Ask Zompist: Education

You propose in one of your blog posts that one of the best ways to reform education would be to get away for the old idea of standardized curricula and move towards more specialized, individual education— i.e. if you have a kid with no talent for math, you shouldn’t put him through calculus.

But is this really wise? C. S. Lewis makes the argument in The Abolition of Man that one of the primary roles of a good education is to preserve democracy (and goes on to note that the sort of education that will preserve a democracy is not necessarily one that democrats will like).

Don’t we have an obligation to students’ countrymen, and not just their employers, to make sure that they not only have the skills required to do their job, but also have a firm grounding in (at the very least) scientific thinking, Western history, mathematics, and (going further) a foreign language, the classics, philosophy and logic?


The main thrust of my proposal wasn’t to do less education, but more!  The point is that most kids learn very little in school.  I think the twin ideas of learning by doing, and studying what interests them, will make them learn far more.

The insufficiently examined assumption in your question— and in most discussions of education— is that kids learning, which is hard to make happen and hard to measure, is replaced with adults lecturing, which we know how to do.  (Standardized tests pretend to measure progress, but every schoolchild knows that what you know on the day of the test has very little to do with what you know a week later, to say nothing of ten or twenty years!)

To take one of the items on your list— sure, I think it’s great for kids to learn mathematics. But it’s  complete illusion that forcing kids to sit through a math class makes them learn mathematics!  It works for a fraction of kids, but even they would probably learn better another way.

Now, why do we learn mathematics?  Because it’s useful in all sorts of fields.  That means it’ll come up naturally if you let kids pursue those subjects.  For some, they’ll have to learn it if they want to write a 3-D graphics program, or plot a spaceship’s trajectory, or calculate whether a roof will cave in  Others might run into it while trying to run a business, or argue a political point, or figure out sports statistics, or understand the way musical scales work.

Now, it does seem true that what adults should really know, kids may be regrettably uninterested in.  E.g. surely we’d like voters to have a basic understanding of government.  But again, the question is how to produce this knowledge?  The required constitution class I mentioned just doesn’t do it.  I think kids of the same age would learn a lot more if, say, they spent a year creating their own government, with multiple branches, elections, and a measure of real power over the school.

Terrible title, neat blog

Geoff Eddy pointed me to an absorbing blog– bLogicarian, by A.Z. Foreman.  It’s right up my alley— a man with a passion for understanding foreign cultures, and with impressive erudition.  He seems to know (and can translate from) at least Chinese, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Hebrew.

Some highlights:

  • A devastating takedown of the bogus Chinese elements in Firefly.  I regret not noticing this myself.  Supposedly the system is a fusion of Western and Chinese culture, and yet there is really nothing in it that’s recognizably Asian, except a few kanji and an entirely unaccountable and unmotivated bilingualism.  (Inara is kind of an Asian courtesan with a Buddhist worldview and an Arabic name, but this is a social role from the past— it’s as if Shepherd were depicted as a medieval friar.)
  • A critique of Esperanto focusing on its strange unnatural morphology, which gives fascinating information on how the language has developed in the last hundred years.  (Of note: people have made lots of coinages to address some of the worst bits of the morphology and to use more recognizable pan-European words; the verbal system has gotten weirdly baroque and is developing a mediopassive; and native speakers have a tendency to bag the accusative.)
  • A fun critique of the supposed linguistic realism of Mel Gibson’s Jesus film.
  • A rant against Christianity, not itself very novel, but featuring a great discussion of how Roman pluralism worked.

Definitely a dude to check out.

PCK available on Kindle

When the PCK came out, I didn’t create a Kindle verson, because, well, I dunno.  It seemed like a lot of work to convert all the illustrations.  But I just did that for ALC and it took just a day or two, so this really wasn’t a great excuse.

So!  As of right fricking now, you can read The Planet Construction Kit on Kindle, for a paltry $6.25.  If you do, note that the climate maps are here, in color… even though I divided the Earth map in three, I think maps don’t work so well on that little screen.

I took the opportunity to update the text.  Nothing really major, though I divided up the over-long Culture chapter, and redrew some of the instructional pics on drawing clothing.  I expect to update the print version in the next few weeks.

ALC is out!

I got the final proof copy of Advanced Language Construction on Wednesday, and it passed my extensive tests on whether my name was spelled correctly.

So, it’s available now in print and Kindle editions!  Go get some!  Also it’s my birthday, so if you were wondering what to get me, the answer is, royalties.  Treat yourself to a copy of ALC, you deserve it!

Actual book in its native habitat (my desk)

This is the most thoroughly vetted book I’ve done yet… the total number of pre-publication readers of the LCK (besides myself) was one; of this book, twelve.  Plus I’ve paid a lot more attention to typography, as it trips up some readers.  I changed the text font to Linux Libertine, which looks nice and more importantly supports all the very many Unicode characters I use.  (There may well be some embarrassing errors left, but I’m hoping they’ll be obscure, at least.)

I was kind of dreading the Kindle conversion, as every illustration has to be redone as a GIF, but before I could even finish whining about the process, it was done.  (In more detail: I created the illustrations in Adobe Illustrator, and that’s all that’s needed for the print version.  But Kindle wants JPG or GIF.  I think it used to accept only JPG, so this is an improvement.  Also, it can’t handle embedded fonts, so some bits that used Almean fonts also had to be converted to illustrations.)

As I write, the Kindle version is #7 in the Linguistics category.  Which doesn’t translate into a very high actual number, but it’s still cool.  I’m beating Lakoff & Johnson, man!  (Lakoff can console himself with being #4 as well.)  Also beating Particle Physics, which is presumably about how particles behave when smashed onto the ends of words at near-lightspeed.

I may have a slightly biased viewpoint, but I’m really happy with the book.  It ended up with a focus on morphosyntax, which was covered fairly breezily in the LCK.  It’s a pleasure to cover topics like morphosyntactic alignment, aspect, and polysynthesis in the detail they deserve.  Plus there’s new stuff that I think will interest experienced conlangers, such as predicate calculus, pidgins, ongoing sound change, and Sign.

I showed the proof copy to my parents, and I think it scared them.  But don’t let that stop you!  They think that about quantum mechanics too, and how hard is that?

BTW, in case it’s not obvious, the giant robot is making one of the signs from the book. Also, I think there’s kind of a clever pun in the lower left illo.


So there’s now a co-op mode in TF2.  I was a bit dubious when I first heard about it, because it has a pay-to-play mode which sounds really bogus.  (Seriously, $1 to play a round?  Haven’t faced that since playing Joust in college.)  Fortunately, you can ignore that, and MVM (Mann vs. Machine) is extremely addictive.


In many ways it feels like a new game.  For one thing there’s no PvP: the humans are all on the same side.  Second, you have a six-man squad, which means everyone counts.  Third, there’s a tower defense aspect, as the enemy bots thread their way into your base.  Plus, you get weapons upgrades as you defeat each wave, and you can select which ones, which adds a whole new dimension.

At the same time, you have all the classes and weapons of standard TF2.  One of the clever bits in this mode is that the upgrades are a kind of wet dream for most classes.  Liberty Launcher with clips of 5?  Heavies overhealed to 700?  Ammo counts of 400?  An extra sentry?  Yes!  Of course, you need all the extra firepower, as you’ll be facing some very tough enemies.

In just a few days it appears that a good team can master the basic levels of all the maps.  But the advanced level is still mopping us up.

I’ve only played with friends– the matchmaking and lobby system is very unsatisfactory.  But you can run your own server for free, so that’s the best solution to the lobby problem.

(One meta-oddity… the comic introducing the game mode has a new Mann brother, whose color theme is gray.  And it shows Red and Blue teaming up to fight him.  Only in the actual game, the humans are all red and the robots blue.  I was kind of looking forward to a motley crew of red and blue players facing off against gray robots.)

Koth King

There’s a new TF2 map out, Koth_King, set in the back alleys of a Chinese city.  I explored it a bit alone— it’s really pretty.  I’ve only had one chance to play it, and it’s a hell of a pyro map.

But the important question, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is, What do all the Chinese signs say?  Let’s find out!

Honk if you love Hóngsè

It’s cool that the mapmaker did it right— all the shop signs make sense:

The fact that they translate ‘Reliable Excavation [&] Destruction’ makes me think there’s an equivalent sign ‘Builders League United’, but when I was grabbing screenshots I assumed that the red and blue signs were identical.  (Many are— e.g there are blue signs reading ‘Red Hotel’.)

Skyrim Blues

I see I’ve put 111 hours into Skyrim, and yet I feel like I’ve barely given it a fair chance.  I played it when it came out, but then got caught deeply by Arkham City.  A couple months ago I decided to go back to it.  Just going from point A to point B, I ran into three dragons.  They’re not that hard to beat, but come on, that’s excessive for what are basically random monster encounters.

So I started a new character– Bethesda games are always the most fun on the first 10-15 levels anyway.  I decided to be a beautiful but deadly rogue.

And this is her good side

Well, she turned out more horribly scary.  But that’s not so bad in a thief.  Anyway, I was having a good time, and then Saints Row III came by and sucked up another couple of months.

Anyway, I got back to Skyrim this week and ran into a (beautifully textured) brick wall.  You see, thieves are expected to pickpocket, and I’ve been given a task to pickpocket some bauble from a priestess in Solitude.  And… I can’t do it, she always notices immediately.  Turns out I have a skill of 17 in Pickpocket– oops.  I put my next level perk into Pickpocket, which should give me a 20% success boost, plus I took a potion which should give 40% more.  No go.  I’m pretty sure I can swap the mission out, but not being able to pickpocket puts a damper on the whole questline.  This is just no fun.

Right now I feel that Skyrim is about the most brilliantly executed Epic Fantasy Generator ever– gorgeous, open-ended, deep, gritty– it improves almost everything about Oblivion— and yet it misfires somehow.

Now, in part this is probably just RPG fatigue.   I played a shitload of Oblivion.  I loved Fallout 3; I loved New Vegas much less.  If I’d never played any of these, I think I’d be blown away by Skyrim and be playing it for months.  Plus, as I said, no one does “first ten levels” better than Bethesda.  It can be frustrating being a low-level nobody.  But that’s also what makes it compelling.  You discover this wide new world, and you’re fragile as a mudcrab, and every bit of loot you find is precious.

(And one nice thing about Skyrim is that a new playthrough can be pretty different.  This time, for instance, I completely avoided Whiterun.  Best of all, no Lydia!  My companion up there is Anneke Crag-Jumper, who is just fine about sharing inventory.)

But I think there are a couple of actual problems.

  • A somewhat plodding setting.  Compare it to the post-nuclear wasteland of Fallout 3, the wuxia fantasyland of Jade Empire, the urban vampires of VTM Bloodlines.  Skyrim is an absolutely stunning realization of a typical medieval fantasy.
  • Repetitive quests.  The only questline I’ve entirely completed is the magicians’ college, but the main quest and the thieves’ guild are not spectacularly different.  Typically the next stage of the plot is to fight your way into a cavern and grab the McGuffin.  If you want to take a break from the questline, of course, you can go out, find a cavern, and fight your way into it.
  • A lack of compelling characters.  This is to be expected in a world this open.  But I’m not sure I’ve met any unusual or memorable characters.  It might not be fair to compare to Bioware, which specializes in that, especially as the price seems to be a much more linear plot.  But Bethesda has done better before!  Fallout 3 had some pretty interesting people– Three Dog the radio guy, the blood-drinking emo clan, Dr. Braun.  Oblivion did really well with the Brotherhood questline and the Shivering Isles expansion.  Did they fire the people who did those bits, or what?

There’s always something to do… I could just forget the pickpocketing and try some of the other stuff in my journal.  And maybe I will.  On the other hand, Borderlands 2 is coming out soon…

The King and the Bird

A hat tip to Legion at the ZBB, who pointed out this lovely French animation feature, Le Roi et l’Oiseau, by Paul Grimault, working with Jacques Prévert.  The video has English captions for those who neglected to learn French.

I love full animation, and there’s a lot of good stuff going on here. It’s the sort of animation John K. would approve of: the storytelling is visual, not based on the written word and a bunch of celebrity cameos.  The movement is fluid, the characters are well designed (the king is a great creation– funny and yet completely villainous), and there are some very clever bits: the paintings coming to life; the machines used by the king (I especially liked his elevator, his trapdoors, and the fish-hovercraft used by the police).

There’s an interesting story behind the film as well.  Grimault went over budget and was removed from the project; it was hastily finished and released in 1952, under the title La bergère et le ramoneur (The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep).  Grimault was never satisfied with this, and in 1967 he managed to buy the rights to the film.  He then found financing and remade the film as he wanted it– keeping about 2/3 of the original film, but adding 45 minutes of new animation.  He also replaced the original music with a new score by Wojciech Kilar, and had all the voices redone.

Incatena corporation management now!

You may remember my prediction that by 2100 corporations would be run as democracies rather than monarchies, an idea I also put into the Incatena.  This was partly based on conviction and observation, as well as the experience of a few collectively owned and/or run companies.

But there’s a new poster child for democratic governance of corporation– Valve, as explained and put in context here by its resident economist, Yanis Varoufakis.

Some companies famously allow employees to put a fraction of their time– 10% or 20%– into projects of their own choice.  At Valve, that percentage is 100%.  All employees choose which projects to work on.  And Valve is famously successful.

The immediate advantages are obvious: you’re not stuck in a job or project you hate, so motivation and retention are high. Plus dumb ideas, even if they come from the CEO, are likely to be suppressed.

Now, Valve makes creative stuff, so intuitively this model fits their business.  Still, it’s worth pointing out that most creative-stuff companies, from EA to book publishers to Hollywood, are as hierarchical as any tsardom.  If anything, creative types are more capricious and unresponsive than (say) manufacturers.  Physical things usually come with their own metrics, but who’s going to tell George Lucas that he’s doing storytelling wrong?

The obvious objection is that if your company performs a service, like banking or insurance or flying planes, there’s a lot of scutwork and it wouldn’t get done with the Valve model.  (This is my pet theory, in fact, on why Episode 3 and/or Half-Life 3 hasn’t come out.)  But this isn’t so much of a showstopper as a problem to be solved.  If it even exists: we won’t know if the model fails for banking till someone actually runs a bank this way.

As Varoufakis puts it, the genius of the market is that incentives take care of this problem society-wide.  If not enough people are making veeblefetzers, then there’s an incentive for entrepreneurs to get into that market.  In the Valve model the incentive internally is really employee interest, and fortunately people are interested in different things.  If that alone isn’t enough, there’s always more traditional incentives, like raising pay in the scutwork department.  Or maybe it turns out that you outsource the scutwork to a company that specializes in it (and which itself could be run democratically).

Why haven’t more companies tried this approach?  It can’t be because it doesn’t work or scale, because it hasn’t been tried enough for us to know that.  So I think it’s inertia.  People are just too used to the tycoon, despite a couple hundred years’ experience showing that most tycoons aren’t that smart after all.  (There were brilliant kings, too, but that doesn’t make monarchy a real success.)


Charlie Stross recommended this article on myths of female sexuality (by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, reporting on a study by Terri Conley).  It’s quite interesting, and I’d really like to believe its conclusions, but as mythbusting it’s a bust.  Let’s go over the list.

1. “Women value men with powerful status, and men value women who are both youthful and attractive.”  Against this, Conley cites one speed dating scenario. One experiment.  Probably less than 30 participants; certainly less than a hundred.  Contrary evidence: pretty much all of human behavior.  Or if you want something more quantified, check out these awesome stats from OKCupid, based on a sample of 200,000 people.

2. “Women want and actually have fewer sexual partners. Conley and team reviewing relevant studies found that yes, some men do want a large number of sexual partners.”  That is, the first part of the ‘myth’ (about wanting) wasn’t busted, but confirmed.  The twist is that at least one study found that men exaggerate how many conquests they’ve had.  Surely this shouldn’t be a big surprise.  Mathematically, if men report n het encounters, women should report n as well.  But even this finding reinforces that men and women don’t think the same.

3. “Men think about sex more often than women do.” The busting consists of confirming the finding, but adding that men think about food and sleep more, too.

4. Women orgasm less.  The busting: “When in committed relationships, women and men experience orgasm with equal frequency.”  In other words, the ‘myth’ is true!  If you have a generalization that applies to a whole group, it’s not disproved by showing that the generalization doesn’t hold for a fraction of the group.

5. “Women don’t like casual sex as much as men do.”  The classic demonstration was a rather silly experiment where college students were approached with offers of sex— 70% of men were interested, 0% of women.  I call this silly because it’s a completely unnatural setup— this isn’t how people find partners!  Conley did a variation which found that the women were much more interested “if they believe that they can avoid being stigmatized”.  Again, that’s a pretty important nuance!

6. “Women are choosier than men.”  Conley apparently found that whichever sex initiates contact, the other will be choosier— that is, if men approach women, the women seem pickier; if women approach men, the men seem pickier.  This one is hard to evaluate without knowing the exact methodology; it seems like a no-brainer that any offer has a chance of being rejected, so I don’t see how this is a test of choosiness at all.

Whitbourne frames the story in the context of people showing surprise that women are interested in sex and male bodies.  Surely that hasn’t been hot news since about 1925?  (She mentions that e.g. Hollywood loves to show female but not male bodies, but I don’t think this is due to filmmakers calculating that women aren’t interested; it’s more that they think men will be turned off.)

The takeaway here, I think, is to be careful about evidence— especially for findings that confirm what you already believe.  When you read “Studies show…”, be at least as wary as when you read “with this weird old tip”.  Look at how the study was done, how many people it involved, and whether the methodology really tests the hypothesis.

(Also, yeah, I know, it’s Psychology Today.  That’s why I mention that Stross plugged the link— he’s a smart guy, so it seemed worth checking out.)