Your Baby Can Read closes up shop

The companies behind Your Baby Can Read have, faced with daunting legal costs, gone out of business, according to this Facebook post and, now, the text on


For more than 6 years, Your Baby Can Read! has been enjoyed and appreciated by families world-wide as an innovative reading concept for babies and young children.

Regretfully, the cost of fighting recent legal issues has left us with no option but to cease business operations. While we vehemently deny any wrongdoing, and strongly believe in our products, the fight has drained our resources to the point where we can no longer continue operating.

To our thousands of loyal customers who have provided overwhelmingly positive feedback, and particularly to those who took the time to send written and video testimonials about the success stories of their children, we sincerely thank you for being such great champions of our products.

If you have questions regarding an existing order, please contact us at Until August 15, a customer service representative will be available to respond to your emails during business hours.

If you would like to purchase our products, you may be able to find them at

Based on all available public information, including my analysis of a court filing, I sincerely believe that there was no case. Nevertheless, Your Baby Can Read was proving too successful for the comfort of people whose views and practices of early education the program threatens. I am sure that their "expert" testimony made it possible for this case to gain some legal traction. Still, apart from those who actually support baby reading, I have yet to encounter a single expert in a related area--reading methods, developmental psychology, preschool education, etc.--who has commented on a careful examination even of a single case of a child who was taught to read using Your Baby Can Read, and similar methods like Doman's or dare I now add, Reading Bear. In short, the people trotted out as experts have no experience and hence no particular expertise in the phenomenon they comment on (baby reading). Sadly, however, such uninformed "expert" opinion can make a big difference in court.

I maintain that Your Baby Can Read played an important role in the very early reading ability of my first son, now six years old and reading chapter books meant for much older children. It is also an excellent and effective supplement to the program my second son, not yet two years old, is using. He is reading quite a few words now, including (but not limited to) those in Your Baby Can Read.

I will be very interested to learn what happens next with the company, the product, and Dr. Titzer. I wish them well, and I sincerely believe that, in time, they will be amply vindicated.

Dad & Junior find porn via a Wikipedia "Schools Gateway"

I thought I'd illustrate one of the "what could possibly go wrong?" scenarios, for people who (1) don't want to click on the nasty links and/or (2) lack imagination.


Opening shot: article about unfiltered porn on Wikipedia

Voiceover: The adult imagery is blurred in this video. Still, don’t watch it with your kids.

Man (voiceover): Wikipedia has porn? Surely not.

(switches to Wikipedia)

Man: What did he say, “fisting”? I don’t even know what that is.

(types in fisting)

Man: Oh! Boy! They have multimedia!

(clicks on magnifying glass in search box, then clicks “Multimedia”)

Man: Let’s see here… Oh my gosh. OK, yeah, well, it’s a real-life phenomenon, I guess. So that’s what fisting is. Wikipedia, you have disappointed me. How can I tell Junior to "go look it up on Wikipedia" now? But wait a second, didn't I see once something called "Simple Wikipedia"?

(types in

Man: Yeah…here we go…yeah, it says here, "The Simple English Wikipedia is for everyone! That includes children." So Junior shouldn't be able see any fisting in here. Oh, look at this, they have a "Schools Gateway."

(clicks on "Schools Gateway")

Man: Yeah, see, they wouldn't have such a page if they feared the wrath of schools. I mean, they could get in serious trouble, if they invited schools in and also hosted adult content here. (sounding uncertain) Right? Well, whatever.

Man (turning away from microphone): Junior! C’mere!

Junior (could be same person doing voiceover, but preferably turned away from microphone and in a boy's voice): What?

Man: Here's a place where you can search for images for those reports you were working on!

Junior: That’s cool.

(clicks on magnifying glass icon in search box, clicks on Multimedia)

Man: it's called "Simple English Wikipedia." They say it's for children, so, you could probably bookmark this one. Didn’t you make a list of things to search for? What’s the first one?

Junior: Yeah, OK. We’re growing different plants in science, and I’m growing a cucumber plant. So I need a cucumber picture for the title page of my lab report.

Man: Huh.

(types in “cucumber”; gets results)

Man: These look OK. You could use any of those.

Junior: No, I just want one cucumber by itself.

Man: Huh, well, OK.

(scrolls down; sees the nude lady)

Man: Oh my gosh.

(quickly backs up)

Junior: You didn’t see any cucumbers by themselves?

Man: Uh…no. (to himself) Well, that was probably just a fluke. It’s Wikipedia. You can’t expect perfection. (exhales) OK, so what else have you got?

Junior: In health, my group is doing a powerpoint presentation about dental hygiene. I’m supposed to find the pictures.

Man: All right, let’s get to work. What’s the first item on the list?

Junior: “Toothbrush.”

Man: Oh…kay.

(types in “toothbrush”)

Man: (not noticing the bad pic) So, there’s some toothbrushes…

Junior: What is that? Is that somebody using a toothbrush on his arm?

Man: Whoa!

(quickly backs up)

Man: Wow. OK. Well, maybe those were just flukes. Let’s just try one more.

Junior: What was that?

Man: Never mind. No more dental hygiene pictures. Anything else?

Junior: You could search for “Poseidon.” I’m supposed to write a report about him.

Man: OK, “Poseidon.” That sounds safe.

(types it in, hits enter; picture of naked lady is blurred)

Man: There we go.

Junior: Wow! Is that a naked lady?

Man: What the?

(quickly goes back)

Man: Oh, my god.

Junior: I don’t think that was Poseidon, Dad.

Man: You know what? Go away, Junior.

Junior: Whatever! I’ll just get on Mom’s computer.

Man: Wait, wait, do not do that yet. Just go play.

Junior: Good! OK, bye!

Man: (innocent-sounding encouragement) Yeah, you go have fun. (after a short pause) I wonder…

(types in “fisting”)

Man: (disgusted) Those are the same results I saw on the main Wikipedia search. Ugh. What kind of people run this website? God…

  • (Does these things, ad lib voiceover:
    goes to main page
  • clicks on “Wikipedia:Schools”
  • clicks on “talk”
  • types in: Porn on Simple English Wikipedia
  • types in: Shouldn't you at least tell schools that you've got a lot of porn here, so they can make an informed decision? -- Concerned Dad
  • save

Update about the boys, part 1 - June 2012

I'm due to give you an update about H.'s education. (I guess E. will be in a separate post, as before.) He has turned six. I'm looking forward to his being in the first grade (or that age), so I don't have to defend or make excuses about the amount of educational stuff I do with him. He still plays more every day than he studies. (Against critics, I'll only have to defend the level of material I present.) I'm also curious about the whole Ohio homeschooling registration process, and we'll be learning about that in a few months.

Anyway, there are big changes in our approach to many subjects, so here we go!

Our new review methods. About four months ago--I had been thinking vaguely about this for a lot longer--I decided that I wanted us finally to start reviewing what we had learned, somehow, so that H. would remember more. It's all very well to read a bunch of books, but if you don't remember what you read, you're mainly just going to pick up vague impressions, vocabulary, and random factoids. (This is, of course, how a lot of bright, educated people are.) One option, I figured, was the traditional review-and-examination method. I didn't give that much thought, because it seemed silly. What's the point of examination when the main thing you learn from is the review? Of course, I wasn't yet aware of the research that said that answering questions actually teaches things better than things like re-reading books, notes, etc. But on reflection that certainly made sense to me: actively recalling information will solidify memories better than simply passively reviewing it.

Anyway, I talked to Dr. Miles Jones one day about four months ago, and he said the general way to remember anything is to repeat it after you've learned it a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, and a year afterward. This sounded intriguing. Dr. Jones said very plausibly that it works, and people who follow this sort of method faithfully find their heads stuffed full of facts that most of us would normally forget. I saw that this was not just Dr. Jones' idea, but that it was well-supported by research in cognitive science. So I started making recordings, typically 1-3 minutes long, summarizing whatever I read to him. (Nobody summarized the stuff he read to himself.) There were on average 3-4 of these recordings produced per day, and after a month, we were spending 20-30 minutes every day listening to recordings from a day, a week, and a month earlier.

This had a few different effects. First, I really do get the sense that H. and I both remember what we read more keenly. I'm not sure how ready-to-mind specific answers about that material might be, but certainly the familiarity of the information seems to be greatly increased. Second, H. actually liked listening to recordings most of the time. I thought he'd quickly get tired of them, but he didn't. Occasionally he said he didn't want to listen, but not too often. He liked being reminded of what he knew. Why not? But, third, the only time in our schedule remaining to do such review was after dinner, and so ended up cutting into the time we spent on bedtime reading, which I find very annoying. (More details here.)

Then, about a couple weeks ago, I finally decided to try something that I have been exposed to mainly but not only through the wonderful community (see this thread). Thinking that it would save time, I decided instead of recording summaries, to record questions and then use software to test us on the answers, flashcard-style. Inspired by this great article, I started in Mnemosyne, then quickly switched to SuperMemo because I saw no easy way in Mnemosyne to reuse questions with baby E. when he gets old enough to read the same books. SuperMemo is very powerful software, but only a clunkiness-tolerant geek could really love it. (Turns out, I knew the programmer from Wikipedia and we're in contact.) Anyway, H. and I are sticking with Supermemo because it does the job we want done pretty well. It allows me to save the questions in an ever-expanding outline which greatly appeals to me. After recommendations I considered switching to Anki, but decided against it because it didn't have the outline feature, so I couldn't see how we could easily reuse the questions with E.

So the idea is that I write 3-6 questions-and-answers per reading (usually no more than four; very rarely more than six, if it's a very long and important reading, with many things I think H. should remember). Actually the first step is to record the questions and answers. I get H. to think of the answer just a few minutes after we've finished the reading. This, I've discovered, is important; if we don't do this, he simply draws a blank when we review the questions later in the day and doesn't connect the fact to the reading. It's like we're learning the fact from the card rather than from our memory of the reading. Anyway, later, I type the recorded Q&A into Supermemo, and by the end of the day I have added 12-15 cards to the stack. The answers are ideally one word long, but more often a phrase, and occasionally a sentence. I've mostly given up asking for short paragraph answers--he can do it, but it takes a long time and it seems not worth the effort. (The Supermemo guy, Piotr Wozniak, recommends against it, too.)

We have two review sessions a day, a longer one in the morning for review of a wide assortment of questions, and a shorter one in the evening which the software calls "final review," for questions added during the day and for questions insufficiently memorized in the morning session. (The questions are decided on automatically by the software's excellent algorithm.) The sessions are usually short enough, 15 minutes or so, with a daily time investment of 30-40 minutes, I think. The questions are shown regularly in the first few days after they are added to the database, then less frequently as time goes on, depending on how difficult they were to answer. You grade how well you answer each time: anywhere from "null" for when he couldn't remember anything on up through five levels to "bright" for quick, confident, detailed answers. H. scores "bright" for most questions that he has seen a couple times before, but the program's algorithm does a great job of showing questions just when you'll benefit most from the review. If you answer "bright" consistently, you'll see the question very seldom. If you forget something you knew well earlier, then you'll see the question more often until Supermemo is "satisfied" so to speak that you know it again--in which case it is shown less and less.

The result is quite interesting. We are exposed to information about history, geography, science, civics, and a few other subjects, all mixed together. H. and I can now remember things like the dates of James Buchanan's presidency (what? you didn't know that? 1857-61, of course!) or what Amerigo Vespucci is famous for (exploring the coast of South America and deciding that the Americas weren't Asia after all). The impressive thing is that this "spaced repetition" algorithm promises to keep all this information--tens of thousands of cards, in some people's databases--fresh in your brain at a 95% success rate for any given item. This has made a big impression on me.

I really love this method. But, indeed, it is not lost on me that many educationists decry precisely this sort of memorization. It is not properly called "rote" memorization, because it is based on readings that one presumably understands. It is also memorization of the much-maligned "mere facts." And yet, it is not memorization of contextless facts, because the facts are learned originally in the reading. Indeed, as we work to remember our answers, we are constantly thinking back to the texts, which we usually understood when we read them.

As I see it, if we are reading non-fiction in order to acquaint ourselves with some facts, it behooves us to try to remember the more important facts among them. If it were somehow wrong to remember the facts, why would it be so right to read the books that highlight those facts (and report many more details, not remembered)?

Elementary teachers should require this daily "spaced repetition" work of all students for a good half hour a day. It could prove revolutionary, really. To experience the real benefits, I gather you have to do it for years, however, so it would have to be organized at the district or state level. Then it becomes a political matter and, well, forget that: we'd need a veritable revolution in pedagogy before it became feasible. But it's very feasible indeed at homeschools and private schools.

The great thing about this system is that, if we stick with it as I think we will, we really will stay on top of material without traditional tests or homework, just reading and spaced repetition. There's simply no point in that sort of busywork; spaced repetition is extremely high-grade, efficient learning. This way we can focus our writing and workbook work on more meaningful and gainful assignments.

What does H. think of this? He does complain and resist sometimes, but less and less now (he's getting used to the routine now), and he evidently enjoys his growing knowledge. Also, after we get started, he evidently enjoys getting "bright" answers. It helps a lot that the method is designed so that most of his answers are "good" or "bright."

We are, by the way, doing both questions and reviewing old recordings, because we don't want to stop and lose the benefit of the reviews of recordings, which is not at all trivial. So I can sort of compare the two methods. But I can't yet say definitely which I think is more valuable; all I know is that we really can reproduce key facts on demand under spaced repetition. Perhaps reviewing recordings would provide a deeper or broader sort of memory and understanding. But I'm inclined to think spaced repetition is better, on the whole, because it solidifies explicit memory instead of implicit memory. We've just recently reviewed the last of the recordings made "one month ago," meaning that from now on we're reviewing only three-month-old recordings. We'll keep doing that for three months, or until we run out of recordings. Then I plan to review those same recordings, if I remember, after a year.

I am still recording two things, however, and not making questions on them: poetry (one of the nicer things to review a day, a week, a month, etc. later) and summaries of myths (Norse myths, until we finished). Making questions about the latter seemed to leave too much out of the narrative, and it is easier to pay attention to and benefit from a summary of a story than a summary of a non-fiction text.

Mathematics. First, a digression.

During the past six months I spent a lot of time the Well-Trained Mind forums, which seems to be one of the bigger homeschooling forums, not that I've hunted around a lot. I find this to be an interesting community. On the one hand, it's fantastic that there is so much activity on the forum--I can almost always be sure to get some response to a question or comment. It's also great that so many people are enthusiastically pro-homeschooling. On the other hand, it's depressing just how many people on the forum are not actually very big fans of classical education a la The Well-Trained Mind. It's even more depressing how cool, or even hostile, so many in the community are to academics and to abstract intellectual discussions of educational methods. These are classical homeschoolers, many of whom want their kids to do things like study Latin, and who understand the advantages of the liberal arts. And yet, among all those people, there are quite a few very vocal people who jump all over you if you raise questions like, "What is the purpose of education?"

Anyway, over on the WTM forums, I observed enthusiastic discussions of MEP (short for "Mathematics Enhancement Programme"), a free math curriculum. Free is good. I looked at it and thought, "Hey, this looks very meaty, and yet, not too hard. Actually, wait, some of these things are new to H., like greater than or less than. Maybe it's moderately difficult, but thought-provoking. Well, I'll print out ten pages and see what he says."

So two surprising things happened. First, I discovered I was wrong that it's "not too hard"; it's not even "moderately difficult," it's actually hard. He's in first grade Singapore math, but H. often cannot do the Kindergarten level (Year 1) MEP stuff by himself (although he's getting better at it). Partly this is because the questions don't spell out clearly enough what they need, but partly it's because there are new concepts and some of the questions require significant reasoning. The system, to my mind, beautifully teaches mathematical and logical thinking. But that kind of thinking is hard. It's a good hard.

The second surprising thing is that H. loved it and took to it like a fish to water. As people following his progress know, he is a very geeky sort of kid (the apple doesn't fall far from the tree; just wait until I get to the part, below, about Scratch). He likes logic, so he likes MEP. He likes the challenge of the problems and never seems to find them tedious, as he sometimes does Primary Mathematics (Singapore math) and often did Two Plus Two Is Not Five.

So, I'm not sure when--about February, I think--we started doing MEP for a little bit before the rest of math. This expanded to 15 minutes or 30 minutes on MEP, more than originally planned. For several weeks, we were trying to do too much: MEP, then Primary Math, then 2+2≠5, every day. Craziness! But of all of these, we were most "behind" in MEP, farthest "ahead" in the other systems, so I decided we'd do MEP every day, and then switch off, Primary Math one day and 2+2≠5 the next.

How is this all working out? I'd say pretty well. He's around p. 85 or 90 of MEP Year 1, halfway through. We've gone through it quite slowly, often less than a page a day, often doing things in the margins to explain the concepts even better. He's learned about inequalities (not a typical Kindergarten topic), negative numbers (he impressed me several weeks ago when he stated, out of the blue, that 2-4=-2), and all the ins and outs of addition and subtraction with numbers up to 10. Sure, he's had some of this information before (Singapore Kindergarten Math and 1A & 1B all covered some of the elements we've studied in MEP), but MEP gives it to him in a way that lets him "dig deep" and get the best understanding that he's capable of at this stage.

As far as Primary Math 1B goes, he's obviously going through it a lot slower now that he's more focused on MEP, but he's 1/2 way through, now actually doing multiplication and division. In that book he's doing quite well; the material is less challenging than MEP. We could try zooming ahead in this and maybe supplement it with something easier (I don't think Singapore Math text + workbook system offers enough practice alone) but I say: why? The aim is not to get through as quickly as possible but to get really substantial mastery. The more he has math down really solidly, the better his chances of not blundering through the mathematical parts of science and engineering--which I suspect are going to be increasingly important in my sons' lifetimes, if a financial collapse or something doesn't send Western civilization down the crapper--but instead really understanding what is going on, mathematically.

(If this deliberate approach surprises you, since I started H. out reading early, it shouldn't. It's always been about mastery. We went through the phonics rules long after he was able to sound out lots of words. But because of that his spelling ability is excellent and we don't work on it separately. We also read a huge amount--again, with the aim of mastery of vocabulary and phonics, to say nothing of the facts contained in books. You'll see this again when I talk about our method of studying physics.)

As to 2+2≠5, our addition and subtraction drill book, we slowed down a lot there, too. But he did finally finish the book and was proud to get the certificate that said he knew basic addition and subtraction facts. The final review was necessary to work out some final kinks. It's also nice that the next book in the series, Five Times Five Is Not Ten, reviews addition and subtraction facts. We're several pages into that now.

After the books, we frequently use the KidCalc app to review counting by 3s, 4s, and 6s (1s, 2s, 5s, and 10s are already down pat). This has made multiplication work in Primary Mathematics a snap. Our plan is to learn these series through 15 (not 10 or 12, simply because I remember wishing that I knew my times tables through 15 when I was a kid doing more advanced math and science, and I remember engineer types enjoying having the tables through 15 under their belt). It's passive memorization, but effective and useful.

The last math-related bit of news is an important one in our household: Mama has mostly taken over math teaching. Since baby E.'s nap is usually in the morning, math has moved to the afternoon (it used to be the morning), and so we are now doing our 15 minutes of geography and the hour of H. reading chapter books to himself in the morning. Mama reports that H. is doing very well in math, and as far as I can tell while rarely standing over their shoulders for a little while, somewhat wistfully, she does a pretty good job teaching him--not that that is a surprise to me.

Writing. For most of the last last year, we did writing after we did math. H. practices writing almost every day, and he often does other writing just because he wants to, so he gets quite a bit of practice. We continued to practice "rhetorical modes" for a little while after the last report, but after that I guess I decided that H. could make good progress without me over his shoulder, and I needed to do more work. So I had him choose his own assignments more often, and he continued to write about the same amount. We did do more outlining, which was very good practice, but for a few months, it seemed he was more or less treading water. That didn't worry me--with the development of every skill, there are always plateaus. I considered that he was making progress in his ability to write longer amounts, to put together complex sentences, and his handwriting was improving a bit. Where he wasn't improving was in his ability to put together coherent stories, with a beginning, middle, and end. We discussed the concepts involved at great length, and practiced them.

We did quite a few different things. One of the more memorable was when we talked through a story about a lost dog (inspired by Beverly Cleary's Ribsy), wrote it out in outline form, and then we sort of took turns writing it down (actually, typing it in--more on typing below). Sometimes I would start typing, recording what he said, and then I would go upstairs to work and he would do several more paragraphs. In the end, the co-written story was nice, mostly H., but definitely co-written.

Still, when I stopped and had him do whatever wanted, what he wrote was...well, I'll give you an example. He enjoyed writing several stories about a gumshoe character he made up called Harry Willman. These required a lot of work. In one story, it seems Harry was walking by a house, when he noticed that $211 dollars had been stolen from it (as if he could glance and see this). After I stopped laughing (I couldn't help myself that one time--it's a good thing he's a very self-confident guy) I asked how Harry knew $211 had been stolen. He said, well, the safe opened out onto the street and he could see that it was gone. So I had to explain that that, too, was unrealistic. I suggested that he have Harry talk to the owner of the house and have the person explain about the theft. In order to make that story make sense, I had to make quite a few such suggestions. Anyway, that's just an example. But it seems clear to me now that that story was hard simply because he was trying to write a mystery story, and those are a lot more complex than some other kinds of stories.

I know some of you might be disappointed in me for trying to rein in H.'s delightful imagination. Well, he certainly does have that, and be assured that I do give him free rein in many assignments. But sometimes I go through things more carefully and this involves straightening out some bizarre stories.

Generally, I give him feedback on everything he writes, sometimes very detailed and sometimes just some oral comments if the story seems excellent on its own. Today, I just had him add paragraph marks to a quite good retelling of "The Gingerbread Man"; he rewrites only stuff that he has typed in, so that he can edit it on the computer.

At one point a few months ago I basically came to the conclusion that there is no substitute for me sitting down with him one-on-one for a half hour and our working through something together. But just in the last few weeks, H. has produced some narratively excellent work. I've simply been giving him a kind of assignment that is a lot easier to handle than the mystery stories he was trying to write. I've been having H. summarize fairy tales, and in the latter assignments he's done very well. When the narrative is relatively simple, easy to follow, it is pretty easy. So he's written very readable versions of "The Three Pigs" and "The Gingerbread Man," for example. I think we're going to do a lot more of that, paying attention to the importance of sticking to stories with a simpler, more comprehensible plot. I'm also going to have him tackle nonfiction reports soonish.

I haven't yet come to the conclusion, if I ever will, that we need to use a canned writing program. We enjoy the freedom too much to do what we want, and H. is clearly learning plenty along the way, so why not? I don't particularly see a need to study grammar or spelling yet, either. He picks up mechanics through my comments, and they are naturally rather good anyway. I can easily imagine we'll switch to a more formal program, if I see something that really catches my eye, or if he seems to be in the doldrums and I don't know what to do with him. He also obviously learns new sentence structures through imitation of what he reads.

When I take a long view and think about how much his writing has improved in the last year, I have nothing at all to complain about. He gone from learning his lowercase letters and just starting to learn to type, and doing three sentences for a writing assignment, to writing a page of text rather quickly (still not with wonderful handwriting--his Mama can't abide it but I can read it) and typing fast enough to do most of his writing assignments on his Netbook.

Typing. I've decided to make typing a kind of writing assignment. We go through periods where, once a week,  he'll sit and work with the typing tutor. Then he'll put the typing tutor down for a few months. He ends up doing more typing practice for his writing assignments, because he has decided he would rather type than use a pencil. He has definitely gotten faster at typing, the software times him around 15 words per minute. The trouble is that he is practicing some mistakes in hand position and goes back and forth between staying on the home row and hunting and pecking with a few fingers. I remind him, "Keep your fingers on the nubs!" but he doesn't pay attention, most of the time. Anyway, we'll keep this up and I'll try to fix those bad habits. I think I have convinced him that it's better to learn to type faster like Papa (that's how these posts can be so long!) and stay on the home row, even if he doesn't always do so.

By the way, in Typing Tutor there are some assignments where the kid simply copies text from public domain stories. Excellent practice all around.

I bought him a cursive writing book and we looked at it and decided the time wasn't right yet.

Literature/Chapter Books. H. reads 60 minutes a day pretty religiously, now often more, and I continue to read chapter books to him almost every night. Lately he decided to re-read the Magic Tree House series, so in the space of a few weeks he read books 1-30 or so. Then I guess he got tired of them, because he hasn't read any more.

He also read three easy retellings of Sherlock Holmes books, the Classic Starts one and two from Great Illustrated Classics (can't praise this series enough). He got all excited about mysteries and crime-solving (hence the birth of Harry Willman). So I looked at the Hardy Boys and figured they weren't too advanced, and indeed it turns out they are just right for him--he absolutely loves them and gets quite excited about them. He read #1 and #3 to himself while waiting for me to finish reading #2 to him, which I did earlier this evening. He wants #4 now. H. became very interested in crime-solving and forensics, by the way, so he read a few books about that.

In "series" news, he re-read all six of the Henry Huggins books and got halfway through the Ralph Mouse books too. He still carries a "Ribsy" stuffed dog and a "Mousie" stuffed mouse toy all over the place, although I guess I've seen less of those two lately. We finished Little House on the Prairie, loved it, and then read On the Banks of Plum Creek. We finished that as well, and I've been instructed to order By the Shores of Silver Lake. He also read the Spiderwick Chronicles series and #1 of Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles and now threatens to read #3 if I don't get him #2, as I haven't yet.

I started reading The Cricket in Times Square to H. and he loved it, so he took it over and finished reading it to himself in a couple more days. This is getting to be a common practice with him--any good book he just reads to himself, because I'm too slow (just 10-20 pages an evening), so I miss out on the kid lit! But now we're reading (i.e., I'm reading to him, as bedtime reading) Narnia #3, The Horse and His Boy, and we're liking it quite a bit. I expect he'll grab it and finish it soon...

Lately he's taken a shining to Tintin, and has gone through three or four of those by himself. (This time last year I was reading them to him.) I'm a big fan of them myself. There are some great animated versions of Tintin on Netflix, I was delighted to find, so we've been watching those. They follow the books very closely. Still haven't seen the big-screen movie.

On the more ambitious side I read the first 1/3 or more of Howard Pyle's Adventures of Robin Hood to H., making copious use of the online dictionary (we used an ebook), but he tired of that--I can't say I blame him, it is pretty repetitive, and it's a huge book.

We don't do much fiction at mealtime, but we did recently finally finish going through the D'Aulaire tome of Norse myths.

In the car (often to and from the YMCA) we listen to books as well. We are a good ways into The Once and Future King, and started re-listening to the wonderful Tales from the Odyssey.

He's tackled quite a bit more than this, and I've read quite a bit more to him, since the last report, but I guess those are the highlights. Another thing he not infrequently does is "take a break" for a day or two from the chapter books and re-read easier, older books that he has by now forgotten, and sometimes history or science. Sometimes he does that before breakfast, as we go back to the "baby book" bookcases with baby E.

I imagine some educators might ask what we do regarding comprehension. I used to ask him questions about the books he's read, but I confess I don't do that much anymore--I do some. I've definitively determined that he cannot tell back a story that he's read, if it's a long and complex story. This is a learned ability, obviously, one that we're working on by writing outlines. It also takes 10+ minutes and he doesn't have patience for a difficult, organized, focused, self-regulated mental task of that length. Still, if you ask him nearly any question about what happened in the story, he'll be able to answer it, often in great detail. You can also ask him reflective questions ("Why does so-and-so do such-and-such?") and he usually gets it, at least if it's not far beyond his age level. I occasionally read about how reading teachers spend a tremendous amount of time picking apart simple stories. My unprofessional analysis, based on my experience with H.? A waste of time. Better to use that 30 minutes of class time on 30 minutes more of reading, or 25, with 5 minutes of some Q&A.

I do believe that retelling the main points of a story is important. That's why we've worked on this ability quite a bit in the last six months or so; it still doesn't come naturally to him. His own made-up stories often make no sense except to the overactive imagination of a 5-year-old (now 6-year-old). For longer stories, I can of course draw a plot out of him with a series of questions, and I guess if I want to train him to retell a lengthy, complex narrative we'll have to do a lot more of that. He also has enjoyed it when I gave a 2-3 sentence summary of a chapter we have just read, and recently when I did that for a Hardy Boys book I had him try to summarize, a light did seem to go on. I'll certainly try that some more and get him to do the same.

History. This is one of H.'s biggest subjects. We're continuing to do the same thing we've done for, I don't know, a year or more: before bedtime chapter book reading, we spend 15 minutes or so reading one of The Story of the World (we're now 80 pages from the end of Vol. 2), The Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, A Little History of the World, and the Kingfisher Atlas of World History. They match up well enough and it's great to get the same (and sometimes rather different stuff) from the different sources.

Until about a month ago, we were extremely consistent in that we read 2-4 pages of history before we started chapter book reading, and although it wasn't a lot, it really added up as we did that seven days a week. I feel bad that we've let the ball drop (so that we've been reading only half of the time lately--I feel confident we'll get into more consistently soon).

It's just as well that we "let the ball drop," however, because we've been doing a lot of other history anyway. Somehow H. got it in his head that he wanted to study the presidents--now I remember, it was because he started playing "Presidents vs. Aliens" on the iPad. So I got a pair of books about the presidents, The Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, which I can strongly recommend as being very well-written and engaging, and the DK Presidents book, a typical DK Eyewitness Book. At mealtimes, as part of our rotation of (usually) seven books, we read about the president from one source and then the other; I suspect the DK book either used Look-It-Up Book as a source, or they both had the same source, because sometimes even the phrasing is the same. Anyway, they go together quite well and are very readable. We're up to #19, Rutherford Hayes, not quite halfway done.

Before starting the Presidents, and even a little afterward, we have read other supplementary history stuff at mealtime and sometimes bedtime, especially the You Wouldn't Want to Be books that H. likes so much. We've also read some Who Was books, like Who Was Elizabeth I? and Who Was Marco Polo? Right now we're working on Who Was Ferdinand Magellan? They're rather good books.

Finally, we've been exposed to some history when studying civics--see next bit.

Civics. So much of history and geography requires an understanding of law and political theory that I thought I would introduce H. to the basics. I started with the "True Books" about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and we're now just about finished with The U.S. Constitution and You, which goes into more detail about what the Constitution contains. We'll probably read one or two more books along these lines, maybe one about different political systems, one introducing law and courts, and one about what the modern U.S. government system looks like. That ought to be enough to prepare him to study U.S. history and 19th and 20th century history, coming up in the next year or two.

I regard this as being the beginning of a very basic introduction to the social sciences, as distinguished from "social studies," which usually in the elementary grades means history, geography, and civics. So after we get an introduction to law, government, and political theory, we'll probably read the best sort of introduction to economics that we can find for this level, anthropology, sociology, etc.

Geography. Since I've been talking about different "social studies" I'll say a little about how we're doing with our geography program. We've continued more or less according to the same plan described last time: we read about 15 minutes a day, typically before he starts his hour of chapter book reading. Since then we've gone through Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile, and now we're halfway (or so) through a study of Brazil (for this, we've read the True Book, and now we're well into the National Geographic Countries of the World book about Brazil--excellent as the others in the series we've tackled so far).

We also started going through a single-volume children's non-fiction book, In the Land of the Jaguar, a chapter book just about South America, the only one like it I know of about any continent (not that I've looked much for meaty children's books about other continents). At first I thought it looked great, but now I'm not sure I can recommend it. It has a wide assortment of fascinating facts and is well-written, and it tries to follow a sort of historical narrative (it is very history-heavy--so, another source of history!), but ultimately the facts it reports on are pretty disconnected. The author makes a real effort to rise above the usual dry geography book reportage, but still can't solve the problem of weaving the enormous number of facts about a whole continent into a single coherent whole. It's not bad, though, 3 out of 5 stars, if I'm going to be honest. Anyway, we're halfway through and I'm sure we'll finish it.

Since H. knows the next topic is Central America and the Caribbean, when we started using Supermemo he wanted to memorize the capitals of those countries (apart from the little island countries of the West Indies), so I plugged them in and lo, he has them memorized! He can also tell you the names of the countries of Central America in order from Belize through Panama.

Science. Another of our big changes was our method of approaching science. At our last update, I was operating on the premise that, at this stage, H. wouldn't benefit much from careful study of branches of science, and he'd get more out of studying whatever we wanted. But I saw, as I read to him, that regardless of his initial enthusiasm level about a given book, or a subject, he had his focused days and his not-so-focused days. For example, he still loves trucks and how they work, and I read a couple of books explaining machines, but his level of engagement was pretty much the same as for anything else. So some months ago I concluded that, actually, when it comes to me reading to him, it doesn't matter so much that we find books that I hope he'll particularly love. I mean, yes, I still seek out his preferences and follow them, but I buy science books that I think he'll like, and he's almost always on board.

Next, I decided, after reading a Basher book or two about science topics that were rather challenging, that he probably would be able to understand and remember the material much better if we we did more on each topic, if simply read more books, did more experiments, and focused some more on a given topic before moving on. After all, I was seeing that the general method of focusing our studies and reading multiple sources was working very well for history and geography; I could see no reason why it wouldn't work just as well in science. Finally, taking up the sciences one by one, systematically, is what The Well-Trained Mind suggests, and that counts for something, for me.

So I decided on a sequence of sciences, approximately like this: physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth science, paleontology, the rest of biology, probably the natural history of Ohio, health science, etc. Physics is taking a while. We've studied the Big Bang, motion, friction, and Newton's three laws; right now we're close to the end of a study of gravity; next comes pressure; after that I think it's energy, electricity, space (I think we'll save this for later), and history of physics (he's already had some of that). There's nothing about subatomic physics but I think at some point we'll re-tackle the Basher Physics book on that; it seemed accessible to me. This is the structure we're following as we go through the Usborne book What's Physics All About?, which we're using as our "spine." As a spine it's OK--it's missing a lot of information, but it's suitably lower-level and it's not badly written. There just aren't many good general physics books that are accessible at the 3rd-6th grade level, that aren't textbooks (ugh!).

I pick and choose pages out of several other books to supplement this, which doesn't take long to get through. We begin a new topic by reading either 2 or 4 pages from the Usborne book, then we spend several weeks reading other books or bits of books. Other of our texts include DK Force and Motion, DK Universe (for the Big Bang stuff) and several others. Generally as we approach another big topic I buy several shorter, accessible books (like this one). The whole idea is that we aim for mastery of the concepts. I explain everything, often explaining as much as or more than I read. We come back again and again to the same concepts, in different books, different words, different contexts, and different experiments, and gradually some pretty difficult concepts seem to sink in.

Coupled with spaced repetition my hope is that he'll retain his relatively in-depth understanding of things like gravity, centripetal force, etc., even after a few years. When we circle back around to these topics, maybe when he's 9 or 10, he'll be at a point in math where he'll be able to do actual (basic) problems. I think getting a solid nonmathematical grounding will help him grasp the harder stuff later on.

Programming. Until recently this wasn't a subject of study for H., per se, or not insofar as I taught it formally to H. Anyway, first, some months ago (February, I guess) we downloaded the first chapter of a book called Hello World, a programming tutorial for kids using Python, and worked through that chapter. It was OK and doable, as long as I led him through it, but not terribly exciting for H., and I couldn't see holding his hand through the whole book. So next we tried a free tutorial we found for SmallBasic. Sorry, I can't be bothered to find info about it. :-) It was better (as a first programming tutorial), and more interesting but was a programming tutorial. H. wasn't ready for that yet.

So then we downloaded Scratch, maybe back in March (?). Here was a free very kid-friendly programming system. It's a limited sort of language, because it is highly graphical and involves dragging and clicking together different components and you can't save data across sessions. But it really is a great introduction to programming. It involves programming how "sprites" (characters, vehicles, you name it) act on a "stage," a smallish window. You can make them move, sense each other, make sounds, change appearance, etc. You can also control the logic of all this with the usual things like if-then statements and "forever" loops, and use variables (which are defined as belonging to the object or the whole program) that are either individual values or lists (a.k.a. arrays). Programmers will recognize these things as being many of the basic components of a programming language. Since all scripts associated with a Sprite project are attached to a particular sprite, or the stage they act on, it's also a good intro to object-oriented programming. It even introduces kids to open source, because all scripts made with Sprite and uploaded to the website are open source. The only downsides from a programming point of view is that you're limited to the stage as your arena of activity and the options for saving and accessing data across sessions are very limited. Also, you can't edit the "source code" and there are no libraries or other extensions of the language as far as I know. You can only drag and drop (and edit text within) a limited number of Lego-like widget types.

Anyway, for purposes of introducing the basics of programming, it's really great, especially considering that it's free. So at first I showed H. the basics, which weren't too hard for me to figure out as I'd already learned a couple programming languages, and he started figuring out more on his own. I have given him some assignments from time to time, but he has been so gung-ho about just making his own (mostly nonsense) programs that I usually just let him have at it. From me he probably learns the most when I sit down and make some program on his computer (I bought him his own cheap netbook a couple years ago so he could learn typing and other computer things--turns out to have been a good investment). I made a version of Asteroids, for example, complete with splitting-apart asteroids and an alien shooting randomly at your spaceship, and he sat and watched me with rapt attention as I wrote this. Then he made his own, simpler but still pretty impressive, version. (We don't allow him to upload anything to the Internet yet, though he's tried.) He's also figured out quite a few things on his own.

Most of H.'s programs don't really do anything, and are full of unnecessary but fun (usually noisy) junk, but I often comment and help fix up his productions (he loves when I do this) and he gleans a fair bit. So he understands a lot of the basics of the things he can do with Scratch. The problem is that he really needs to make and follow a plan for a program, and not just watch and imitate me.

So I bought a Scratch tutorial, and so far he's gone through the first section by himself. (I bought one that came in an ebook version that he could read and switch back and forth from the reader screen to the Scratch program screen.) Not to brag, but I was proud that he could go through that book by himself. And he is making progress at designing useful, purposeful sorts of programs. A few days ago he made his own simple version of Typing Tutor; it would give the user some text to type, then determine if the input was identical to the text and report success or failure, and tally up to six points and then stop. I praised him highly and he was very excited, so I decided to show him how to generate random strings of characters of random length, and also random CVC (and more complex) words, and he again was very excited about all that.

We do let H. continue to fiddle around with Scratch at his leisure, although his mother is getting rather annoyed at how much time he's spending on Scratch, and I'm wondering if he's becoming a geek. It's really taken the place of Legos--which we rarely get out anymore because they never get cleaned up!

I am not trying to get H. into any particular profession and will not be one of these parents who insists on a particular career for his kids. But I do think that programming is an extremely useful and mentally rewarding skill. Not only can you make money with programming, if you do it well enough, it helps you understand and use software in general, and of course it develops your logical, critical thinking abilities. But maybe more than this, I think it is a really good idea to understand computers, because if the last 30 years have been a "computer age," I think the next 30 are going to be a computer age on steroids. Knowing computers is going to be advantageous for lots of reasons, as it already is. This is not to mention that it is actually an extremely useful skill to have if you go into any technical field, not just programming itself.

Other stuff. I won't comment on foreign language, logic, piano, or P.E. much. He has finished Rosetta Stone Latin Level 1, before I did, and is now into Latin Level 2. He only does it 4 days a week, on average, 15 or so minutes a day, but he's making good progress and earning his checkmarks. His mother is now teaching him to read in her language as well, just 10-15 minutes at bedtime. He's picking it up very quickly. We've been doing Primarily Logic, once a week, and are now almost done. Everything other than the so-called "logic puzzles" at the end of the book are easy, and as a former logic teacher, I really like the book as a very gentle introduction. Not sure what we'll do next; maybe take a break from logic for a few months. He's practicing piano more regularly now, and he's making excellent progress (he "officially" played his first chord a few days ago) and I'm finding I can teach him well enough myself for now. We tried a teacher a year ago and, well, that really didn't work out. We'll turn to a teacher when he's a bit farther along. He figured out some simple melodies ("Alouette" and "Twinkle Twinkle") and is now noodling/"improvising" in ways that are starting to make musical sense. He could be making better progress if I would teach him more often, frankly. He's starting to practice even when I don't give him lessons, though, so I guess that's why I don't bother. Still, I know I should sit down at the piano with him ten minutes a day or so, at least, or better, two or three five minute lessons. As to P.E., until recently he was going to the YMCA three days a week. We'll get back into that. He also loves to run around with his little brother, and I occasionally get out there and try to teach him the basics of things like baseball and soccer. He does seem to get plenty of exercise. We've tried team sports a few times and, well, H. is completely noncompetitive when it comes to sports. For now, he just doesn't get the point of chasing after a ball, and would rather stand around, observe, think, and socialize.

Jimmy Wales reiterates support for Wikipedia porn filter

Over on Twitter, I've been having the first conversation, of sorts, I've had in years with Jimmy Wales. First, I wrote (pointing to my post, "What should we do about Wikipedia's porn problem?"):

Jimbo replied:

Hmm, I thought:

Jimbo had a couple of replies to this, too:

I found it implausible that the God King could do nothing:

And that's as far as it's gone, as of this writing.

As much as I appreciate Jimmy Wales' willingness to state his views publicly, it is hard to believe him when he says he "strongly" supports a filter. He is not only on the Wikimedia Board of Trustees, he is the only member of the board that, if I'm not mistaken, has a seat made especially for him. He surely knows the situation with the filter: he surely knows that the Wikipedia community has come out against it, and that the Board he sits on has let the matter drop. So why doesn't he ask the Board to take it up again?

The trouble for Jimbo, Sue, the Board, and the grown-ups in the community generally, is that there are a lot of very loud filter opponents who will scream bloody murder if work on the filter continues, and even more if it is finished and installed. I'm sure they wish the whole thing would just go away. But that is the weak way out. That is why it is important that we not just let it go away. Jimmy Wales has boldly declared that he "strongly" supports the filter. I will believe him when he takes decisive action to help it come into being. Until then, I must conclude that he "weakly" supports it.

Some other Tweeps have shared "What should we do about Wikipedia's porn problem?" as well, including Robert Scoble (261,146 followers) and TJ Manotoc (128,146 followers), who says "this is a bit of a shocker." Several high-profile journalists (in order of response, Dan Murphy, Declan McCullagh, Andrew Lih, and Jason Walsh) have retweeted, expressed support, or told me they were reading the post.

What should we do about Wikipedia's porn problem?

I want to start a conversation.

I. Problem? What problem?

So, you didn't know that Wikipedia has a porn problem?

Let me say what I do not mean by "Wikipedia's porn problem." I do not mean simply that Wikipedia has a lot of porn. That's part of the problem, but it's not even the main problem. I'm 100% OK with porn sites. I defend the right of people to host and view porn online. I don't even especially mind that Wikipedia has porn. There could be legitimate reasons why an encyclopedia might want to have some "adult content."

No, the real problem begins when Wikipedia features some of the most disgusting sorts of porn you can imagine, while being heavily used by children. But it's even more complicated than that, as I'll explain.

(Note, the following was co-written by me and several other people. I particularly needed their help finding the links.)

Here is the short version:

Wikipedia and other websites of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) host a great deal of pornographic content, as well as other content not appropriate for children. Yet, the Wikimedia Foundation encourages children to use these resources. Google, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and many other high-profile sites have installed optional filters to block adult content from view. I believe the WMF sites should at a minimum install an optional, opt-in filter, as the WMF Board agreed to do [*] in 2011. I understand that the WMF has recently stopped work on the filter and, after a period of community reaction, some Board members have made it clear that they do not expect this filter to be finished and installed. Wikipedians, both managers and rank-and-file, apparently do not have enough internal motivation to do the responsible thing for their broad readership.

But even that is too brief. If you really want to appreciate Wikipedia's porn problem, I'm afraid you're going to have to read the following.

Here is the longer version:

The Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) and its project communities have recently stopped work on an optional, opt-in filter that the Foundation's Board approved [*] in 2011. “Opt-in” means the filter would be switched on only for users who choose to turn it on. It would hide certain content behind a warning, and even then, the content would still be accessible to all users. It is accurate to call this proposed filter "weak”.  Nevertheless, after a period of community reaction, some Board members have made it clear that they do not expect this filter to be finished and installed. WMF director Sue Gardner implicitly endorsed their description of the situation at the end of this discussion [*] (at “I wish we could’ve talked about the image filter”).

Yet, Wikipedia and its image and file archive, Wikimedia Commons, host an enormous and rapidly growing amount of pornographic content. This includes (or did include, when this petition was drafted):

• articles illustrated with pornographic videos (“convent pornography” [*], “The Good Old Naughty Days” [*], “A Free Ride” [*])
• videos of male masturbation [*] and of ejaculation in two [*] formats [*]; pictures as well: ejaculation [*]
• illustrated articles about various extreme and fetishistic topics (cock and ball torture [*]hogtie bondage [*]fisting [*]autofellatio [*]pearl necklace [*]hentai [*])
• photo categories for the “sexual penetrative use of cucumbers” [*] and other vegetables, practices like scrotum inflation[*], pictures about penis torture [*]
(Note, [*] indicate links to archived versions of pages, for reference in case these pages are edited.) Some searches produce unexpected results [*]. For example, an image search for “male human” [*] in the “Simple Wikipedia” (touted as a children’s version: “The Simple English Wikipedia is for everyone! That includes children and adults who are learning English”) shows dozens upon dozens of pornographic and exhibitionist images. Almost all the most frequently viewed media files on Wikimedia servers [*] are sexually explicit files, which puts the lie to the oft-repeated claim that pornography is rarely viewed on Wikipedia.

Many parents and teachers are neither aware of the adult content on Wikipedia sites, nor that it is accessible to school-age students, nor that this content is in fact quite popular.

With so much adult content, so often accessed, you might think that Wikipedia is adults-only, and that children don’t use it. But of course, they do. We are told that today's children are "Generation Z" who get much of their information online. Even pre-teen children are heavy users of Wikipedia, which is often ranked in the top five of all websites in terms of traffic. In fact, 25% of the contributors to Wikipedia are under the age of 18, according to a 2010 survey, and about 12% of both readers and contributors said they had only a primary education.

Youth readership is something that the Wikimedia Foundation appears to condone, at the very least. For example, Jimmy Wales has addressed audiences of school children about Wikipedia, and one of their Wikipedian in Residence programs is at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis [*]. Wales expressed a common attitude about children’s use of Wikipedia in an interview in which he said that if "a 10-year-old is writing a little short paper for class, and they want to say that they got some information from Wikipedia, I think we should be just glad that the kid's writing and actually thinking about giving credit -- due credit -- to people who have helped. And I think that's wonderful." (, at the 20:19 mark; cf. this BBC story)

If it is meant to be used with children, you might wonder whether Wikipedia and its sister projects really intend for their service to include pornography. Of that, there is no doubt. Wikipedia declares officially that it is “not censored” [*] (originally, this was labeled [*] “Wikipedia is not censored for children”) and its official policy page [*] on “offensive material” also makes it clear that pornography is permitted. To learn about the attitudes of many Wikipedians in the trenches, see the “Wikipedia:Pornography” [*] page and follow the links, or just try this search.

Moreover, in case there were any doubt, the Wikipedia community actively permits children to edit such content. The issue came up last year when a user who said he was 13 years old joined a Wikipedia volunteer group, WikiProject Pornography [*]. This raised eyebrows; someone proposed to restrict editing of articles about pornography to adults. Wikipedians discussed the matter at great length, took a vote, and a solid majority rejected the proposal [*].

This might look like a liberals vs. conservatives issue, at first glance; but I believe it is nonpartisan, more of an adolescent-minded-young-men vs. grownups-with-children issue. Nobody thinks of Google as being conservative just because they have SafeSearch (which is opt-out, i.e., turned on by default).

The WMF is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization with an educational mission. The presence of enormous amounts of unfiltered adult content, the “educational” purpose of which is questionable for anyone, directly conflicts with the goal of supporting the education of children.

That is Wikipedia's porn problem.

II. Is inaction acceptable?

The official Wikipedia position on this problem appears to be: do nothing, and heap scorn upon anyone who suggests that something needs to be done. That also seems to suit many techno-libertarians, especially young males without children, who are the most enthusiastic consumers of porn, and who often dominate conversations about Internet policy.

I think inaction will prove unacceptable to most parents. At the very least there should be a reliable filter available, which parents might turn on if their younger children are using Wikipedia. I know that I would use it with my 6-year-old; then I might let him look at Wikipedia, if it were reliable. It's hard to look over your children's shoulder every moment they're online. Wikipedians often glibly advise parents to do just this: if Junior is using Wikipedia to view porn and learn all about creative sexual fetishes, it's your fault. You should be monitoring more closely. This obviously doesn't wash, when it is well within Wikipedia's power simply to add a filter that parents could turn on.

It is also unacceptable for most teachers and school district technology directors. How, really, can you defend giving kids access to a website with so much porn, when it is so obviously counter to CIPA rules, and when their parents would in many cases object (if they knew of the problem)?

What about you? If you agree, I'm going to make it easy for you to comment. I know that some Wikipedians might want to respond in a very hostile fashion--I'm no stranger to such disputes, myself--and this would put off a lot of people from commenting. But since this is my blog, happily, I can make up the rules, and so I will. I particularly encourage participation by parents, teachers, and women generally. I would especially like to hear from people who support the idea that Wikipedia tackle this problem. If you are opposed, that's fine, but I will post your contribution only if you are polite and well-reasoned. I will not post anything that is personally insulting, and I also reserve the right not to post "flame bait" and merely silly or stupid remarks (and on such matters, my judgment is final). I will also pull the plug on any opponents who attempt to dominate the conversation. We already know there will be significant opposition, namely, from some Wikipedians and some of Wikipedia's supporters. The purpose of this post is to get people talking about whether Wikipedia should be doing something about this problem.

III. What should be done?

There are a few things we might do.

First, we might blog, tweet, and post on Facebook about the problem. For better or worse, we're all connected now, and getting the word out there is simply a matter of using social media. One person's comment won't amount to much--even this one won't, probably. But a lot of people together can create a groundswell of support. So add your voice.

Second, we might contact leading Wikipedians, including Sue Gardner and other members of the WMF Board of Trustees. And don't forget the many leading members of the Wikipedia project itself, such as the "checkusers" and the active administrators. If these people hear from readers not in the community, it can really make a difference. If enough of us write, Wikipedians might finally get the idea that there are a lot of readers out there who want a voice in determining what options are available to users.

A few months ago, I repeatedly (just to be sure) mailed Wikimedia chief Sue Gardner about Wikipedia's porn problem. In 2010, she and I had a very productive and polite exchange, by both email and phone, about these issues. But recently, she has not responded. That was disappointing, but I believe I understand. My guess--it is only a guess, and I will correct this if I learn differently--is that Sue has been beaten down by her dysfunctional community. She has given up. I think she wants a filter installed, but it is politically impossible, and she fears for her job if she takes a hard-line stand. That's my guess. If I am right, then external pressure will wake up the Wikipedia community and make it easier for her to insist that the community do the right thing.

Third, talk to the press. If you know reporters, or people who have lots of followers online, ask them to report about this story. It's a big story. Why isn't it big news that Wikipedia has given up its 2011 commitment to install a porn filter? Surely it is. It's time to ask the Wikimedia Foundation, as well as the leading Wikipedians, some hard questions. (And reporters, do be sure to ask questions of leading Wikipedians; I say that because the WMF does not control Wikipedia or Commons. If they did, they would be legally liable for a lot more than they are now. The people really making the decision, arguably, are the adolescent-minded Wikipedia admins who see nothing wrong with the current situation--not necessarily WMF employees.)

The fourth option is the "nuclear" option: we might boycott Wikipedia. Now, I'm not calling for a boycott--yet. If anything, I'd like to kick off a public discussion about whether we should boycott Wikipedia. I have been talking about this with some online acquaintances, and I am honestly torn. I don't want this to be a mere publicity stunt: I want to call for a boycott only if it could possibly have a positive effect. I also don't want to call for a boycott if I don't know that there will be a significant groundswell of popular support. And I don't want this to be about me. I want it to be all about making Wikipedia more responsibly managed and more useful for children--kids are some of its most important users, even if Wikipedians loudly insist that it is not "censored for children."

But if Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation do not take decisive action between now and end-of-year fundraising time, I might very well call for a boycott. For now, let's get the word out, start a conversation, and see if we can make a difference without taking such drastic action.

Please feel free to repost this online.

UPDATE: in a response to me, Jimmy Wales has reiterated his support for a Wikipedia porn filter. But this wouldn't be the first time Jimbo has supported a Wikipedia proposal that never saw the light of day. Let's make him put his money where his mouth is.

UPDATE 2: I made a video vignette, "Does Wikipedia have a porn problem? Dad investigates."

An assortment of things that should exist

Occasionally I wish I had time to write a book to explain these ideas in detail. (Some of these are actually book ideas. Some of them are project ideas.)

1. A tutorial system, independent of any university, managed via a neutral online database; and an expanded system of degrees by examination.

2. Textop! I love this idea whenever I think about it!

3. A medium-sized secular (but not anti-religious) chapter book explaining for elementary-aged children, in non-condescending but easy language, why various virtues are virtues and their corresponding vices are vices. It should also explain why moral relativism is silly, which of course it is. I've looked for such a book, hard. I've started to write such a book, but never find enough time to finish. I truly believe such a book would be an enormous best-seller.

4. A system of non-fiction e-books, roughly similar to what you can find here, but which have more intelligently-written scripts, like some of these videos and these powerpoints. I hope to start such a system using the software as a platform.

5. This is going to be very hard to explain briefly, and it will sound half-baked, but since when did that ever stop me? Actually, the rough idea (not my version, but something vaguely like it) comes from a Heinlein novel (I forget what Heinlein calls them and where--maybe someone will tell me) combined with my original idea for neutrality on Wikipedia (and before that, Nupedia). I think that civilization could use a society of people who are meticulously and publicly committed to neutrality. Somewhat like judges, but who operate in the public sphere, they do not make any public judgments on controversial issues of any sort. Their role in society would be, rather, to summarize "what is known"--or what various people take themselves to know--about this and that, according to some clear and deeply studied rules of scholarship and neutrality. If someone, or a group, required a neutral, expert analysis of a question, a field, or a situation, they would provide it. These people would have to be experts in ideology, logic, and the arts of communication, understanding when a statement is the slightest bit tendentious, and be able to quickly formulate a more neutral one. These people would be perfect candidates to write neutral Congressional reports as well as serve as expert witnesses in trials. There would have to be a fairly elaborate system of professional ethics for this group, and members would no doubt have to be regularly evaluated by their peers. Among other things, they would not be able to serve in politics, as attorneys or judges, or as corporate executives. They could serve as journalists and scholars, but under stringent rules that do not apply to most journalists and scholars. -- Why such a profession? Because the world has gone insane, and it desperately needs people who are professionally committed to explaining obvious things to crazy people. Do you really think that people well-qualified and publicly committed in the way I've described would lack for work? They'd be extremely well employed as consultants, internal and external.

6. A website+app with spaced repetition questions that teach basic facts school students (preK and up).

I've had quite a few more. I'll make another post later, perhaps, with more of the same.

Feel free to swipe any of these ideas and do a world of good by bringing them to fruition. You might or might not get rich, but if well-executed, you certainly could help a lot of people.

Why is spaced repetition not better known?

Suppose a method let you remember things with a 95% success rate--in other words, whatever information you've put into a system, you'd have a 95% chance of recalling it--and this effect is permanent, as long you continue to use the method. That would be quite remarkable, wouldn't it?

Well, there is such a method, called spaced repetition. This is the method used by such software as Supermemo, Anki, Mnemosyne, and Memrise.

The figure, 95%, is very impressive to me. I've been thinking about it lately, as I delve into the world (it is a whole world) of spaced repetition. Ordinarily, we require much less out of our metrics. 95% is practically a guarantee. With just 15 or 30 minutes a day, adding maybe 20 questions per day, you can virtually guarantee that you will remember the answers.

In particular, I am wondering why spaced repetition is not used more widely in education. Of course, I'm not the first to wonder why. The answer is fairly simple, I think.

The more I read from and interact with educationists and even homeschoolers, the more I am struck by the fact that many of them hold knowledge in contempt (q.v.). Of course, they will cry foul if you call them on this (q.v.), but that doesn't change the fact (q.v.). So naturally I expect them to sneer at me when I express amazement at the 95% recall figure. I can hear the "arguments" already: this is "rote memorization" (not if you understand what you're memorizing); education is not about amassing mere facts (not just that, no); it suffices that you can just look answers up (wrong); we should be teaching critical thinking, not mere memorization (why not both?).

I am not going to defend the value of declarative knowledge (again) here. I simply wanted to observe what teachers (including homeschooling parents) could do with spaced repetition, if they wanted to. They could spend a half hour (or less) every day adding questions to their students' "stack" of questions; then assign them to review questions (both new and old) for a half hour.

Imagine that you did that, adding 20 questions per day, five days a week, 36 weeks per year (the usual U.S. school year), for six years. This is not impossible to manage, I gather, and would not take that long, per day. Yet by sixth grade, your students would have 21,600 facts in recall with about 95% accuracy. These would merely be the sorts of facts contained in regular textbooks.

Next, consider an exam that drills on a random selection of 100 of those facts. The students who used spaced repetition faithfully would probably get an A on the exam. That, I suspect, is much better than could be expected even from top students who used ordinary methods of study.

Would students who spent 30 minutes out of every class day on this sort of review benefit from it?

I think the answer is pretty obvious.

How not to use the Internet, part 4: how "social" is social media?

<< Part 3: How the Internet's current design philosophy fails

4. How "social" is social media?

A person who is "social," we think, gets along with others and does not always stay at home. They mix well. This is, we hope, because they like other people, not because they're trying to take advantage of them. They have an interest in getting to know others and doing fun things with them.

So I wonder if "social media" is misnamed.

Social media features the trappings of social behavior: conversation (with head shots and indications of mood), sharing interests, and doing things together. But how these activities happen in so-called social media are mostly a weak shadow of what happens face-to-face. The conversation is typically brief. It is rarely one-to-one, but instead one-to-many, rather like broadcasting a message over an intercom to a group of people who are only half-listening and busy broadcasting themselves. We often do not know who, precisely, is receiving our message, and we act as if we do not care. We do not expect a reply, and if we do not receive a reply, we are at worst disappointed; face-to-face, if we received no reply at all, we would think the person we spoke to was rude and cold. In many venues, the conversation happens among literal strangers, often from around the world, which at first glance seems charming—and it sometimes is. But after the novelty wears off, we discover that the rewards are rare. Such interactions rarely involve personal understanding and regard, as friends share.

Conversation online is rarely as meaningful, from a social point of view, as conversation face-to-face among friends and known colleagues. (In terms of logic and rhetoric, I have found that it can be more rigorous and rewarding than much face-to-face conversation. But I'm talking about sociality now, not logic.)

When we get online and engage in "social" media, I wonder how much we—most of us—do so because we like people. I wonder if we do it because we want to use people and promote ourselves. This is not social, properly speaking, any more than PR work is "social." "Now just a minute, Sanger," I hear you saying, "you've gone too far. I like people. I am not a user. How dare you accuse me, and all users of social media, of being selfish 'users'?" I apologize if I offend. I did not accuse all users of social media of being "users" of people. That really isn't my intention. But I have an important point to make and it isn't pretty. When you do an update, are you acting like a friend, or like a PR agent? I'll be honest. Personally, I do a lot more PR updates than friendly updates. I find it a little surprising and charming when my friends and acquaintances respond to such updates, but that doesn't stop them from being, mainly, PR updates. Sure, I understand that some people do mainly engage with their close friends. I think that's nice (as I said before), as far as it goes. But a lot of what we say is personal advertising, so to speak. Some have even taken to speaking of their online identities, to mind rather pathetically, as their "personal brand," and they invest much time on social networks buffing their "personal brands." This behavior is "social" in a very weak sense, in that it involves people, but not in the strong sense that it involves building friendships.

Social media is a poor replacement for a real social life. To the extent that social media is replacing it, friendship as an institution weakens.

Relevant links:

I was tempted to try to coin a phrase, "anti-social media," but of course someone beat me to it.

On "personal branding," see this Mashable post.

How not to use the Internet, part 3: how the Internet's current design philosophy fails

<<Part 2: The pernicious design philosophy of the Internet

3. How the Internet's current design philosophy fails.

Websites compete for the really limited commodity online, namely, attention. That much is understandable, and not likely to change. How they compete is the problem.

Putting lots of menus, internal links, feeds, and self-promotional media on pages drives traffic around a website internally, while putting external links and various media on a given page is thought to increase its value and interest to end users. Competition for limited attention also motivates others to link to us (through reciprocal links, which are often automatic in blogging systems). More information seems better, so more pointers to information and ways to organize it seems better. Similarly, systems for regularly alerting us to mail, news, blogs, and so forth are straightforward attempts to grab our limited attention. Software-driven media tries to prove its relevance to us this way, and sometimes succeeds.

But if we really are trying to capture and hold each others' attention, isn't this busy, distracting design philosophy puzzling?

Why saturate a blog post (or other media) with a panoply of enticing choices to other things on our website, when we surely know that most users will, by habit, bounce right off of the page that brought them to our website, the very page that has the best chance of keeping them there? Such internal links might in a few cases get your user to go elsewhere on your site, but it also reduces the chance that the visitor will at least read the thing that brought them to your site in the first place. Why not seize the bird in hand? For that matter, why have so many external links right in our own text? Why don't we design our pages so that, when we are graced with a visitor, the visitor will focus on, and actually want to stay to the end of, what brought them?

Similarly, if we really want to get others' attention, why do we flood their Twitter and Facebook feeds with so much noise? Why do we bore them with too much news, repetition, and chitchat? We are instructed to increase the signal if we want more followers, yet most of us don't. Why not?

Yet if the choices of web designers and marketers  seem paradoxical, how much more paradoxical is it that we, as end users, continue to consume—ravenously—what so often contains more noise than signal? Consider that many of us follow hundreds of people on Twitter (far more than we can really keep up with), that we have "friended" people from high school whose names we barely remember, that many of us welcome in more mail than we can reasonably manage, and so on.

Both paradoxes, of Internet producers and consumers, disappear when we reflect on the fact that we are very anxious about "missing out," and Internet producers are merely exploiting this anxiety. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that we are in a collective panic, a veritable mania, over the fantastic content now online. Information purveyors, working in this frenzied atmosphere, and who are end users themselves, naturally go to great lengths to seize their portion of the online public's attention. Faced with a zillion things to pay attention to, calm, slow decision-making seems ridiculously inefficient. In this atmosphere, there is no time to exercise wisdom.

It's bad enough that this design philosophy looks, at least to some extent, self-defeating for information purveyors. Even worse is that it doesn't really benefit the end user. Consider:

Many of us spend a lot of time on Twitter. Why? The people you're following come up with some quite insightful observations? Actually, not so often. Few can say much that is really worthwhile in 140 characters. The best that most of our Tweeps can do is be occasionally interesting, clever, or funny—and otherwise a waste of time. But maybe you get a lot of links to fascinating news articles, blogs, and so forth? Maybe, yet most of the links go unclicked. You are usually quickly in-and-out of those that you do click. Even if you don't bounce out after a glance, even if you actually read something, you'll probably just skim it quickly and forget it, which means you don't really benefit from even the things you spend the most time on. But, you fret, if you don't follow your feed, wouldn't you be out of it and disconnected? Not necessarily. If you focus on a few high-quality news sites and blogs that cover your industry and interests, if you actually read them, you'll almost certainly be more up-to-date about those topics than someone who uses Twitter as a replacement for such sources.

But you knew that. No, surely in your heart of hearts you know that the reason Twitter exists is not information exchange, but a kind of socialization. Yet it's rarely bona fide socialization or friendship-building. It's mostly networking. For most people, I suspect, we just have a somewhat pathetic desire to see our username replied-to and retweeted. This makes us feel relevant, popular, and connected. Our ego swells with each new follower, reply, and retweet. Yet this is clearly illusory. It is increasingly fashionable to apply the self-effacing epithet "narcissistic" to these, our common social networking habits. We know that, just because our vanity is flattered by public attention, it does not follow that we are relevant, or popular, or connected in any way that matters.

Face it: the only reason we (some of us) waste so much time on Twitter and Facebook is that "everybody else" is there, wasting time too, and we would feel out-of-it and incomplete, somehow, to be drop out. The whole advent of truly mass participation in social media, beginning in the mid-2000s with Myspace, seems to reflect not "the wisdom of crowds" but "the madness of crowds," like tulip mania. I think Twitter exemplifies this observation perfectly.

Facebook looks open to the same observations. Why do you spend time on Facebook? Because your Mom and old friends are on it, for one thing. Are you closer to them now than you were before Facebook? Probably not, in most cases, except for the few comments you've exchanged with people you haven't otherwise spoken to in years. On Facebook, we frequently exchange sentiments (and media) with people close and not-so-close to you, and that is being sociable. I won't be so churlish or anti-social as to deny that it's nice. Of course it's nice. But this style of interaction makes socialization less personal than it once was. If you spend a lot of time socializing on Facebook (I'm guessing; no doubt someone's done a study) you probably talk less on the phone. You probably feel less of a need to spend face-time, or even ear-time, with loved ones. Be honest, now: is Facebook really enhancing the quality of your social life and family relations? For society as a whole, is it bringing us closer together and improving our social relations in general? I strongly doubt it. It seems only to make our social lives more "efficient"—and impersonal, too. Doesn't this social media par excellence actually make us less social, in the ways that matter? Why shouldn't I draw that conclusion? Some might have a knee-jerk tendency to call me a Luddite for saying such things. But I live online and have devoted much of my adult life to building bits of the Internet, so that would be silly; can you explain why I'm wrong?

Wikipedia is an amazing and frequently useful resource. (For all my criticisms, I've never denied this.) But when you look something up there, how often do you increase your store of knowledge, rather than gaining a temporary grasp of not-fully-reliable "fact" and fleeting sense of understanding? Is your mind significantly improved? Probably not. Even if you spent the evening lost in Wikipedia's hyperlinkage, you are apt to forget most of what you come across. It's intellectual fast food; the taste is strangely compelling, but it is not exactly mentally nutritious. Building your personal store of knowledge requires deep reading and critical study, focus on a topic for a lengthy period of time. The design philosophy of Wikipedia—the copious irrelevant hyperlinks, and the way text tends to be written in smallish, loosely-related chunks instead of woven into a coherent narrative—militates against deep reading and critical study. I'm not saying you can't use Wikipedia as part of a program to do serious research and gain solid knowledge. Of course you can. Some people even have, I'm sure. But I doubt that's how most people use it. Its design encourages surface grazing, not immersion.

Even Google Search itself falls prey to this sort of analysis. What could be better than Google, which delivers highly relevant results and often answers your questions instantly? Well, yes. But we should demand more. There is more to search than faux-relevance and speed. When you do a search to find the best possible information on a subject, is that what you are shown? Not necessarily, because what Google shows you is the most popular and the most recent (and now, if you're logged in with your Google account, what they think you'll be most likely to click on). The highest quality results are too often far down the list. Google's daily influence on us may well have trained us to overvalue popularity and recency, frequently at the cost of more significant qualities like reliability, clarity, historical importance, and depth.

I could give many similar examples, but let me skip to a general conclusion.

The Internet is ostensibly set up to let us help each other navigate the wealth of information online and, by speeding communication and new ways of collaboration, bring us closer together. But that isn't quite what it does. When I spend much time on social networks, I find the experience to consist more of noise and alienation than signal and connection. What many, including myself, have touted as a potential tool of enlightenment and increased social connection right now seems to be making us less enlightened, less sociable, and less disciplined to boot. The Internet caters particularly to those who want to promote their work. Because so many people are doing this at once, its most striking effect is to distract us endlessly with what are, at the end of the day, mostly trivialities.

Part 4: How "social" is social media? >>

Relevant links:

I know that SEO people have answers to my rhetorical questions about menus and links. Here is a sample (chosen only because it's highly ranked in a Google search and thus, no doubt, played the SEO game well). But the SEO strategy is about building traffic. It is not about encouraging them to finish reading what they came for.

It's common advice to Twitterers that they increase their focus and signal in order to get more followers; example.

This Google search is a good place to start reading about how social media is narcissistic.

The famous phrase "the wisdom of crowds" seems to have gotten its start in the book by James Surowiecki of that name. "The madness of crowds," by contrast, comes from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I've read the former but not the latter, even though it is free (courtesy a part of the Internet that really doesn't suck).

I read on the Internet that 71% of all U.S. citizens are on Facebook. So, probably, your Mom is.

While I don't recall ever being accused of being a Luddite, I probably was at some point. Nicholas Carr, though, makes much of the purported "Luddite" aspect of Internet criticism.

Wikipedia doesn't seem to place much stock in narrative coherence, contrary to Citizendium.

On the idea that the Internet generally (Wikipedia is not mentioned) encourages surface grazing and does not increase our knowledge significantly, see this speech of mine.

How not to use the Internet, part 1: it's a problem that the Internet distracts us

For almost a year, I've been at work on a very long essay about some problems with the Internet and social media in particular. I've worked on it now and then and occasionally I think I'm really going to finish it—but I never do. So, as a concession to failure, or partial failure anyway, I have decided to divide it up into several self-contained brief essays. I'll release an essay a day and see how it goes. Here is the first.

Note, rather than tempt the reader to click out of the essay, I've moved links to the end, and annotated them. This is an example of one way in which the Internet could change (although I'm not exactly holding my breath).

1. It's a problem that the Internet distracts us, dammit.

I too am distracted by ubiquitous digital media. This is a problem—a common, serious, and real problem—and I wish I could get to the bottom of it, but it is very deep.

In the last several years, like many of us, I've often felt out of control of my time. Following basic time management principles is more difficult than ever, especially when I'm spending time online and looking at screens generally. My situation is probably similar to that of many people reading this: I check my mail many times per day; Twitter and Facebook beckon, as do my favorite online communities (and I dread joining Google+); people push the latest news at me; people Skype me; and the time seems to slip away in spite of my better intentions to, you know, get work done.

What I think of as an unmitigated vice has been complacently described by some as "multi-tasking," as if allowing yourself to be distracted were some sort of advanced technical ability. We are told (though, I gather, not by most psychologists) that being able to multi-task effectively is one of the skills that should now be in every plugged-in person's toolkit. But the notion that multi-tasking is an advanced ability is merely an excuse, I think. When you are "multi-tasking," usually, you are not using your time efficiently; you are simply letting yourself be distracted, because you don't want to "miss out."

That's not all. As much as I hate to admit it, the Internet also seems to have made it difficult for me, as it has Nicholas Carr and Richard Foreman, to write and pay attention to long texts, and to think deep thoughts. To be sure, I still try and occasionally succeed. I seem to skim more along the surface of things, despite myself. Thoughtful insight is far from impossible, but it seems to require more deliberate effort. Creativity still flows, but less often and less spontaneously. Believe me, I wish it weren't this way. I fear that I, too, am becoming one of Carr's "shallows" and one of Foreman's "pancake people."

Many heavy Internet users have fairly admitted the same, often apparently with pride or without shame—or at least without hope of improvement. Do you feel the same?

The nature of these now-common problems—a mind ironically made poorer in spite of, indeed by, the Internet's riches—has been much discussed, for example by Maggie Jackson in Distracted, Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation (a much better book than you might expect from the title), Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, and Jaron Lanier in You Are Not a Gadget.

So why do we let ourselves get so distracted? Why are we so often incapable of sticking to a single task?

I think there is a simple answer, actually: we intensely feel the presence of all the world's information and people and the digital fun that entails, miraculously made available to us. Impersonal information made it bad enough for us early adopters in the earlier days of the Internet. But now that everybody and his grandma (literally) has joined social networks, the situation got a lot worse, for me at least. We are constantly available to our colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, so they may "interrupt" us at random times throughout the day, offering insights and telling us that some new website or blog post or picture or video is a "must read" or "must see," or simply reporting their own sometimes-interesting thoughts and news. We constantly feel pulled in a thousand directions. This general problem seems likely to worsen as our access to the world's information becomes more and more complete, speedy, and convenient. Before long, we will have virtually instant access to every bit of content we might want, always and everywhere, and with a minimum of effort (though not necessarily with a minimum of cost). We are nearly there, too.

This revolution—inadequately described as a revolution of "information" or the "digital" or the "Internet"—is wholly unprecedented in history. Not long ago I had to tell blasé skeptics that it is not "hype" to call it a revolution. But clearly, a lot of regular folks, not necessarily in the vanguard, have started to understand the enormousness of how the world has changed in the last fifteen years or so. It's a real revolution, not a mere fad or development, and even as we stare it in the face, it is still hard to grasp just how far-reaching it is. We have been swept up by the one of the most novel and dramatic transformations that humanity has ever undergone. We read about "revolutions" throughout history, the printing press, of religion, of ideology, of industry. This is another one; it's the real deal. It's more important than, for example, who will be elected president in 2012, whether the Euro will collapse, or Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Anyway, this revolution is so novel that it is not surprising if we act like kids screaming in a candy store, not knowing what to sample first. Maybe it's time that we started taking stock of the Internet's candy store more like mature adults and less like sugar-crazed children.

For some time, I've known that I would have to come to a personal understanding of this situation, and make some personal resolutions to deal with it. Like so much else, I've been putting this off, because the problem is massive and I haven't felt equal to it. I'm not sure I am yet. Nobody seems to—not even the above writers, who offer bleak reports and little in the way of helpful advice. The Internet bedazzles us. But for me, things have come to a head. I do not want to go through the rest of my life in the now all-too-familiar state of Internet bedazzlement, if I can help it. For me, it begins now. It's time for me—and maybe, for you too—to get over the fact that all of the world's information and the people that drive it are (or soon will be) accessible in moments. But how?

Some people won't admit that there is even a problem in the first place. They celebrate the Internet uncritically, leaping upon every new site, app, or gadget that promises to connect us in newer and deeper ways. But it is precisely the wonders of the Internet that we celebrate that have become a major distraction. Some people don't seem to want to admit that distractability is a serious problem; they do nothing but offer blithe predictions and analysis of how thinking, social interaction, education, etc., are moving into a wonderful new age. That is all very well as far as it goes, but I sometimes wonder if some of the recent economic downturn might be explained by the amount of time we waste online. Surely it's possible that the global economy is significantly less productive because we're distracting ourselves, and each other, so much, and with so little to show for it.

Other people seem to think that there's nothing that can be done about our distractability and "shallowness." Whatever their disagreements, Internet commentators Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr seem to agree on this: the brevity of information chunks, the pace of their flow, and the fact that they are mediated democratically by giant web communities are all inevitable features of the Internet; so we can't help but be "distracted." Or so Shirky, Carr, and many techie A-listers seem to think. This is where modern life is lived, for better or worse. If you want to be part of things, you've got to jump into the data stream and do your best to manage. If your distractability is making you "shallow" or "flat," that is just a new and unfortunate feature of life today.

I will not "go gentle into that good night." I can't help but observe that this sort of techno-fatalism might be why some Internet geeks are becoming anti-intellectual. I'm far from alone in my view that the overall tendency of the Internet, as it is now and as we use it now, is to make us less intellectual. So, many Internet geeks make a virtue of necessity and begin slagging intellectual things like memory (and thus declarative knowledge), books and especially the classics, expertise, and liberal education. At least critics like Carr and Lanier have the good taste and sense to bemoan the situation rather than mindlessly celebrating it.

As to me, I disagree with techno-fatalism strongly. Isn't it obvious that the Internet is still very new, that we are still experiencing its birth pangs, and that dramatic changes to how we use it will probably continue for another generation or two? Isn't it also quite obvious that we have not really figured out how to design and use the Internet in a way that is optimal for us as fully-realized human beings? I love the new universal accessibility of so much recorded knowledge. Over the last dozen years I have been a booster of this myself, and in my work I still aim to enlarge our store of free, high-quality knowledge resources. I also deeply love the free exchange of ideas that the Internet makes possible. These things are why I "live online" myself. I do agree with the boosters that all this will, in time, probably, change us for the better. But the idea that the mindless digital helter-skelter of the early 2000s is how things will always be, from here on out, is highly doubtful.

We simply can't go on like this. I think we can change, and we should.

Part 2: the pernicious design philosophy of the Internet >>

Relevant links

A good place to start learning about what psychologists say about Internet distraction would be via this search.

Nicholas Carr's famous essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in The Atlantic, is one of those articles you kind of wish you'd written. It focused many people's thinking about the effect of the Internet on how we think. I actually prefer his book The Shallows, however.

The "pancake people" reference is to a short essay by Richard Foresman in Edge.

For some of what I've said about the "revolution" that the Internet and digital media represent, see thisthis, and this, just for example.

When I think about the suggestion that it's not a bad thing that information chunks are getting smaller, I think of this Britannica Blog post by Clay Shirky, lauding short-form online communication as an "upstart literature" that will "become the new high culture." Perhaps an older, more widely-read introduction to this notion would be Small Pieces, Loosely Joined by David Weinberger--it's just that the pieces are even smaller and looser than when Weinberger published that book (2002).

"Go gentle into that good night" is, of course, a phrase from the poem "Invictus."

The surely absurd notion that there is a new geek anti-intellectualism is broached in this much-discussed essay.