NYT on homeschooling

Homeschooler at work

The New York Times, in an embarrassingly unbalanced piece, portrays homeschoolers as unqualified, negligent religious zealots. Their lead vignette is blatantly snobbish:

“In a modest two-bedroom duplex in this town along the Allegheny River, 10-year-old Elijah sat on the floor in the living room on a recent afternoon. He paged through a workbook that Ms. Wiles had bought the day before at a Sam’s Club store, and went through a few questions about birds.”

For counterbalance: “Why Homeschoolers are Winning”.

Something completely different

Hiragana chart

After reading everything I can find about tsukemono (漬物), I’ve become fascinated by the Japanese language. Since I don’t have enough else to do, I’m going to finally take the plunge and commit to learning it.

It’s a fascinating language because the written form is a hodge-podge of three different orthographic systems. It seems that most people start with the hirangana (ひらがな) which is a syllabary with each symbol representing a complete syllable. This is the writing system used for most native Japanese words. The next system to learn are the katakana (カタカナ) which is also a syllabary system. Whereas the hiragana are used for native words that have no kanji equivalent, the katakana are used to spell non-native, loaned words, scientific words and so forth.

Finally there are the kanji (漢字) which are Chinese characters that have been adopted into the Japanese language. Several thousand of these are in common use. There are about one thousand such characters that kids learn in elementary school. These are called the kyōiku kanji (教育漢字) which means “education kanji”. I’ve started playing around with a web-based resource called TextFugu that uses a different system for teaching the kanji, relying on logical groupings, mnemonics and so forth.

I’ve discovered serveral resources early in my learning:

  • TextFugu is a web-based textbook of Japanese. It is wordy; but enjoyable. The first chapter, an introduction and beginning the hiragana (ひらがな) is free. After that, the site works on a subscription basis with monthly and lifetime options.

  • Hiragana chart is the grid of all of the hiragana.

  • Hiragana stroke chart. This is a printable chart showing the order of the strokes that comprise the hiragana.

  • Katakana chart is a printable pdf of the katakana laid out in the grid that TextFugu uses.

  • Learn Japanese is another internet-based textbook of Japanese. Like TextFugu, it has many videos and audio embedded in the text.

  • Anki is a flashcard program that works on the basis of spaced repetition[1]. I’ve used it for many years to memorize other material. But since the word for memorization in Japanese is “anki” (暗記 or あんき) I decided it would be perfect for this task.

  1. Spaced repetition is an interesting technique for memorizing material. Cognitive scientists first noted that manipulating the timing of repetitions improved recall back in the 1930’s. In the 1970’s Leitner devised a method of using flashcards distributed into sequential piles to implement spaced repetition. But practical use of spaced repetition did not become more widespread until the advent and general availability of the personal computer.

Making nukazuke

Toasting rice bran for nukadoko

Since first trying tsukemono (漬物) nearly 20 years ago, I’ve been infatuated with Japanese pickles. In the U.S., we’re accustomed to a very limited range of pickles - usually cucumbers pickled in a vinegar solution with or without dill. Not so in Japanese cuisine where the variety of pickling techniques is amazing.

One of the most intriguing varieties of tsukemono are the nukazuke (糠漬け) which are vegetables that are preserved by burying them in a bed of fermented rice bran (糠). The resultant pickles are crisp, salty and tangy; but the process of preparing the nukadoko or nukamiso (ぬかみそ | 糠味噌) is not easy. I started my own nuka bed 4 weeks ago and it is just now starting to develop the complex character of a mature nukamiso.

The base of the bed is made of rice bran that is toasted over a medium flame in small batches with constant stirring to prevent scorching. You must stir it quickly and very vigorously as the color deepens. The goal is to toast it until it becomes a few shades darker. I used Bob’s Red Mill stabilized rice bran. I’m not sure what effect “stabilization” has on the product; but everything seems to be working. After completing the toasting of the entire bag in small batches, I carefully weighed the toasted bran. You need to get the exact weight because the amount of salt must be adjusted according to a strict proportion.

I added Korean sea salt, the sort that I use for kimchi. If the ambient temperature is cooler, you can get by with about 13% salt or less. Warmer climates need about 15% salt by weight. I split the difference and adjusted the salt to 14%. The salt must use no additives such as iodine. Sea salt is best.

Next, I dried the peel of two apples and one very ripe persimmon. I used a food dehydrator to accelerate the process. I added the dried peels and several pieces of dried kombu (昆布) to the toasted nuka and added just enough distilled water to make a slightly pasty mash. The amount of water is hard to specify; but it needs to be like wet sand. Under no circumstances should it pool in the bottom of the container. Finally, you must add starter vegetables to the mix. They stay in for a day, then are removed and discarded. The idea is to see the bed with the bacterial flora that it needs. Ideally, these are species of the genus Lactobacillus but I’m told that under certain circumstances - too little salt, too much water, too much warmth, too little airflow - that yeast can become prominent. This upsets the balance of microbial flora and can set up alcoholic fermentation. Of course, this is undesirable. By restoring some of the ideal factors, you can apparently reset the microbial balance; but who really knows?

Speaking of containers, I used shallow glass square container; but it is not ideal. Traditionally, wooden fermentation vessels would be used. Almost anything works. Most importantly, there has to be some airflow. I cover it only with a dish towel. It must be mixed with clean hands every day forever. I’m told you came get by with putting it in the refrigerator for a week or so if you’re away.

It took a little over two weeks to discern that anything was going on. The bed begins to take on a nutty, sweet aromatic smell about then; and the color begins to darken still more. Between three and four weeks, I added a little more toasted nuka to supply fresh unfermented material to the mix, to increase its volume somewhat and to dilute the salt somewhat based on my early tasting. After the bed matures about 4-6 weeks, it is ready to start pickling. Most vegetables can sit covered in the nuka for anywhere from a few hours to a day or so.

Do not question the algorithm

Uber, the creepy[1] ride service company, wants us to just accept “The Algorithm.”

During a recent hostage situation in Sydney, Uber increased its rates according to a “surge pricing” algorithm. When the inevitable backlash occurred, the company attempted to excuse itself by claiming that the price changes are algorithmic and that the company wasn’t engaging in a deliberate attempt to take advantage of a crisis. The former, of course, is a ridiculous claim because (to paraphrase Dr. Paul Batalden): “Every algorithm is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”[2] If the algorithm fails to account for crisis situations, its designers either failed to consider that crises might occur, or they did consider it but are hiding behind “The Algorithm.”

The real problem here is both insidious and pervasive in our internet-solutionist culture. Internet companies like Uber, Google, and Facebook expect us to accept that their unseen algorithms are inherently fair and just. Their pleas that we should learn to love their algorithms are attempts to endow them with properties they simply do not have. Algorithms are not naturally-occurring phenomena whose properties and behaviors are waiting to be discovered and accepted. They are designed by companies in an effort to advance their own interests.

Reminds me of Evegeny Morozov’s thesis in “To Save Everything Click Here”.

  1. Why “creepy”? As The Telegraph points out, it’s not the NSA spying you need to worry about. It’s companies like Uber whose executives threaten journalists who dare to write a critical article.

  2. The original quote was: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

Not taking sides

Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose

The headline on the New York Times reads: “Obama avoids taking sides on effectiveness of CIA techniques.”[1]

Seriously, you can’t take sides on torture? If you can’t say something definitive about the abhorrent use of torture by the CIA and their operatives, then you shouldn’t be in charge of a nation that sees itself as just and compassionate.

This is not difficult. We have no right to complain about human rights violations in other countries when we are an unrepentent violator.

  1. Baker, P. (2014, December 10). Obama Avoids Taking Sides on Effectiveness of C.I.A. Techniques. The New York Times. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/11/us/politics/obama-effectiveness-cia-torture.html [Link](Baker, P. (2014, December 10). Obama Avoids Taking Sides on Effectiveness of C.I.A. Techniques. The New York Times. Retrieved December 10, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/11/us/politics/obama-effectiveness-cia-torture.html)

On becoming a superstar

I recently stumbled on an intriguing book entitled: “How to be a high school superstar: A revolutionary plan to get into college by standing out (without burning out)” by Cal Newport. As a homeschool parent, I find that I think about how to equip my daughter to “sell herself” more effectively to admissions committees earlier than I would if I didn’t. After all, we have no one else to rely on; our family is almost entirely of our own making.

The thesis is simple. Most high school students attempt to stand out by competing on quantity and in the process they either burn themselves out or they lose sight of the very attributes that would make them more appealing to admission committees. Or sometimes they get lucky and win at the numbers game.

The most successful kids are those who are, in a word, interesting. Any reasonably endowed kid can load up his schedule with AP classes, sign up for a bunch of clubs, reluctantly volunteer at Habitat for Humanity, and half-heartedly play the clarinet in the band. But if you’re playing the numbers game with this, you’re already at a disadvantage because that what everyone else is doing. And what do you say when the interviewers asks you about any of these activities? If you’re only half-engaged, then the child ends up giving a rehearsed boring answer to the question.

This book takes a contrarian approach - which to a contrarian like me always sounds appealing. Instead of trying to win on quantity, Newport urges kids to compete on “interestingness”. When I was a more active Flickr user, there was an “Interestingness” score that the service assigned to photographs. Maybe it’s still the same. No one ever knew exactly what made one photograph more interesting than any other; but there was a certain “je ne sais quoi” about images that achieved that status. Maybe kids are like Flickr images and admission committees are looking for capable kids with a quality of interestingness.

Newport encourages kids to follow three laws of being what he describes as a “relaxed superstar”:

  • The law of underscheduling. Give yourself plenty of time to explore things that are interesting to you. (Remember when people had hobbies?)

  • The law of focus. Be the master of one area of interest. Don’t cover the waterfront with activities that fail to tell a coherent story about who you are. I always think about good ideas as being those that you can describe in a 15 second elevator pitch. Maybe the best kids are that way. Unrelated activities don’t add up to anything coherent. I wrote about this not long ago[1].

  • The law of innovation. Newport describes this law as the pursuit of “accomplishments that are hard to explain [but] not hard to do.” For me, this was the hardest bit to understand and agree with because there are so many worthwhile pursuits that kids can follow that aren’t necessarily innovative. Perhaps one way that students can be innovative without necessarily abandoning their passion is to find an innovative “angle” on their pursuit. If you are a musician, for example, how can you find something unique to do with music that complements your interest?

This is an area where homeschool parents may have an advantage. It’s easier to have unscheduled time when the entire schedule is up for discussion.

  1. Duncan, A. “Hoping something sticks”, October 9, 2014. Link

Seeing the forest and the trees

One of the joys and trials of Suzuki parents is helping our children attend to the myriad details that turn technique into beautiful music. Immersing yourselves in the details of their instrument, you begin to appreciate the massive complexity that talent education breaks down into logical progressive steps. As with muscles that develop strength through repeated use, our patience develops through repeated trials and the realization that “the art is long.” It is no wonder that sometimes we are attending so carefully to the repertoire, the technique, finding the helpful ways to practice together that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Dr. Suzuki imagined a world where music could bridge cultural gaps by helping acquire the common language of music while developing strength and excellence of character. In educational paralance, this is the “hidden curriculum” of the Suzuki method. Without calling them out by name, our children acquire a set of competencies that will make them more perseverant, resilient and compassionate adults. Yet there is still another curriculum that we must attend to - the culture of music. Suzuki’s brilliant insight was that language is largely learned through listening, modeling, repetition, and feedback. This language that our children are learning doesn’t exist in a vacuum; rather, it is part of a culture. Frantz Fanon wrote that: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.”[1] Just as we bring intention and purpose to the development of technique, Suzuki parents should look diligently for ways they can introduce their children to the amazing culture of music.

Classical music in peril

That classical music is imperiled is no secret. Mark Vanhoenacker, writing for Slate, declared that: “Classical music in America is dead.”[2] Recent years have witnessed major disputes between orchestra players and management, owing in large part to the economic realities of dwindling audiences. Many young people (perhaps even Suzuki students) have never attended a professional classical music concert. Scanning the audiences at concerts, one sees an astonishing lack of age diversity. In a study commissioned over ten years ago by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, only 13% of survey respondents had attended a classical music concert in the previous year.[3] If the study were repeated today, the data would undoubtedly look more dire. Music sales data and the number of classical radio stations all tell a similar story. Classical music, which has always appealed to a relatively small niche in the United States, is threatened by mounting social and economic factors. Music may be a language; but language cannot survive without culture.

Tips for parents

Parents need not be musicians themselves to introduce their children to the culture of music. Adults who are curious about the world naturally convey their sense of interest to their children. So, be curious about the music your children are playing (and more.) “I wonder what period of music this piece is from?” “What’s special about that period of music?” “Are there any performances of this piece on YouTube?” Children, by and large, don’t expect grown-ups to have all of the answers; so parents needn’t feel they must know everything about music to cultivate the culture of classical music in their children. Instilling a curiosity and a practice of jointly exploring this amazing world of music is all it takes.

The games that we play with children in practice can be extended in all sorts of ways to explore musical culture. Parents can play “Name the composer” with their children. Find a recording or video of a piece by a famous composer and try to guess. My sister and I played this game when we were young.

I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing and hearing live music. Almost every community has a diversity of classical music venues to choose from. Although the Suzuki method stresses listening as a major modality for learning music, attending concerts serves two major purposes other than listening. It connects the visual with the audible. Some have compared attending a classical concert to watching a masterpiece being painted on stage in real-time. Finally, it can inspire children to see adults who have mastered their instruments and fellow audience members who also enjoy great music.

Read about the composers, for their lives are quite fascinating. Many led difficult lives; and this can inspire kids to be grateful for the fine music we have. Try to situate the composers and periods of music on a timeline with familiar places and events. This helps anchor music as a real integral part of history, not just something that happened “out there.”


The work and joy of Suzuki parents is found in instilling both the language and culture of music in our children. It means taking an expansive view of what we’re trying to accomplish. We “zoom in” on technique and individual mastery and “zoom out” to focus on the culture of classical music. By helping children situate themselves in a culture that stretches into the past and future, they can begin to see themselves as the recipients of a rich and vital heritage. They can see the trees and the forest.

  1. Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Mask

  2. Mark Vanhoenacker, “Requiem: Classical music in America is dead”, Slate, January 21, 2014, accessed November 27, 2014. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/01/classical_music_sales_decline_is_classical_on_death_s_door.html

  3. John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 2002. Classical Music Consumer Segmentation Study 2002: National Survey [computer file]. Southport, CT: Audience Insight LLC [producer]. Princeton, NJ: Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive [distributor]. Link

Hoping something sticks

Expertise through long-term committment

Raising kids has become a topic of obsession American parents. There seems to be no shortage of advice to be had, much of it conflicting.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. A generation or two ago, kids followed a predictable route of development that followed that of their parents and their grandparents before them. In essence, parents could say to their children: “Just watch what I do; and you’ll become what you will be.” But the post-WWII prosperity and the cultural shifts that followed brought significant upward and lateral mobility. A side-effect of mobility is that it breaks down the formulaic approach to raising kids. If I can be anything I want, then why not actually try? But this often leaves parents with a limited ability to prepare their children for their idealized future.

The fragile economic conditions also weigh heavily on parents. Since the future is so uncertain and parents’ ability to prepare their kids for a livelihood that is dissimilar to their own is lacking, many parents respond by exposing their kids to countless activities. Throwing things at the wall hoping that something sticks. Of course, this leads to burnout and frustration among parents and an unnecessarily harried life for their kids. But more importantly, this isn’t how expertise develops.

Expertise unfolds through long-term committment to a discipline. Trying many activities in hopes of finding one that resonates with a child seems logical, but it turns out to be a particularly bad way to develop real expertise in kids. Interest develops through depth more than breadth. If we skim along the surface of the ocean at high speed, it looks like a boring, desolate place. But if we slow down and dive beneath the surface, the richness of its diversity springs into view. I don’t discount that kids have differentiated interests that result from unique ways in which they’re wired. And parents have to be mindful of unique characteristics of their kids when they select activities. But there’s both a lesson and a meta-lesson to be had by focusing on a smaller range of activities.

The lesson, of course, is the acquisition of a talent or ability that has depth. Kids that have dived beneath the surface are easy to spot. They’re the ones who are in the front, winning competitions. They’re involved. The meta-lesson is about pushing through difficulties, deferring gratification, and respecting commitments. Both are priceless.

Things don’t stick to walls because of some unknown forces. They stick because someone made them stick. That’s what parents do.

Betrayed by language

Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"

The media has widely reported that the Secret Service recently allowed an armed, deranged person to jump over the White House fence and enter the mansion. The agency director, Julia Pierson, quickly disintegrated in the wake of bipartisan pressure to resign.

I don’t know Ms. Pierson. She may have performed well in prior posts. Perhaps not.

But her use of language during her testimony to Congress betrays her as a bureaucrat more concerned with management than leadership. Consider her response to an inquiry about agency staffing:

“I do know we have provided a human capital strategy to Congress at their request.”

No leader who is concerned with the actual effectiveness of her organization in the real world would resort to deliberately obscure terminology in this fashion. A better response would be clearer and more direct. Perhaps:

“We provided Congress with a staffing plan at their request.”


“We submitted a report to Congress on how we plan to staff the agency.”

Finally, a leader does not lapse into passive voice in matters as serious as this. Ms. Pierson testified that:

“It is obvious that mistakes were made.”

Who made mistakes? What was the nature of there errors? How about:

“We failed to respond to a serious threat to the President.”

The passive voice points a detachment from responsibility and a failure of leadership.