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 ReadingBear.org 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.


Wikipedia's porn filter DOA, and a proposal

Warning: this post has links to pages that are definitely not safe for work or school. I'll warn you which ones those are with "NSFW."

The post has two parts. The first is about the availability of porn on Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, which for most people reading this is probably old news; but they've reached some new lows, such as actual pornographic films. The second part contains what I think is real news: that the much-debated porn filter they were developing is no longer in development and looks likely to be dropped.

I

There are, as many people reading this know very well, stupendous amounts of explicit imagery on Commons as well as Wikipedia itself; simply search for any fetish, porn industry term, or body part, and you'll be likely to find it illustrated literally ad nauseam. Users, whether they like it or not, can be exposed to all sorts of inappropriate, explicit content when doing perfectly innocuous searches. This degree of smut is obviously inappropriate for an Internet resource touted as "educational" and promoted for classroom use.

Almost two years ago, I reported the Wikimedia Foundation to the FBI (as I was required to by law) on grounds that Wikimedia Commons was hosting two image categories, labeled "Pedophilia" and "Lolicon," which featured depictions of child sexual abuse. I tracked the fallout in two posts. Recently, FoxNews.com followed up their coverage, reporting that little had been done since then. The Fox News reporter did a good job, I think. But some more developments have come to light.

The pervy categories are still there, and include whole hierarchies of categories under the titles "Erotic images of children" (NSFW) and "Child sexuality" (NSFW). The garbage by Martin van Maele, who drew many illustrations of children being sexually abused in the early 20th century, is still there, aggressively and proudly defended by the powers-that-be on Wikimedia Commons as "historical" and "educational." To give you an idea of the attitude of the pedophilia sympathizers on Commons, who clearly feel themselves to be put-upon and wronged, consider that there is a so-called "Hate for pedophiles" category which has existed, unmolested, since May 2010 (which, come to think of it, is the month when my FBI report made news). Consider also (as was recently pointed out to me) that the activists-for-free-porn on Commons have been awarding each other the new, outrageously gross, "Hot Sex Barnstar" (NSFW!) for their efforts. There are clearly some (to me) extremely unsavory characters involved who have made it their mission to make Commons, and Wikipedia as well, as free as possible to host the most explicit sorts of imagery on this tax-exempt, non-profit 501(c)(3) website.

Recently I received an email from someone who follows this issue. He called a few things to my attention. One item: a convicted child pornographer has apparently been prominently involved in curating adult pornography. It seems he is one of those who loves to use Commons to post pervy naked pictures of himself--discussion here. He is probably not the only one. Another item: Commons is now hosting an antique video (really, really NSFW) which I am told (I didn't watch the whole thing) shows a dog fellating a woman (in a nun's habit) and a man.

The Wikipedia community's more prurient tendencies are, so far from being reined in and moderated, exercised more boldly than ever.

II

My correspondent also directed me to this extremely interesting discussion on the Wikimedia Foundation mailing list (Foundation-L). Read both pages--here is page 2. As I write this, discussion is ongoing.

This discussion has revealed two pieces of news so far.

First, the powers-that-be at the WMF have directed their programmers to stop working on their opt-in "controversial content" (including porn) filter. They have higher priorities, we are told.

This needs some background. The very least that Wikipedia could do, on this issue, is to let people turn on a filter so that they (or the children using their computers) would not be shown porn and other grossly inappropriate content. In fact, my understanding is that the porn would merely be "collapsed," meaning that the user could still easily display it by "uncollapsing" the image. This, as sane people can agree, sounds both welcome and completely uncontroversial. This is what the WMF's consultant recommended in 2010, and it was widely assumed, after a referendum indicated general support (if lukewarm), that it would be implemented soonish. After all, the tool would simply let people turn on a personal filter. (It wouldn't be turned on automatically--users would have turn it on in user settings.) And the filter would only hide "controversial" images, not completely block them. But, no. There's no compromise on porn in Wikipedia-land, despite this being an "educational" project constitutionally committed to consensus and compromise. They want their commitment to free speech so loudly proclaimed that two full-color vulvas greet you at the top of the page (with a variety of others further down), should you have the temerity to look up the subject on Wikipedia. There has been such a groundswell of loud opposition to the opt-in filter idea that the project was never implemented.

This leads me to the second piece of news. It appears that two Wikimedia Foundation Board members, Kat Walsh and Phoebe Ayers, have both changed their positions. The Board was sharply divided on the need of this filter (which is just as amazing and silly as it sounds) last fall, but things have become even sillier since then. There is more community opposition, and so Ms. Walsh and Ms. Ayers no longer support it. They strongly imply that the earlier decision to build a filter is now a dead letter.

This says something very disappointing and even disturbing about the Wikimedia Foundation as an institution. It certainly looks as though they are in the thrall of anarchist porn addicts whose scorn for the interests of children--the group of users that stands to gain the most from a high-quality free encyclopedia--is constrained only by the limits of the law, and maybe not even that.

Eighteen months ago, after speaking at length to both WMF Executive Director Sue Gardner and the consultant she hired, Robert Harris, I had the distinct impression that the WMF might be capable of prevailing on Wikipedia and Commons to the extent of, at least, installing a completely innocuous opt-in filter system. So color me disillusioned.

I don't wish any grief or embarrassment upon Wikipedia's more sensible managers, like those I've mentioned--Gardner, Ayers, and Walsh. They are clearly right that politically they're in a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" situation. But given the choice, I'd rather be damned for doing the bare minimum needed to meet the needs of children, or at least trying to do that, than be more richly damnable for not doing anything. I'd suck it up and remind myself that there are quite a few more important things than power and status. Since such a complete no-brainer as an opt-in filter is currently politically impossible, Gardner and other sane adults among the Wikimedia managers face a dilemma: maintain some degree of power in the organization, but implicitly supporting what is only too clearly a deeply dysfunctional and irresponsible organization; or resign. If I were Gardner, or a member of the Board, I would seriously consider resigning and making a clear and pointed public statement.

Ultimately, the WMF, which has legal responsibility for the project--and which is supposed to be the grown-up, after all--has shown in its inability to act on this issue that it cannot avoid a truly spectacular scandal or a really serious lawsuit. The potential trouble isn't that the government might shut Wikipedia down, or slap it with judgments it can't repay. Rather, the biggest potential trouble is a mass exodus of profoundly disillusioned contributors, which is surely the Achilles' heel of a project with tens of millions of articles and files to manage.

If she really wanted to take serious leadership on this issue, what Gardner might do is spearhead a brand new project to use some of the many millions they've amassed and start a serious Wikipedia for young people, one that K-12 teachers can be proud to use with their students. It could be a curated version of Wikipedia. It would not only have obvious controls regarding age-appropriate content, it would also have reviewed versions of articles, Citizendium-style. They could brag that they have finally adopted "flagged revisions," which the media has been repeatedly led to believe is "right around the corner."

I do not think the WMF needs to ask the Wikipedia rank-and-file to vote on this. Or, if they ask those people, they should also ask their contributors to vote on it, as well. The WMF has to ask itself: who are we serving, the Wikipedia rank-and-file, which is dominated by anarchist porn addicts, or readers? Are they sensible enough to answer this question correctly?

As an added bonus, if a WMF-supported responsible version of Wikipedia existed and were growing healthily, then I would shut up about the X-rated version of Wikipedia. Maybe.


Response to David Wiley on an education "badge" system

Here is my response to David Wiley's very interesting blog post about an educational badge system, similar to the Mozilla Open Badges program.

David, I didn’t mean to be unpleasant in my Twitter responses to you. I’m still grateful to you for agreeing to be a WatchKnow (now WatchKnowLearn, and now in the able hands of Dr. Joe Thomas) advisory committee member. I didn’t mean my remarks personally or even especially confrontationally–I was just giving you my honest reaction, in response to your call for comment. I care about this because I’ve written about something similar, and as someone who has started an ambitious project that got away from him, I see significant potential for that happening here. I also care because I really think that something like this may well lie in our future. So let me develop my points more fully.

1. About the word “badge.” As the above discussion [on Wiley's blog] makes plain, this talk of “badges” marks this whole endeavor as one started by boys, or former Boy Scouts. On a marketing point, I would worry about losing some traction with the female majority of the college-going public. Speaking for myself, I don’t like the talk of “badges” because this implies that hard-won credentials are merely bragging rights, or a mark of authority, of the sort Boy Scout badges or police badges are. I have a Ph.D. but I don’t put my diploma on display like a “badge”; that’s bad taste [unless you're a doctor, in which case the diploma serves as an important selling point]. Also, you aren’t reporting much thinking about how this whole project will be received by academia; academics are not apt to find “badges” very compelling.

2. So, let’s talk about the whole idea of academia confronting this endeavor. Far be it from me to speak for academe (you’re the paper-publishing professor, not me), I think this deserves some consideration.

Let’s begin here. You say, “the gold standard for learning credentials is acceptability by employers.” I’m not sure what this means, exactly. Is this a statement about what degree-seeking students (the customers of universities) believe, what “society in general” believes, or what is really, in fact, the highest conceivable standard in your own personal opinion?

When it comes to evaluating someone’s B.A. in Philosophy, do you want to say that “the gold standard” is “acceptability by employers”? Would that mean that I am a better philosopher if my degree has a better chance of getting me hired? Speaking as a formerly under-employed philosophy major, that sounds utterly ridiculous. A degree is, objectively speaking, supposed to indicate some actual level of intellectual attainment in the field. Surely you don’t mean to say that, if an employer hires me for such-and-such a degree, that indicates that I have reached that level of attainment in the field? Of course it doesn’t mean that.

3. Speaking as someone who hires people from time to time, to help with my projects, what I’m looking for depends entirely on the job. When I was looking for a voiceover person, the absolute only thing I cared about was the quality of her performance. But when I was hiring editors for an educational website, I was looking for the ability to write, as well as do or understand other things that a college education trains to do or understand. In that case I required a college degree and in fact was strongly preferring an M.A. in the relevant subject area.

Suppose I were hiring ten years from now and, lo, a dozen candidates lacked an M.A. but had “badges” that, the candidates (or some organization) claimed, was “equivalent” to an M.A. So how do I evaluate this claim of equivalence? My mind might have already been made up (I know that various companies are hiring such grads with no more complaints, so far, than they have about their recent college grads). But if it is up to me, I am going to look at the process whereby the “degree equivalent” is granted.

If a “badge” is the sort of thing that by common practice almost anybody can define, and then claim, then I’m not likely to take it seriously, and most others won’t either. In other words, the badge is a credential and a credential has to have, well, credibility. If supposed credentials are granted as easily as diploma mill “degrees,” the whole endeavor will–obviously, I think–not get off the ground. Some geeks might go about claiming to have all sorts of “badges,” but when it comes to hiring, I will ignore such self-claimed badges.

Your blog makes it very clear that you don’t propose a system in which badges are self-claimed. You want badges awarded by some sort of objective body. That is, of course, as it should be. (By the way, why not Excelsior College? They’ve been doing this, although they award things that they call “degrees” instead of “badges.”) But what do you imagine this objective body would look like?

The impetus behind your proposal, and the Mozilla white paper (which I read a version of a while ago), does not seem so much to be to make credentialing cheaper and more lightweight, as it is getting it away from academe altogether. Well, why? Come on now–do you really think that a Google employee is going to be able to evaluate a “badge” portfiolio better than a professor of computer science, who has long experience doing exactly this sort of thing?

4. You mention that badge evaluation might be, somehow, “crowdsourced.” This is a startling claim. It is one thing to crowdsource an encyclopedia article or software. We know why those work, at least as well as they do work. Why on earth think that evaluating credentials is something that could be accomplished Wikipedia-style? Perhaps (I doubt this, but just suppose) you are proposing that people vote on whether a person has made the grade. Well, I obviously don’t know, but I seriously doubt you’ll get many volunteers to do the hard work of portfolio evaluation–unless identified personalities are involved and the evaluation is not done in “blind” fashion. I mean, if people can get “badges” by getting a thumbs up from some benchmark number of people in a community of practice–boy, count me out. You mention gameability; that very suggestion positively screams gameability, precisely because personalities are involved. If the crowdsourcing is suitably double-blind, I doubt you’ll get many volunteers. In my experience, people volunteer for the fun stuff. They don’t volunteer for the real gruntwork; you have to pay people for that.

I’m guessing that you think that grading should be kept as independent of personalities as possible, and moreover, you agree with me that employers and graduate schools etc. are going to care, a lot, about the quality of the “badge” evaluation program. Well, it seems pretty obvious to me that this is going to end up calling in the professionals–the experts, in whatever field. After all, if I’m looking at two candidates, one of which was credentialed by some outfit I’ve never heard of, and the other of which was credentialed by Harvard, well, I’m going to respect the “badges” of the latter quite a bit more, won’t I? Surely the “badges” as recognized by more prestigious institutions will be worth more. And even if, in the move to bring this sort of system into the online world, there is some shuffling of players (say, Harvard makes the switch to an online badging system, but Yale is late to the game and fails), that won’t stop there from being competitive credentialing.

I think a lot of the starry-eyed dreaminess about this whole venture stems from the fact that it would seem to take credentialing out of the hands of elites and put into the hands of the masses. Well, I really don’t think that’s going to happen. Why should it? Indeed, what about your project, insofar as it is plausible, puts credentialing in the hands of the masses?

Well, the credentialing isn’t put into the hands of the masses. It is put into the hands of people who are willing to take money from people to evaluate exams, portfolios, etc., in exchange for small and large credentials. The only thing that makes this more “open” is the fact that one does not have to enroll as a student at an institution in order to get the credential. And that is something I’ve supported, wholeheartedly, at least since 1995.

=========

Let me add something I didn't put on David's blog.  I find that a lot of the talk about Web 2.0 (and 3.0) stuff is, in a certain way, very unreflective.  The whole idea of Open Badges is very interesting, but it absolutely demands a careful philosophical examination of a whole series of questions.  But I don't see a lot of evidence that this sort of thinking has been done by many people in that whole movement, or scene, or whatever it is.  Despite a rather flimsy white paper and support by a major foundation, Mozilla seems to be going off half-cocked.  And let me tell you something--it's one thing to go off half-cocked when you're making an encyclopedia.  It's another thing altogether if you're proposing a way to compete with universities.  Surely, if there's one thing that absolutely demands careful forethought, it's the design of a system that attempts to replace [or even credibly compete with] university education.


"The Greatest Art and Music"--together

Well, it might not be the greatest, but you'll recognize a lot of standard paintings and classical music.  I've matched them up and these will be used as "interludes" among the slides in the upcoming WatchKnow Reader app.  I had altogether too much fun making these.

Suitable for viewing by children (or that's my intention).  My own are fascinated by them.

Part 1, roughly on the theme of "awakening and childhood":

Part 2, "women and courtship":

Part 3, "material success":

Part 4, "foreboding" (Charles, this one has Water Music):

Part 5, "war and mortality":

Part 6, "religion, wisdom, and mystery":

Thumbs up, please!


Looong interview with me by Dan Schneider in Cosmoetica

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

larry sanger jewish

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

larry sanger jew

jimmy wales larry sanger [no comment]

The Jew Larry Sanger

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the way--Happy New Year!