January 14, 2013 Leave a comment

If you want to learn how to write computer programs, one of the first steps is to choose a language. There are a huge number of them out there now, and if you’ve been on the internet for any length of time, you may have heard of some of them. Several of the articles that I’ve read for people who want to begin learning programming are particularly unhelpful on this score, because, apparently the enlightened view is that what language you should learn depends on what you know already, and what you want to do. Someone who does not know a programming language may not be in a good position to answer this question and get on to the important part of their learning.

I’m currently learning Java. My reason for learning Java is because it is a language that I have heard about a lot, and I therefore assume it is popular, and because in a number of half-understood articles and websites I’ve read, I seem to understand that I can do some of the things I most want to be able to do using that language, or, at worst, some other language that uses a very similar syntax. And also because I enjoy Stanford’s CS106a course, made available on YouTube.

Another language that is currently in the top three of possibilities for a good language to learn early on is Python.

Here is a website that makes the case for Python as a first programming language:

http://www.cs.ubc.ca/wccce/Program03/papers/Toby.html

On this page there are the following fascinating observations about why everyone should learn programming:

… Anyone who uses a computer to do any significant authoring, whether it be for a website, a spreadsheet, a database, or a traditional programming language, is essentially engaged in a form of programming. Thus, ordinary computer users can become better users and consumers of computer technology by learning how to program, in the same way that the average car user will be a better driver by learning more about how their car’s engine works.

This is not the traditional computer science or engineering perspective. The implicit assumption in traditional computer science is that students are aiming to become software engineers, or want to be involved on a daily basis with the construction of large software programs such as operating systems, databases, or compilers. These are the bread and butter tools of all programming, and are certainly things that software engineers need to know about, but in the new world of programming not all programmers want to be, or in fact need to be, software engineers. Everyone does programming, in the same sense that everyone drives a car. Every day, web developers write mark-up, or a few lines of scripting code (in addition to doing many other things that do not look anything like programming or computer science). System administrators need to write scripts and master the dozens of options for installing and configuring networks and software. Business people use spreadsheets that look very much like a graphical form of programming. Databases and web search engines have query languages that, even if they are not full-blown computation schemes, can be seen as a limited form of programming. Many complex application packages even come with their own scripting languages.

If we agree that essentially all students should learn to program, then the question is what to teach them in their first programming course. …

If you take this understanding of programming as an essential skill for being effective in today’s world, and consider also the observations from my previous post on the subject, then programming, and perhaps Python as a programming language in particular, looks like an essential tool also for thinking and learning.

Let me take just one example. I take for granted that we agree that understanding a number of mathematical ideas is essential to being effective in the modern world. This is true whether you are working on your own to produce a technical or artistic product, or whether you are working for an employer. It isn’t enough to read or listen to someone talking about a math concept, to learn it you have to do it. You have to apply the formulas, you have to work through the algorithms. But perhaps you would understand the formulas and algorithms even better if you could explain them to someone else? Perhaps certain formulas would be more useful if you could run through the steps much more quickly?

“The Art and Science of Java” by Eric S. Roberts

The text for the programming course I’m in the middle of is “The Art and Science of Java,” and in the first few chapters the book gives readers programming projects that deal with concepts in mathematics that I was never introduced to in school. Things like the Fibonacci sequence, factorials and the mathematics of combinations. None of these are very difficult in terms of the steps it takes to produce them. Just adding and multiplying a certain number of times. The programs that implement them are extremely short, smaller than this paragraph.

As I see it, knowing how to write a program is the same kind of skill as the ability to use a calculator or adding machine. An older generation would consider using them equivalent to using a slide rule. Writing your own programs can enhance not only the speed of your calculations, and the scope of mathematical ideas you can use, but also your understanding, as you translate what you know of a process into instructions and terms that the computer can use to produce an answer. As long as we are all going to be carrying around multimedia, GPS-enabled smart phones with touch screens, voice recognition or full QWERTY keyboards, we may as well be able to use automated math and logic to help us answer questions about our world.

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Thoughts on Programming from Douglas Adams

January 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

During the weeks since I’ve updated I’ve been thinking a lot about computer programming. I’ve decided to learn how to do it. I find it interesting that when I tell people this they sometimes ask me why. And to me this is a shocking question, akin to asking someone why they would want to learn to read and write. It isn’t one that I had given much thought to, though I’ve usually thought that I wanted to learn how to write programs, I’ve only recently done much thinking about why.

In one way, I take it for granted that there is some value to trying to learn anything. But on the other hand, haven’t I said that when you have the power to learn anything you might want to learn that forethought and the refinement of your goals becomes of greater importance? A skill is learned, not merely because it is good to learn things. Why not learn to play the guitar or juggle instead? They could do more to make you the life of a party, after all. No, you embark on the long project of acquiring a particular skill so that you can employ it to achieve some special result there is no other way to achieve. Acquiring the skill of programming is a means, so it makes sense to ask what is the end to which it is directed?

I’ve considered this a great deal over the past month, and have come up with a number of answers. For today, here is an unusual perspective on the craft of programming, and on the personality that successful programmers can grow out of, from Douglas Adams brilliant comedic novel, “Dirk Gently’s Holisic Detective Agency.”

“So tell me, … what you’ve been up to, my dear chap. Something to do with computers, I understand, and also to do with music. I thought you read English when you were here — though only, I realise, in your spare time. … Now wait,” he interrupted before Richard even had a chance to start, “don’t I vaguely remember that you had some sort of computer when you were here? When was it? 1977?”

“Well, what we called a computer in 1977 was really a kind of electric abacus, …”

“There really wasn’t a lot this machine could do that you couldn’t do yourself in half the time with a lot less trouble,” said Richard, “but it was, on the other hand, very good at being a slow and dim-witted pupil.”

Reg looked at him quizzically.

“I had no idea they were supposed to be in short supply,” he said. …

“I’m sure. But look at it this way. What really is the point of trying to teach anything to anybody?”

This question seemed to provoke a murmur of sympathetic approval from [professors]up and down the table.

Richard continued, “What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your own mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that’s really the essence of programming. By the time you’ve sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you’ve certainly learned something about it yourself. The teacher usually learns more than the pupil. Isn’t that true?”

“So I used to spend days struggling to write essays on this 16K machine that would have taken a couple of hours on a typewriter, but what was fascinating to me was the process of trying to explain to the machine what it was I wanted it to do. I virtually wrote my own word processor in BASIC. A simple search and replace routine would take about three hours.”

“I forget, did you ever get any essays done at all?”

“Well, not as such. No actual essays, but the reasons why not were absolutely fascinating. …

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What we can learn about ideas from a book about evolution

December 4, 2012 Leave a comment

The development of the book, “The Origin of Species,” is a subject that might also be useful for examining some things about ways of thinking, knowing and marshaling ideas. The book was its author’s life’s work. Its inspiration and some fundamental facts came to the author when he was a young man who was given an unusual opportunity to observe the natural world in the round. He was given special considerations as a naturalist aboard a vessel sent to circumnavigate the world, primarily for collecting scientific observations meant to serve navigation and commerce. The idea grew, nurtured by conversations, the sharing of information, guesses, deductions, and the results of experiments and surveys of information fostered by a web of well-connected experts and associates. However much information was shared, however, the central thesis was kept secret from most colleagues and friends. He developed it privately himself, and through his own experiments and information gathered from his expert correspondents, he built peripheral supports, slowly and meticulously shoring up the central thesis with a lifetime of work.

The book itself shows the most carefully laid-out argument, it shows a wealth of experimental data brought to add credibility to the claims and implications of the theory. But the book does not show everything. It does not show what Darwin learned, during years of silence by others who spoke, whether rashly or not. It does not show the political canniness that caused him to delay, presenting his thesis to the world while he privately gathered information from far and wide to shore it up.

In the debates about how the internet is affecting our minds, our memory, our intelligence, our standards of knowledge and our standards for discussion I found this opinion about gaining knowledge from the web versus from books:

Knowledge takes on a different shape when its medium is hyperlinked.

Books have favored long-form, sequential chains of thought that lead readers to the author’s conclusion. That’s one useful way of thinking, but it reflects the limitations of paper. The author has to try to keep us on the bus rather than letting us explore more widely because paper knowledge is hard to traverse. The author has to anticipate objections, rather than entering into real-time conversation with readers, because paper knowledge is only made public once it’s done.

And it has given us the overly-simplistic idea that a world as complex and chaotic as ours ultimately reduces to long, knowable sequences of logic.

Networked knowledge instead lives in webs of hyperlinked ideas — some of which may indeed be long-form arguments — that explain, argue, differentiate, and extend ideas. There is more value in these webs of knowledge than there is in the individual expressions…although it’s also true that these webs inevitably include dumb and venal misunderstandings.

And this leads me to wonder, how would Darwin have written “On the Origin of Species” if he had to do so in a climate of information availability and openness, as our own? How would his thesis have fared if he had our speed of correspondence, our ability to disseminate ideas?

I think we can conclude that he would have had to be less meticulous if he had any hope of being known as the originator of his thesis at all.

In many other ways, our kind of information technology and culture probably would have helped. He would have been able to get in touch with relevant experts much more quickly, he would be able to search the literature for answers to many questions instantly. But the same technology that would give him an increased opportunity to find relevant information would also give it to everyone else. It would be a lot easier for characters outside his social stratus to connect with the same experts. It would make it easier for people with a dimmer inkling of how varieties of living things had proliferated to publish their guesses, sloppy and full of misunderstandings as they might have been.

A corollary of this ability to publish without detailed arguments and experimental results, and presumably without some of the same caution, and political canniness that made Darwin wait so long, is that the ideas, once out there, might become harder to censor or censure.

In such a climate, there is no way Darwin could have won any claim to precedence, not if he were the cautious, meticulous thinker is book and its circumstances of publishing reveal him to be. He could have come afterwards, and bit by bit tried to shore-up a theory that would have seemed poorly developed, and full of problems, and might have made it kind-of respectable in time. But the whole method of his work seems to have been dictated, not only by the limitations of the media he had to work in, but in the availability and the reputation of the controversial idea.

The idea of evolution has expanded considerably from Darwin’s time. A few books that mention evolution, but are sure not to be included in the Syntopicon are Frederich Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit” in which the extended market order is described as a heritage that lies between instinct and reason, “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, which introduced the word meme, which since the rise of the internet, and LOL-cats, has come into common usage. I also learned from “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan, that some people might consider the development of heavier elements from nuclear reactions in stars, or the development of the modern solar system by physical forces acting on the early planetary disc and earlier primitive planets as a kind of evolution. It is a common observation that Darwinian gradual evolution seems to have been a kind of outgrowth of the young Charles Darwin assessing the geological formations he found around the world in the light of Charles Lyell’s geological gradualism, and that the break with special creation was similar to the break with young-earth catastrophism.

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Evolution – some ideas

December 2, 2012 1 comment

One of the books included in the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great books of the western world set is “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. And the great idea more fully developed here, than in any book before, and probably more than in any information published for many decades since, is evolution.

Today, we have many more changes to try to come to grips with, and the ideas of evolution can help, especially if we are willing to apply them broadly.

It is also true, that the book itself, the way it presents its facts and arguments, the way in which it was constructed, the purposes it was meant to serve, and the events that caused Darwin to postpone his publication and the events that catalyzed its release, are probably very instructive, with many lessons about thought, invention, creativity and potentially controversial theses.

One of the things that differentiates the Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books set, is the inclusion of two reference volumes called the Syntopicon, which serves as a kind of index or concordance to the entire corpus of books, making it possible to find where different authors have had something to say about the same idea. To understand how the idea of evolution can be helpful, I think it is important to see how it works, not only in the modification of genes of organisms over geologic time, but also how very similar processes are at work in several fields. Many of the best examples of evolution, and concepts invoked to explain its action are in uses and techniques of far too recent invention to have any hope of inclusion in a collection like the Great Books.

It is only in an age of ubiquitous, cheap recording technology, automatic information transcription and mechanical information distribution that we can witness some methods similar to those understood to underlie biological evolution, exemplified in non-biological systems. Though there is some precedence for the idea of evolution in economics, and other social sciences.

In Herodotus’s account of history we meet the character of Solon, the wise man of Athens, and hear of how he was unwilling to call anyone happy during his life. Solon, apparently believed that it took reflection, after the completion of someone’s life, to assess what satisfaction they knew, or what significance they had. In today’s world, it seems to me that we are a million miles away from that. And nowhere is this more true than on 24-hour rolling news TV channels. It is implied that there is too much to talk about, and never enough time. Reporters grow impatient quickly, and encourage the people they interview to give as short and unequivocal an answer to their questions as possible. Leaving aside the matter of how wisely their questions were chosen, or even how wise their choice was in picking one event to talk about over another, one person to interview as opposed to who else might have been available, I feel sure that if Solon could witness such a crime against contemplation, he would agree that no wisdom can come of this.

In a present and future-oriented culture as the one in which we live, I think it is more important that ever to remember that time is often essential for analysis. It is important to remember that acclimating to changes might not only take time but also be expensive, in terms of pain, possibly in terms of lives. This comes back to me each week, when it seems that I’m seeing advertisements from lawyers for a class-action suit against a new drug, on the grounds that it has some horrible side effects. I think of it each time I see an advertisement for a new drug, with active people smiling while they do things in sunny environments and an announcer lists several unpleasant-sounding potential side-effects. I think of these things every time I hear phrases like “beta test” or “early adopter”. The melancholy fact is that time is necessary for working out the problems in anything.

Time helps when there are persistent effects. Evolution requires the persistence of information over time.

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The Mysterious Island

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment
The Mysterious Island

The Mysterious Island

One of the books I’ve read in the past few years that was most fascinating was “The Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne.

The book is about four men who made a daring escape in a balloon which was whisked by a powerful storm to an uninhabited island where they must use their resourcefulness to survive.

Verne stacked the deck in their favor. He has provided an island rich in natural resources, fresh water, useful plants, and game. One of the protagonists is an engineer who is inventive and knowledgeable about a range of modern crafts and techniques. Under his guidance the four men are able to start a fire without flint or matches and build many other fantastic things from what they find in nature.

The story is fantastic, if a bit hard to believe sometimes. Part of what makes it worthwhile is the marvel of discovering how many things are made from the most raw of materials. For a follow-up act, I recommend “Caveman Chemistry”.

One of the ways “The Mysterious Island” strains credibility is in what the engineer is able to accomplish purely out of his memory. Unlike the Professor in Gilligan’s Island, he does not have a trunk full of science books with him. He doesn’t even have a journal.

One of their amazing feats is the reckoning of their approximate location in latitude and longitude. This is accomplished through astronomical observations made with sticks stuck in the ground on a smooth sandy beach over several days, and by reference to one man’s watch, which kept the time of a known city. The problem is not that the measuring tools are insufficient. As we know Eratosthenes measured the Earth to within 2% in the 2nd century bc, using nothing but shadows, a reflection in a well and the known distance between two towns. A single “tin clock” was all that Joshua Slocum required to measure longitude on his famous trip, the first solo circumnavigation of the world. The bigger problem is remembering all of the facts relevant to make the measurements yield a meaningful location.

The characters, all native to North America, met in the city of Richmond, Virginia, yet when they found themselves on an island in the southern hemisphere they were able to recognize the Southern Cross, and use it to find the South Celestial Pole. One among them was a sailor, and I could readily believe that he could do this, but Verne gave the idea, the knowledge of astronomy and skill to use it, to the Engineer.

Later they determine local time using the sun. As I learned from reading about sundials, the length of the solar day is variable, and interestingly, local apparent solar time does not coincide with local mean time even on the equinoxes. It is a little off-set on those days. Knowing when noon, according to a clock set to your meridian will coincide with the point when the sun is highest in the sky, requires a bit of calculation. The days when this happens changes slightly from year to year like the actual dates of the equinoxes and solstices. I expect most people would need an almanac to tell them these things. However, I learned a verse from a book that will get you pretty close:

April the Fourth, and June the Sixth remember;
August the Twentieth, and Twenty-fourth December;
On these Four Days and none else in the year,
The Sun and Watch both the same Time declare.

This mnemonic seems no more difficult than “Thirty days hath September”. I could have believed that the characters had the knowledge to measure their latitude if one of them had spoken this rhyme. Without it, as I said, my credulity is strained. It plays havoc with my willing suspension of disbelief.

So measuring the height of the celestial pole gives you your latitude, and measuring the time difference between a known meridian and your current meridian gives your longitude. So you’ve calculated a couple of numbers; what does that get you? To make use of this measurement you need to know what else is near by. The problem here, is that at this point in the story the characters did not have a map. So, from memory, the Engineer discusses how many miles their island is from the coast of South America, Australia, and Fiji. I imagine that Jules Verne probably had a map close at hand for reference at all times. But I find it hard to believe that he would have more than a vague idea about the coordinates of the world’s significant coasts and islands. It is easy to know things when you have the map to look at. Maybe you don’t feel like you are looking up a fact so much as getting a tiny nudge for your memory, but you need that nudge.

Far fetched as it may be, what would you know how to do if you were stranded on a desert island? Could you remember how to find your location? Would you know the constellations? Would you know the meridian of your hometown? Would you know when you could set your clock by the sun? Would you be able to remember the formulas and procedures for making soap? Ceramics? Metal? Rope? Fabric? Fire? Its easy to know a lot in your study at home, but if you were forced to rely on your wits to survive, could you? And should you be capable of it?

Know Your Heritage

November 18, 2012 Leave a comment
Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books Set

Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books Set

Having an extraordinary method for acquiring knowledge I think it will become extremely important to have a very clear idea of what to learn, and what real knowledge is. One possible guidepost to this might be “The Great Conversation” The essay by Robert Hutchins that introduced Encyclopedia Britannica’s “Great Books of the Western World” collectionoriginally published in 1952.

There are things that I appreciate about the essay, and also things that I do not like.

“The Great Conversation” is valuable, partly because it presents a clear statement of the aims of education, and does a good job of showing how alternative, partial views of education fall short.

Is there such a thing as an education, apart from training in how to make a living, do a job, serve as a technician, or specialist or professional? Is the aim of education purely for the purposes of being able to work? Is there something you should be learning in school that is distinct from what you might learn at home, at church, in the Boy Scouts or the Y.M.C.A.? Or is socialization, teamwork and sportsmanship really the whole point? Do your teachers need to know the details of your talents or your personal path in life to properly educate you? Is there such a thing as an education that does the necessary job of imparting an understanding of what it is to be a human being, know your part within your culture, and how your specialty relates to the big picture of the human race and your culture?

For those who find something of value in the ideals of education offered here the information, communication and media wealth of the Internet age makes this kind of education dependent on little more than the desire, some consistency, and that you pay your utility bills.

Here are some links to get you started:

Great Books Online – a collection of links to online texts on another wordpress blog.

The Great Conversation Reading Group – Website for a yahoo group dedicated to reading the Great Books

Librivox.org – Come here to find some of the great books available for free in an audio format. Alternative media sometimes aids the understanding, or maybe the attention.

I welcome all thoughts related to the Great Conversation or the Great Books in your comments below.

Categories: Education

This Cybernetic Life

November 11, 2012 Leave a comment
The Watt Governor

One of the first and best-known automatic feedback and control mechanisms of the modern age, the Governor of the Watt Steam Engine relied on the tension between gravity and centrifugal force created by the engine’s motion to operate a throttle thereby keeping the engine running at the right speed.

Speaking of digitally stored photographs, search engines, and programs that use algorithms to predict and counter your brain’s tendency to forget, leads to the subject of how and if our minds are merging with our machines. We are coming into a time where, by habit, if not by surgical implantation, we are as cyborgs out of science fiction.

Let’s consider if this is taking place, and what it means to our strategy for building our potential.

Are you a cyborg?

To answer that we need to know, what a cyborg is.

The word cyborg is a shortened form of cybernetic organism. Organism is familiar, but what does cybernetic mean? The newer, but perhaps more common word that includes the same root, is cyberspace, coined in the 1980s by William Gibson for his imagined future virtual reality Internet.

Does cyber, or cybernetic therefore mean computer, or technology?

No, the word cybernetic was coined in the 1940’s by Norber Wiener to mean, “The Science of Communication and Control in the Animal or the Machine.” And it was adapted from the Greek word which meant the art of steering.

In Roman times the word cybernetic became government. So cybernetics is concerned with steering, governing, or control as well as communication or feedback. How does this apply to what we are doing with our memories when we use a computer to store them and make them available to us, or use software that gives us reminders, so that we don’t have to bother with remembering or as a training program to strengthen our memories? It applies directly.

What we are doing, by habit if not by physical merging, is communicating with, and taking feedback from our machines so that the information we need is given to us when we need it. The result of the use of these systems is conscious control over the unconscious process of remembering. According to this understanding, virtually every thing I have been writing about memory improvement is a sort of cybernetic technology, even those parts which are thousands of years old, and not obviously technological.

Mnemonics is the art of encoding information that is not naturally memorable to the human brain into other forms of information that is naturally easier to recall, such as words or numbers into pictures, locations etc. It is recognizing what works and what doesn’t, and changing strategies accordingly, to effect conscious control of an otherwise unconscious process.

Biofeedback, including neurofeedback, are ways of learning to take conscious control over otherwise unconscious processes of emotional states, relaxation and mental rhythms, so as to manage anger, stress and attention. This feedback is the basic concept of cybernetics that makes control possible.

Use of a memory training program like Supermemo is an enlightened approach to repetition. It helps you to train your memory. Normal use involves you grading your own performance. Your grades cause the program to adjust the algorithm, presenting information you found difficult more frequently and information you found easy to recall less frequently. In this system, the program is learning from your performance as you are learning the information you gave it to feed back to you.

What is the significance of this understanding for our strategies?

Goals become the biggest issue.

We can dream and consciously desire things that are incongruent with our most important purposes. When we are at the mercy of our natural limitations, we are under the influence of pressures and feedback mechanisms like those our ancestors survived. When we take conscious control of processes previously left to nature, we have to have more wisdom than those who do not have these enhanced abilities lest we risk wasting our energies, powering down the wrong path, making changes in ourselves we will not be happy with. Clarity and greater forethought are required, and so is the humility to understand the unintended consequences of our choices. We must be willing to correct course more nimbly. We must be sensitive to signs that our efforts are giving us results other than those we hoped for.

I would appreciate any feedback you can give me in the comments section.

Autographer – A New wearable camera that takes photos automatically

November 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Autographer wearable automatic camera
This post is meant as a follow-up on my recent post about Jim Gemmell and Gordon Bell’s talk about total recall through a collection of data input and recording devices, and their book about it, “Total Recall.” In the video we hear about, see and see photos from a wearable camera that automatically takes snapshots based on sensor events. The Autographer is the next generation device of this type, based on development of the same technology they discuss. Autographer is said to be scheduled for release this month, November 2012, as of this writing, and is reported to be priced around $650.

We are clearly in the process of growing adoption of technologies like these by a large segment of the population, of Western countries, and the rest of the world is not far behind. And the implications of this are interesting in terms of the consequences for memory augmentation, as well as for freedom and privacy, law enforcement and security issues.

In my opinion, it is already difficult to the point of completely impractical for anyone outside of the TSA, or perhaps a tyled lodge, to prohibit cameras or picture-taking anywhere. This will only make it more difficult. Widespread reliance on wearable and implanted technologies will probably force security checkpoints to come down, or allow more people to go through with technologies passively monitored and often misunderstood. But, while many people like to point out the use of such personal surveillance equipment as a tool for law-enforcement personnel, I see its greater potential as a sousveilance device, which is more likely to serve as a powerful counter force against police-brutality, the credibility of police as reliable witnesses, selective enforcement of laws, and general capricious petty abuses of authority. In fact, it will probably lead to a future in which police are seen as largely redundant.

Police will certainly use these technologies to collect evidence against people for prosecution. But I think it will probably simultaneously force them to a higher standard of behavior. They will be able to turn off their own devices, but as total recall becomes a standard we expect in more situations, gaps in their own recordings will be harder to accept, especially when there is the ever-present possibility that someone else will have recorded what they did not. Most of the reasons for patrolling or interviewing by police officers will seem to become unnecessary when there is a greater vigilance by the non-law-enforcement population, to say nothing of the efficacy of data mining. The age-old question of who watches the watchers, is getting its answer.

The unfortunate effect of this is that it will also tend to force a different standard of behavior on all of us. There is some good to this. People when they are observed are more polite and conscientiously honest, but will probably also experience more stress to conform. I’m afraid that it will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and many innovative and adaptive behaviors may be foreclosed to us. In my opinion the vastly diminished sphere of privacy and the vastly increased powers of detection that are coming, means that radical liberalization and vastly increased tolerance are essential.

The use of cameras driven by sensors and algorithms to augment the human memory raises questions of cybernetics. These kinds of devices face some of the same problems as do our systems of perception and memory. We are aware that our memories are limited, that they work better on some tasks, as on remembering routes and locations and recognizing images and shapes, and less well on other tasks, like remembering names or numbers. In combining sensors and algorithms into the process of deciding what data to store, we are getting away from the old surveillance-camera idea of passively and objectively recording everything, towards imitating the biological tendency to omit, or discard data depending on a low estimate of its expected significance. The algorithms that our biology relies on to decide what to keep is tested by millions of years of evolution, so what information we might be able to rely on to grade the significance of data that we record is a question we can probably expect to be a difficult one, and one which it will take us some time to get right. One possibility might be to rely on our own judgment of what data is likely to be significant. Doing this consciously will be impractically time-consuming for the most part. Here is a mention of another wearable camera that relies on biometric information as part of its input into the algorithm for deciding what is important.

Though, if Jim and Gordon’s expectations about the storage capacities available to us are correct, the problems of attention algorithms are perhaps more a matter of search and retrieval than they are of deciding which data should be collected or stored. We could have both quick access to significant information, and the ability to replay everything, even the boring parts of our lives, at their full duration.

Categories: Uncategorized

Total Recall

November 1, 2012 Leave a comment
Total Recall (book)

Total Recall

Here is an interesting video that I watched recently on YouTube, in which two men who ran a research project at Microsoft to record in the computer almost every single detail of their lives.

What if you could remember everything? In this lecture, Jim Gemmell and Gordon Bell discuss their new book, Total Recall How the E-Memory Revolution will Change Everything. Bell and Gemmell will draw on their experience from the MyLifeBits project at Microsoft Research to explain the benefits that will come from an earth-shaking and inevitable increase in e-memories.

This is pretty much what I’ve thought about in terms of how the use of computers might help people augment their memories. But the approach is in some ways entirely different from the approach of Piotr Wozniak, and other users of his SuperMemo program. In the approach of Jim and Gordon, you do little but passively record with a variety of devices that you carry with you. You make a small effort to digitize, upload and tag, and then rely on the computer to store the information. There is a little in the video about the search program they wrote to help you find what you might want to look for by sifting with a variety of metadata, such as time and automatically recorded GPS location data, but the main approach seems to be just leaving the records of your experience in the computer.

The most interesting thing they said about the usefulness of digitized data was in several mentions of images coming up in a screensaver. They note that this kind of presentation makes a lot of memories more accessible, it makes photographs more enjoyable, you see your photographs and pictures of art and awards more when it comes back to you like this. I agree. That is my experience too, regarding random slideshows of my large image collections.

But it seems to me that we are missing a step. A lot of information we want, not only to store, but to have available in our own brains. In experimenting with programs like SuperMemo, and the exercises available on mybraintrainer.com the idea is to use the computer, not to replace your ability to remember, but to strengthen it, to allow you to take control of programming in what you want to have quick access to.

This is not to negate any of the points that these men make in their talk and interview or in their book. There is a lot of value to be had in keeping information, in keeping records, and photographs, and to having metadata about different parts of your life, but the difference in philosophy is important. Most of what I get out of this is that these men see humans using the computer as if it were something external to us, an appliance, a super-photo album, Piotr Wozniak uses the computer as a cybernetic component, to progressively load data from the computer into long-term storage in his brain. He uses the computer to program data into his own memory, not as an externalized system to replace it.

But in some ways the lines between these philosophies are blurring. In more recent versions of SuperMemo, Wozniak has introduced tools to increase the volume of information he can load into the program. Instead of reading from textbooks, and inputting facts worth studying into the program to lock into his memory, he now loads whole articles, and reads and processes them bit by bit. To cope with the increased volume of information he studies, not all of it yet known to be worth the effort to memorize for the long-term, he has had to revise the program’s basic algorithm, so that it is no longer based entirely on the statistical model of forgetting, but instead depends on the user’s judgment of the priority of each article or question. One result of this is that when the learning program becomes overloaded, to the point that you cannot deal with all of the information it presents to you each day, there is going to be some material forgotten, this is acceptable if that material is of a low priority. In SuperMemo these features are called incremental reading and the priority queue.

Effectively, Wozniak is relying more on the computer to store information he might find useful, and less on it as a means of training the information he has loaded on it into his brain’s long-term memory. In my opinion, there is still something to be said for the routine and the algorithm, as opposed to storage and search.

And then there is serendipity. Recent versions of SuperMemo now rely on a certain amount of randomness in their algorithm, which slightly counters the strict ordering of the priority queue as a tool to overcome the user’s priority bias. Another tool that Wozniak recommends to help combat priority bias is to run a completely random review of some of the material in your database from time to time so that you can rediscover things you were once interested in but which had sifted to the bottom. I use a program called ACDSee to view my images, and with it, I like to jump through a file at random on a full-screen view. I can only image that Jim and Gordon get a very similar effect from the images they have come up on their screen savers driven by the software they use. I often think that it would be fantastic to have an image viewer that would work like SuperMemo, showing me images, not strictly at random, but based on criteria like how I have rated them, or which I had last seen less recently.

The main idea I get out of all this is that there are many ways to use computers to augment human intelligence. I think the best approach is a cybernetic one. I want my computer to store information for me, far beyond what I could remember in my brain, but I also want it to do its best to help me keep the most important information at the forefront of my mind at all times. I want it to help me keep the most useful information in my long-term memory at all times, and I want it to prompt me with visions of my most significant experiences, randomly juxtaposing disparate ideas, fostering chance mash-ups. An electronic daydream for imagination that is beyond the merely human.

The important part of all of this is not storage capacity, or input devices or storage. It is going to be the interface, that, and, to some extent the rules for deciding what to record, what is really important.

Joshua Foer at TED Talks

October 30, 2012 Leave a comment


Here’s another video with Joshua Foer, recent American Memory Champion, talking about how he got into the competition, beginning as a science writer who learned the techniques memory athletes use, and entered the contest to gain an inside experience.

Joshua Foer is the author of the book, “Moonwalking with Einstein,” Which is a pretty good survey of what people know today about memory, how it works, how it goes wrong, and how it can be trained to a higher capacity.

What Joshua Foer has learned is, to paraphrase Piotr Wozniac, The difference between a genius and a person of ordinary mental abilities is not so much a difference on the biological or synaptic level, but a difference in their skill to handle information. The genius quickly dismembers information and forms simple models that make life easy.

Categories: Books Tags: , ,

The Difference Between School and Education

October 28, 2012 Leave a comment

What I have to say about school and about education is not going to make a lot of sense unless we make a distinction between these two words. If I criticize the basic ways in which schools throughout the world operate, many people will assume that I criticize education, or think learning to be of little value, because being schooled, or graded etc. means the same as being educated or being knowledgeable, to them.

I want to make it clear that I think knowledge, learning, education, and the training and developing of the mind, and mental abilities such as reading, rhetoric and arithmetic, are very important. They are often downright vital to our survival, or at least to our capacity to live anything resembling a good life.

I also think that it could be profitable to examine just how much, and what kind of knowledge is most valuable, and how much we mistakenly wish others to achieve because we want them to imitate us, or satisfy some fad about what we think it would be better for people to know.

But being educated is not the same thing as having been to school. The school is an institution, and education is the goal for which it was instituted, just as our legal system is an institution, and justice is the goal for which it was instituted. We should know that justice is not always done when a sentence is carried out. We should realize that when laws are passed they do not always have the effect of producing or promoting right action. We should know that though it may be the goal that a trial with a jury finds truth, yet not all verdicts are true, regardless of the etymology of the word.

A school is a name for an institution, and a building. Education is what is supposed to happen there. Schooling means grouping, usually children, usually for the purpose of having similar lessons, similar curriculum and being graded according to one standard. One has had schooling if they have spent time in school or with the sort of teachers who are members of the institution.

Once we have made the distinction it should be easy to understand that a person can be educated without having attended an institution devoted to the purpose of education. A person can learn without schooling, and it is also an unfortunate truth that many people attend schools without learning any of the things we expect them to learn there.

I learned to make the distinction mostly from essays by John Taylor Gatto, a retired teacher who had been twice named New York City Teacher of the Year, and once New York State Teacher of the year. He is the author of “Dumbing Us Down” and other books.

Categories: Education Tags:

Professional Memorizers

October 26, 2012 1 comment

From “Moonwalking with Einstein,” by Josua Foer:

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Professional memorizers have existed in oral cultures throughout the world to transmit that heritage through the generations. In India, an entire class of priests was charged with memorizing the Vedas with perfect fidelity. In pre-Islamic Arabia, people known as Rawis were often attached to poets as official memorizers. The Buddha’s teachings were passed down in an unbroken chain of oral tradition for four centuries until they were committed to writing in Sri Lanka in the first century B.C. And for centuries, a group of hired tape recorders called tannaim (literally, “reciters”) memorized the oral law on behalf of the Jewish community.

This also puts me in mind of the roman nomenclator, who might deserve to be thought of as loosely belonging to this class. It was the nomenclator’s job to follow a politician as he walked through his district, interacting with the public and whisper into his ear the names of the citizens he talked with. Whether he was a professional memorizer or not, he was a professional memory aid.

In some fiction by Heinlein, especially, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” we find characters who have a special profession, known as “fair witnesses” who wear white robes, are trained in total recall and thoroughly indoctrinated against making unwarranted assumptions. (Any assumptions at all, it is implied, though I don’t see how this is at all possible. A person who made no assumptions whatsoever would be effectively insane. Writing that puts me in mind of the character in one of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, the thorouhgoing philosopher who lived in a shack, and, it was implied, was the real president of the galaxy that Zaphod was a distracting figurehead to hide.)

It seems odd, especially by the standards and assumptions built into Joshua Foer’s book, “Moonwalking with Einstein” to set such a profession, such a class of people in a technological future in which there also exist such things as three-dimensional television.

In one scene in “Stranger…”, Jubal calls for both two motion picture cameras and Anne, in her white witness robes to record a demonstration of Mike’s power to make things disappear.

Anne correctly reports that the objects seemed to diminish in apparent size rather than disappear instantaneously. Both movie cameras, when the film was played back also confirmed this, the objects receded into the distance, from every perspective.

Who really needed the Fair Witness in that world, when they could just hire a camera? And how would the existence of such a profession relate to one of the books earliest central protagonists, the reporter Ben Caxton? Remember it was Ben who hired the first fair witness to appear in the book. But what is a reporter’s job if not to investigate things, notice them and be a kind of witness? For two centuries the reporter has been imagined as someone who went about, constantly noting everything in his memo pad.

The Fair witness is reminiscent of the Mentats of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series. The common threatd may be that they each represent guesses about the possibilities of future training methods for mental development. But a critical difference between “Dune” and “Stranger…” was that in Dune, machines made to mimic the powers of the human mind were strictly forbidden. It was a story set in space, with technology and science, but in which the human mind, human strengths and foibles were still dominant, along with a form of government that seems atavistic by today’s standards. In a way, it was the opposite of a cyberpunk novel, in which we find shallow, empty characters rushing to augment or replace their humanity with computer technology.

FORM 1: An affordable, professional 3D printer

October 21, 2012 Leave a comment
Form 1 desktop 3D printer

Form 1 desktop 3D printer

3D printing is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen at SIGGRAPH, and one of the reasons that attending a couple of times has been one of the favorite things I’ve been able to do. The personal 3D printer is something that a lot of people have been working on, Shapeways made it a mail-order service. RepRap and the Fab@Home projects made advances and other do it yourselfers have been able to come up with things that produce passable results. (One of my favorites was a large Cartesian arm with a blow-drier, which could pass over layers of ordinary, granulated sugar to produce a spiral torus as large as a punch-bowl.)

Here’s the latest, and a very slick project aimed at getting high-resolution 3D prints at home. I’m not sure what they mean by affordable though, since it seems that the media is always one of the largest expenses, and this requires a soak in some kind of hardening fixer. Still, it makes me happy to see progress in this area. One day I may be able to print out a solid model of each sculpt I do in ZBrush, so that I can line them up in a row, or give them out to folks.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Three-Legged Stool of Understanding

October 18, 2012 Leave a comment

While asking questions of how to learn, and what is education and what are its legitimate goals, it is important to ask what we should learn.

One of my favorite authors of fiction was the great Robert A. Heinlein, known as the Dean of science fiction. If you know of him through movies based on his work, you don’t know squat.


His greatest novel, in my opinion was “Stranger in a Strange Land.” I first read it in the early 90s, from a new, expanded and uncut hardback edition published by the Science Fiction Book Club. Copies of it in paperback, both of the expanded uncut version and the originally published version fill bookstores throughout the US, even in rural backwaters. As Heinlein was one of the most popular science fiction authors of the sixties, seventies and eighties.

 

 


Some of the best serious essays and some valuable autobiographical information on Heinlein can be found in the book, “Expanded Universe,” a collection of many previously published, and a few unpublished short stories and essays.

Some of the essays in “Expanded Universe” make incisive criticisms of the troubles with education that have been growing in the US for decades, and according to Heinlein, perhaps all century.

 

One of his central observations about knowledge was that the three-legged stool of human understanding is held up by history, languages and mathematics. It was his idea of what made a well-rounded person, as opposed to one educated only well enough to be a farmer, or low-level technician. These branches of knowledge greatly expand our natural capacity, orienting us in time, allowing analysis of current events according to experience, from those like us and through the eyes of those who lived different lives in different parts of the world, and by precision understanding of quantities, even those far beyond those we are equipped to experience.

Do you think Heinlein’s concept of these three legs makes sense? If not, how would you characterize the kinds of knowledge that make the best understanding available to us?

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Cloudy Language – Cloudy Thinking

October 16, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the reasons it has long been difficult to effectively improve our mental abilities, is that it is difficult to properly define what they are. Trying to do so takes us, not only into an immaterial realm where there is nothing that can be pointed to, displayed as an example, or measured with a tape, but even when a faculty of the mind has been precisely defined, and a measurement that corresponds to it can be taken, yet describing what this measurement means can be difficult because it takes us perilously near places where we are predisposed to pitfalls of philosophy; such as, mistaking theory for fact, map for territory, analogy for truth or correlation for causation. Take the following that I found on a website about neurofeedback for ADD and ADHD therapy, and see if you can spot what’s wrong with it:

What ADHD looks like in the brain
An individual living with ADHD typically has a higher than normal ratio of Theta brainwave activity to Beta brainwave activity. This means that the Theta level is high in relation to Beta activity. This clouds the mind and makes it difficult to pay attention and problem solve.

The first two sentences describe one measurement, unlikely to be understood even by non-specialists who are interested in science, redundantly assert that it is correlated with a problem. The third sentence seems to say that this is clearly a mechanistic cause. How can something, “clouding the mind” be understood as anything other than a metaphor? Since when is it grammatically appropriate to speak of people trying to “problem solve” rather than trying to solve problems?

How is attention defined, understood and measured by people researching the mind and brain today?

Born on a Blue Day

October 14, 2012 Leave a comment
Born on a Blue Day

Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet

The title of this entry is the title of a book I read recently. The book was interesting and informative. It had many of the qualities I think make for a great book. It is an autobiographical work that tells about the early years, formative experiences, and major accomplishments of its author. It is also very rich in information related to his condition. I’ve been interested in memory feats and systems, synesthesia, aspergers syndromeand what is known about the phenomenon for some time. So I’ve been keeping a kind of file on news items, and related things. I was able to see early in the book that Daniel Tammet is at least as aware of the case studies and research as I am, and is able to mention everything relevant succinctly and in a logical place in his book.

The book also has the virtue of broadening our horizons. It helps us to understand something of what it is like to be very different. When you watch a movie like “Rainman,” based on another person, who is also a high-functioning autistic savant, you get a sense of how different someone like that is. You see that they can be loved by their close family members, that their unusual outbursts of emotion sometimes make a kind of sense, but what you don’t see is how they see themselves, how they experience the world around them, or what is going on in their heads when they perform their amazing feats of calculation or memory. In “Born on a Blue Day,” Daniel Tammet lets you do that.

If you’ve seen the “Brainman” documentary about him, as I have, there are going to be several things that you already know when you open the book. You’ll know something about how intimidating he finds the disorder of the outside world to be. You’ll know something about his epileptic fit as a child, and will probably have some idea that this led to his current abilities, you’ll know that he has amazed brain researchers in the U.S. by passing their tests, and proving that his synesthetic experiences of numbers are consistent. And that he did indeed learn to speak Icelandic in a week.

What this book will tell you that you may not know, is that his father and grandfather have some mild afflictions, and in his grandfather’s case it was exacerbated by experiences at war. You’ll learn that he credits the experiences of closeness to many siblings in a large family for a large part of his ability to bridge the gap between his condition and relating to people in a more normal way. You’ll learn how he challenged himself by choosing to volunteer to teach English abroad in Lithuania. And you’ll learn a few surprising things about mathematical puzzles, and Pi.

The book does leave me with several questions though. Particularly about the nature of memory and the confidence that Tammet expresses in his own, and in the late Kim Peek’s retention.
Specifically, Piotr Wozniak, a polish psychologist and sort of expert in the field of memory has built a system around one of the most useful facts about memory to come out of laboratory experiments; that memories fade at an exponential rate unless they are reinforced by rehearsal at certain spaced intervals. Using this information, the statistical law of memory defined as a forgetting curve, he has created a computer program to optimize studying so that a fact may only have to be reviewed ten times in order for a person to remember it throughout their lifetime. The more facts you want to force yourself to remember permanently the more time you need to spend making repetitions of those facts. Wozniak has written a computer program, called SuperMemo to turn this method into a product, which is relevant because it is widely used by people who are attempting to learn foreign languages, and from the book, one of Daniel Tammet’s sources of income is an online language-learning website.

By applying his understanding of the rate of forgetting through statistics gathered from the use of his program, Piotr Wozniak has arrived at some upper limits to what a person can expect to learn in a lifetime, and he finds that it would be impossible for a person to learn, say, the entire contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica. His reasoning is that the number of questions one would have to answer to retain above 85 percent of that knowledge would take more hours than anyone could devote to learning in a day. He also says that even people who use memory systems, or have extremely good natural memories are in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to retention. According to Wozniak, memory can be improved, by learning new ways of encoding or organizing information, but the idea that memories of any kind are permanent is a myth.

Against this, we have Daniel Tammet reporting of Kim Peek, that, “He can read two pages of a book simultaneously, one with each eye, with near perfect retention. Kim has read more than 9,000 books altogether and can recall all their content.”

If we take the experimental results and Wozniak seriously, it seems we have to be doubtful about the retention claimed for the late Kim Peek. And if it were true, how would we possibly explain it? Is every phone number, birthday or baseball statistic as significant an experience as putting your hand on a hot stove, or a life threatening fall? (Since those are some of the few things that ordinary people are likely to never forget, but wish they could.) Surely there must be at least some category of fact, even for him, that memories fade at the same rate as the rest of us. Or are we just overly willing to praise the outstanding abilities of a person who seems so terribly impaired in other areas of life? And is Tammet a little credulous in passing this praise on to us as fact?

Categories: Books Tags: , , ,

The Corollary to “You Can’t Do It All At Once”

October 7, 2012 1 comment

A couple of blog posts back I noted that it was finally coming home to me that things worth accomplishing in life cannot be done by a single, sustained marathon of effort, but have to be done piecemeal over time instead. But recent events have made the other side of the coin shine more brightly in my eyes. This corollary, is every bit as important, but I seem to have overlooked it, because the impossibility of the marathon and the power of accumulated piecemeal efforts was such a significant revelation.

The corollary I speak of is the fact that piecemeal efforts add up only if they are made consistently. A large project can be broken down into millions of tiny jobs, tiny tasks, and tiny efforts, and spread over months or years, such that they require no more than a few minutes to an hour per day, but they are only completed within whatever time frame they are spread across by such short periods of exertion, if the piecemeal efforts are made on schedule, and not skipped or postponed until it requires a small marathon of burnout effort to make up the backlog.

The task from which I learned to appreciate the piecemeal approach is thankfully one I have been able to perform consistently, for the most part, and despite distractions, obstacles and setbacks. But I’m beginning to see how much I could be accomplishing in other areas if only I had applied the same consistency.

I’m beginning to learn that palaces, empires, businesses, fortunes, and the mastery of amazing skills, are all built more by consistency, even of small efforts, than by genius or prolonged periods of work. And perhaps consistency is the more difficult side of the coin to master. Because you can hardly begin to see the results of a huge task broken into short tasks distributed thorough time without it. But once you have consistency, it becomes possible to see how a road can be made from cobblestones, or a great pyramid from many blocks placed one by one, how enormous novels and series of novels can all be written one word at a time.

Categories: Uncategorized

Moonwalking and Metacognition

October 1, 2012 Leave a comment

I became aware of the existence of elaborate systems of memory techniques in my youth, when I saw an infomercial for Harry Lorayne’s products. I expect everyone to be familiar with a few mnemonics, we’ve probably all heard in school of such phrases as Every good boy does fine, which is a coded message to help you remember the sequence of letters which define the notes of the lines of the treble clef, or FACE, which is a word, an acronym which is meant to aid your memory for the notes that fall in the spaces of the clef. Well Harry Lorayne, and other authors such as Tony Buzan and Kevin Trudeau have all written books or sold audio products or training software to teach people systems for devising their own mnemonics. These are sometimes referred to as mnemonic systems, but the word wold mnemotechnic would suggest what they do is give you tools to build your own mnemonics, and that is pretty accurate.

I doubt any writer I have mentioned can make any claim to originality. In fact, one of the greatest claims they can make that their systems work and are useful is by reference to ancient authority. Books that more directly reference the ancient origins and the practice of such methods in antiquity are “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci” by Jonathan D. Spence or “The Art of Memory” by Frances A. Yates.

Recent Memory champion Joshua Foer has also written a book giving a good overview of memory systems currently known, and his experience using them to excel in a contest. See the interview in the embedded YouTube link below:

Categories: Uncategorized

You can’t do it all at once!

September 28, 2012 Leave a comment

To be able to do something incredible, or have great skill, or great knowledge are things I’ve always wanted. But one of the most powerful things I’ve come to understand lately is; you can’t do it all at once.

For instance, I want to be able to draw or sculpt, I want to know human anatomy in detail, I want to be able to recognize the constellations in the night sky. These kinds of things can be done, these and many other kinds of knowledge can be acquired and retained. But there are a few problems. Some people, like myself, can sustain effort and focus, obsessively grinding one area of knowledge for days or weeks. This comes at the expense of other subjects of interest. Subjectively it seems to be working, as far as the thing I’m currently obsessing over, but that progress is easily undone if the merry-go-round of interests puts some other shining prize before me, and I obsess about this new thing twenty-four hours a day for awhile.

The answer I’ve found is spinning that carousel a full revolution each day. Do a task, recall a detail, and remember that you ingest knowledge by the spoonful, not by the bowlful.

This is how I’ve slowly begun to appreciate structuring my time. I appreciate wake-up routines, ritual, and bedtime. When you understand that you cannot do it all, that there is a point at which continued action becomes unproductive, then you begin to appreciate consolidation, and putting off the continuation of your efforts for another day. You approach your task anew, expecting only to accomplish a small piece now, and the rest in the future.

One or a few bricks can be placed upon the edifice today. In this week it may add up to 70, in a month 210, perhaps and by the year’s end 2,520 bricks are in place! A few more bricks per day, or a slower pace of stacking, and before a few years have passed, I could have multiple palaces! No need for a broken back or days of soreness after strenuous building. No need to neglect one building while I complete another. I could never single-handedly complete it in any shorter time anyhow.

The ease of this building up of knowledge leaves a vacuum. Watch out, or your new obsession might become the design of your daily program!
How many minutes to reading and studying? How many minutes for practice of skills? What other skills can I add? How do I prepare to get the most out of my sessions of effort? When is rest an absolute requirement?

But I think an appreciation of balance is something else I’ve gained. Practicing different skills, and adding knowledge of diverse subjects helps me appreciate how important it is to be well-rounded. It frees me to understand that life should be enjoyed, that humor shouldn’t be neglected, that a little fun throughout life can be as important as spreading other efforts through time.

Categories: Uncategorized

Building a muscle that resists temptation?

September 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Building up the muscle that resists temptation?
I believe in exercising my brain. I’ve long been fascinated by mnemonics, memory systems and heuristics to help me think better. For some four years I’ve been a daily user of SuperMemo to help me learn and expand my knowledge.
In recent weeks I happened to see a lecture in a YouTube video from a neurologist at Google Talks who told of how his group was researching the use of game-like computer programs to help people build up cognitive skills. The main buzzword I remember from it was plasticity.
When I saw a TV ad for Lumosity at someone’s house, in which they used the word plasticity, I figured that they might be doing the same thing.
I’ve been on the site as a free user for some three weeks now. I snapped this screenshot from it a while back.
Having little money to spend on entertainment, and having a hard time understanding how a website with a collection of flash games is worth nearly ten bucks a month, I did some further searching, and found similar sites, my favorite alternative is mybraintrainer.com.

The reason I snapped THIS screenshot is because I found the claim amazing, that doing a flash game-like exercise could strengthen something in your mind that could help you resist temptation.
It would seem that questions of temptation, responsibility vs predestination and the mystery of how to know when a temptation is too great to resist may have left the domain of religion to be answered in the domain of neuroscience.
Are we feeling any symptoms of future-shock yet?
Maybe, if we believe them.
This also puts me in mind of an amazing article I read on The New Republic, about how temptation and the ability to resist it is being studied by economists:
www.tnr.com/article/environment-energy/89377/poverty-esca…

Categories: Uncategorized

I am not dead.

September 25, 2012 Leave a comment

For nearly two years and a month I’ve been away from this. I started it earnestly enough, but never made it a habit. Soon to come: a post about the value of consistency.

After reading over my previous posts I see that I need to work on my writing style. I enjoy showing off my vocabulary, and I often feel like it is important to be very specific, but I have a bad habit of being stiff, redundant and difficult to read.

I’ve often thought that I should take the style of Rudyard Kipling as my guide. His prose is usually an example of simplicity, and I could use more of that. Tim Ferris said in an interview that he found his voice for “The Four Hour Work Week” by writing it as he would write an email to a friend. I should find some way to make my writing more conversational, and more like my way of speaking. It would also be a good idea to shoot for a maximum number of words, or at least to put a summary of a small number of words before any post where I believe I need to go on at length.

WordPress tells me that before I began this paragraph I had a word count of 200. That seems like a good length to shoot for in future posts. I shall try to keep between 250 and 500 words per post, and if I feel like I need to write more than that I shall have a summary of no more than 200 words.

Categories: Education

The Four Hour Work Week – Really?

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

The Four Hour Work Week

I’ve been reading “The Four Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferris. Its a really interesting book that is hard to put into previous categories. Its a sort of self-help book, about personal finance, and ways to make money and live well. Though unlike other popular books of this type, it doesn’t necessarily promise to make you a lot of money, just enough to realize your dreams, which it points out, may cost much less than you expect, especially if you are willing to shift your focus from a desire to own things, to a desire to do things, and if you are willing to be open to doing those things in Brazil, or Cancun, as opposed to in Los Angeles, or Florida, or New York.

The focus of the book is really on duplicating what the author did, creating a product, outsourcing its manufacture and sales, then letting go of your feeling of needing to be active in order to get things done and instead taking a mini-retirement abroad, where you can live cheaply, presumably off the profits of your tiny outsourced company while still challenging yourself it lots of other ways, not related to your career.

Whether you will be able to emulate all of the steps Tim Ferris lays out, and duplicate his success, will depend to a large degree on your experience and imagination, but it will also depend to a great degree on how well you are able to free yourself from the demands that life is currently putting on you, the demands of family and career. Things that tie you to the place you are currently living, and your current lifestyle. But even at that this book could hardly help but be useful, because it also offers some life philosophy, a reality-check on the value of retirement as a payoff for your career, and some breakthrough tips on productivity and personal finance.

Not only is the book worth reading, but the steps Tim Ferris advises are definitely worth trying. You may end up free from previous constraints and financial difficulties, or at least a more confident person and a better negotiator.

Categories: Uncategorized

Breaking Taboos – A Knowledge Problem

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

In the comments to and essay by Paul Graham that I read some time ago, called “Lies we tell Kids” there was an interesting exchange about taboos. One person opined that “if you suspect a taboo is no longer culturally relevant you should probably consider yourself to have a duty to break it to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.”

I imagine they have the idea that cultural progress, (change toward betterment, perhaps even perfection) would be served by bravely discarding an impediment. Someone else, thinking a little deeper on the question responded that that might be so if your goal is to change society. Living successfully within society might require a different strategy. They then suggested that, “Some taboos begin for good reason and just because you suspect that they’re not relevant doesn’t mean that they’re not.

I would suggest that if you suspect that a taboo is no longer relevant, you have a duty find out for sure and learn why it ever was in the first place.”

My take on this is that neither of these suggestions work. Having a duty to find out implies that you are held responsible for being some kind of anthropological savant, a social scientist within your own culture, and that you are expected to get the right answer. This is an impossible demand for anyone.

It is difficult to come up with an analogy, because anything that might have once been simple enough for someone of reasonable intelligence to examine and at once see and be able to fix a problem with, has since become so complicated that only specialists with computer diagnostic equipment are expected to be able to make head or tails out of. And if today’s cars, for example, are that much more complex than the model T, then how much more complex might the expectations and restrictions of human society be? Unlike the model T they were never designed to be understandable to a technician. F. A. Hayek described culture as a thing not even designed, but evolved piecemeal throughout human history and prehistory. A taboo isn’t like some rule your father made up to keep you from spilling something at the table, it’s more like your amygdala. And if it took physicians thousands of years just to come the the conclusion that the head was the seat of intelligence, rather than the heart, and the brain more than just a gland for producing phlegm, shouldn’t you bring a bit more humility to deciding which customs can just be dispensed with?

But that isn’t a pleasant thought, is it? Hacking away at restrictions under the license of the world-spirit gives one the chance to participate in the gratification of our inner wish for more freedom. And it doesn’t sit very well with the rationalist program of 20’th century liberalism either. (It is too early to say what 21st century liberalism will be, isn’t it?)

It doesn’t sit that well with me either, but I’ll know better than to suggest people are able to tell at a glance which of the facets of civilization they are not content with keep the extended order in harmony and which are just atavistic pains in the neck.

Categories: Uncategorized

Lies we tell kids – sex in the city vs in the country

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Some time ago I read an excellent essay by Paul Graham called, “Lies we tell kids.” I found the text and the comments stimulating enough that I made several private journal entries about points that caught my attention in the essay. Below is my response to one of the points he makes about kids who live in sheltered environments versus exposure to the seedy side of life:
Lies We Tell Kids:

I’d have different worries about raising teenage kids in New York. I’d worry less about what they’d see, and more about what they’d do. I went to college with a lot of kids who grew up in Manhattan, and as a rule they seemed pretty jaded. They seemed to have lost their virginity at an average of about 14 and by college had tried more drugs than I’d even heard of.

This is an interesting anecdote because while Paul Graham is talking out of personal experience, and it fits with most people’s impressions of the experience of growing up in the city vs suburban and rural areas, it has also been convincingly argued against as a rule. I seem to have read that research supports that kids experiment sexually at younger ages in rural environments where there are fewer other activities around to divert their interests. Though I still think that it would be harder to argue against more drug availability, and variety of drugs available in cities vs rural areas. Though it is possible there is more drinking in rural areas I would guess. But even that seems to be a problem when you consider that availability is going to be limited by fewer stores, and more people who know how old the kids are.

But I digress. It is still convincing that these are Paul Graham’s anecdotes from personal experience. One wonders what might be the special features of the situation he relates. Is Manhattan different from other urban areas because more opportunities for sex and drugs are available? Was this experience perhaps more related to cultural factors in play at that time? The hippie movement? Baby boomers breaking with tradition? The rise of counter-culture? Or is the prevailing view, and personal experience right, and the research I vaguely recall wrong?

Update: I did some searching and found some links to articles that discuss studies that show what I thought I remembered. Here are two links to such articles:

http://www.slate.com/id/2192217/?from=rss

http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/04/02/the-differences-between-city-and-country-kids/

The basic thing to take away from these articles are that studies seem to show that rural teenagers engage in sex earlier and more often than urban teenagers, and though no research shows any clear causal link, it is widely supposed that opportunities for other kinds of activities in the cities best explain this.

I think it is important to keep in mind that the absence of studies of these kinds from earlier decades leaves the possibility open that this is a recent development, and that changes in culture could play a significant part in explaining the variance between the results and most people’s expectations, and from Paul Graham’s experience.

The only other thing is that I personally find the moralizing tone of the articles very depressing. I suppose that part of this is due to the apparently epidemiological purposes of the studies mentioned in these articles, but something deep in my spirit chaffs uncomfortably at the assumption that bureaucrats armed with statistical information should be prescribing propaganda to shape young people’s behaviors and curtail some of their sources of pleasure for the good of the nation state. It also seems that statistics create a very powerful illusion of large numbers of average people, who make the choices that they do not because of what’s inside them, what they desire or a unique plan of their own, but for easily counted and possibly controlled factors, like where they live and what their local schools are required to teach them.

I don’t like it that talking about sex always has to mean talking about diseases rather than joy. I don’t like it that starting a family while young always has to be looked at as a public problem or a private crisis. That whole notion seems to be based on one of two wrong-headed assumptions, either that people should not be reproducing, or else that they should postpone it until after years of secondary education, possibly until a secure foothold has been gained in both parents careers, often expected to be a job in a large company. That this life path might mean habituating people to a lifestyle to which the addition of children would be much more of a burden than those young and flexible enough to deal with it, or possibly out waiting a woman’s fertile years does not seem like a serious problem to a lot of moderns.

It should go without saying that I don’t think it is a good idea for unprepared and immature teenagers to try to get pregnant right now, in the current culture. But people who prepare for such a life early, with the assistance of family, the help of sympathetic communities, or other institutions, I think it could be normal and healthy, as it sometimes was in ages past, before statistics started telling us all what bacteria we were.

Categories: Uncategorized

Apprenticeships for software developers?

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Silicon Valley’s Dark Secret: It’s All About Age:

In 2006, Zoho’s CEO, Sridhar Vembu, initiated an experiment to hire 17-year-olds directly out of high school. He found that within two years, the work performance of these recruits was indistinguishable from that of their college-educated peers. Some ended up becoming superstar software developers.

Put this fact into the ledger when trying to reckon the value of a college education in the modern world – both to the student, and to the company that hires the graduates.

There is a widespread belief that our modern world is so complex, so dependent upon high-technology, and specialized knowledge that can only be dealt with by those who have had layers upon layers of theoretical instruction, that it does not make sense for people to seriously start their careers as early as they used to. It likewise seems widely believed that apprenticeships would be impractical for learning to work in the modern world. Here is evidence that it is not.

The best education is not in busywork that students persevere through to inculcate theoretical knowledge, the best education is in doing.

The idea that you can learn how to do a lot of things just in case, is largely an illusion, but the expectation that you can learn them just in time may not be.

Categories: Education

A small note on a filmmaker’s speech about art

August 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Some time ago, I stumbled upon this entry from a blog of Jon Jost, who is apparently a fimmaker, and someone who has a few things to say about art. I found this essay he posted, based, apparently on a speech he gave, to be full of interesting ideas and insights, but I certainly don’t agree with all of it. There is a somewhat senseless joke that has been going around, that arguing on the internet is like winning the special olympics, you may win, but people will still think you’re retarded. I think it would be far more true to say that about arguing over the question of what art is. The way we seem to frame the question in modern times make it not worth discussing. There are no right answers, and any definition you attempt is only going to be persuasive for a fashionably brief period of time. Please forgive me for indulging anyway.

Duck Soup or Duck, You Sucker « Jon Jost’s Weblog:

…Artists today remain largely attached to the bohemian concept of art as the function of the alienated loner, and for the most part society encourages this. Art is in these days a business, a matter of marketing, of selling styles, replacing them with new ones as quickly as possible. The substance of art is now, as in almost [all] other realms of life, simply money, of business. That art which is acknowledged is that which makes money and celebrates the making of money, and the rest is swept away. In order to hide this brutal reality we have a kind of kabuki theater in which firm roles are given for each player, be they on or off stage, be they as producer or spectator. The illusion is made that “art” and its corresponding culture is alive, while in fact art is dead but we are loath to admit it, so we carry on with a charade. Young artists pretend to be bohemians….

My thoughts on this are the following:
I think there is both truth and falsehood here. Its true that we are attached to the bohemian concept of the artist, and that young artists are pretending to be bohemians, alienated loners, people who are somehow outside society, looking in, and critiquing it. But the kinds of critiques they so often seem to make, make it ridiculous to say that the kind of art that is acknowledged is that which celebrates the making of money. The young, sensitive, outsiders seem to critique money and the effects of wealth as frequently as anything. But perhaps it is different outside America.

Categories: Uncategorized

Diversify Your Income – Better yet, Automate it

August 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In response to The post, “Diversify Your Income” by Michael Janzen on his blog, Do It Yourself Freedom:

It seems to me that there are really two pieces of advice here. One is to diversify your income, and that can be done in various ways, as the author notes, the other is to automate your income. But automating your income is in no way necessarily implied in the advice to diversify it.

So, what are some ways in which a person can diversify their income?
Well, as the author notes, working more than one job. And this seems like a better idea in inverse proportion to the amount of time you spend on any one job. And it does make a kind of sense. If one of your jobs is waiting tables in an expensive resturant, and another is an 8:00am to 12:00 pm job in the receiving department of a sporting goods store, there is every chance that one of those jobs could go under for some reason, leaving your means diminished, but not wiped out. This is the same kind of risk that financial advisors usually try to help you avoid when they advise you to diversify your investments.

On the other hand, suppose you already work on a freelance basis. Perhaps as part of a band that plays in nightclubs, a photographer, or a graphic designer or illustrator of some type, or even as a housekeeper, You may still be tempted to do all or a majority of your work for one type of client, or even, if you have a client whose needs for your services are great enough, you work exclusively with that one client. I can see why someone might fall into that trap, it might seem to have all the simplicity and familiarity of a regular job. But as long as you’re doing all your work with that one client both the sense of security, which even for hourly workers is largely false, and your sense of independence as an independent contractor, are illusions. The advice to diversify in that case may mean to spread your work among additional clients, or learn the standards of a different type of client, so that you can continue to generate income by serving a different section of the economy if demand for your services in one section diminishes. For example, one person I associate with is the president of a small advertising production agency. I think of his company as mostly producing TV commercials, though I’m aware they do radio commercials, and websites too. He has been trying to branch into making industrial videos, such as for training within companies. I work with him, providing 3D animation and graphics.

The advice to automate your income is one that I see as entirely seperate. The ways of diversifiying your income that I’ve described above all require you to sell your time, which is valuable in proportion to your skill and experience. The president of the advertising company is in a somewhat different position, however than the person taking on a second job, or the freelance worker branching out to take on different clients or different types of clients, because, while he has made the decision to diversify, and take his company in a new direction, the actual video production, writing, shooting, editing, graphics and DVD duplication have mostly been delegated to other people, myself included.

As I think about possible ways of automating your income, I see these categories:

Intellectual property

Investments

Businesses

I apologize for being ignorant of the terms that money gurus, such as financial advisors, economists, investors or entrepeneurs may use. This is how I see the field of possibilities throught my untutored eyes.

Originally, I wrote machines instead of businesses, because I thought first of things like storefront websites and vending machines, and thought of owning a business with employees who were paid a wage merely as a special case of automation. Maybe delegation of effort is the central theme there. You can delegate tasks either to other people, or to automated processes. Notable things that come to my mind under this view of delegation are:

Vending machines

Storefront Websites

Coin-operated laundries, car washes, air pumps etc.

Hotels or trailer parks.

Blogs, or other advertising-supported websites

The common theme here are things that provide value and by doing so return income over time with a minimum of input. You have to manage them, but they allow you to multiply the value of your time. Or in other words, there is no limit to the value of hours you spend tending to these income-generating machines. In contrast to the types of investment vehichles I’ve usually heard financial gurus touting, these are within reach of almost anyone who isn’t living hand-to-mouth. My own parents rented out lots (though only one at a time) to people with trailer homes, lots adjacent to our own home, or even rented out the trailer itself that our family got started in. People with large enough houses can rent a room. People who own small cottages can rent them out as bed and breakfasts. My father also made a foray into the world of vending machines, though I don’t think that experiment made him money in the long run. A sobering fact that anyone thinking of getting into that line should consider, as with any business, not all machines that beg to have quarters put in them are going to fully compensate you for what you pay for them, or the effort you spend keeping them in working order. Yet evidently soft drink and snack machines make money for a lot of people with a minimum of fuss, to say nothing of electronic games, video or pinball, for instance, which probably require less care, and don’t even need to be re-stocked.

By investments I mean the usual financial vehichles that people think of as the province of wealthy financiers, or the kinds of things mature people do as part of a strategy to put something away for their golden years while they continue to sell their hours from nine to five until retirement. And the kinds of things people buy and sell for significant money which might be analagous to these kinds of assets.

In this category I see two main divisions, and a couple of commonalities.

The main divisions are the Guessing and Betting type of investment and the Interest model.

The Interest model is the most basic type that everyone takes advantage of in savings accounts, it also includes savings bonds. These work mainly over the very long term, though they may do a great deal of good to people who have a lot of money earlier in their life, yet it seems that when people are very wealthy they tend to invest in things where the rate of return is higher instead. There are many ways of making loans, and many ways of earning interest.

By the Guessing and Betting type of investment, I mean things like stock trading, futures trading, buying and selling. To me, this seems little different than buying coins or stamps for numismatic value, keeping memorabilia, hoping demand for it goes up, or collecting baseball cards, comic books or something of that nature with the hope that its value increases so that it can be sold at a profit later. To me, the terms Guessing and Betting have very negative connotations, especially in terms of financial planning, yet, it is obvious, even to me, that some people make fine livings doing each of the things I’ve mentioned above. But I am convinced that it isn’t for everyone. I’m unimpressed by day traders who base their buying and selling on the readings of charts, particularly, and I really do believe that one reason some of these things have the kind of popularity and devotion they do is because they provide the same kind of thrill as gambling. Yes, there are winners, but there are probably a heck of a lot of losers too. To try to act as a middle-man in any of these sectors I think it is importand to first know the market for the particular assets or goods you are dealing in, not just how to tell by how other people value them which way they are going to go.

I see buying a stock that pays shareholders a dividend as a very different category. This can mean buying a small piece of a big company. You have part ownership, and may have a vote on decisions regarding that company that you can cast yourself or delegate, and you get a fraction of the company’s profits. The differance between the price of the stock and what it pays you periodically may tell you something about whether people in that market value money in the long or the short term, or it may tell you something about whether the general expectation is that that company will be more successful in the future, or is going downhill. This may be found among other financial vehichles like savings bonds, futures, commondities and such, but it is like a special case of automated income from a business.

Intellectual Property is another way people can automate their income. I think most people are aware that best-selling novels are very lucrative, as is having a song on the top of the charts, or having a role in a popular movie, or having a song in a popular movie, or having your novel  made into a movie. You can also get royalties or similar fees in other ways, such as by licensing a patented invention, investing money in a production or recording, being a photographer or designing a t-shirt. Intellectual property has a bad reputation these days, partly because it is most obviously serves as a way that people who are already fabulously wealthy can keep getting paid for work they’ve already done. I have no doubt, that defending your intellectual property rights to anything you’ve produced could be more difficult today than in ages past, but there are at least a few ways that it can work for people who are not yet at the top of the various media businesses.

Anyone can write a book, and self-publishing is an option, including electronic publishing, and print-on-demand.

It is easy to submit photographs and illustrations to collections of stock images.

Photographers already enjoy copyright, allowing them to make additional prints of portraits, or any kind of thing they shoot-barring contracts to the contrary-though since the rise of digital cameras people’s expectations about the use of some kinds of pictures seems to be changing. For instance, my experience, and industry articles I’ve read suggests that there is a growing expectation among people that they be given digital copies of their wedding photos. Anyone looking to go into this field based on hopes of building a body of work that can be re-sold over and over would be best advised to avoid concentrating exclusively on portraits or special events, and become familiar with the variety of markets for pictures. In short, photographers should diversify their income.

It is much easier to work as a song-writer and get royalties, than it is to work as a performer. If you write songs, try to diversify your styles and subjects and form relationships with various types of artists.

Graphic designers or visual artists can take advantage of various types of publishing, such as selling prints, printed t-shirts or other types of printed items, like clocks, mugs and mousepads through net-based printing companies like Cafe Press.

If you can spend some time, or some disposable income creating something that continues to bring money back, even if a very tiny stream, then you’re ahead by that much. Next week you can put your time, your extra money, and maybe something from that stream together creating another asset, and thus eventually free yourself from dependence on your primary source of income.

I should note that I am in no way a financial expert. Most of the above reperesents knowledge, and often simply theories of my own that have grown from various sources which do not present specific or necessarily reliable information. Not even the existence of any certain kind of financial asset.

If there are any misconceptions you would like to correct, or other information you would like to add, then please comment.

Categories: Finance

Welcome to Life Examined

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve tried blogging on a couple of other sites in the past. Here I plan to focus more of my energy.

My interests are mostly related to learning and memory, education in terms of effective methods, criticism of current American institutions nominally devoted to it, and an analysis of it in terms of opportunity cost, and how it holds value.

Keep watching and you will probably get a taste from a diverse mixture of philosophy, politics, from a strongly libertarian viewpoint, and inquiries about the best way to live.

Categories: Uncategorized

Lessons Forgotten/Lessons Unlearned

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

At one of my graduations I remember a valedictorian delivering a speech where she talked about the importance of education by saying something to the effect that since what you learned could never be lost, or taken away, that it was therefore one of the most valuable things you could acquire.

And perhaps that is true, in some ideal world, such as a Cartesian universe where mind is completely separate from, untouchable, and incorruptible by matter. But for those who live with their feet planted on the soil of the world of experience, where meeting bodily needs for nutrition, sleep, and exercise makes a measurable difference on the permanence of memories – to say nothing of the effects of age, drugs, other poisons, disease, injury or surgery – for those of us in the real world, it is a more difficult problem to count the cost of an education against the benefits it might confer on us.

It should be easy to see, that a clear view of the permanence of knowledge learned has some implications for the value of a college education. And how much more so, with today’s tuition prices, and the frequent difficulty people have in obtaining credit. But when we think more deeply about the age at which a persons mental abilities begin to flower, the value of time, and a young person’s capacity for joy, I think we should also see that how we order the lives of children now in elementary through high school should not be regarded as a settled question.

Schools at every level are better at producing a glamor of education, than they are at actually inculcating information such that it could be available at later times in a student’s life. One example of this is the popular game show challenge, “Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?” Another is Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University.

The lesson is the same, knowledge you are supposed to soak up in school is anything but permanent.

Why is this so?

Is it because the schools are using faddish teaching methods that are poor as compared with the methods of the past? No. Is it because people are just too stupid to be able to keep in their heads all the stuff they try to teach us in school? No, not exactly. Is it just age related mental degeneration? No.

The reason for this impermanence is very simple, a little depressing perhaps, but natural, and probably necessary. It is that people forget things on average very quickly when they do not rehearse them, or frequently occur as important features of their world. That informal statement is a basic description of a measured drop in retention over time, known to memory experts and some (recent) psychology students as the forgetting curve. It is a statistical law which states that the impressions we make on our memory fade rapidly unless they are reinforced at intervals throughout our life. This is the fact about the brain that makes sense of old adages about learning like “use it or lose it.” and the general understanding that learning is based on repetition.

This is a very well defined fact about memory, and it seems to me that it has many profound consequences, not only for figuring the value of a college education, or the worth of the unhappiness of children sent away to elementary schools each day, but also for the consequences of long prison sentences for the possibilities of rehabilitation. It has consequences for what the value of a broad curriculum is, as opposed to one focused on a few very important things. And it forces us to re-examine the value of socialization that schools are supposed to offer as one of their potential benefits.

Be sure to share your own views on all these questions raised.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with my own, unfortunate conclusion, that the sheepskin you get at the graduation ceremony probably has a fantastic chance of outlasting much of what you learn those four years in college.

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