fighting the lack of good ideas

redecentralizing school

I have a very longterm interest in education.

As I look at the current public education “system” in the US, I can see a variety of major problems.

The biggest problem, endemic of any system built around the premise that the only people who should be together all day long should all be “similar”. Somewhere along the way, we decided it would be a Good Ideaâ„¢ to split children into monocultures of more-or-less indentically-aged groups called “grades”, and then batch them into groups of 20-30 and herd them through a variety of subjects every day.

We have lost the concept of learning as exemplified throughout history in the “apprentice” or “disciple” model.

Before the monoculturification of schooling, whole (but small) groups of children were taught together – it’s how my dad’s uncle was taught. From 1st (or K) through 12th all in one room. At any given moment, all ages were either being reminded of earlier work, or hearing about later work, or doing their own work.

This model is still used by the large segment of the population that homeschools (presuming, of course, they have more than one child).

What if we re-adopted this approach to school in the public system? What if, instead of having schools which housed hundreds of students in just a couple grades, we had schools in every neighborhood that had a few dozen students that represent all the grades of the community?

What if schools became “migratory” – in the sense that as the demographics of the community change, the location of the school ‘building’ can shift. Perhaps, for example, in a suburban community the school could be usage of a development community center – but if and when the community has fewer or no children, the school locale could be removed or shifted to a new young demographic area.

Some of the myriad benefits I can envision in such a scenario:

  • reduced overhead for any given school in terms of hiring, maintenance, etc
  • reduced school board / district overhead – elimination of now-unneeded positions
  • increased teacher-to-student engagement
  • lower student-to-teacher ratios
  • increased student retention as they are continually being reminded of old concepts
  • teachers becoming more generalized, rather than [potentially] myopic in their teaching
  • team teaching – cutting across disciplines and seeing an integrated view of the world
  • improved teaching flexibility
  • reduced union strength
  • improved connections between teachers and the community they serve
  • more well-rounded graduates
  • reduced / eliminated busing
  • decreased prevalence of bullying
  • increased likelihood of teachers living near/in the communities they serve

Some of the antibenefits I could envision:

  • loss of school sporting teams
  • forced generalization of teachers
  • more complex IT support infrastructure (if managed by a central authority such as the board or district)

I eagerly anticipate your feedback – what do you think?

the basque history of the world by mark kurlansky

I have long been interested in the Basque people; first introduced to them nearly 13 years ago in an introduction to terrorism class (a year and a half before it was “cool”) with the separatist group ETA.

So it was with great interest I grabbed The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky off the shelf of my local library recently.

Before continuing: wow – Mark’s writing is intensely engaging, wide-sweeping, and both in-line with some of my previous knowledge of the group, and builds and extends that view in new, exciting ways.

Kurlansky has had the opportunity to live in and among the Basque people for years, and brings a great deal of insight from interviews, papers, books, histories, etc that showcase the “Basqueness” of the people in eastern France and northern Spain – aka Basqueland – in contrast to the “Spanishness” of what we think of as modern Spain (and, to a lesser extent, the “Frenchness” of France). For example, it was the Basques who trained the English in whaling, built much of the armada which was damaged so severely in 1588. Basques also largely crewed the exploratory vessels of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan (indeed, the commander who brought Magellan’s mission to a completion after his death was a Basque).

For centuries, Basques have been stereotyped as reclusive, secret-keeping, quiet people. They have been known as smugglers across the France-Spain border, rural, and a nation of people who has never had their own country. For millenia they have lived in the same region of Europe – creating some of what has been frequently credited to others in modern industry: in addition to the aforementioned whaling activities, they also contributed to new steel industry by providing ideal iron ore both to their own factories and to the British blast furnaces in the 1800s which utilized the Bessemer process.

So many anecdotes, triva points, and fascinating facts and stories of the Basque people, region, and history are wrapped in The Basque History of the World, that to do true justice would require reading the book.

Interspersed through the pages are recipes for traditional Basque foods, terms, words, and phrases; having never visited that portion of the world in person, I feel like I have gotten a true taste of the people through this book.

ghosts in the fog by samantha seiple

For much of my life I have been interested in WWII – my grandpa Myers was in the Navy in the Pacific theater on a mine sweeper. My dad read extensively on the war, largely because of his father, and passed along an interest in military history  – the navy in particular – and intriguing stories of battles that rarely get headlines. Everyone knows about Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Guadalcanal, Midway, George Patton, Chester Nimitz, Eisenhower, The Desert Fox, etc etc.

But not many people realize that the Japanese did, in fact, attack American-owned soil beyond just Pearl Harbor: they launched balloon bombs at the Pacific Northwest, there is a large (though never completed) gun emplacement above San Francisco to guard the Golden Gate, the Japanese developed carrier subs to try to attack the Panama Canal, and there was a relatively long naval, ground, and air war around, in, and over the Aleutian Islands in Alaska – wherin the Japanese even occupied American soil for part of the war.

One weather report given during that campaign indicated that all aircraft were to be grounded because the crosswinds were near 100mph – and fog made visibility too low to takeoff, navigate, and land (fwiw, I don’t know how you get fog and 100mph winds – but it happens in the Bering Sea)!

Samantha Seiple’s book Ghosts in the Fog spends a little under 200 pages addressing the history of that story in a readily-accessible format (aimed dominantly at the pre-teen/teen market). Characterized by an approachable and engaging series of narratives, it well describes this second ‘forgotten war’ in American history (some would say that the Spanish-American War was the first, and that the Korean War (third on my list) was “The Forgotten War” – but this aspect of WWII is certainly not well-enough known). Covering a spectrum of intelligence, operations, and geographical data, Ms Seiple gives a solid showing in this work.

The Japanese first bombed Dutch Harbor – more commonly-known in current pop culture as the base from which crabbing boats operate on Discovery’s Deadliest Catch – which surprised the theater commander who believed that cryptographic intercepts supplied to him were intentionally-false messages on the part of the Japanese trying to lure him away from their real destination. Unfortunately for Admiral Theobald, and the natives and soldiers who called that part of the world home, the intelligence provided which indicated the Japanese were aiming at Dutch Harbor was correct – and he was hundreds of miles east and south of the region when they struck.

I hope more people become aware of this ‘forgotten’ aspect of World War II, as the lives of the airmen, sailors, and soldiers who fought and died (on both sides) should be remembered.

1421 by gavin menzies

I enjoy histories – especially when delivered in the format that Gavin Menzies employed in “1421 – The Year China Discovered America”.

The only other history I have read in the past 5 years I can recall reading so fast was Gideon’s Spies.

Gavin makes a compelling presentation, interpretation, application, and conclusion of a host of evidence that seems to indicate that the title is what really happened ~600 years ago, and that it was due to a freak storm and fire in The Forbidden City that the records of the great expedition were destroyed by the emperor’s counterparts in society, the mandarins.

Mr Menzies spent his career as a submariner in the British Navy – a fact which comes up several times during the book, and helps to explain many of the connections he was able to draw when reviewing the historical maps, journals, reports, etc.

1421 is a veritable cornucopia of names and places – European and Chinese explorers, exotic locales (many of which are referenced by the names the various countries used for them), foreign potentates, trade routes, etc. It might behoove one to keep notes when reading this book – or at the very least get used to flipping back and forth to keep track of everyone’s names 🙂

When I bought 1421, I also bought Mr Menzies’ second book, “1434 – The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance”. I can’t wait to read that one to see where his research has led.

  • Quality of writing: 5/5
  • Quality of content: at least 4/5
  • Entertainment value: 4/5
  • Plausibility: 5/5
  • Historicity: likely 5/5
  • Overall: 4.5/5


producing your own power by many

Rodale Press published a collected works book entitled “Producing Your Own Power – How to make Nature’s Energy Sources Work for You” in 1974.

There are a host of now-humorous segments of the text:

The US government estimates that by 1980 1 percent of our country’s land will be covered with utility companies’ equipment” {viii}. The contiguous US takes up approximately 1.9 billion acres of land. Do utility companies use 19 million acres? That claim is completely preposterous.

If all mineable fossil resources were made available to us, we would still have energy problems. In a few centuries these would also be exhausted” {ix}. Does the author (Carol Hupping Stoner) of the introduction really believe that in the next few centuries we won’t develop better technologies like we have been for the past thousands of years?

The average six-room, older house probably costs about $400 to $500 per winter to heat” {282}. Based on current heating and cooling costs, how could anyone have afforded to heat their homes 35 years ago? $500 per winter is half what people I know in NY plan to spend every winter now – with a median income of about $60k; 20 years ago, the median was just above $30k ( shows slightly different numbers). So 35 years ago folks were spending >5% of their annual income on heating for the winter? That doesn’t grok well.

Other similar claims are made throughout the book with no direct referential backing – merely stating something that the author of that segment wants you to believe. They may have been true. Or not – without references there is no way of knowing where the data came from in the first place. There is a bibliography, but it is only tagged for each segment – there are not direct footnotes/references in the text itself to the original sources.

From having reread this book recently, I think it’s safe to say that the best part of the book is section 3 – Wood Power {pp103-135}. While many improvements have been made in the intervening decades with wood stoves and fireplaces, the information in this chapter on those two heating techniques is still – overall – solid (one of the recommended designs for a fireplace has a tendency to put an unusual amount of smoke into the room if the fire is not kept roaring-hot, but that’s a discussion for another day). Starting on p127 and continuing for 9 pages to p135 is a good discussion on woodlot management, windbreaks, and calculating wood needs for heating purposes.

Personally, I’d alter the suggested woodlot and windbreak designs to include food-producing trees and shrubs in addition to “merely” windbreaking and fuel-producing varieties. If you have the land to grow it – the overriding presumption of most of this book is that you have land – why not make use of the decorative and functional aspects of, say, apple trees? They can provide some privacy, act as a windbreak, and also supply food: just about can’t beat that three-for-one deal!

  • Quality of writing: 2.5/5
  • Quality of content:  2/5
  • Readability: 4/5
  • Overall: 2.5/5

ip addresses for sale

Microsoft is trying to buy ~650k IPv4 addresses from in-bankruptcy-proceedings Nortel (for $7.5m).

What gets me is that IPv6 has been a standard for over a decade, and yet so few have moved to it. Way back when I was in college the first time – in 2000 – our networking professor told us we should move to IPv6 as soon as feasible. Somehow I don’t think 11 years meets that urging.

gideon’s spies by gordon thomas

Gideon’s Spies by Gordon Thomas claims to be “the secret history of the Mossad”.

From the myriad reviews on Amazon, I didn’t know whether to be expecting a massive work of historical fiction, or a insightful tour de force. After having nearly finished it, I don’t know if I have an opinion of whether it’s “inciteful” or “insightful”. Of course, this is supposed to be detailing backroom dealings, secretive organizations, and national intelligence operations: so there is likely a fair amount of ego building and some fanciful manufacturisms along the way.

It is written in a conversational, informative tone and is eminently readable. The “structure” reminds me of how some of the best professors I had in college spoke – the stories didn’t seem to happen in any particular order or for a reason, but by the end you can see how they all interlink to give the picture.

Several of the items in the book I can informally verify to be true having spoken to other first-hand sources on some of the topics. Whether the entire book is “true” or not, it is certainly worth reading for at least the perspective of Mr Thomas, and the sources he has interviewed.

As with any other claimed exposé, much of what is said needs to be taken with grains boulders of salt, but it is very well written overall. It starts with an account of folks surrounding Lady Diana’s death – Mossad agents, MI5, MI6, Dodi Fayed, etc etc. What this has to do with the rest of the book… I don’t know, but it was still an interesting take. Some would say this is to support conspiracy theorists and their beliefs that intelligence agencies are all-powerful, and that they will actively withhold information that could benefit their allies just because of personality clashes. Personally, while I think some of that happens, it can’t really be as wide-spread as some would claim, or some countries would have been removed from the gene pool.

My biggest complaint is that for a professional journalist, Mr Thomas CANNOT use the phrase “try to” properly – almost invariably he says “try and” instead! GAAAHHH!!

Should you read the book? I think it’s worthwhile, even if it turns out to be 90% fiction. If you approach it as a book in the strain of the Jack Ryan universe created by Tom Clancy, and it turns out to be true – cool. And if not, you at the very least had an entertaining time.

  • Quality of writing: 4/5
  • Quality of content: unknown, but I’d guess at least 3/5
  • Entertainment value: 4/5
  • Historicity: unknown, but between 2/5 and 4/5
  • Overall: 3/5