let me explain what I mean.

1. Plumbing the abyss

We began falling when we (many of us) stopped earnestly using the language of moral judgment, i.e., the discourse of individual responsibility, of suffering the hard consequences of foolish action, of liberal knowledge, hard-earned wisdom, of bad judgment, of the risky exercise of freedom that entails and requires judgment, of sound character and good habit, of courage, humility, and other virtues. In short, our strength of character is weakened, and the cultural wisdom needed to keep it strong, the cultural capital we built up over thousands of years, has been squandered in the space of a few generations.

So many good and necessary habits we used to have, which strengthened our character and that of our children, have been carelessly tossed in the dustbin of history. Instead, look at what we have. Look honestly. Look past your partisan or religious contempt and your haughty reactions, and try to judge soberly how far what I say here is actually true.

Blaming others, rejecting responsibility... What we have is a society that blames others for our failings. Our problems are blamed on benighted parents, racism and sexism, evil corporate masters, venal politicians, the corrupting influence of mass media, violent video games, and other dark forces. But ultimately, these too are all thought to be pawns and tools, and our problems are really all "structural" or societal. Ultimately we must engineer a better way to control the dark forces that inflict all our problems. In any case, our problems are not individual. We, too many of us, act as if we have no individual responsibility for our failings. We cannot be blamed.

freewill...because of a rejection of personal freedom. We have a society that increasingly rejects personal blame because it increasingly rejects personal freedom. This is a natural human belief that dies hard, but it is dying with contemporary education. Cynical journalists and "thought leaders" quote philosophically sophomoric scientists who assure us that free will is an illusion. Many educated young people believe this. Many educated older people also act as if they believe it. Our society is bathed in the language of therapy rather than philosophy and ethics. We are not lazy; we are depressed. We are not selfish, vain, and nasty; we have narcissistic personality disorder. Our children aren't immature and irresponsible; their frontal cortexes are incompletely developed. We are not evil; we have antisocial personality disorder. Mass murderers are not inhumanly wicked, they are always "troubled" and must have a history of mental illness. The most appalling enemies of our civilization, groups like ISIS, are not monsters, they are merely reacting to abuse of Western power in their home territory. Even positive responsibility—praise—sometimes goes by the wayside. The inventors and entrepreneurs of every sort, the people who actually create progress, are sometimes denied their accomplishments by an egalitarian tendency to say, "you didn't build that": it was society, it was all of us working together. Both blame and praise are shared out into society at large.

Collectivized risk and coddling above freedom. We have a society that insulates our youth from risk, that cushions every blow, that places safety above freedom. Our older generations remember a society in which one saved diligently for "a rainy day." Now, we have collectivized risk, with credit cards, bankruptcy meaning only the loss of credit, the social safety net beneath it all. These are not bad things in moderation, surely, but we have gone too far. We are forced to buckle up and we may not smoke in public—all for our own good, of course, and who really can complain? Many of our professors and university administrators are increasingly comfortable with and even insistent upon sheltering our children not just from harsh behavior but from harsh talk and offensive ideas, ideas known by society's enlightened elite to be benighted and wrong. A growing number of young people, meanwhile, being so used to their cocoon-like existence, demand such coddling; they were apparently never taught that there might be something wrong with it, wrong because inconsistent with their self-reliance, rights, and freedoms.

"The salt of the earth"—ignored, at best. We have a society that indeed glorifies foolish youth and is fascinated with famous idiots, finding hard-earned wisdom—as opposed to the latest fads handed down from on high—to be just another, quaint point of view. The ordinary, solid man and woman, who get married, stay together, maintain a stable household for children, are productive and pay their taxes, obey the law and do their duty, and grow old and full of wisdom—these people used to be thought of as "the salt of the earth." Today they are ignored, forgotten; worse, sneered at as bourgeois, middle class, and old-fashioned; or worse still, dismissed as merely "privileged" and as part of an oppressor class. They are rarely honored, except by their families and friends. The former "salt of the earth" hear signals everywhere that their lives are boring, inauthentic, even offensive. Many philosophers and priests of days gone by would disagree, but they too are boring and offensive.

winsor-mccay-good-bookWisdom literature—ignored, at best. We consult psychologists, celebrities, and pundits for wise advice on living, rather than philosophers and priests—but perhaps that's understandable, since so many of today's philosophers and priests have really gotten out of the wisdom game, after all. The philosophers focus on technical questions far more than broad, useful soul- and mind-craft, and I have heard that our religious leaders focus not on how to avoid sin and live more pure and holy lives, but instead on how to rely on God to inspire us to success and abundant joy. Increasingly, our teachers reject the wisdom of "dead white men," glorifying whatever is new or genuinely produced by online communities, so long as it can be consumed quickly and easily by those who have never been taught to pay attention. The great books are less and less thought of as sources of perennial wisdom but instead are increasingly forgotten or, when remembered, viewed with contempt and hatred.

Increasingly, we lack the cultural capital needed to pass on the classic virtues.
So very much has been lost already.

A society of educated fools. Wisdom—gone. Although more of us than ever are college educated now, fewer than ever seem acquainted with or comfortable discoursing in terms of the best concepts, examples, and narratives of perennial, classical Western values. It's all so old-fashioned and pretentious to us now. Much wisdom could be found in the Bible, whatever its faults might be, but in a largely secular society, those things are mentioned only the church services that a dwindling minority of the population attend on Sunday, and often not even there. Public discourse, which now mostly takes place online, the happyfoolsdiscourse that at least among educated adults ought to be the most informed by classical standards of knowledge and logic, is mostly an exchange of tiresome fallacies, insults, and memes, when it does not consist of outraged head-nodding in Internet silos. We have become a society of educated fools.

Conscience replaced. And the practical wisdom, the wisdom that ought to inform how we spend our time and guide important decisions, seems a dwindling commodity as well, as more and more supposed adults act like selfish adolescents in their personal habits and relationships. Judgment of ourselves in moral terms, once called "conscience," is rarely done or discussed. We can't help but feel guilty at our faults—moral feelings die hard. But we don't put a moral description on our faults. They are mistakes, self-destructive behavior, stresses, failures, embarrassments, addictions, flare-ups of psychological problems. They are so rarely vices, bad habits, foolish choices, bad actions, shameful behavior. The very idea of practical wisdom sounds increasingly antique and even foreign. Today we have "life hacks" that sound like technology instead of soulcraft.

Out of control, with a shrug. Self-control, or temperance—gone. Since around the 1990s we have freely admitted to binging on everything. We waste thousands of hours of our free time in front of television sets, not improving ourselves. We smile indulgently as many of our college students get drunk every weekend and "hook up"—it's merely a rite of passage and youthful high spirits. Of course, everyone can agree there's a problem when one of these hook-ups ends in a rape accusation. But the problem, society's leaders say, is that our young men have failed to receive the proper sensitivity training. It is not due to a thoroughly vicious tendency on the part of everyone, men and women of all ages, to dehumanize others, to use others. We don't discuss how appallingly damaging this high-spirited behavior can be to the souls of some students, those who go on to become alcoholics (not drunkards), who get pregnant and abort the babies and regret it for the rest of their lives, who cannot view the opposite sex with a sense of romance and without cynicism. Avoiding the entire morass, many of our men are glutted on desensitizing porn. Even our boys are glutted—on time-wasting video games. Many of us are glutted on social media, a huge time-suck that is often strangely impersonal. In the face of our many and varied temptations, it seems most of us can barely hold it together. We can't stop ourselves—or so we tell ourselves, with a self-indulgent shrug.

laziness
Kindness and humility, uncool. 
Humility, unselfishness, kindness—the winning social graces of caritas, they too are sadly mostly gone. We are still restrained by peer pressures to behave more or less politely. But there is something at once pretentious and very small about so many people today. Few seem to find a value even in the outward display of ostensible humility, such as self-deprecating remarks. Besides that, actual humility involves candidly admitting faults, limitations, and ignorance, apologizing, allowing others to go first—everything that flows from a realistic assessment of human frailties and an acknowledgement of others as true equals. Instead, we are told to promote our personal brands and "never apologize, never explain." In big cities especially, civilization has evolved in such a way that "taking what's yours" and aggressive self-assertion are expected parts of being an ambitious go-getter. It is also simply part of being "cool." Indeed, the very idea of "cool" involves some amount of contempt or cynicism toward other human beings. The notion seems to be that it is cool to act like you don't really care about basic civility and kindness, about acting like ladies and gentlemen. The sheer inhumanity of man toward man sometimes on display online and in traffic still sometimes surprises me, and I'm almost 50; younger people don't realize that "polite society" wasn't always like this. It's changed—really. Things have gotten better in some ways, yes, for example toward women and minorities; but they have also become ruder, cruder, and less graceful toward everyone.

I could go on but I don't want to write a book—I just want to make it clear what I mean when I say we are in a "moral abyss."

2. What the abyss is not

A nonpartisan abyss. I have not mentioned the moral criticisms conservatives make of the liberals: I take no stand, here, on whether the problems I have sketched are related to the conservative political bêtes noire of abortion, gay marriage, and drug legalization. Nor do I mention the moral criticisms liberals make of conservatives. Whether lingering intolerance, racism, sexism, anti-intellectualism, etc., are part of the abyss, I will leave the reader to decide.

The abyss is throughly nonpartisan. I have many friends who would take great issue with any suggestion that any such moral abyss is a consequence of the post-1960s liberal drift of society. I think they will mostly agree that good habits, and the classical virtues I have discussed, are important. I think my conservative friends will agree as well.

The sociological abyss. While I find our moral abyss can be described in a politically neutral way, there are some deep social problems I do associate with this moral abyss. Divorce rates have stayed at 50% for the last half-century; illegitimacy rates have soared over 40%, while marriage rates have shockingly declined; in Western societies and especially among elites, childbearing has fallen below the replacement rate, and appallingly, certain radicals in the "childfree" movement readily admit that they hate children; drug addiction is widely regarded as one of the leading ills of society; homelessness remains a huge problem; crime, while it has declined, lingers above pre-1970 rates, and it has probably declined in the U.S. because of how many criminals we lock up for long periods; etc. Arguably, these are each related to the common atrophying of our character.

Call all that the sociological abyss, and as appalling as it is, it is not the abyss that I mean. As bad and as consequential as all that is, I am more concerned about the moral abyss that resides within each of us.

childrenofignorance

The abyss in us. I mean an abyss within me and within you. There are "saints" among us, no doubt. I'm not one of them, and I doubt you, reader, are one either. Our souls, so to speak, have collectively atrophied. When I talk about such things as lack of temperance and unkindness, I think ruefully of myself, my friends, and my family as much as I think of anyone else. I'm not trying to be falsely modest; I am making a hand-wringing confession. These problems seem to be in all of us, or nearly all of us, to some extent. If my hypothesis is correct and there were some valid way to measure at least the classical virtues I have mentioned, then as a society we would have seen a measurable decline from a hundred years ago until now.

Aren't we living in a golden age? Still, you might say, it seems somehow ridiculous and perverse to complain about a moral abyss, and, if not motivated by a religious point of view, my complaint is simply weird, I will be told. (Especially by my fellow libertarians.) The world has gotten better. Literacy rates worldwide have grown. Standards of living have risen. Crime has declined. We live in nothing short of a golden age of invention, entrepreneurship, and technology.

A gilded age. All true. But all completely and utterly irrelevant to the problem I'm endeavoring to describe. Please, please make an effort to understand what I'm saying; it's important. The problem I'm describing is not reliably reflected in sociological or partisan issues. Of course it seems bizarre, to someone strolling down the bustling, famous, elite avenues of New York City, San Francisco, London, or Paris, to hear we are falling in a moral abyss. I understand the attitude. I get it: our society is deeply impressive, yes, in many ways. I'd say we live in a gilded age.

If this is your reaction, I want to grab you metaphorically by the collar and shake some sense into you, because you don't comprehend at all. The outward trappings of civilization in the centers of power mean nothing to the character of the everyday person in the civilization. Surely, if you are liberally educated or have some moral sense, you must know this.

FoolLand

 

3. We need to change

The challenges of parenting in the 21st century. So many parents lack a knowledge of the religious texts, the literature, the history, and the philosophy teaching such virtues. They have a weak grasp of the concepts and of the language needed to pass them on. Above all, they lack the virtues within themselves to teach them by example. Consequently, parents today produce children that must struggle to learn the qualities of character they so desperately need to know to lead decent, contented lives and ultimately maintain our civilization. And not surprisingly, we parents fail a lot, even if we try. It was always so, I'll be told. Perhaps, but it's gotten worse, a lot worse. The virtues were already weakened in our own parents' generation.

Keeping up with the equally decadent Joneses. I admit that the problems I'm describing here might seem relatively unimportant "first world problems." Your family is not homeless, probably nobody is strung out on drugs, the children are loved by their parents (whether together or divorced), etc. You're doing fine. In that case, then yes, OK: you're doubtless doing just fine compared to the Joneses. But you and the Joneses and everybody else together are living in a weakened version of Western civilization. I fear we are living on borrowed time, running on the fumes of the Enlightenment. The moral fiber within each of us has weakened, and in some it has thinned to the breaking point.

What is to blame for mass murders. It breaks in various startling ways. It was, for example, the recent shooting in Roseberg, Oregon, of nine innocent people, that inspired this cri du coeur.

Here's why I don't blame guns for mass murders. We went through generations in which guns were much less restricted than they are now, and we did not have regular mass shootings. Blame, instead, our moral abyss. We need to begin by blaming ourselves, our bad habits, and above all our utter foolish incomprehension about the way freedom, responsibility, and morality work in the world. After these atrocities, all too often we see hear stories that a brazen killer was "a nice guy" and good citizen and seemed normal enough. To be sure, sometimes the evil among us hide their evil thoughts and habits very well. But I think more often the actual behavior of those people is just not morally judged, period.

The rejection of responsibility makes the atrocities possible. The fact that we must look to societal causes rather than within the souls of the murderers—that is of course what these people are, after all, cold-blooded, soulless killers—is a profoundly deep part of the problem that brings these monsters into existence. If they had been raised in a society in which they were taught to take responsibility for themselves, in which the tools in their hands are not blamed, but instead the characters that wield them, then they might have found within themselves the moral wherewithal to resist the temptation to take out their frustrations on innocent others.

We are the abyss. I blame the monsters first and foremost. I also blame their parents and the abysmally amoral society they were brought up in, without which they would not seek to lash out as they do. "There but for the grace of God go I," says the lovely, humble Christian sentiment. I do blame the abyss. But we are the abyss, all of us. The abyss is in the killers, it is in their parents, and it is in me, and you, and almost everyone in this utterly degenerate old world.

We need to change.

If we find a purpose in the so many senseless killings of innocents, let it be a call to all of us, a call from somewhere outside of the abyss, so that we may all climb out of it. We need to stop making excuses for our moral failings. We need to own up to them, hang our heads in shame, support each other in correcting them, and improve our souls and improve our society.

We need to regain our moral sense.

rabbits

A video of this post (play it with close captions on):


Infobitt's Future, and Mine

I've just posted the following announcement to the big Infobitt mailing list.

=======

Friends,

I have some unfortunate news. While I don’t wish to give up on Infobitt, we have run out of money. I’ve let the programmers go, and I’m looking for a job myself. But I'll still be contributing, and I hope you will too.

Before I say anything else, let me say thank you to the investors, my advisers (especially Terrence Yang), and especially the contributors. Thanks also to Vivy Chao, who has written the daily updates very well; Tim Chambers, who provided the awesome audio editions; and Ben Rogers, our technical adviser. And, of course, the readers!

Infobitt deserves to be rescued. It’s got an active, committed community, it’s an awesome idea, it works quite well at a small scale, and I'm confident it can be made to work at a large scale. So we’re very much open to new opportunities for Infobitt. Maybe you can help? I’ll explain how below.

Contents of this mail:

• If you keep at it, so will I
• What’s the core problem?
• Why I'm still excited about Infobitt
• What does Infobitt need?
• Potential partners
• How it can happen
• If not Infobitt: gigs I’d like to consider
• Idea 1: write Philosophy for Children and create a complete set of free philosophy videos for kids to go with it
• Idea 2: making educational videos for little kids—a free online preschool

Please do continue contributing to Infobitt!

If you keep at it, so will I.

If you continue to support Infobitt by writing bitts, adding facts, and so on, then I will too. I do hope that in the next few weeks or months, we’ll re-emerge, re-invigorated, with a new configuration of people who can really make things happen fast.

What’s the core problem?

1. Why don’t we do a proper launch? Because the software works OK only at a small scale. It desperately needs certain features if we are to benefit from the massive traffic we’d get after a proper launch. If we launched now, we simply wouldn’t be able to absorb the new arrivals. (That’s what happened after my Reddit AMA.)

2. So why don’t we just code up the features we need? Because our outsourced software is buggy, complicated, and lacks automated tests, all of which means it’s hard to maintain, and would become more so as we add more (badly needed—see below) features.

3. So why don’t we just raise the money? Because we’re out of money, which makes fundraising very hard. Besides, we need an active, productive team to raise money, and at this point it’s just me, a sole founder.

4. So why don’t I get some co-founders? Yes, just my thinking...read on.

Why I'm still excited about Infobitt:

• Unlike every other news startup I know of, we are actively, daily creating a purely volunteer, Wikipedia-like front page news site. Infobitt works as no other crowdsourced news startup does. It's been working, in its current version, for about a year now—really working, even if our traffic numbers are still small. That can change (see below).

• People are still working on it, and not just a few, but over 25 every week, and that's on an obscure project that still hasn't been properly launched and is rarely discussed in the media. Regularly, I see old hands getting excited again and new people getting into it. We are onto something.

• I absolutely love your loyalty and I don't forget the people who have helped my projects. You are the lifeblood of Infobitt.

• I've seen evidence of deeper support for Infobitt from outside our active community. There are people waiting in the wings, waiting for the software to get better, waiting to be able to share their work, waiting for it to get easier (e.g., a browser plugin to add facts by selecting text on a page and pressing a button to add to Infobitt), etc.

• When I work more on it, you do. If I were enabled to work full time just on growing the community—if I had the time to write 10 bitts per day, comment and add facts, do more tweeting and blogging, and especially if we were launched and I could do interviews about it, then the community would grow like gangbusters.

What does Infobitt need? So...why aren't we there yet?

• We need a better API. (Our automatically-created Python/Django API lacks many features, although it works.)
• Then we need apps (which use the API). (But a high school kid has actually made one based on our existing API, but it’s not released yet.)
• We need to add some insanely obvious features:

• Fact editing!
• View counts!
• Choose a bitt's rank from within the bitt!
• Social sharing!
• FB/Twitter login.
• Email notices.
• Automatic newsletters.
• Tags/categories.
• Browser plugin to start/expand bitts quickly.
• We've also got serious bugs to fix.
• Any one of these would inject new life into the project. All of them would make this a popular and growing website, I think.

• Then, we need to be properly launched.
• We've got to make the software faster and more resilient for when high traffic arrives.
• I’ve got to start doing interviews. But first we need to be positioned to benefit.

To be brutally honest, I never should have tried to start a startup as a sole founder. I need others on board as partners, who are passionately committed to our mission and to making it a success. I'm doing too many jobs at once, when my forte, what I need to be focused on, is community and project development.

Potential partners. I assume that many of Infobitt’s best potential partners will be reading this, or will know people who are reading this—and you can forward this mail to them. Here is what we need:

• Awesome engineers: Python/Django, Javascript/Angular, PostgreSQL. Solid sysadmin type skills, including experience on AWS, would be most welcome. Somebody who can improve our API so people can make full-featured apps around our (open content) data. Maybe more exciting would be somebody who is inspired (and, of course, positioned) to write Infobitt from scratch, in a more reliable form.

• Designers. (But we need engineers on board first, to be able to use design work.)

• Maybe eventually one or two community people to help me.

How it can happen. Here are some categories of people or organizations who might be interested in joining me and helping to turn Infobitt around:

• Remarkable individuals, especially those are free to work for equity or who might want to buy into the company. Especially awesome engineers who are on top of Python/Django, Javascript/Angular, PostgreSQL, sysadmin, AWS.

• Existing startups, or idle startup teams, that want to pivot to Infobitt, who are interested in working with me. Again, free to work for equity or who want to buy into the company.

• Big nonprofits or fast-moving universities (ha ha). Theoretically, we could become nonprofit, open source, and open content. This would probably make it easier for Infobitt to succeed, assuming the project funding were adequate, but Infobitt's investors obviously would like to make money.

• An investor that wants to buy Infobitt, build a team, and will hire me (with significant equity) and assign me to work on it.

Such people (or entities) would have to buy a major stake in the company and, presumably, hire me as an employee. I’m cool with that.

As far as I'm concerned, everything is on the table. I’ll be interested in anything that has a reasonable chance of making Infobitt a success.

Other gigs I’d like to consider

If nobody bites on Infobitt, here are some opportunities that would intrigue me:

• Full-time worker on somebody else’s startup. Community leader, project manager, or you tell me. I’d prefer to work from home most of the time.

• Adviser. For the right sort of project, I can help a lot. I’m an endless fount of ideas and very useful critical feedback.

• Writer/analyst/advocate. About education, homeschooling, very early reading, the Internet, rescuing the Enlightenment, philosophy, etc. (from a libertarian, rationalist perspective, if relevant). I’m also a practiced public speaker. I’m interested in working for a nonprofit advocacy group.

I'd be excited to execute either of a couple ideas I've had:

Idea 1: write Philosophy for Children and create a complete set of free philosophy videos for kids to go with it
I started writing an intro to philosophy for elementary students, a chapter book, back in 2012. Here’s the first chapter. I’d love to finish it quickly, and use the text to make the world’s first complete set of videos about philosophy for kids approximately 5-10 years old. Here’s the first video. It would take about three months for me to finish if I work on it full time.

Thing is, to support this project, I need at least $17,500. I’d love to do this and make the next generation a bit more hip to the liberal arts and the Enlightenment. I started designing a Kickstarter about this, but I haven't finished it.

Idea 2: making educational videos for little kids—a free online preschool
Are you a philanthropist? Want a high-impact way to support online education for kids everywhere? Pay me me to make 2-3 videos per day like these. Most of those 24 videos got over 10,000 views after a few years, and my top ten have over 50,000 views apiece (with one at 750K). They’re easy for me to make, I’m good at it, and I love to do it. Also, my 4-year-old will beta-test for free! I envision a library of thousands of videos like these...think of it as an awesome free online preschool. By the way, if you want to pay me per video, to make sure I don’t waste your money, let’s do it!

Please continue contributing to Infobitt!

All the best,
Larry


I kept my "no social media during work" pledge just fine

As I wrote in my last blog post,

I’m pledging to abandon social media networks when I am at work, except for narrowly defined work purposes. And I’m asking you to hold me to it and slag me mercilessly if you catch me at it! And I’m inviting you to take the pledge, too!

Yep, so for one day at least—and for many more, I still intend—I didn't do any social media at work. I could have done some related to work, but I didn't have any I wanted to do, so I didn't.

I've had a tremendously productive day so far! (Among other things I promoted a plan to get people to write a bunch of one-fact bitts quickly; and I also started a list of our "beat writers," six listed so far, under the first question of our FAQ. Sorry, you may have to log in in order to see this.)

But, sadly, nobody, not even a single person, took this "No Social Media at Work" pledge. Oh, well! I'll continue myself, anyway!


No Social Media During Work! Take the pledge NOW!

Social media is a time suck. I'm not as bad as some, but I need to focus better. I think a lot of us do, frankly. Don't you agree? Then let's start a No Social Media During Work campaign!

I'm pledging to abandon social media networks when I am at work, except for narrowly defined work purposes. And I'm asking you to hold me to it and slag me mercilessly if you catch me at it! And I'm inviting you to take the pledge, too!

Here is my pledge. This feels like a big step. Here goes!

I pledge, as of NOW, to abandon social media networks when I'm at work! Pledge with me!

I am at work weekdays at least from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Eastern, taking noon until 1 p.m. for lunch; and also from 9:00 p.m. until 11 p.m.; on Infobitt.

I want to do as well as I can on it! So I hereby pledge to abandon social media networks when I am at work. Hold me to it and slag me mercilessly (after your work) if you catch me at it!

I am @lsanger on Twitter, larry.sanger on Facebook, Larry Sanger on Quora, and Larry Sanger on YouTube. Hold me to my pledge!

Exceptions are very, very narrowly limited to: posts and discussion about Infobitt; also, holidays and declared sick days.

Checking for responses on any network is permitted only if I recently posted something work-related, and I might actually get a response.

I also promise to track my friends' pledges. If I notice a broken pledge, I will call them on it!

If you, too, want to take the pledge, then post a copy of your pledge to all social media networks you spend time on. Feel free to double down by adding your pledge to the bottom of this pagehttp://larrysanger.org/2015/06/take-the-pledge/ . Make sure to include your pledge somewhere on your user page, not just as a separate post, so you and others will not forget your pledge. Do make a video of yourself (here's mine) reading a written version of your pledge on any video networks of yours, like YouTube.

Work hard, and then play hard!

Wow. I hope this is the right decision. I think it is. It feels like a big one. I'm actually very excited!

OK, are you ready to take the "No Social Media During Work" pledge with me? Come on, DO IT! Not only will you get more work done and feel better about yourself, if you post it publicly on all your networks, then you can help improve the productivity of the world! And you can publicize your own social media presence. It's a massive win for everybody!

Come on, somebody write an app to catch me and others in violations, and I'll use it (the iPhone version) and link to it!

Here's a pledge form you can fill out:

I pledge, as of NOW, to abandon social media networks when I'm at work! Pledge with me!

I am at work weekdays at least [ list your work hours; list breaks if you want, though I didn't list any, except for lunch] on [your company, project, school, etc.—optional].

I want to do as well as I can on it! So I hereby pledge to abandon social media networks when I am at work. Hold me to it and slag me mercilessly (after your work) if you catch me at it!

I am ___ on Twitter, ___ on Facebook, [ list other social networks similarly]. Hold me to my pledge!

Exceptions are very, very narrowly limited to: [ list exceptions as carefully as necessary]; also, holidays and declared sick days.

Checking for responses on any network is permitted only if I recently posted something work-related, and I might actually get a response.

I also promise to track my friends' pledges. If I notice a broken pledge, I will call them on it!

If you, too, want to take the pledge, then post a copy of your pledge to all social media networks you spend time on. Make sure to include your pledge somewhere on your user pages, not just as a separate post, so you and others will not forget your pledge. Do make a video of yourself reading a written version of your pledge on any video networks of yours, like YouTube.

Work hard, and then play hard!

Well, are you in?