Math

April 17, 2018

A common mindset I’ve noticed as a math tutor is the mistaken idea that tutors / teachers are supposed to be considered some kind of authority on math. Students expect us to know things, and they even trust us when we tell them things. Worst of all, I strongly suspect that the majority believe those things are true /because we say so/, and perhaps ultimately because some mathematician said so.

I try to avoid telling people things, instead asking them questions to try to get them to figure things out for themselves. But it can be like swimming up a waterfall. Please, people, realize this: if you want to truly succeed at math, you have to realize that it’s just reasoning, not knowledge that’s been handed down from on high.

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World Autism Acceptance Day

April 2, 2018

Apparently today is World Autism Acceptance Day. I don’t usually pay much attention to these sorts of days, and I think most people are aware that autism exists, but I feel strongly about the discrimination that is fairly widespread against people with autism, from people who are well-meaning and probably don’t see it as discrimination. It’s not just the attempt to “cure” autism. It’s the expectation or hope that people with autism will learn to do the same things as other people, whether they want to or not. Yes, there are rules that everybody should follow, and yes, it’s a good deed to help people with autism overcome barriers when they want your help. But it’s OK to like different things than the things other people like, it’s OK to have different mannerisms than other people, and it’s OK to not want to join in an activity that the rest of the group / family / classroom / society is doing. Everybody should have the right to live their own life, rather than having their activities determined by those in the neurological majority.

Again, I don’t think people necessarily realize what they’re doing, but since there are many people in my life with autism it’s something I consider very important. It’s especially unfortunate that in so many of our structures (e.g. schools, the workplace) humans are so insistent that everybody do the same thing, given the advantages of diversity in the rest of the natural world.

Ideal society

March 19, 2018

What’s your idea of an ideal society (utopia)? No magic allowed (only technology that’s known to be available now or soon).

Counter-cultural

February 19, 2018

It’s not easy being counter-cultural in general, but schools / daycares have the potential to really compound things. The problem is us teachers. What sort of ethics or practices should we teach? Things will necessarily go a lot easier for us if we teach the ethics and practices of our culture, causing a bias towards the practices of the surrounding culture. Worse, the goal of the government is to train citizens to follow the culture of its own country, causing them to create schools and hire teachers who do that.

Parents who want their children raised a different way have a difficult choice to make: do homeschooling or some alternate schooling (if they can afford it) or risk their child being raised according to the culture’s ethics and practices. With homeschooling (something I would have done as a child if I had the choice) this means finding socialization opportunities will be difficult, and the child may feel even more alienated among peers when they’re done. If they go to the regular schools, the child may still feel alienated if they’re counter-cultural (as I felt in school). Some parents turn to religious schools in the hopes of having their children learn better ethics, but many people (including me) believe in neither the ethics of any religious school nor in the ethics of the culture.

Examples of issues that have come up for me: Should children be forced to wash their hands? Should they be allowed to play with toy guns? (Or toy cars? Or toy pets?) How much screen time should they have? Should you talk to them about death? Should you talk to them about meat? Should they be allowed to waste food? To share food? How much risk can they take outside? Should they be allowed to swear?

It’s obviously impractical for a parent to expect a teacher / caregiver to teach the exact same ethics as them. But it’s easier if their ethics happen to be popular /in your culture/. If you go elsewhere in the world, you’ll find people answer those questions totally diffently (something you can see by watching the movie “Babies”), and surely you can’t say that you just happened to be born into the culture which has the right answers to those questions?

Assuming you don’t say that, there are 2 implications:

(1) It’s imperative for teachers to have as few rules (as much freedom) as practical, and whenever they give a rule, they must give the children the reason for it. The idea isn’t to teach that all approaches are equally valid, but that people must have a reason for their choices. Teaching ethical reasoning is much more valuable than teaching particular ethics, and obedience is /not/ an ethical goodness.

(2) We should all re-examine our ethics and practices, because we all went through school, which means we’ve all become biased in favour of a particular culture’s goals.

Gaming disorder

January 22, 2018

“Gaming disorder classified as mental illness by World Health Organization in 2018”

This is troubling. I mostly agree with the article that the language surrounding this “disorder” seems like discrimination against gamers (something I’ve seen a lot in my life) when that sort of addiction can apply to many activities. However, in fairness, there are certain tendencies that I’ve noticed in the gaming /industry/ that are troubling. Namely, a focus on a marketing or manipulating type strategy, where companies produce hype or focus on the outward appearance of the games (flashy graphics or gore) in order to get people to buy the game. Even the content of many games involve things like collecting, unlocking, or even buying junk in order to get players to keep playing / giving money, leaving the games themselves devoid of actual gameplay. Basically developers in big gaming companies tend to be sell outs who sacrifice their artistic talent to get money.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t high quality works of art in the form of video games, of course. There are lots of them, and I know of lots of them, and they’ve drastically improved my life. But it’s been a long process of wading through garbage to find the gems. People who aren’t familiar with gaming culture tend to jump to conclusions about games as a whole based on the poor quality junk that gets advertised in the mainstream.

The fact that TV has similar problems (a few gems in a sea of junk), but board games and books tend not to have these problems to as great an extent, further supports my conclusion: instead of blaming either gamers or the artistic medium, let’s start blaming big companies.

Ownership

December 18, 2017

Humans seem to have difficulty with the concept of ownership. When does someone start to own something? If you buy something from someone who didn’t rightfully own it, does it become yours, and how many of the things you’ve bought were bought from their rightful owners? Who may rightfully access a scarce resource? I find most conflicts with children are caused over ownership, which is understandable, given that even adults can’t figure it out, and are inconsistent with respect to whether a child really has the rights to something that’s “theirs”.

As a capitalist who believes in ownership, I like Locke’s idea: you start to own something when you produce it from raw materials, and then you may trade things you own. The people that did the work get the benefit. But most capitalists conveniently forget to address ownership of things in common, including the raw materials themselves. Everybody, or nobody, rightly owns nature, and when something is owned in common, a person may not simply take part of it and claim it’s theirs. But that’s how tons of companies get their raw materials. This implies that many things you buy were bought from someone who didn’t rightfully own it.

So how can anything ever rightly get produced? We need a theory of common ownership. Fortunately, environmental ethics already provides one: “leave a place or commonly owned resource in a better state than you found it”. You can take a resource from nature if you do something to improve nature by a greater amount. If a resource, such as wood or stone, is plentiful, then you don’t have to do much to pay back that debt. For scarcer resources, such as the rare metals used in cell phones, you need to do a lot to increase the well-being of everybody before you can rightfully take them. (By the way, this includes the well-being of plants and animals, which might not need to be compensated for some rare materials that mean little to them but a lot to humans, but do indeed need to be compensated for various other taken resources.)

Why do we tend to teach / strongly believe in property rights but not common ownership rights? Why do we punish violations of one but not the other? They’re equally important. Various self-proclaimed conservatives often want the government to protect their property rights but not the rights being violated when companies extract raw materials. But they can’t actually formulate a theory of ownership that makes sense without a common ownership theory – something that’s usually propounded by various self-proclaimed liberals. Locke’s theory alone breaks down when raw materials become scarce. There is no ultimate explanation of how someone gets the right to, for example, drill for oil, or own a piece of land.

This is one reason I’m somewhat uneasy about bitcoin: since it can’t be traced, if you buy a bitcoin, you can’t tell whether the person who sold it to you really owned it, or whether they hacked someone’s account to get it. (As a tangent, this could be solved with a cryptocurrency that has full surveillance, while still being decentralized. With such a currency it would be possible for everybody to see whether a particular coin is truly owned by its holder. I’m not sure if it’s possible to create such a form of currency though.) But perhaps we can’t be any more sure of the legitimacy of any of our possessions than we can of our bitcoins. An ethical person will therefore self-audit themself to determine whether they really deserve (have worked hard enough for) something they think they have a right to, regardless of whether the law says they have a right to it.

The best ways to learn things

November 16, 2017

I’m brainstorming to make a list of the best way to learn each topic / subject. Does anyone have any suggestions for particular subjects? When I say “best” I don’t necessarily mean the fastest, or the way that gets you high marks on a test, but rather the most educative, also factoring in how engaging / fun a method is. The assumption is that if you enjoy learning, then learning becomes way easier and sticks with you better. Also, when I say “learning”, I don’t just mean kids – adults can also learn.

Here’s what I have so far:

Language – immersion (living in a place where the language is spoken)
Geography – Strategy games featuring real places? (I learned some geography from the Risk board game, but it’s not very detailed. Are there better ones?)
Math – ? (Probably games, but most I’ve seen just teach speed of mental calculations or ability to do arithmetic. How to teach mathematical understanding? And what about fractions, algebra or calculus? 3D holograms might help with integrals, but other than that I’ve encountered nothing other than lectures, textbooks, and practice, and there /must/ be a better way.) Sports – practice
Musical instrument – practice? (But how to learn musical notation?) Vocabulary / spelling / literacy – reading and writing books, poems
History – ? (cosplay / role-playing? Accurate movies? Debates?) For learning dates of particular events / inventions there’s a card game series called “Timeline” which is quite fun, however I’d argue that knowing dates is a less significant part of the topic of history. Perhaps also strategy games that are historically accurate?)
Art – practice making art – the most important thing is for the student to have choice in what they make
Economics – ? (There’s probably a good video game that simulates a marketplace, but what is it?)
Computer science – ? (Once you know the basics, the best method is to write software of your choice that you personally want to exist. But how to learn the basics? I know of many games for kids that try to teach coding principles – what’s the best one? And what’s the best way to learn a particular language?)
Physics – experiments work well for Newtonian physics, although I suspect Augmented Reality could improve educative value, but what software exists for this? For modern physics, experiments don’t help much. Perhaps 3D holograms?
Chemistry – I have no idea how to best learn the periodic table? Chemical reactions of molecules could be shown with 3D modelling / 3D holograms, I imagine – is there software that does this? But even in that case how to learn specific uses for these reactions, or the application of the molecular reactions to the real world? (I.e. chemical engineering, I think?) This is something I never learned, so I’m totally clueless in this area. I imagine there could be a video game where you have certain chemical resources and certain tasks to accomplish and have to use strategy to decide how to mix chemicals. Does such a game already exist?
Biology – Ideally dissection, but that’s expensive and there are ethical issues, and it doesn’t let you see small things. Perhaps a computer simulation where you zoom around inside an organism via a first-person 3D perspective, with names of various internal organs / cell components / etc. appearing? There should also be a way to make this into a game, perhaps a 3D exploration game where you’re trying to gather items from inside an organism’s body, or a strategy game where you’re a virus trying to find effective ways to infect a body and fighting white blood cells. Is there any such software already?
Climate change – ? Perhaps simulation software exists that shows visual effects of different activities / changes and allows you to see how things change with various policies / lifestyle changes? If so, what is it?
Ecology – Ideally going to particular ecosystems and observing them over a time – however, this would only teach you overall principles, not particular names of things, and it’s expensive. Perhaps there’s simulation software that shows the effects on an ecosystem as a species grows or shrinks, or a simulation game where you try to build your own ecosystem and try to let it survive the longest or survive various disasters. But how would you learn about the makeup of particular ecosystems in the real world this way? Perhaps the game could include a way to build your own ecosystem beforehand (like Minecraft does), and could allow contributions from the community so various real-world ecosystems from around the world could be contributed collaboratively.
Philosophy – Discussions / debates, structured with some kinds of rules to allow everyone to have a say
Speed-reading – ? (Is it even practical to learn? Can you enjoy speed-reading something or understand it deeply, and if not, isn’t something inherently broken whenever you feel speed-reading would be useful?)

Overall themes seem to be:
-for factual knowledge, create the usual kinds of games or media that people usually enjoy consuming, but just replace the imaginary content with real-world content that you want people to learn -for skills, learn by using the skill

My ultimate vision is for everyone to spend most or all of their time in educative or beneficial activities – whenever any traditional rote learning through textbooks / lectures happens, or when humans (as opposed to robots) do menial, repetitive work, or when people exist in a vegetative state (e.g. watching TV), then significant amounts of time, indeed of people’s lifespans, are potentially wasted. My claim is that avoiding these 3 by doing only “leisure” that’s educative would cure boredom and make for a meaningful life (similarly to how you can eat food that is both healthy and tastes good, making food that tastes good but is unhealthy, as well as food that is healthy but doesn’t taste good, wasteful).

I’m also considering implementing one of these ideas in my free time, if I can think of one that’s better than what’s available and hasn’t already been tried. My frustration is the gap between the ways technology can be used for educational benefits, and the inability or unwillingness of teachers or non-geeks to make use of technology that’s available, because of factors like technophobia, poor quality software, etc. My experience with educational software is that it just slaps a fun theme on factual recall, and I have in mind deeper tools. But I sense that, although there’s a ton of work to be done in the area of educational technology, the work that gets done tends to be ignored.

Input is welcome.

Costs

October 28, 2017

This is my thought process:

https://xkcd.com/1908/

except ethics gets factored in too: buying some stuff causes harm, so I have to calculate the lowest cost in harm of my various alternatives. But what about the wasted time doing so, and the opportunity cost of using that time to undo other harm? Probably needs calculus.

Equations

September 29, 2017

I often find students memorizing formulas in math / science, without understanding them. I wonder if students would understand math better if they weren’t given formulas? It seems like formulas are faster but require less thinking.

What about this rule: you can only use a formula if you come up with the formula yourself. This would make for a much different way of doing math – I guess it would be slower-paced, involve more reasoning, and require a higher level of understanding. Would this be better or worse? Would it be more or less fun?

Old Books

September 4, 2017

“Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.  All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.  They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.  We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.  None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already.  Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” – C.S. Lewis