Positivity and motivation

Larry Sanger

One thing that almost nobody knows about me is how much time I’ve spent on self-analysis of one sort or another. I’m deeply impressed by people who are more motivated and self-disciplined than I am, and I frequently try to get to the bottom of the many issues surrounding self-discipline.

Recently I’ve been toying with the notion that optimism is an important attitudinal key to high motivation. But the more I think about it, the more I think it is not optimism but positivity that matters. These are different. A rough gloss of “optimism” is “the habit of estimating the probability of future events turning out well.” By contrast, I’d say “positivity” means “the habit of evaluating one’s own achievements and situation, and those of other people, highly.” Obviously, this is a vague thing. But if you “look on the bright side,” you’re positive; if you’re depressive and regard your achievements as worthless and your situation as bleak, you’re negative.

So, yes, I’m thinking that Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking was right all along. This is also consistent with the fact that cognitive therapy (which is all about replacing negative thoughts with positive ones) is so helpful.

I know people who say they are depressed who nevertheless do work hard. I’m not saying that positivity is perfectly correlated with motivation (or hard work). But as I look back on my own life, at the times that I worked the hardest, I was always at the time quite proud of my work or progress, and more or less satisfied with my circumstances. Was that because I happened to be working harder or producing more at the time? Actually, no. There were other times in my life when I also happened to work hard and get stuff done, but I was dissatisfied with my progress. No–I think I was, at those times, simply focused on the positive. That suggests a hypothesis.

I’ll be 50 in a few weeks, and I have thought a great deal about this sort of thing, but I’m not sure I have ever entertained this precise hypothesis: When I am quite positive, i.e., when I dismiss self-criticism and instead take pride in my work (and my circumstances, i.e., “looking on the bright side” of whatever comes my way), then I do happen to be unusually well motivated and hard-working. Positivity causes high motivation. Dwelling on the bright side is a sufficient but not necessary condition for wanting to get stuff done.

It’s not optimism about the future that matters most to motivation. It’s positivity. Optimism means evaluating the probability of future desired events highly. But if you’re in a blue funk, then even if you think it’s very likely that you’ll achieve x if you set out to do x, you’ll be less likely to care about x, or be motivated by the prospect. But if you’re quite positive, if you dwell long and hard on how wonderful it will be to achieve x, and you generally look on the bright side regardless, that can be enough to overcome a sober estimate that your chances of success are relatively low.

So I’m going to try this out. There’s no great method to follow, however. What I’m describing here is an attitude, not an activity. If you’re persuaded by what I’ve written, and want to try it out with me, then it seems to me what you need to do is reflect on everything in your life–your job, your relationships, your material circumstances, everything–and remind yourself of all of the most positive aspects of it all. Then keep those aspects in mind, and going forward, as you encounter new circumstances and talk with folks, make an effort to dwell on the most positive aspects. If you get a B and you wanted an A, reflect that it’s not a C; that the course was difficult; that it is, after all, just one grade; etc. If you finish a piece of work you’re proud of and nobody else seems to notice, don’t let that stop you from taking pride in your work. And let your attitude come out. If you feel like saying to a coworker, “I really killed it,” referring to your job, they’ll probably support you if they’re decent.

I’m not saying you should be conceited or narcissistic. Don’t take other people down a peg just because you start getting more positive about yourself. I also think you should be positive with respect to other people, their qualities and their achievements. If someone says they finished something important, praise them. You might find someone’s politics annoying, but don’t let that stop you from liking or admiring him or her. Remind yourself that politics are just one not-very-important aspect of a person’s life, and that your friend is, after all, very accomplished in this or that way, or funny, or pretty, or whatever their positive traits might be. This will make it easier for you to be more genuinely positive about yourself.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Why do I get so much work done on airplanes?

Larry Sanger

Riding in planes ain’t so bad. I wholeheartedly believe they’re safer than cars–and this is the one actual advantage of having short legs. So I don’t mind riding in planes. Maybe, I admit, I even look forward to it a little. But more important than that, I usually get quite a bit of work done on planes. It’s surely the lack of distractions, right? No Internet, no family, no workmates, no phone calls, just me and my laptop (or book).

But perhaps there’s more than just a lack of distractions that accounts for my productivity while aloft: maybe it’s also a sense of agency or freedom. Nobody’s about to tell me what to do, and I know it. I have a block of hours that I know I can dispose of in just the way I like. I might be crammed in a 31″ (average legroom) by 16.5″ (average width) box by rapacious airlines with razor-thin profit margins, but my ability to control my time is positively liberating.

Distraction and lack of agency are both rather puzzling. They seem to be wholly psychological. What, really, is the difference between me sitting at my workstation at home and doing some work and sitting with a laptop in a plane seat? There seems to be nothing more than an awareness that certain things are possible–that I might choose to do something that would (sadly) distract me, or that someone might ask me to do something or interrupt me. I personally lack the ability to turn off that awareness; I can’t as it were put myself into airplane mode. But that inability is simply a decision I make. It’s not a bad think that I make it. I don’t want to be the sort of person who “gives zero f***s.” But riding in an airplane cuts us off, temporarily. And that seems to be a good thing, sometimes, for me anyway.

Some thoughts, 15 years after Wikipedia’s launch

Larry Sanger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infobitt’s Future, and Mine

Larry Sanger

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

=======

Friends,

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

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

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

Contents of this mail:

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

Please do continue contributing to Infobitt!

If you keep at it, so will I.

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

What’s the core problem?

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

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

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

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

Why I’m still excited about Infobitt:

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

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

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

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

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

What does Infobitt need? So…why aren’t we there yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other gigs I’d like to consider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please continue contributing to Infobitt!

All the best,
Larry

Some unpopular opinions

Larry Sanger

Here are some unpopular opinions, for your outrage or delight.

1. One of the biggest but least recognized reasons that American school system sucks—and it most certainly does—is that so many teachers and education professors are just as anti-intellectual as most parents. This is why we homeschool.

2. A large contingent of geekdom is actually anti-intellectual, too, as paradoxical as that might sound. Not all; certainly not my friends.

3. The most important purpose of education is not vocational education, but to train and liberate the mind, to create fully competent and responsible free citizens of a free republic. This, contrary to the much-celebrated Sir Ken Robinson, is not “boring stuff.” We’ve got to adopt the right educational goals, lest we continue to suffer great opportunity costs of various inefficient educational methods. It’s a goddamned shame that national treasures like Marva Collins have not been listened to and learned from.

4. Knowledge—which is a key element of the mission of education—involves no small amount of memory work. No, it doesn’t matter that research is updating our knowledge base very regularly. If we could only jettison our distaste for memory work, we might learn the tremendous advantages of spaced repetition.

5. Television is mostly a friggin’ waste of time. You’re better off without access to broadcast and cable TV. You can watch the good stuff on your own time via Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.

6. Latin and Greek are still good languages for kids to study.

7. Yes, babies can read. Robert Titzer (of Your Baby Can Read fame) was badly misunderstood and unjustly attacked. At least, babies can start to learn to read. By the time they’re preschoolers, they can read well. This doesn’t require pressure in any way. It’s fun. Maybe you just didn’t know this. Try to keep an open mind.

8. Joyful, disorganized early education can generally do great things for little kids. It’s a completely avoidable national disgrace that so many kids exit first grade without knowing how to read.

9. All that just goes to show you that experts can be really friggin’ dogmatic, or so I find, as much as I do respect them. They’re highly susceptible to groupthink, and we must not confuse devotion to science and scholarship with uncritical acceptance of whatever trends happen to be in the ascendancy among the current generation. Follies are frequently collective, even among smart, well-educated people. Sad, but all too true.

10. Another example of dogmatic experts: yes, we do have free will, properly understood. Oh-so-clever science students stupidly assume that science alone can establish the contrary. They pretend not to be doing philosophy, when that is exactly what they are doing (albeit badly). They are annoying in their stubborn failure to understand the issues. Compatibilist free will is the only sort of freedom we need.

11. Our university system is broken, but it’s a huge mistake to conclude that college is a waste of time. I propose that we pop the education bubble by creating a new, more independent and modular system of higher education, with degrees by examination among other things.

12. It makes no sense to use reason to call into question the use of reason. “He must either be a fool, or want to make a fool of me, that would reason me out of my reason and senses,” said one of my heroes, Thomas Reid. It is per se rational to begin our reasonings from the principles of what philosophers like Reid and G. E. Moore called “common sense.”

13. An objective morality does exist. Relativism is dangerous and wrong. It is not the case that, if God is dead, everything is permitted. As Aristotle knew, life itself is the basic good that underlies our moral judgments; so our basic duty is to live well.

14. While in some ways Western civilization has never been more powerful and enlightened, it has also become morally and intellectually arrogant, sclerotic, and stunted. This can’t end well.

15. More specifically, I am appalled and saddened by how cynical and morally bankrupt so many people can be today when acting as part of governments, bureaucracies, parties, corporations, schools, social cliques, the dating scene, gangs, law enforcement, publishing, etc., etc.—and when our supposed intellectual leaders mostly avoid moral judgment of the contemptible behavior that takes place in these social contexts. Corruption and cynicism are not OK; it doesn’t matter if “everybody’s doing it.” Someday I’ll write an essay, or a book, about this.

16. We’ve lost our moral and intellectual bearings. Religion is no longer a unifying force, of course. Even the formerly unifying ideals of western civilization—knowledge, freedom, dignity, excellence, self-control, etc.—have come under attack by much of our intelligentsia. Ideology is no substitute; no, nothing substantial is in its place. As a society, we’re sleepwalking. It’s alarming. Again, it can’t end well.

17. Goddamned Hollywood is a morally depraved hot mess. They have got to get their house in order. They generally don’t deserve our attention beyond any worthwhile entertainment they happen to produce.

18. I’m sorry if this offends, and I’m not saying this about my many liberal friends, who are generally very original and brilliant, but I’m going to say it anyway: conventional, dull, social-climbing, ambitious people are now mostly liberal or progressive Democrats. Being a lefty is no evidence that you are a smart nonconformist, not that it ever was. There are still plenty of dull, conventional conservatives too, of course. But at some point we’ve got to start talking about big-government left-wingers in this country as “conservatives,” just as unreconstructed communists in the old Soviet Union were called “conservatives.” Then I’ll ask for the good old word “liberal” back.

19. I am particularly appalled by the illiberal hostility that certain left-leaning students, and some older people as well, are showing toward the fundamental American ideals of free speech and intellectual tolerance. In the Facebook alumni group for my alma mater, the uber-liberal Reed College, a lot of older liberals share my consternation at these trends; no, they aren’t conservative or even libertarian.

20. Jonathan Chait is correct that there is a new political correctness. We have become too sensitive and rely far too much on dismissive arguments regarding how people have allegedly broken new social norms that not everyone shares. We ought instead to engage on issues of substance. That we don’t is really screwing up our civic culture.

21. Speaking of political incorrectness, I have some guilty pleasures on YouTube that aren’t quite politically correct for me to admit to liking. I admire their outspokenness, their intellectual courage in an increasingly censorious age, and their thoughtfulness. Let me introduce you to them:

Pat Condell. In-your-face atheist, old-fashioned liberal, vociferous defender of free speech. I might not always agree with him—actually, I often do—but in any case, I admire his spirit.

Karen Straughan. I’m really going to catch it for endorsing her, so let me just say first that I’m not convinced that her general take on feminism is right—it’s a lot to process and I need to think her views through more (a book would help). Still, I love that she’s a bisexual single mother and yet has the courage to comes down, hard, against the bigger stupidities of radical feminism. She comes across as remarkably articulate, intelligent, and frequently shows she’s done a lot of research; it’s hard to believe she doesn’t even have a college degree. She’s going to be famous in 10 years if not sooner.

I also like the brand of feminism of my fellow philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers; I have ever since reading her Who Stole Feminism? back in the 1990s.

Rockin’ Mr. E.” He’s sort of a long-haired Greek-Welsh cross between Pat Condell and Karen Straughan. Again, I don’t always agree, often because his arguments would require research and thought to evaluate properly—but I often do find myself inclined to agree, anyway. I appreciate his nonconformist, independent spirit, anyway. And his chops on the electric guitar.

Let the sneering begin!

I’m sure I’ve managed to piss off everybody to some extent. I swear this isn’t my intention. I’m not a troll because I actually believe what I say and think it actually important to say. I do own up to being a gadfly and possibly a pretentious, annoying git. But a troll, no.

Reasons We Do Not Have for Homeschooling, and a Reason We Do

Larry Sanger

Here are several reasons we do not have for homeschooling:

•  We are religious “nuts” who want to shield our children from the theory of evolution, etc.? Nope. I’m a nonbelieving rationalist.

•  We are social climbers? Nope. I don’t especially care if my boys go to the best colleges. I am not preparing them for Harvard (or even Reed, where I went). I want them to succeed, of course, but by their own lights, not according to society’s common notions of success,  or even mine.

•  We are just generally competitive and want to be ahead of other kids? Nope. Already, there are plenty of kids who are ahead of H. But I’m not going to push him. He’ll find his level and I’m sure I’ll be proud of him regardless. I just want him to learn all he can, while still having a happy, reasonably relaxed childhood.

•  We want to shelter our boys from the bad influences at public schools? Nope. H. actually attends “specials” twice a week (art, music, P.E., and computers).

•  We can’t afford private school? Nope. We probably could, if we sacrificed. But no, there isn’t any private school in the area that would help our boys achieve the goals we have for them.

Here is the main reason, far and away the single most important reason, we do have for homeschooling:

•  We want our children to get a solid liberal arts education, which means:

In literature, I want them to know, appreciate, and understand the classics, and to be morally improved for having wrestled with them. I want them to be able to write persuasively, creatively, and thoughtfully, with flawless grammar and spelling, so that they could enter any writing-oriented profession. They should also be able to speak well. In math, I want them not only to study math through calculus and statistics, but to understand it; they will also study logic and, probably, mathematical logic. I want them thoroughly familiar with history, both U.S. and the rest of the world; I want them to know about the world itself, so geography and foreign languages are a must; so in general, I want their understanding of human society to be filled with facts and nuance. I want them to be able not only to do scientific calculations with facility, but actually to understand scientific concepts—well enough to succeed as science majors, or at engineering, if they so desire. I want them to be able to become excellent scholars, and to be able to understand their own language and the roots and nature of western civilization, so we’ll probably study Latin and Greek for several years at least. They’ll learn philosophy with me, reading and digesting a half-dozen of the main classics, such as the Plato’s Republic, Descartes’ Meditations, Locke’s second treatise, and a few others. I want them familiar with music and other fine arts.

Of course, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to pursue interests of their own choosing. H. is really into programming and I’ll continue to support that.

Public schools can’t provide this sort of education, because:

I’ve looked for private and charter schools in the area that I thought might be able to support these goals; I couldn’t find any, except maybe St. Charles Prep for high school, and that’s Catholic…

What should I do next?

Larry Sanger

Well, what do you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Greatest Hits

Larry Sanger

The following pieces of writing produced the greatest reaction, or are simply my favorites. In order from most recent to oldest:

What should we do about Wikipedia’s porn problem? (May 2012)

I want to start a conversation. … 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.

Efficiency as a basic educational principle (January 2012)

Seize every opportunity to help the individual student to learn efficiently–which occurs when the student is interested in something not yet learned but is capable of learning it, and especially when learning it makes it easier to learn more later. In other words, when an individual student is capable of learning efficiently, seize the opportunity.  If students spend too much idle time when they could be learning, if they are learning only a little, if they are not interested in what is being taught, if they have already learned it, or if they will not understand it, then they aren’t learning efficiently.  When a certain approach ceases to conduce to efficient learning, try something else. … So far, the principle is unremarkable.  But see how I apply the principle to a variety of educational issues.

An example of educational anti-intellectualism (December 2011)

One would expect Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor of learning technology at Plymouth University in England, to be plugged into and more or less represent the latest academic trends in education technology.  If so, I’m a bit scared. I came across Prof. Wheeler’s blog post from yesterday, “Content as curriculum?” If I had wanted to create a parody of both kinds of anti-intellectualism I’ve mentioned recently–among geeks and among educationists–I couldn’t have invented anything better. Wheeler hits many of the highlights, repeating the usual logical howlers as if they were somehow deeply persuasive. While I’ve already debunked a lot of this elsewhere, I thought it would be instructive to see that I have not, in fact, exaggerated in how I characterize the anti-intellectualism of some educationists. Wheeler’s post is so interesting and provocative, I’m going to go through line-by-line.

Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism? and Geek anti-intellectualism: replies (June 2011)

Let me step back and sum up the views mentioned above: 1. Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.  Knowledge is now democratically determined, as it should be.  (Cf. this essay of mine.) 2. Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority.  In the future, information will be developed and propagated collaboratively, something like what we already do with the combination of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, and various other websites. 3. The classics, being books, are also outmoded.  They are outmoded because they are often long and hard to read, so those of us raised around the distractions of technology can’t be bothered to follow them; and besides, they concern foreign worlds, dominated by dead white guys with totally antiquated ideas and attitudes.  In short, they are boring and irrelevant. 4. The digitization of information means that we don’t have to memorize nearly as much.  We can upload our memories to our devices and to Internet communities.  We can answer most general questions with a quick search. 5. The paragon of success is a popular website or well-used software, and for that, you just have to be a bright, creative geek.  You don’t have to go to college, which is overpriced and so reserved to the elite anyway.

On Robinson on Education (May 2011)

This very striking video has been circulating, and I’m inspired to reply to it: … First, let me say, that the video design is very cool.  Moreover, Sir Ken Robinson is quite an excellent public speaker.  Finally, I agree with him entirely that standardization is the source of a lot of our educational difficulties.  But much of the rest of his message is irritatingly wrong. … While Sir Ken and much of his head-nodding audience no doubt think that he, and they, are being wonderfully egalitarian and inclusive when they say and believe such things, really the opposite is true. In the 21st century, just as much as in the 19th, a solid academic education, a liberal education, which features training in critical thinking and classical literature and all the rest of it, gives us an opportunity to improve our minds.

Manifesto of Very Early Education (April 2011)

1. Very small children are capable of learning much more than most people realize.  When they do, they can benefit significantly for the rest of their lives. 2. In the coming generation, societal awareness and acceptance of very early learning might well change on a massive scale. … 3. Those who dogmatically insist that play, and play only, is the work of childhood sadly misunderstand the virtues of early learning. 4. The education of very small children must be, above all, individualized. You must approach it with creativity, careful observation, and forethought, constantly adjusting what you do with your child. 5. Reading to children is the most important component of any early learning program.  Most of our academic knowledge can be gained from books.  Those who are in favor of copious reading by parents to children are not, therefore, wholly opposed to early learning. …

Essay on Baby Reading (December 2010)

Can we teach our babies to read? Yes. Should we? Probably. In this essay, I’m going to try to convince parents that it is possible, and may be beneficial, to teach their children to read even while they are babies or toddlers. I also have remarks for researchers throughout. First, I will explain how I taught my own little one, beginning at age 22 months, and introduce some of our methods. Then I will answer various general objections to the notion and practice of teaching tiny tots to read.

What Is the Meaning of Life? (May 2010)

So what is the meaning of life? My answer is: to do what we can to improve, at least by our own lights, the lives of those we care about—which could be extended to all of humanity. In a way, I am admitting that happiness is the purpose of life after all, but I am saying that we find meaning by supporting the happiness of everyone that we can. “Can” is the key word; what we can do depends on our personal circumstances, and that’s what changes over time.

Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age (March 2010)

Some Internet boosters argue that Google searching serves as a replacement for our memory and that students need not memorize — need not learn — as much as they did before the Internet. Educationists inspire us with the suggestion that collaborative learning online can serve as “the core model of pedagogy.” Knowledge is primarily to be developed and delivered by students working in online groups. And finally, the co-creation of knowledge can and should take the place of reading long, dense, and complex books. Such claims run roughshod over the core of a liberal education. They devalue an acquaintance with (involving much memorization of) many facts about history, literature, science, mathematics, the arts, and philosophy. Such claims also ignore the individual nature of much of liberal education. Reading, writing, critical thinking, and calculation, however much they can be assisted by groups, are ultimately individual skills that must, in the main, be practiced by individual minds capable of working independently. And such claims dismiss the depth of thinking that results from a critical reading and evaluation of many long and complex books.

An explanation of the Citizendium license (December 2007)

Since January 2007 when the Citizendium decided to “unfork” from Wikipedia, or delete unchanged Wikipedia articles from our database and encourage original work, the license for our own original articles has been up in the air. We said only, on a generic notice on the wiki, “All new articles will be available under an open content license yet to be determined.” Separately, I made it clear that we were considering the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL for short), the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-by-sa), and the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike License (CC-by-nc-sa).

The New Politics of Knowledge (September 2007)

It is a truly striking thing that people come together from across the globe and, out of their freely donated labor and strings of electrons, form a powerful new corporate body. When they do so—as I have repeatedly observed—they develop a sense of themselves as a group, in which they invest some time and can take some pride, and which they govern by rules. In fact, these groups are a new kind of political entity, the birth of which our generation has been privileged to witness. … If we talk about a politics of knowledge, and we take the analogy with politics seriously, then we assume that there is a sort of hierarchy of authority, with authority in matters of knowledge emanating from some agency that is “sovereign.” In short, if we put stock in the notion of the politics of knowledge, then we’re saying that, when it comes to knowing stuff, some people are at the top of the heap.

Education 2.0 (June 2007)

Imagine that education were not delivered but organized and managed in a way that were fully digitized, decentralized, self-directed, asynchronous, and at-a-distance. It is not hard to imagine a digital, decentralized degree-granting institution that “lives” primarily on the Internet, and organizes teachers and students to meet face-to-face. Such an institution need not offer courses, pay teachers, or collect tuition from students at all, but could act merely as a middleman and record transactions.

Who says we know: on the new politics of knowledge (April 2007)

As it turns out, our many Web 2.0 revolutionaries have been so thoroughly seized with the successes of strong collaboration that they are resistant to recognizing some hard truths.  As wonderful as it might be that the hegemony of professionals over knowledge is lessening, there is a downside: our grasp of and respect for reliable information suffers.  With the rejection of professionalism has come a widespread rejection of expertise—of the proper role in society of people who make it their life’s work to know stuff.  This, I maintain, is not a positive development; but it is also not a necessary one.

Why Make Room for Experts in Web 2.0? (October 2006)

First premise: some collaborative projects concern things that are directly within the expertise of some people. This is true, for example, of encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks, and authoritative links databases. Second premise: for such projects, entrusting some decisions to people who are experts will ensure that those decisions are more likely to be correct. If you disagree with that, then you’re saying that no matter how much you study or get experience with a subject, you never really improve the reliability of your judgment about the subject. Conclusion: it follows that encyclopedia projects, and other projects, will benefit by entrusting some decision-making to the relevant experts. If you want to make sure you’re doing a good job with some knowledge project, it’s a good idea to let people who have the relevant knowledge to make some decisions.

Toward a New Compendium of Knowledge (September 2006)

There are tens of millions of intellectuals online today.  What is possible with tens of millions of intellectuals working together on educational and reference projects?   The very thought of that makes me literally quiver with excitement.  I am amazed that we, educated people throughout the world, have barely begun to imagine what new reference and educational materials could come into being, if we pool our efforts in the open, collaborative ways demonstrated by open source software hackers.  Even less have we begun to take such possibilities really seriously, or actually get to work on them.

Text and Collaboration: A personal manifesto for the Text Outline Project (April 2006)

I propose a new “Collation Project” which has the lofty aim of enlisting large numbers of scholars to take scholarly public domain texts, analyze them into paragraph-sized chunks, and shuffle the chunks into a single massive outline–to construct, eventually, The Book of the World.  This will have revolutionary implications by making knowledge more easily accessible and smashing interdisciplinary and language barriers.  At the same time I propose to start at least three other projects: (1) an Analytical Dictionary Project, which sorts lexicographical data by concept, not word, and puts the result into the same outline as the Collation Project; (2) a Debate Guide Project, which summarizes arguments and positions on all manner of controversy; and (3) an Event Summary Project, which will locate detailed summaries of current events as part of a chronology that is continuous with a historical chronology.

The Early History of Nupedia and Wikipedia: A Memoir (April 2005)

The focus on the encyclopedia provided the task and the open content license provided a natural motivation: people work hard if they believe they are teaching the world stuff. Openness and ease of editing made it easy for new people to join in and get to work. Collaboration helped move work forward quickly and efficiently, and posting unedited drafts made collaboration possible. The fact that we started with a core of good people from Nupedia meant that the project could develop a functional, cooperative community. Neutrality made it easy for people to work together with relatively little conflict. And the Google effect provided a steady supply of “fresh blood”–who in turn supplied increasing amounts of content.

Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism (December 2004)

Wikipedia has started to hit the big time. Accordingly, several critical articles have come out, including “The Faith-Based Encyclopedia” by a former editor-in-chief of Britannica and a very widely-syndicated AP article that was given such titles as “When Information Access Is So Easy, Truth Can Be Elusive”. These articles are written by people who appear not to appreciate the merits of Wikipedia fully. I do, however; I co-founded Wikipedia. (I have since left the project.) Wikipedia does have two big problems, and attention to them is long overdue. These problems could be eliminated by eliminating a single root problem. If the project’s managers are not willing to solve it, I fear a fork (a new edition under new management, for the non-techies reading this) will probably be necessary.

Wikipedia and why it matters (January 2002)

The first public speech about Wikipedia delivered by anyone.

 Neutral point of view December 2001

Wikipedia has an important policy: roughly stated, you should write articles without bias, representing all views fairly. Wikipedia uses the words “bias” and “neutral” in a special sense! This doesn’t mean that it’s possible to write an article from just one point of view, the neutral (unbiased, “objective”) point of view. That’s a common misunderstanding of the Wikipedia policy. The Wikipedia policy is that we should fairly represent all sides of a dispute, and not make an article state, imply, or insinuate that any one side is correct. It’s crucial that we work together to make articles unbiased. It’s one of the things that makes Wikipedia work so well. Writing unbiased text is an art that requires practice. The following essay explains this policy in depth, and is the result of much discussion. We strongly encourage you to read it.

Looong interview with me by Dan Schneider in Cosmoetica

Larry Sanger

Off and on, for the last 2.5 years, I have been answering questions from poet and critic Dan Schneider, who has conducted a series of long, interesting interviews.  My interview, posted a few hours ago, is #27 in the series; Schneider himself gives the interview four stars (out of five).  That should tell you something about the Schneider: he’s the kind of guy who asks questions that take hours and hours to answer, and then has the audacity to rate the answers.  The questions cover my life, Wikipedia, Citizendium, philosophy, and my reactions to various idiosyncratic puzzles that Schneider has come up with.  If you were to ask why I agreed to do an interview that ended up being 40,000 words long, without any compensation or anything, I’d say that I didn’t know it was going to be that long, and Dan Schneider was very persistent.  And maybe this reveals just how vain I really am.