Jimmy Wales on advertisement

A comment in Wired UK has Jimmy Wales saying this:

Sanger was absolutely adamant that Wikipedia must have ads, and it was my refusal to do so that led to Wikipedia being as it is today. The Spanish fork did not provoke any changes of any kind. We stayed the course. I didn't want to have advertising, and I found ways to avoid it -- the Spanish fork was an important event in the history of Wikipedia, but not in the sense of "provoking change".

The suggestion that I demanded ads and that Jimmy Wales was opposed to them is, I am afraid, yet another self-serving lie from Wales.  The lie is again, sad to say, designed to inflate his own reputation at the expense of mine.  It is also brazen, because he knows that there are at least three people--Tim Shell, Terry Foote, and me--who can provide a more accurate story.  This is not to mention words from the man himself from 2002, which you can find at the bottom of this post.
The facts of the matter are these.  Nupedia and, later, Wikipedia began life as side-projects of the ad-driven for-profit business Bomis, Inc.  It was my full-time job to start and lead both projects, while Wales was, of course, CEO of Bomis and relatively uninvolved with the projects while I was on board.  But Wales was the one to make the business decisions (along with Tim Shell, partner and co-owner of Bomis).  From the beginning, Wales let me know in no uncertain terms that, once it garnered enough traffic, Nupedia would become ad-supported.  This would of course also be true of Wikipedia when it started, because Wikipedia started as a side-project of Nupedia.  Frankly, this funding model made me nervous from the beginning, and I said so to Wales on several occasions: I was always uncomfortable with the idea of a for-profit concern, that would pay for my own job, being built on the backs of volunteers.  I still am.
At some point in 2001, it had become quite clear that the nature of the participants and the project itself was such that the encyclopedia would have to become non-profit.  This is something that I had asked for early on.
But the plan to sell ads did not change; after all, as Wales himself argued, plenty of non-profit concerns are partly supported by ads, such as PBS and National Geographic.  Our line was that the ads would be best described as low-key, unobtrusive "sponsorships" and not as "ads" per se.  The question came up from time to time about when we would start running ads (or sponsorships), but Wales' original line, that we would not run ads until we could start making a significant amount of money from them, held good through the end of 2001.  I agreed with this, because I knew that ads would be unpopular with contributors (and made me a little uncomfortable as well; this was just before Google Ads got started).  Even when the site was approaching its first 20,000 entries and had had the benefit of coverage in The New York Times and Technology Review, traffic was still not high enough to warrant running ads.
Then, toward the end of 2001, Bomis lost a major, million-dollar contract with the old Go.com portal--all on account of the collapse of the Internet bubble--and Bomis had to lay off the half-dozen or so people they had hired in 2000 and 2001.  I was the last of these people to be laid off, Tim Shell told me.  But, around the time Shell informed me--in December 2001--that I would soon be laid off, I was also assured by Wales that he would finally have Terry Foote try to sell ads to support my position.  This was something that Wales and I discussed together and, he led me to believe, we both agreed on.  I was still uncomfortable with the idea of ads being run to support me, even in a non-profit context.  I do vaguely recall that Wales said that he didn't think they'd have much luck, because the market for Internet ads had almost disappeared.
After a month or two, however, I had no news from Wales.  Eventually he told me that they had had no luck in selling ads, and that I shouldn't expect money from that avenue.
I invite Jimmy Wales to offer refutations of specific claims I have made in this account.  One thing he is specifically wrong about is that he was opposed to selling ads, because doing so had been his design from the beginning of the project.  The decision not to sell ads was announced only after I had resigned from the project.  He was still far from stalwart in his opposition to ads; I went to the Wikipedia-l archives and found this mail from Jimmy Wales, which I reproduce in full:

[Wikipedia-l] Advertisements
Jimmy Wales jwales at bomis.com
Fri Mar 1 20:44:26 UTC 2002
With the resignation of Larry, there is a much less pressing need for funds.  Therefore, all plans to put advertising of any kind on the wikipedia is called off for now.
We will move forward with plans for a nonprofit foundation to own wikipedia, and possibly to solicit donations and grants to help us carry out our mission.  (Ironically, I think that grant money would come with many annoying strings attached, which we could not accept, comparted to advertising money, which is virtually 100% string-free.)
Just as the National Geographic Society is supported in large part by advertisments in the National Geographic Magazine, I expect this to be a potentially necessary thing at some point in the future, if we wish to have an impact beyond our own little corner of the Internet.  (And, I think we all do.)
But for now, there's no pressing need unless and until we find chaos descending on us from the lack of constant oversight.
The hosting of Wikipedia I can continue to do for no charge for the foreseeable future.  Even if Wikipedia traffic were to grow by a factor of 10, I would be willing to absorb all the bandwidth and hardware costs.  If it grows beyond a factor of 100 or 1000, obviously, alternative solutions would have to be found.

So, according to Wales on March 1, 2002, just after I resigned, Wales clarifies again that there had been "plans to put advertising" on Wikipedia, but that advertisements might still become a "potentially necessary thing at some point in the future."

And if there is any question that Jimmy Wales himself was in favor of advertisement prior to this declaration, consult this Wikipedia-L post from February 2, 2002, where he says, "However, with the ongoing hard times in the Internet economy, we do anticipate adding some forms of advertising to the site in the near future."

UPDATE: some Wikipedians attempted to press Wales on this issue; he ended up deleting the discussion.

WatchKnow's new FREE app

WatchKnow has finally released its iApp.  Not that I am biased or anything (I did design it), but I think it is one of the best educational apps in the app store.

More details anon.

Johnson v. Your Baby Can: not much of a case

I finally got my hands on the court filing for Johnson v. Your Baby Can.  The case number is BC450907 and it was filed in Superior Court of Los Angeles County on December 8, 2010.  My initial assessment is that no jury is going to find for the plaintiff if this is the case; the case is threadbare, and on several points, laughably so.  I'll be a little surprised if it actually goes to trial.

Let me state first, once again, that I have no financial or other relationship with Your Baby Can or Robert Titzer, except that I arrange for the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi to purchase copies of YBCR to place in Memphis-area preschools, we are helping a group at the University of Memphis to conduct a controlled scientific study of YBCR, and I personally have exchanged many messages with Dr. Titzer and am a satisfied customer.  While I don't necessarily support Your Baby Can and Dr. Titzer in all of their claims, my disagreements are relatively unimportant and hardly grounds for a lawsuit.  I'm writing this because I'm highly interested in the case, personally, and I want to make sure I understand the issues very well.  I'm sharing the results of my analysis with you.

The suit rests crucially on the claim that Titzer and the Your Baby Can company (YBC) have sold Your Baby Can Read using claims that are false and misleading, not just unproven.  I think that some of the claims they make are plausible but not scientifically proven.  To make their case, the plaintiff must show that the claims are not just unproven, which is fairly easy to support, but false.  And how could they possibly do that, if no relevant studies have yet been completed and published?  Well, it depends on what claims they make.  So, what claims do Titzer and YBC make that are, according to the plaintiffs, false?  Let's see.

In the "Summary of Action" section (p. 2), there is, first of all, this general claim:

Defendants claim that the Your Baby Can Read! System will have a positive and permanent effect on a child's life. Defendants further state that the program can teach infants as young as three months old to read by as early as nine months old.

I wonder what the court, and jury, will regard as the item in contention here.  Which of the following claims would make the case, exactly?

1. No babies able to read (after some period of use), using YBCR.  (This is false.)
2. Only a few babies, a tiny number, are able to read, using YBCR.  (This has not been studied in peer-reviewed papers, and is probably false.)
3. Some babies, but not all, are able to read, using YBCR.  (This is true.)
4. Not all (not 100%) of babies are able to read, using YBCR.  (This is also true.)

It is surely very easy to establish claim (4), but what jury would award the case to the plaintiff on that basis?  If they opt for claim (1), they'll easily lose the case.  Are they gunning for claims (2) or (3)?

Another point of vagueness lies in the definition of "read," a point surprisingly glossed over in the brief.  (It doesn't look like the plaintiff's lawyers had the benefit of advice from actual reading experts.)  What if, as I think is probably the case, most babies who use the program to the end can read a few dozen words from memory, though they cannot yet sound out words phonetically, while a few babies can even sound out words phonetically?

And then there is the issue of time frame.  After how much time should babies be able to read, whether by memorizing whole words or phonetically?  Dr. Titzer is quoted (p. 14) as saying that six-month old babies require about six months before parents "notice some impact, some results," but some babies take longer.

The plaintiff actually seems to want to make the claim that there is a unanimous consensus (p. 3) of experts that "children using the Your Baby Can Read! System are not reading at all [!], but memorizing the shapes of letters."  First of all, I happen to know that the claim about unanimous consensus is quite simply false.  I personally know of a few legitimate experts who I'm pretty sure would disagree that children using YBCR "are not reading at all"; and I have heard of other supportive experts as well.  The fact that the Today Show's producers (the plaintiff's case actually rests a lot of argumentation on that deeply flawed Today Show segment), who were obviously deeply biased against YBCR, did not bring any such experts onto their show does not mean that they did not exist.

Anyway, the quotation above makes it sounds like they are going to endorse claim (1), which would be fun to refute in court.  In other words, if the crucial claim is that no children can learn to read phonetically using YBCR, the plaintiff's case is going to collapse.  It is easy to find quite a few instances of tiny tots, who used YBCR, reading phonetically.  The YBC company should be able to bring several such instances into court.  The existence of such early readers is something, I am guessing, the supposed experts were simply ignorant of.

I've illustrated just how vague the denial of efficacy is, and how easy it is to establish a few senses in which children are able to read, using YBCR, from an early age.  But, to return to the first quotation from above, will this have  "a positive and permanent effect on a child's life"?  Well, it depends, of course.  What if a child simply learns to memorize a few words by age 12 months, and the parents thereafter don't read much to him or otherwise foster the child's literacy?  Then I wouldn't be at all surprised if the early experience memorizing some words had a negligible long-term effect.  But then there are plenty of children, like mine, who got an excellent start on reading with YBCR, and with proper support went on to read at an advanced level well before Kindergarten.

I'm not too familiar with the law, but I'd be surprised if the law would allow a group of people to sue Dr. Titzer simply because they used the program and, for whatever reason, it did not have "a positive and permanent effect" on their children's lives.  Unless there is a guarantee of this, then you pays your money and you takes your chances, as with any number of other educational and health products.  The only way the plaintiff can make the case persuasively, I think, is if they can establish that there is a preponderance of evidence that YBCR had "a positive and permanent effect" on no child's life, or on a very small number of children's lives.  That would be hard for the plaintiff to show persuasively, and I'm not even sure that this is a grounds for a suit, because (as far as I can tell) the basic claim of Dr. Titzer and Your Baby Can is that children can learn to read, not that they are positively and permanently benefitted thereby.  After all, if you have, say, an 18 month old who has started to sound out new words, and if by age five that child has not benefitted from being able to read four years earlier, then whose fault is that, really?  The blame surely can't be pinned on the company that actually helped your child to read at an early age.

For these reasons, I doubt the plaintiffs will want to rest their case mainly on the strength of a vague attack on some vague claim about the efficacy of YBCR.  They will argue for a whole pattern of deceptiveness.  So let's see what other claims they're portraying as "false and misleading."  They have a useful list of claims on p. 3.

"The Your Baby Can Read! System can teach your three-month old to read by the time the child is only nine months old."

This is presented as obvious hucksterism, but the plausibility of the claim depends entirely on what is meant by "read."  Obviously, it's not very plausible that babies can read new words phonetically at nine months.  But they can show that they recognize words, as when a nine-month old raises her hands when she sees the words (not read aloud by alone) "arms up."  This is, after all, the first step in actual reading, even if it does not meet more stringent definitions.  The plaintiff would have to establish that Dr. Titzer and YBC were trying to get people to believe their product could do more than this.  Surely they can't build a persuasive case on what experts insist the word "read" must mean, despite the fact that plenty of people are willing to use the word in a more "loose and popular" way.

"The Your Baby Can Read! System can enchance your child's learning ability."

This is a gimme: once it is established that a child has learned to read phonetically at an early age (again, many examples of this can be produced), it follows that his or her ability to learn is improved.  The argument will be simple and persuasive to any jury: if a child is able to read phonetically, then he can read independently of his parents.  Since the claim is put in terms of "can," not "must" (or "is guaranteed to"), you simply need to trot out a few cases, I'd think.  That's enough to establish possibility.

"The Your Baby Can Read! System is an appropriate tool for teaching your infants with Down's syndrome or autism to read from a very young age."

Well, let's get this straight.  The fact that Dr. Titzer has said that he has observed some 18-month olds with Down's syndrome actually reading does not mean that he or the Your Baby Can company assert that it is an appropriate tool, much less an appropriate therapy, for Down's syndrome.

Putting that aside, the claim in bold above might sound bizarre and unlikely, unless you know that Glenn Doman has been having similar results with such children since the 1960s.  Let's suppose that Dr. Titzer can establish that children with Down's syndrome can learn to read with YBCR (e.g., bringing in a two-year old child with Down's syndrome who reads Biscuit to the court).  This goes a long way to establishing that it is "an appropriate tool" for them; I would think that the burden would then be on the plaintiffs to show that it is inappropriate to successfully teach a child with Down's syndrome to read at an early age.  I'm not a doctor and don't pretend to have interesting opinions on therapies for children with birth defects, but that doesn't sound very plausible to me.

"The Your Baby Can Read! System can prevent your child from developing dyslexia and other learning disabilities."

Surely Dr. Titzer and YBC have not stated that YBCR can prevent your child from developing dyslexia.  There is only a quote on p. 11 from Dr. Titzer saying, "For dyslexia, the most common reading disorder, a lot of the children do not look at the words from left to right.  [The YBCR DVDs] can help prevent that problem, because they're being taught, as babies, to look at words from left to right."  All he said is that they can help prevent the problem.

Besides, the fact that Dr. Titzer has said in an interview something that loosely implies the claim in bold does not imply that he and Your Baby Can have guaranteed the claim, or rested their marketing on that basis.  I thought I knew a lot about YBCR, but this is the first time I've heard this claim.

Obviously, this hasn't been proven in scientific studies, but I'm sure Your Baby Can will be able to bring in a few experts who will be able to testify that difficulty understanding that reading goes left-to-right is one of the sources of dyslexia, and that YBCR helps train the reader to read left-to-right.

"The early your child learns the better reader your child will be."

While we don't yet have hard scientific evidence of this going back to the earliest ages, there are a number of studies of ordinary precocious readers--meaning ones that started before kindergarten, between the ages of 3 and 5--indicating just this.  The students who arrive in Kindergarten being able to read are still doing better than their age peers in third or sixth grade, and they do even better if they started at age 4, and better still if they started at age 3.  That, anyway, is what I recall from Dolores Durkin's book on the subject, and she is not the only one to have found this.  See Part 2, Section 12 of my essay (How and Why I Taught My Toddler to Read) for a brief review of the relevant literature.

So while, in a scientific context, this claim should not be made forthrightly and uncritically with respect to babies, it is defensible to make it in less formal contexts.  Surely the standards for advertising are not as stringent as the standards for scientific publishing.

"If your child starts school with an advantage they will keep that advantage all the way through school and vice-versa."

First, I'm not sure where Dr. Titzer has said any such thing.  There's nothing in the plaintiff's filing that has him saying this.  Let's suppose he has said it, though.

The issue, with respect to reading (which is of course the "advantage") mentioned, has not been well studied.  But in my own admittedly amateur review of the literature, I found nothing to contradict this claim with respect to early reading, and it seems to be supported (albeit weakly) at least through sixth grade.  So as far as I know, the best the plaintiffs can say is that this claim is made without adequate scientific proof.  Does the law require that all claims made in advertising have adequate scientific proof?

So much for the list of "false and misleading representations."  The plaintiffs then make another claim I want to address.  They say, "While Defendants maintain that numerous scientific studies support the use of the Your Baby Can Read! System, no such studies exist." (p. 3)  Later, they clarify this by quoting the exchange in the Today Show segment about YBCR in which Dr. Titzer says, "We have a book full of studies that support the use of our program. It's literally thicker than this."  Jeff Rosen then reports: "But instead of published research on Your Baby Can Read!, he sent us this customer satisfaction survey conducted by his own company, along with general studies about child learning that experts we spoke to say he's twisting and taking out of context."

I believe I'm somewhat familiar with the studies that Dr. Titzer sent along, if it's the same that he sent to me.  It turns out that both Dr. Titzer and Mr. Rosen are both correct, albeit only partially.  Dr. Titzer has indeed amassed a lot of research that could be used to make the case that YBCR might be effective, or that the success that parents have had with YBCR should not be surprising; but as Mr. Rosen correctly points out, the studies are general and do not specifically support YBCR.  What the Today Show evidently meant to look like a "gotcha" was really just an instance where Dr. Titzer rather defensively overstated his case, but not too badly, while Mr. Rosen entirely ignored the highly relevant fact that there are indeed a lot of satisfied customers of YBCR.

I could go on, but I'm sure I've already written too much.  In sum, the plaintiff's case as stated here is threadbare indeed.

Class action lawsuit against YBCR

UPDATE 1: my apologies.  I thought this was news, but it actually isn't.  I ran across this Courthouse News Service story, and the plaintiff is a Tondia Johnson, not Matthew Melmed (as I mistakenly wrote), and the dateline of the Courthouse News Service story is December 9, so it's month-old news.  As CNS says:

The class seeks restitution and punitive damages deceptive trade, unjust enrichment and breach of contract - the "perpetuation of the elaborate hoax on parents across the country." They are represented by Marc Reich with Reich Radcliffe & Kuttler.

In a Class Action Central report, it sounds as if they are resting on the Today Show report about YBCR. See my discussion of the Today Show segment, which was ridiculously biased.

If the litigants are suing on the basis of that, they'll fail, big time. The report even says, "The experts all agree that children cannot really learn to read until they are 4 or 5 years old because the brain has yet to develop the cognitive ability." That children can learn to read before the age of four, using YBCR, is one the easiest things to prove, out of all the possible criticisms one can make of YBCR. There are lots and lots of kids who have learned to read before the age of 4, who used YBCR.

By the way, just to be clear, I have no relationship to YBCR myself. I am a supporter and satisfied customer, so much so that the non-profit I work for has purchased copies of the kits to place in Memphis-area preschools, and we are sponsoring a study of the program's efficacy. This is one of five studies that I have heard about. I'm guessing that the studies are going to shame the supposed experts, as well as winning the case for YBCR against these money-grubbing lawyers.

As outrageous as this is, it could prove to be one of the best possible things that could happen for baby reading, especially if the case goes to trial.  It is hard to imagine that the class action suit would win, and if it goes to trial, the resulting exchange of arguments should be most illuminating.  I'm sure the plaintiffs will figure this out soon enough, however, and it won't actually go to trial.

UPDATE 2: it turns out that there was a Class Action Central report a month before the class action suit was announced in early December, touting the Today Show segment.  Verrry interesting.

UPDATE 3: here is my analysis of the court filing.  Bottom line?  Not very compelling.

WatchKnow Reader coding gets under way!

I'm really pumped now!  Technical development of WatchKnow Reader (tentative name) is now officially under way.  After months of planning, requirements writing, and demo'ing, we are now starting a proof of concept that the software can be coded in HTML5.  Yes, we're hoping to go with HTML5 so we can write the code just once, and then use it across all browsers and platforms.  After that we'll be diving into what I think will be the best free program to teach reading the world has seen.  You'll be able to use it on all major browsers or on your iPhone (etc.) or Droid machine.

The Reader app will have these features:

  • Around 40 word lists, each list corresponding to one (or a few) phonetic rules, and the lists arranged in order.  One presentation per word list.
  • Each word is sounded out slowly and quickly, then blended slowly and quickly.
  • The phoneme currently being read will always be highlighted, making it super-easy for kids to match up letters with sounds.
  • A person will read the word to the camera, so kids can actually see someone saying the word (this is off by default but can be turned on so it is always displayed).
  • After the word comes a picture (either a photograph or a realistic illustration--I think we'll have both, intermixed) that perfectly illustrates the word.
  • Then, the word will either be defined or used in a sentence that highlights its meaning.
  • The sentence will have its own picture, too.  Hopefully, we'll have some video as well.  (I'm very hopeful we'll hear back from a major stock photography company next week, that we'll be able to use their stuff free of charge.)
  • We'll have a whole variety of variations, too: you'll be able to skip the sounding-out; you'll be able to play only words, or only sentences; and there will be auto-play or manual play.

That's just a taste.  Well, let me know if you have any special requests!

Invitation to collaborate on encyclopedia article

Some time ago I started working on a Citizendium article titled, tentatively, "Accelerated early childhood education."  (Is there a better name for this subject?)  What is the Citizendium, you ask?  It's a wiki encyclopedia, like that other wiki, but it requires that you use your real name, and there is a low-key guiding role for experts in what is otherwise a free, open collaborative wiki.

So far, my article covers only early reading.  It could be expanded to talk about academic preschools, baby videos, Doman math dots, and various other subjects.  You'll see that I've tried to make the article neutral.  It lacks a lot of essential information and I'm sure it can be greatly improved.  If anybody wants to help out there, that would be wonderful!

It's not hard to sign up on the Citizendium (which I got started, by the way--but I'm no longer in any leadership role there, I'm just still a fan).  Just go here and sign up.  Somebody should give you authoring permissions within 24 hours.  Then you can edit my article (which will then be our article) or any other article on the system you like.  Or you can start a new one yourself!

Interview in Education News about infant reading

This morning, an interview I did a couple weeks ago appeared in Education News. The topic is the how and why of teaching babies to read.

It covers familiar ground to readers of this blog, but still might be interesting to those who are skeptical or puzzled about baby reading.

I am not Jewish (not one of the Frozen Chosen)

I am not Jewish, not that there is anything wrong with that!

OK, seriously, neither my mother nor my father (or any grandparents or great-grandparents) has, to my knowledge, any Jewish blood or religious heritage.  If we do, it must be a very small percentage.  I was raised Lutheran and, after annoying family members and former pastors, have since become a typical Ph.D. philosopher agnostic who, having taught philosophy of religion and been exposed to philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and William Alston, to say nothing of Catholic theologians, respects the possibility of being a rational believer.  Ethnically I know our family has substantial amounts of English, German, and French blood.  Our line of Sangers seems to have come from the New York Sangers, which spawned Margaret Sanger, but I have no known relation to her.

I have nothing whatsoever against Jewish folks.  I laughed when someone recently asked me, "Are you one of the Frozen Chosen?"  "Huh?" I asked.  "You know, Jews from Alaska."  But, for what it's worth, I have liked virtually every Jewish person I can recall knowing, and for the record, I support the right of the modern state of Israel to exist.  Moreover, anti-Semitism has long struck me as weird, but recently I think I've come to understand it a little better and now my attitude toward it is that it is completely indefensible.

Nevertheless, as part of the obsession, among some, with finding Jewish conspiracies everywhere, I have apparently been made an honorary Hebrew by idiotic anti-Semites because I helped get Wikipedia started.

If you type the name "Larry Sanger" into Google, the search engine will helpfully suggest the following:

larry sanger net worth [bwa-ha-ha-ha!!!]

larry sanger jewish

larry sanger twitter [how about that? I'm not at all big on Twitter]

larry sanger jew

jimmy wales larry sanger [no comment]

The Jew Larry Sanger

Apparently, people who search for my name often wonder if I am a rich Jew, or they suspect that I am.  So let's see what happens when we search Google for "larry sanger jewish," shall we?

You'll no doubt get the idea that, yep, Sanger really must be Jewish.  The first result is an article from RadioIslam.org, titled "The Jewish hand behind Internet [sic]" and authored by "Freedom Research."  If you scroll down, you'll see a picture of me looking awfully Jewish, and the text says, "Larry Sanger, one of the two recognized cofounders, is openly Jewish."  Really?  How did they figure that?  "In their rabblings of what different famous Jews are doing The Jewish Chronicle mentions Sanger in an article 'Larry Sanger... creates a new Wikipedia', The Jewish Chronicle, 26 October 2006, p. 10."  Well, of course, since I was interviewed by a Jewish newspaper, I must be Jewish -- openly Jewish.  (Not a closet Jew, I guess.)  Also, if Jimmy Wales is Jewish, that's news to me.  I'm pretty sure he isn't, but I'm sure there's a lot about Jimmy Wales I don't know. Once I tried to contact RadioIslam.org to tell them to remove my name from the piece.  I received no reply.  I did notice that they added the following near the beginning of their screed:

WARNING: Please note that the contents of some of the sites with revealing Jewish material we have linked to below, may be altered by the Jews in the future. Perhaps even information contrary to this document and Radio Islam will replace the original material we had linked to. This has happened before and for our part just illustrates the level of Jewish dishonesty.

Anyway, citing this clearly unimpeachable source, a number of other sources have said that I am Jewish.  There is even a Facebook page, "Wikipedia run by Jewish Zionists" (text from the RadioIslam.org article), among various forum comments that proclaim my Jewishness, with zero actual evidence.

Now, I would ignore all this stupidity, as any sensible person would, but I find it quite funny, and--I admit it--I like proving people wrong.  If I can deflate and mock some anti-Semites, by golly, what fun!

If I were a little more clever, I might add something profound to say about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, but what really would be the point?  Anti-Semites are banal and stupid, so there's not much to say, as far as I'm concerned.  Of course they're going to say that there is a "Jewish hand" behind the Internet.  Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.

By the way--Happy New Year!

Reviews of three classic children's novels

Recently I finished reading three classic children's novels to H.  We've been on a roll, reading quite a bit every night.  I don't know if there's much point to a non-literature guy pretending to write reviews of classic children's literature, but I did so on Amazon.  Of course, you'll learn more about me than you will about these books.

Pippi Longstocking 
by Astrid Lindgren

Excellent bedtime reading, December 29, 2010 

My 4-year-old son and I had lots of fun with this. Pippi is outrageous, fun-loving, irreverent, and good-hearted--just like many children, only more so. The book is a quick and not too challenging read, mainly because it addresses themes and ways of thinking that are distinctly childish. The main theme, repeated throughout, is how Pippi enjoys herself in spite of (even oblivious to) physical resistance or social convention, setting up absurd situations that obviously appeal to children (and lots of adults, too).

It's mainly a storybook. After the first chapter, it wouldn't matter much what order you read the stories in, although one point of continuity is that the children get to know Pippi better, as do the townspeople.

Although it's an excellent book and well deserves its status as a classic, it really wasn't among my top favorites. This is mainly because Pippi and her antics more or less represent a gimmick, and the gimmick, though well executed, does get old after a while (at least, for this adult). 

Old Yeller
by Fred Gipson

One of the standard-bearers of children's literature, December 29, 2010           

Old Yeller is simply one of the best children's novels there is. It really says something about a book if it can be thoroughly enjoyed by a 4-year-old boy, who probably identifies more with Arliss than Travis, as well his middle-aged Papa.

The language and detail of the book marks it as authentic; one gets the sense that the book was written as an autobiography, though it wasn't. Like the Little House books--although, arguably, better in this regard--it immerses the young reader in a time and place, impressing upon one just how important the details of place were when people lived "close to the land."

The lovely thing about this book is that it wonderfully develops the relationship between the boys and their dog, who turns out to be a canine hero. While this might sound banal or silly, the book is really anything but; it is great literature and seems perfectly realistic. It captures some of the best aspects of boyhood (and the realities of frontier life).

This is the sort of book that a zillion would-be "literary" entries lamely attempt to imitate. It is an enjoyable, fulfilling experience instead of a dry intellectual exercise.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
by Roald Dahl

A favorite of kids, December 29, 2010

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory deserves its status as a classic. Of three classics I recently read to my 4-year-old, all of which he liked, he loved this one the best. (The others were Pippi Longstocking and Old Yeller.) I give the book five stars in honor of his opinion, but I would probably give it four stars myself.

Wonka's chocolate factory, like many creatures of Dahl's imagination, is an impossible place, and it is probably only more intriguing and beloved by children for that reason. Wonka himself is zany and irrepressible, like many a kid who probably shouldn't be diagnosed ADD. Dahl's characters, with the sole exceptions of Charlie and his parents, are caricatures, something shown well by Quentin Blake's weird illustrations. (But frankly, I didn't care for the illustrations in this edition.)

Dahl's style has a sort of wild, unruly exuberance, together with dollops of nonsense, that appeals to kids, especially little boys like mine. Maybe I'm too much of a grown-up now, but it doesn't especially appeal to me, but I very much appreciate how it taps into the spirit of childhood. Besides, it was pretty fun to read it to my little boy, who clearly was enjoying himself.

Plans for WatchKnow Reader

All, finally I thought I'd tell you about my plans for what I'm tentatively calling WatchKnow Reader, and ask for your input.  I might ramble on -- apologies in advance.

As many readers of this blog know, I taught H. how to read largely by using a series of about 1,000 flashcards arranged into sets that illustrate different (increasingly difficult) phonics rules.  (The word list was taken from Rudolf Flesch's controversial pro-phonics polemic, Why Johnny Can't Read.)  I wanted to make phonics flashcards because I have long been convinced that learning the rules of phonics explicitly makes better readers of kids.  There were four words per page, as large as I could make them on the page, with an illustrative image on back (grabbed from somewhere online).

Now, I've seen a wide variety of flashcard tools, from hand-made and commercial flashcards, to PowerPoint presentations that simply replicate flashcard content, to fancier customizable things like Little Reader, to plain old videos that include the contents of flashcards.  Heck, Your Baby Can Read is basically just a series of fancy video flashcards, with some nice songs interspersed.  But I'm not merely setting out to build a better mousetrap.  If I thought the aforementioned tools could do the job well enough, I wouldn't bother with this.  But frankly, I don't think those tools do the job quite well enough.

There are a couple problems.  First, YBCR and Little Reader are both excellent, but they both cost money, and for some people, it's a significant amount of money.  Second, my flashcards are free, but it's a lot of work to download them, print them out, and cut them out.  Moreover, they don't have all the bells and whistles of something like YBCR, which would make them more interesting to a mass audience.  To the committed mommies I know online who as a serious hobby are teaching their kids to read, my flashcards are perfectly usable.  But to the many more people who, not being convinced, barely have time to make use of YBCR, they'd never consider such a tool.  In fact, ease of use is usually necessary, and will probably become only more so, for any Internet resource to get much traction -- and of all these tools, only YBCR and commercial flashcards are very easy to use.

For these reasons and others, I've been asked to develop a "free replacement for YBCR," although that isn't really how I think of WatchKnow Reader.  What I'm going to produce will be usable with beginning readers of all ages.

So, first, let me explain what my plans with Reader are, and then, I hope, you'll be able to give me specific requests about features you want.

To begin with, Reader will be a Macromedia Flash application (which we will port to an iApp, probably) that contains around 40 presentations.  In each presentation, there will be around 30 words, grouped phonetically.  (The first word five sets are CVC words for each of the five vowels; then there are the simplest blends, and so forth.)  For each word, say, "dog," my notion is that there will be the following slides:

  1. The word sounded out slowly, displayed karaoke style
  2. The word sounded out quickly, displayed karaoke style
  3. The word blended together slowly, displayed karaoke style *
  4. The word blended together at normal speed, displayed all at once*
  5. A picture or video illustrating the word (with voice-over)
  6. A sentence using the word, displayed karaoke style
  7. A picture or video illustrating the sentence
  8. Maybe the word (alone) again—same as 4
  9. After several words, to break things up, we might have something else, I’m not sure what (e.g., music and art).

* By default, on these slides, there would be a little “face” icon in the corner; clicking the face would bring up a video of a person saying the word at the normal speed.  If, in the options, the user chooses to display the person saying the word, it appears between slides 3 and 4.

The app will allow users to log in and track their progress, showing how many times a user has seen each set, remembering where they last left off in a set, making recommendations for the next presentation to look at, etc.  There would also be four or five different "modes" of viewing a presentation; there would be video mode, in which the user could do nothing but play, pause, or rewind, a simple mode without the sentences, and the full-fledged mode which would do 1-9 above (and other modes too).

If this reading tutorial works well, then as soon as the reading tutorial app is finished, I'll be turning to making a whole bunch of presentations similar to the ones you can see here (only better).

I've already put in a request for an estimate for the coding cost for a demo (the first set of words).  In January, we'll be working to create this demo.  A lot of the important decisions about this app will be made then.  So, please, if you have any comments, get them to me by early January!

Suggestions, comments, etc., please!

And now, just for fun, Jan Van Eyck's Madonna with the Child Reading -->

Bet you didn't know that Jesus was an early reader.  (Just kidding!)