I found myself intrigued a while ago by the idea of a “commonplace book”: a book where, in earlier days, one would copy memorable quotes, excerpts from books, or other wisdom. The idea integrates with several others:
Handwriting takes work. And the time and effort involved in putting text on a page, using the ancient technology of pen and dead trees, engage the mind in a way that strengthens memory.
Summarizing is learning. When you put forth the effort to select something worth noting, perhaps to connect it to other concepts, and to briefly write down something about it, the incoming information has changed. It’s no longer data flowing through your thoughts; it’s a richly encoded, richly networked piece of knowledge or wisdom with known relations to other thoughts.
It’s helpful to have an index, and a history, of thoughts you’ve found especially powerful.
And the ultimate point of input (reading, listening, etc.) is to increase the wisdom and knowledge to which you have immediate, personal access–mostly, inside your head.
I’ve occasionally tried to create my own “commonplace book”–through Google Docs, through this blog, through pen, paper and a leatherbound journal, even through Todoist tasks. I’m still trying to figure out an approach that “really works” with the rest of my life, though at this point I’m leaning toward the tactile, material richness of physical artifacts, perhaps combined with digital backups (and, ideally, some combination of digital shuffling/looping to remind me of these thoughts–something I still haven’t figured out how to do well).
For more on what actually helps you learn well, see a great and short-ish read, Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.
The Great Barrington Declaration has crossed my mindspace a few times recently. I’m increasingly conscious of the fact that, despite being a reasonably scientifically-literate layperson (I think), I am not a professional scientist. I don’t spend my days immersed in reading and critiquing studies, and haven’t developed strength in the skill sets or intuitive grasp of subject areas that experts in their fields have. So…I consciously rely on others’ evaluations, and try to choose “others” that I find trustworthy to a reasonable degree of confidence.
Here are links to a few such people’s evaluations of the Great Barrington Declaration. Essentially: their consensus is that despite elements of the GB Declaration that sound right, it doesn’t deal well with reality. And seems to incorporate either sloppy or shady framing of the issues, to boot.
Dear Pandemic, a collective of female PhDs and MDs (Facebook, Web):
Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up:
• The death and hospitalization toll even in under 65s would be staggering
• No consideration of waning immunity and re-infection
• No mention of impact of “Long Covid” for millions infected
• Cordoning off of a large percentage of the population is not feasible
• False dichotomy between lockdown and “back to normal”
And this one is from Dr. Jennifer L. Kasten, who, despite the intimidating array of letters behind her name, has posted lighthearted, chatty intros to a number of the issues along the way. Pardon the drifts toward crudeness of the comedic tone, esp. at the end. Dr. Kasten notes that identifying and segregating the vulnerable are both far more complicated and difficult than they sound, and this strategy in practice means the acceptance of a lot of deaths and long-lasting complications.
Dr. Emily Smith, writing as “Friendly Neighbor Epidemiologist” (FB, web)–an epidemiologist whose husband is a pastor. In addition to the false dichotomy of lockdowns vs. “business as usual”, and other issues, Dr. Smith observes (here and here):
The declaration essentially advocates to try get to herd immunity without precautions – except for protecting the elderly. But this would increase isolation for this group. And, also does not take into account the OTHER at-risk groups in the community for deaths and hospitalizations.
The declaration does not account for staggering amounts of hospitalizations, long COVID-19 haulers, and deaths in those under 65. The.numbers.are.staggering – if we choose this method. Especially since MANY under the age of 65 live with conditions that place them at-risk of COVID-19 complications (overweight, obesity, hypertension, asthma, etc). ****It’s not just the elderly that are at-risk.****
𝐒𝐮𝐦𝐦𝐚𝐫𝐲: Attempting herd immunity through natural infections leads to significant deaths/hospitalizations/long-haulers AND economic destruction. The middle ground of proper precautions protects both (again, see the Table of Contents on FB for that).
Dr. Smith also referenced the John Snow Memorandum, published in The Lancet, in this post. (The memorandum is named with reference to a doctor famous for his investigations and intervention to deal with cholera in London) in this post. In a followup Facebook post, “from a 30,000 foot perspective”, she pulls this quote from the Memorandum:
Any pandemic management strategy relying upon immunity from natural infections for COVID-19 is flawed. Uncontrolled transmission in younger people risks significant morbidity(3) and mortality across the whole population. In addition to the human cost, this would impact the workforce as a whole and overwhelm the ability of healthcare systems to provide acute and routine care.
Dr. Vince Staggs, a biostatistician at Children’s Mercy, shared this link to a set of experts’ responses to the GB Declaration. I simply recommend reading through the responses. This one is, perhaps, representative:
“An effective response to the Covid pandemic requires multiple targeted interventions to reduce transmission, to develop better treatments and to protect vulnerable people. This declaration prioritises just one aspect of a sensible strategy – protecting the vulnerable – and suggests we can safely build up ‘herd immunity’ in the rest of the population. This is wishful thinking. It is not possible to fully identify vulnerable individuals, and it is not possible to fully isolate them. Furthermore, we know that immunity to coronaviruses wanes over time, and re-infection is possible – so lasting protection of vulnerable individuals by establishing ‘herd immunity’ is very unlikely to be achieved in the absence of a vaccine. Individual scientists may reasonably disagree about the relative merits of various interventions, but they must be honest about the feasibility of what they propose. This declaration is therefore not a helpful contribution to the debate.”
-Dr Rupert Beale, Group Leader, Cell Biology of Infection Laboratory, Francis Crick Institute
Before my family had a computer, I knew I wanted to program. I told that story in an earlier post. I’d like my kids to learn to code as well–but they’re growing up in a world very different from that of my childhood, and I haven’t been sure how to recreate for them the empowerment that I felt. I think I’ve found one “magic bullet” entree to the game, and am sharing a brief review of it and of several other resources.
First–our first BitsBox arrived yesterday, and our kids (7 and 6) love it! The company delivers a highly-scaffolded programming environment. The first project has the child type in two lines of code to draw a monster on screen, and then have him burst into flame on a tap. And then, there’s a question: can you make the monster dance instead of burning? And the learning begins.
What I’ve loved about our kids’ interaction with BitsBox so far is they’re exploring. One didn’t like the music that came with the first assignment, so I helped her figure out how to play something else instead (choose a different name from the library and use the song function). Another wanted the monster in another assignment to say something besides “peekaboo”. She tried sound(“hi, you”), but there wasn’t a sound by that name. But, text(“hi, you”) worked to display a message!
Most learning comes from wanting to accomplish something, and then figuring out how to do it. I’m ecstatic that BitsBox seems to be facilitating this kind of learning in our kids!
I hope that BitsBox adds layers of complexity as it progresses, but for the moment, it’s lovely. It even allows kid coders to share their apps with other people, via email or QR code scan. It’s a monthly subscription, our kids are excited about it, and therefore I’m excited about it, for now. I don’t have an affiliate arrangement with them, so no kickbacks are involved in this review. 🙂
Note that both of our kids are proficient readers, and comfortable with the idea of keyboards (though still slow, hunt-and-peck typists). Those are likely prerequisites to enjoying BitsBox, as is the occasional (though not extensive) involvement of an adult “coach”.
We got the Robot Turtles board game a while ago. The basic idea is similar to the old “Logo” programming approach: you create a set of instructions for a turtle to follow on its way to the prize. Except, in this case, there’s an adult, the “Turtle Mover”, involved, who “executes” the instructions (potentially including loops and maybe other constructs), making suitable dramatic noises as the turtle turns, moves forward, activates lasers to blast through ice walls, etc.
Our daughters enjoyed this game. I loved the idea. But the “problem space” felt a bit too simplistic, and–I’ll admit it–the role of the Turtle Mover doesn’t get more interesting with time. It still, though, might be worth a try for you. The pieces are lovely, and our daughters enjoyed it.
Lightbot and Lightbot Jr.
This is a great little “puzzle” game for mobile. You give instructions to a robot, which then executes them to turn on all the lights in a “board”. The boards, of course, increase in complexity as you progress, and new options and coding constructs become available.
These are free programs to let kids play with programming. Scratch Jr. is completely graphical; Scratch includes some text, with substantial graphical elements. They’re terrific environments for free-form programming. Our kids have played with Scratch Jr., but haven’t tapped much of the potential, and I haven’t been equipped to guide them. I have a book from No Starch Press on the way that I hope will help me with that. (They also have books on Scratch.)
If you search for “teach children programming” or “teach children Python”, you’ll find an abundance of resources.
If you have personal experience with other resources for teaching kids to code, I’d love to hear about them in comments!
Around the year 2000, I stopped listening to most contemporary Christian music. I’d enjoyed some of the upbeat rhythms, some of the sentiments…but I found myself listening to the most recent WOW collection and nauseated at the sugary, substanceless positivity that I heard. It wasn’t good Christian music. It wasn’t good art of any sort. It was a lie.
The story is told that Siddhartha Gautama grew up as a privileged prince, carefully isolated from the outside world to protect him from physical, mental, or emotional harm. But one day a funeral procession went by outside the palace, and he realized that a world of death existed outside. His ensuing grappling with suffering, we’re told, took him a long way from the palace and into reality, and produced the eightfold path of Buddhism.
The story is told in other forms. In Watership Down, the wanderers find a warren where everything is peaceful, there are no predators, and all eat well…but learn that scaffolding this peace was a maze of farmers’ snares, and a code of silence about them. The peace of the warren depended on it. In The Stepford Wives, a couple moves into an idyllic suburb. The charm and competence of their neighbors is delightful, and incredible…and then the cost becomes clear.
Ursula K. Le Guin, in her haunting fable The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, imagines a society of broad freedom, aesthetic delight, and human achievement, and of all those in it. (Search out the story and read it. Really.)
Hope nauseates me. Hope keeps me sane and alive.
Real hope begins with what is true–with the sadness, the horror, the fear, the pain, the injustice that are endemic to the world. And it somehow, often ridiculously, holds on to a belief that things can, that things may, get better. Somehow. Through one’s own actions, through outside factors, perhaps through both.
And there’s the other kind of hope, that is no hope at all. The “hope” of convincing oneself that nothing is wrong, and that no solutions are needed. The hope that tells the musicians in the palace to play more loudly as the funeral procession passes by outside. The hope that proffers weary and worn-through “spiritual” prescriptions to the starving of body or soul. The hope that tells others “be warmed and fed” and prays earnestly for their good, and goes on its way knowing that God is in control and all shall be well. The “hope” that rejects hope, for there is nothing to improve on and nothing to hope for, that constructs an inner idyll as it destroys the world around it.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
I see the shadows. I’m immersed in them, surrounded by them, even suffused by them. And yet, I act in hope. In hope that the flickering particle of light in me is real, that it might survive, might strengthen others, and that someday it will, somehow, be meaningful. And that the presence of shadows may indicate a light source–and that that possibility is worth everything. Worth survival, worth pain, worth kindness and integrity.
But don’t tell me that all is justice and peace, for there is no peace. If redemption comes, it will come for reality, not for fantasies. It will come for the hard edges of pain and truth, not for the spun candy of niceness. It will incinerate imagined worlds, leaving only the glowing gold of reality. It will come through people who know reality, and live in it.
I do believe in a metaphysical reality–but in that reality, a transcendent God chose to enter, and to submit to, reality as we know it, and worse than most of us know it. God chose to enter human life as a Jewish man under Roman occupation, to become a political victim both of Rome and of Judea, and to be tortured to death. And in Jesus’ death and resurrection (I realize I’m losing some people here, and perhaps gaining some back) and the inauguration of the Church, God’s metaphysical involvement with the world quickly returned to deep, empowered engagement in a very human and physical world. As one of the New Testament letters noted, “How can you say you love God, whom you can’t see, when you hate your brother, whom you can?”
Hope is real, or we are hopeless. What is real, hurts. Hope has hard edges.
Having recently moved back to the US, we’re re-engaging with America’s largest irrigated crop: the lawn. As with many issues, I find myself in inner conflict. I like the idea of having a nice, tidy green lawn of soft, cool grass where our daughters can play, without worrying overmuch about ticks and other beasties. But I hate the idea of pumping and pouring precious groundwater into something that’s not meant to grow here, of dumping chemicals on the ground purely for the sake of aesthetics, of being a contributor to the mass death of insects (and the threat that poses to the rest of the biome, including the species homo sapiens), of killing off all plant life except a certain species or two of grass in an area in the pursuit of some cultural ideal.
We’re hoping to pasture a few chickens on the lawn, using the ingenious Egg Cart’n “chicken tractor” as a movable coop–which offers an extra incentive to limit chemicals applied. (Disclosure: my father-in-law designed and sells these things. And they are ingenious.)
We have, perhaps, a quarter-acre plot (with power lines close by), which limits, for example, the ability to plant a forest in our backyard. We’ve dedicated a bit of the space to growing vegetables, using a variant of “Square Foot Gardening” (raised beds). I did end up “nuking” some big, solid patches of dandelions with glyphosate. We hope to experiment with planting some buffalo-grass plugs and over-seeding a drought-tolerant fescue, without chemically burning down most of the many weeds (and some grasses) we have in the lawn right now–for something of a grass-based lawn (if it “takes”) without going to extremes. We’ll till up one area and seed a “bed” with a mix of lots of wildflowers. May they be helpful to some pollinators and other insects. We’d like to plant some more bushes and small trees, ideally ones friendly to birds and maybe other small wildlife.
I recently found High Country Gardens, which looks like an awesome source for sustainable lawns and plants; they have some books I’m very much looking forward to reading. Their “lawn alternative” wildflower mix looks awesome…but a bit of a stretch for our small-ish backyard. Facebook’s “Healthy Yards” page offers helpful reminders in my feed. I’ve looked a bit at the Kansas Forestry Service’s website and trees-list, and a bit (esp. re. grasses) at KS Extension Service resources. But overall, I’m running on a dearth of knowledge, a dearth of energy to explore and learn, and with competing ideals of cultural aesthetic mandates (especially in a small town, vs. completely rural–but some of which are internalized) and of responsibly living on the earth.
I find nature deeply nourishing. I don’t spend a lot of time in nature. I like growing things. I don’t feel like I have huge amounts of time to invest in them. I want to minimize use of chemicals. I do use them somewhat, and prefer not to buy things branded “organic” or “non-GMO”. I dread the depletion of the aquifer under us…and I use a water softener, reverse-osmosis system, and irrigate my lawn. I love the idea of wild, emergent natural spaces, with an ecosystem sorting itself out. I live on a plot in a small town, and think about ticks or leeches (depending on the place) and poison ivy when I’m in woods or grasses. I enjoy, and shudder at, carefully manicured English gardens. I’m deeply refreshed at the oh-so-carefully-shaped wildness of Japanese gardens. I, um, have a few internal paradoxes.
What resources do you recommend for exploring the creation of “living spaces”, with both human living and the sphere of “life” of which we’re a small part in mind?
“One of the different questions adult development theory lets us ask is, “Who am I being right now and is that the person I want to be?” You bring that question into your everyday life and it moves you.”
-Jennifer Garvey Berger, in Farnam Street/Knowledge Project interview. Great discussion of the self-sovereign, socialized, self-authored, and self-transforming ways of being. In general, a great map of growth in life and decision-making.
I stood on the sidelines recently of a Facebook debate over online shopping vs. buying locally. The thing is, I sympathize with both sides of the debate–but I think both are incomplete. Two of the biggest considerations are efficiency of a system and resiliency of a system. Other effects, harder to quantify or predict but real nonetheless, matter as well–but let’s stay primarily with efficiency and resilience.
First, let’s consider efficiency. A few questions worth asking include what efficiency means, whether (or in what cases) it’s good, and what tradeoffs it includes.
To be efficient is to accomplish a goal with a minimal investment of resources: time, money, energy, labor, or whatever you consider. Thus, to say a system is “efficient” is always to say that it is efficient in accomplishing [some effect or product], while minimizing the use of [some input], in [a specific environment]. Efficient use of one resource often involves the use of other resources or the introduction of other costs. For example, inter-state travel takes less time than it did in the era of the Oregon Trail, but at the cost of natural resources (petroleum fuel), environmental quality (pollution, paved roads), and even social capital within local communities. The system is designed to work “well” in an environment where energy is relatively inexpensive.
(A disclaimer here: a lot of this article blurs the lines between efficiency as described above and efficacy, the simple act of getting things done without reference to the particular costs. I think it’s a fair “blurring” for our purposes, but it is a blurring.)
Efficiency is in itself amoral, but its goals, costs, and benefits are matters of ethics. The Third Reich, of course, was quite efficient in achieving its deadly goals, which we see as evil. Adam Smith and Henry Ford, in valuing specialization, made manufacture of material goods more efficient (and thus more broadly available), with a culture of “artisanship” a casualty, and substantial changes to societal organization. Facebook and Google are increasingly efficient at targeting ads, again re-distributing influence and power. In farming, capital allows ultra-efficient production of crops with respect to human labor–which in turn empties rural communities into cities across the world. Efficiency may be evil, it may be good, but it’s often mixed.
An “efficient” system is generally efficient in a specific environment. Examples abound from various contexts:
Darwin’s revelations about finches arose from their varied beaks, each adapted to the particular food sources available to it.
Artificial-intelligence systems gain “intelligence” through training. If you train a system to identify butterfly species by showing it many thousands of images of butterflies, it will probably get better and better at making such identifications.
Borrowing to invest in real estate, in an era of increasing real-estate prices, is efficient. It makes money, with minimal research required. The same is true for stocks.
In the era leading up to the American Civil War, the North became efficient in its use of human labor, substituting capital. The South, with abundant slave labor, was “efficient” in producing a lot of cotton (and money) with little technological capital.
For the average 20-year-old, major health insurance is an “inefficient” expenditure–they’ll probably not need it, and if they don’t need it it’s an unnecessary drag on their financial future.
Efficiency usually comes from specialization, a particular emphasis on some areas and de-emphasis of others. When contexts change, though, “efficient” systems often don’t handle the changes well.
A finch with a fine beak that’s terrific at drilling into cactus fruits will suffer if the cactus population falls to disease.
If your AI butterfly-ID system has been trained on entomological specimens, it might conclude that anything that doesn’t have pin in it with its wings wide open isn’t a butterfly.
Leveraged investments in real estate worked well, until they didn’t. You know how 2008 worked out.
In the American Civil War, it turned out that manufacturing capacity mattered a whole lot more in a conflict than did cotton production.
For the 20-year-old without health insurance, a major health problem can quickly turn “efficiency” into financial disaster.
Higher levels of efficiency often go with higher levels of fragility. We can tune a system to run really, really well (however we define that) in a given environment–but our environment keeps on changing. It’s worth something to reduce the likelihood that a system will crash and burn–in other words, to invest in resilience.
Warren Buffett noted years ago that his first rule of investment is to “never lose money”. He noted as well that any number multiplied by zero is zero–and he has amply demonstrated a willingness to pass over “great investment opportunities” that offer too high a risk of going to zero.
Resilience has value. It even has monetary value, as demonstrated in the insurance, the options, and the futures markets. But the value of resilience goes beyond that–resilience in political systems and social capital has value of its own, even if it’s hard to quantify or monetize. And resilience, over the long term, is essential to maintaining whatever sorts of efficiency a society wants.
Efficiency has value as well, if its goals are good and its trade-offs are understood and reasonable. And a society that’s “efficient” in offering material, spiritual, social, and psychological “goods” will likely be good at achieving resilience as well.
What does this mean for the Amazon-versus-local-shopping debate? You decide. I don’t have comprehensive answers. I do have a few assorted thoughts, though:
I love the empowerment and efficiency that Amazon gives me (along with other online stores), and the fact that everything is available.
I love the accessibility of local stores, the chances for people to engage the public in their own right rather than as part of a large corporate system, and the chances for multifaceted personal connection as the same people interact in business, in community organizations, schools, and worship communities, as neighbors…and overall, as people rather than as economic units. I’m willing to pay a “tax” to keep this community thriving.
Amazon isn’t evil. Amazon is far from an unmitigated good.
Local shopping offers much good. It’s far from perfect.
We need to keep on engaging this issue on all sides.
Local stores can’t stagnate, or they’re complicit in their own deaths. (I went looking for ways to purchase online–or even browse–stuff from Hutchinson-area stores, and came up basically empty. Bluebird Books, with their online presence built on a national platform for independent bookstores, was the shining exception.)
On the consumer side, a constant search for the bottom dollar will make it really difficult for local businesses to succeed, with real losses to a community.
As utopian as the idea may seem, the online-shopping giants would do well to figure out how to partner with local communities and businesses, rather than just “disrupting” them.
Coding can be a playground that allows children to become producers, and not merely consumers, of technology
The playground approach to coding moves the conversation beyond the traditional view of coding as a technical skill. Coding is a literacy. As such, it invites new ways of thinking and carries the ability to produce an artifact detached from its creator, with its own meaning.