Whoa, Swift!

The biggest news that Apple dropped at WWDC 2014 this year is the introduction of the Swift programming language[1].

It’s going to take a while to sort out the syntax and get used to writing in an entirely new language. I’m not quite sure what to think of the change. I’ve been thinking and writing in Objective-C for so long that it’s very comfortable. I don’t despise its square brackets message-passing notation, the way some developers who are new to the platforms do.

I’ve been learning Haskell for a few weeks and writing about it; and I’ll probably do the same for Swift as time permits. It’s hard not to just dive in, though. So hard, in fact, that I rewrote a little admin tool that I previously wrote in Objective-C. I was curious about how the interaction between Cocoa and Swift would go. The tool just scans the Downloads and Desktop directories for any “qfx” files[2] and deletes them.

Here’s the ObjC version:

#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>

int main(int argc, const char * argv[])
@autoreleasepool {

void (^processDirectory)(NSString *,NSFileManager *) = ^(NSString *directory,NSFileManager *fm){
NSDirectoryEnumerator *enumerator = [fm enumeratorAtPath:directory];
NSString *path;
while( path = [enumerator nextObject] ) {
if( [[path pathExtension] isEqualToString:@"qfx"] ) {
NSError *deleteError = nil;
if( ![fm removeItemAtPath:[directory stringByAppendingPathComponent:path] error:&deleteError] )
NSLog(@"ERROR | unable to remove item at path %@. %@",path, deleteError);

NSFileManager *fm = [[NSFileManager alloc] init];
[@[@"Desktop",@"Downloads"] enumerateObjectsUsingBlock:^(id obj, NSUInteger idx, BOOL *stop) {
NSString *directory = [NSHomeDirectory() stringByAppendingPathComponent:obj];

return 0;

and the Swift version:

import Foundation

func processDirectory(directory:String, fm:NSFileManager) {
let contents:NSArray = fm.contentsOfDirectoryAtPath(directory, error: nil)
let predicate:NSPredicate = NSPredicate(format: "pathExtension == 'qfx'")
let qfxFiles = contents.filteredArrayUsingPredicate(predicate)
for object : AnyObject in qfxFiles {
let file = object as NSString
var error: NSError?
if !fm.removeItemAtPath(directory.stringByAppendingPathComponent(file), error: &error) {
println("ERROR | while deleting file: \(error)")

// main
let fm : NSFileManager = NSFileManager()
let directories = ["Desktop","Downloads"]
for dir in directories {
let path : String = NSHomeDirectory().stringByAppendingPathComponent(dir)
processDirectory(path, fm)

  1. Apple Computer. Swift Programming Language. https://developer.apple.com/swift/ Link

  2. qfx files are Quicken files. When I download transactions from financial institutions, these are the files that get deposited everywhere. I don’t like having them sitting around; so I wrote this admin tool to weed them out periodically. It’s set to run as a cron job launch agent.

Practicing for accuracy

Noa Kageyama, a Julliard-trained violinist and performance psychologist, writes a crazy-good blog called “The Bulletproof Musician”. I’ve tons of good tips from his blog; but I just ran across a post about practicing for accuracy.[1] He writes:

“But on some level we are also uneasy. Deep down we hope that it sticks, but we know from experience that it probably won’t. That the nice flow we got into, the level of playing we reached by the 40th repetition is not stable – and it’s probably not going to sound quite so flawless at our lesson or our jury in two weeks.”


“You run things ad nauseum to try to build up your confidence and keep everything “in your fingers,” and convince yourself that you can trust everything to work out ok when the moment comes.”

I’ve been perceiving that lately at the piano with a performance coming up shortly. It’s sense of confidence about my level of ability when I’m actually at the instrument; but as soon as I step away, I have a feeling that it’s going to slip away. It has me constantly sensing that I need to go back to the practice room to verify that I really have it in the fingers.

The solution (or rather, one of the solutions) is to apply variable practice. Instead of practicing at the same tempo or in the same way, one should vary the tempo above and below the performance target. He bases his recommendation on a study of children learning to accurately toss beanbags from a distance. Children who practiced tossing from variable distances were more accurate following a 12 week training period than those who only practiced at the final test target distance.

Cool. Reminds me over-under intervals that I’ve used in training on the bike.

  1. Kageyama, N. A Practice Strategy That Will Help You Play More Accurately When It Counts. Retrieved from http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/a-practice-strategy-that-will-help-you-play-more-accurately-when-it-counts Link

Effective metronome practice

Metronome anxiety

I grew up hating the metronome. The target of my disaffection was an old wooden Seth Thomas metronome that sat atop the upright piano in my parents’ house.

My teachers would urge me to solve problems with tempo, evenness, and velocity with slow metronome-guided practice. I’d give it a few tries and abandon it. During lessons, if the metronome started, I’d seize-up with anxiety. I suspect that metronome axiety is more common than teachers appreciate. A question in a piano practice forum captures the feeling precisely:

“Please advise on the metronome usage. I hate the thing! With the first sound of it I can feel my back and neck muscles tense up. How is one able to listen for the beat, concentrate on the notes, and technique for playing them, all at the same time.” [1]

I think there is a sense of being left behind when the metronome starts. If a passage is difficult, perhaps the fingering will get bungled and the metronome will keep going as if taunting the musician. Impatience is also a factor. We often don’t want to admit that achieving velocity and even execution is difficult and that it takes time. The metronome reveals that plainly to us. Whatever the cause, anxiety about the metronome is probably common. And sadly, unless the player overcomes it, he is robbed of an important tool for improving technique. When I began to play more chamber music 20 years ago, I found that I couldn’t mesh complex parts effectively without learning to play with more refined, even technique. Little by little I learned to live with the metronome and use it more effectively.

Choice of metronome

Personally, I regard the drum machine type metronomes useless for serious practice. Complex, accented rhythms are not what we need for practice. I can’t use the old pyramidal Maelzel metronomes because I constantly suspect their evenness. After several metronomes, I’ve finally found a model that I actually enjoy using, the Intelli IMT301. It’s very intuitive; and there’s no wasted functionality. (I’m not planning on trying to practice against a Bossa Nova rhythm.) This metronome is probably intended for string players; and we also use it for that too. Mostly I like it because it’s loud. I have no difficulty hearing it even when we use it in ensemble rehearsals. One minor critique is that the speaker is on the back. If you place the metronome horizontally on a surface or directly against a music stand, the sound is muffled. At the piano, I place it on the music desk upright but reclined at a slightly more acute angle than the stand so that the speaker isn’t occluded. When practicing the violin, I have it velcro’d to the top of the stand, again, so that the speaker isn’t obstructed.

I don’t like smartphone-based metronomes. None of the ones that I’ve tried have enough volume. Some have obvious issues with user experience. For example, there’s a Steinway metronome app that uses a faux analog rotary dial control to change the tempo setting. Because of the way people hold cell phones, the right thumb is used to move the control. But the thumb reaching across the phone from left to right obscures the tempo reading in the center of the dial.

Metronome practice for velocity

In the first movement of the Beethoven Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 3, there is a moderately difficult fast sixteenth note run that appears three times in two different forms:

beethoven trio

Just ignore the fingering. Even with the best fingering, at the tempo marking “Allegro con brio”, it’s fast. It also doesn’t conform to any particular known scale. It just weaves around the violin and cello parts in an agitated way. There are several places in these passages, where the second finger has to be passed over the thumb with an interval of a third. My target is about 140 to a quarter note; so how should I begin to attack this passage to achieve the desired performance tempo?

First, the choice of fingering has to be worked out before reaching for the metronome. Starting to practice with the metronome before all of the fingering choices have been evaluated will be frustrating and will lead to more metronome anxiety. At a minimum, it’s ineffective. Take time to slowly develop the fingering and write it into the score. Consider the fingering in the context of what comes before and after the passage in question. At this point, the metronome isn’t helpful; this phase is about discovery - finding what fingering works.

After you’ve found the right fingering[2], then you are ready for slow practice. In this case, since my target is 140 to the quarter note, I would start at under 70. If you can play the passage perfectly in a relaxed way with all of the decided-on fingerings, then you can advance the metronome by 5 beats per minute. I keep repeating this process, increasing the tempo at 5 bpm increments. I stop increasing when I feel the first sign of tension in the hand, wrist, or forearm. This is the point where you should dial the metronome back by 10 bpm.

Beginning from 10 bpm below the point where tension first developed, you can slowly increase the tempo by 2-4 beats per minute. You may also begin to experience diminishing returns due to fatigue. If you begin to sense fatigue, it’s best to stop and move on to a less demanding passage or a passage with different technical requirements.

I keep track of how the tempi are progressing so that I can begin each practice session with the right tempo. At the next session, I may start a little faster than 70 bpm and advance in 10 bpm up to the point where tension developed in the last session. From that point on, I will advance more slowly to the tension point, then back off again. In no case do I attempt to push the tempo beyond the point where I can play the passage accurately or the point where muscular tension develops. By practicing intentionally in this way, I can make no wasted effort in attempting to get the passage up to performance tempo and I reduce the likelihood that I’ll injure myself.

Metronome practice for evenness

Of course velocity is not the only concern. We want to be able to play passages at the right tempo and without any unmarked accents. For piano, we’re concerned about dynamic and agogic[3] accents. In other instruments, tonic accents have to be considered. In any case, these accents, if unmarked and unintended impeded the evenness of a passage at whatever tempo the performer can play.

The metronome, of course, can help with this goal also. In an effort to remove unwanted accents, I may start with an even lower metronome mark and progress more slowly, drawing my focus on making smooth transitions, especially finger crossings. With the metronome, we have to be careful though, not to actually introduce a dynamic accent on the beat in an effort to stay synchronized with it. I fight this constantly.

Other metronome tips

  • I like to turn on the feature that accentuates the first beat of each measure. For some reason I feel less of the metronome anxiety when a hear a clear downbeat.
  • There’s a risk of over-practicing while inching up the tempo. Working for too long with the metronome can lead you to practice a spot excessively. I’ve found the clue there is in the diminishing returns from elevating the tempo and in the feeling of tension. I make a commitment with myself to stop at that point.
  • Scales are a good way to gain experience with the metronome.

  1. Tech 5. “metronome hatred” Piano World Forums 27 July, 2012 Link

  2. By “right fingering” I mean the fingering that works for you.

  3. Agogic accents are those that a temporal - delays in onset or offset of a note, for example.

Confidence, introspection and extrospection

I ran across an op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times yesterday. Ordinarily I don’t find myself agreeing with what he writes; but this time I do.

The article[1] is a meta-commentary on a commentary[2] about a new book entitled “The Confidence Code” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. The book itself is a summary of the social science and behavioral economics literature behind the difference in self-confidence between men and women. On average, men tend toward overconfidence and women toward underconfidence. Although there are clearly systematic biases and other barriers that explain the differences between men and women in workplace and academic advancement, there is also evidence that underconfidence among women plays a role.

Equally intriguing was one of Brooks’ reactions. He observed that people are notably bad at estimating their on self-worth. Some value themselves to little, other far too much, relative to their achievements, competence, and other attributes. He notes:

“The self-help books try to boost the “confidence” part of self-confidence, but the real problem is the “self” part.”

He goes on to talk about the philosopher David Hume’s difficulty in pinning down the “self” that he was attempting to observe[3]:

“David Hume noticed that when he tried to enter into what he called his most intimate self, he always stumbled on some particular perception or another. He never could catch himself without a perception of something else, and he never could see himself, only the perception.”

Amida Buddha

This sort of true introspection is difficult because you keep bumping into filters, sensitivities, and defensiveness. When Brooks refers to the fragility of the ethereal ego that we conjure up, I thought of the Buddhist concept of the self. In Buddhist traditions the “self” is an illusory concept; and to fully-understand the nature of non-self[4] is enlightenment. The “self” to a Buddhist is just another impermanent thing. With each breath, the “self” changes; so why should we bother holding onto it? This is important because the idea of a fixed self means that we try to cling to what we are and what we have. The Second Noble Truth tells us that this sort of craving leads to unhappiness.

So what is the solution? If we keep running into our own filters, how can we become more confident? For Brooks, the idea is to focus less on the “self” and focus more on our efficacy in the real world. He writes about two mental stances one can adopt in facing the world. The person with the self-confidence stance approaches the world thinking about how he comes across, whereas the person with an instrumentalist stance asks “What have I done in the real world? At what am I competent?”

I wonder how we can make better use of this in raising confident children. After all, Kay and Shipman noted that the loss of confidence in girls at a pivotal point in their development could put them on the road to lower achievement in adulthood. At a time when kids - early teens especially - begin to search for an identity separate from that of their parents, it seems easy for them to succumb to what psychologists term “impression management.” Instead of looking to form an identity around their effectiveness in the world, many strive to mold themselves to fit their surroundings, becoming acutely focused on appearance, dress, style and other emphemera. Perhaps the most we can hope for is build confidence in our kids by relentlessly helping them develop their talents so they can use them more effectively to fulfill their own needs and the needs of others. And we can help them begin to ask the right questions as they try to know themselves. Questions like “Do I fit in?” or “How do I look?” end up being misdirected because it drives the seeker in directions beyond her control. But questions like “What am I doing?” and “Am I doing it well?” have a focus within specific knowable domains.

As Brooks puts it, we should not say “Believe in yourself.” Rather, we should say: “Look accurately at what you have done.”

  1. Brooks, D. (2014, May 12). The Problem with Confidence. The New York Times Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com Link

  2. Kay, K. and Shipman, C. (2014, April 14). The Confidence Gap. The Atlantic Retrived from http://www.theatlantic.com Link

  3. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.”

  4. This is the anatman (अनात्मन्), the non-self.


As I recently wrote[1], the US Supreme Court recently chose to further weaken the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Although I believe that slippery slope arguments are weak in isolation, the history of erosion of state-church separation in the US over the last 30 years suggests that such arguments are valid. As Katherine Steward wrote[2] yesterday in The New York Times, the strategy of the religious right is becoming clear. Since a full frontal assault is not feasible, they have taken the long view and are chipping away at the wall of separation case-by-case. Some might wonder: “What’s the harm? After all, it’s just a simple prayer. And it happens to coincide with the beliefs of the majority.” And the religious right would never seek to impose a full-scale state religion right? It doesn’t really fit with the narrative about our country that we’ve taught our children. In fact, we’ve tought it for so long, we’ve forgotten the truth.

Religious liberty vs. religious escapism

The US was founded not on the principles of religious liberty but on religious escapism. The Puritans came to the New World because they we dissatisfied with the Reformation of the Church of England. Their American settlement was little more than a separatist religious movement. The laws they established clearly reflected their monolithic religious beliefs. Tolerance was not a virtue of the early settlers. In 1697, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed An Act against Atheism and Blasphemy which stated:

“Be it declared and enacted by the Lieutenant Governor, Council and Representatives, convened in General Assembly, and it is enacted by the Authority of the same, That if any Person shall presume willfully to blaspheme the holy Name of God, Father, Son, or Holy Ghost; either by denying, cursing or reproaching the true God; his Creation or Government of the World: or by denying, cursing, or reproaching the holy Word of God … Every one so offending shall be punished by Imprisonment, not exceeding six Months, and until they find Sureties for the good Behaviors; by sitting in Pillory; by Whipping; boaring thorow the Tongue, with a red hot Iron; or sitting upon the gallows with a Rope about their Neck; at the Discretion of the Court of Assize, and General Goal Delivery, before which the Trial shall be; according to Circumstances, which may aggravate or alleviate the Offence.”

And while Maryland, with its Act Concerning religion, also known as the Maryland Toleration Act, of 1649 permitted freedom of worship for Trinitarian Christrians (Catholics, basically) it still condemned persons who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ or the Trinity to death or loss of property.

The forgotten Enlightenment

In the mid to late 1700’s along came the men we call the “Founders” or “Framers.” Most were religious in some complicated way. Often they were more like Jefferson, Deist and skeptical of organized religions. What they codified in the First Amendment is clear. They intended a wall of separation as Jefferson wrote between religion and government. While the Framers were clear on their intent, the views of the citizenry were hardly uniform. Pockets of theocratic government remained. New York state, in particular, was a hot-bed of religious ferver; and the wall of separation was much more porous than originally intended. In 1811, a man named Ruggles was tried[3] for the crime of blasphemy. In reciting the facts of the case, it was said that:

“The defendant was indicted … in December, 1810, for that he did, on the 2nd day of September, 1810 … wickedly, maliciously, and blasphemously, utter, and with a loud voice publish, in the presence and hearing of divers good and Christian people, of and concerning the Christian religion, and of and concerning Jesus Christ, the false, scandalous, malicious, wicked and blasphemous words following: “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore,” in contempt of the Christian religion. … . The defendant was tried and found guilty, and was sentenced by the court to be imprisoned for three months, and to pay a fine of $500.”

In Ruggles, the chief justice acknowledged that no specific laws prohibited such speech; but that “we are a Christian people and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or whorship of these imposters.” Since there was no such law, he openly decided to use English Common law as his guide. (Which of course is ludicrous in contemporary judisprudence.[4])

That’s all in the past, right?

In 2007 George Kalman, a resident of the state of Pennsylvania attempted to register a film company under the name “I Choose Hell Productions LLC.” His request was denied under a state law[5] barring “words that constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name” in corporate names. Kalman sued[6] in Federal DistrictCourt and won. In the decision, Judge Baylson wrote:

‟All told, the Blasphemy Statute’s plain language, historical context, and the specific sequence of events leading to its passage inevitably lead to the conclusion that, objectively speaking, the statute was introduced and passed into law with a predominantly religious purpose. … Pennsylvania’s Blasphemy Statute, however, unequivocally excludes only one religious perspective but not the other, as it permits speech deemed reverent to religious beliefs, yet excludes speech deemed irreverent to religious beliefs. \“Choosing hell\” may be an irreverent choice for a corporate name, but under the Constitution, this fact alone cannot be the basis for its suppression from the public debate. Consequently, the Blasphemy Statute is \“alien to the tradition of disestablishment of which the First Amendment is only a part." ”

Judicial sleights of hand

Among the many problems with the most recent case[7] are the mental gymnastics one has to go through to understand what’s private speech and what’s government speech. As Ms. Stewart puts it:

“Thus, when the minister appointed by the municipal government of Greece bids “all rise,” the Supreme Court majority tells us, this is not an establishment of religion because the words are not uttered by public officials. And when the town leaders respond with a sign of the cross, that isn’t establishment either, because, just then, public officials are acting as private individuals.”

In other words, according to the majority opinion, there’s no entanglement because public officials - in the course of an official public meeting somehow magically transform back-and-forth between private individuals and public officials. But without any placards or other indications, how are the citizens in attendance to know what utterances are private speech and which are not? Again, in Greece v. Galloway we know that private citizens are required to come before the town council to conduct certain forms of business. They have no choice but to listen to publically-endorsed religious speech. This is clearly entanglement.

A simple solution

Don’t have government-organized prayers at public meetings. Simple.

The Free Exercise Clause guarantees that individuals have the freedom to assemble and worship as they please without undue interference from the government. By all means, take advantage of that. And be satisfied.

  1. Gutting the Establishment Clause, Alan Duncan; 5 May, 2014.

  2. Stewart, K. (2014, May 7). A Big Win for the Prayer Lobby. The New York Times 7 Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com Link

  3. 1811 NY The People v. Ruggles, 8 Johns 545 (Sup Ct N.Y. 1811). For an interesting analysis of The People v. Ruggles, see The Consitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State

  4. Lest any revisionist attempt to use Ruggles to claim that they wall of separation is mythical, take a look at the 1853 Ohio Supreme Court ruling in Bloom v. Cornelius. There the court’s opinion states: “Christianity is a part of the common law of England, but, under the provisions of our constitution, neither Christianity nor any other system of religion is a part of the law of this state.”

  5. Section 1303©(2)(ii) of Title 15 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes. Link

  6. Kalman v. Cortes, 723 F. Supp. 2d 766, 775 (E.D. Pa. 2010) Link

  7. Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway

Gutting the Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause forbids the US government from establishing a state religion. Jefferson made it clear in his correspondence what that clause meant, famously coining of the term “wall of separation” between state and church. Yesterday, in a regrettable decision, the US Supreme Court chose to gut the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The Court ruled[1] that prayers organized by, and delivered at the meetings of, the Town Council of Greece, NY are Constitutionally permissible. Of course, the majority opinion of the Court, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy relied heavily on the earlier Marsh v. Chambers ruling the permitted legislative prayers, seeing such utterances as largely ceremonial.

Although I disagree completely with the assertion in Marsh v. Chambers that legislative prayers are permissible because of their tradition, Justic Kagan in her dissent here makes it clear that there is a clear distinction between the functioning of a legislative body and that of a town council. She writes:

“Greece’s Board indeed has legislative functions, as Congress and state assemblies do—and that means some opening pray­ers are allowed there. But much as in my hypotheticals, the Board’s meetings are also occasions for ordinary citi­ zens to engage with and petition their government, often on highly individualized matters.”

In a well-written, narrative fashion, Justice Kagan paints a clear distinction between prayers offered in the contexts of Nebraska’s unicameral legislature (the site of Marsh v. Chambers) and this case. She points out that in Marsh v Chambers, the payers are directed at the legislators, not at the audience. In Greece, NY v. Galloway, the chaplain stands with his back to the Town Board and directs his prayers at the audience, the citizens of the town.

We inhabit a country founded on the principles of equal rights and protection under the law. Prayers, organized by the government, at government meetings, particularly those that are directed to the citizenry in attendance have no place here. The free exercise of religious practice does not extend to the use of government as a tool to further particular sectarian reach. It is clear that the Town of Greece, NY like many towns across the country that sponsor government prayers convey the message, whether explicit or not, that there are two classes of citizens, those who harbor the same (“correct”) relgious beliefs, and those who don’t. Those who don’t can presumably just go live somewhere else.

  1. Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway

But what about socialization?

Homeschoolers are widely regarded as unsocialized

If I had a dollar for every time I heard the question “What about socialization?” I’d be incredibly wealthy by now.

Long before we made the decision to homeschool ViolinGirl, I asked the same questions. But the closer you are to the homeschool community, the sillier the question becomes.

The question could really be rephrased as:

“I attended ‘regular’ school and I remember that were tons of other kids there. Those kids must have been essential to my education and my social development since I turned out OK. And since they were essential to my development, they’re essential to yours and to your kids’”

I’ll grant the benefit of the doubt to most people who ask this question and assume that they genuinely have ViolinGirl’s best interest at heart. They probably think they are doing us a favor by pointing out the fatal flaw in our plan. “This all sounds good; but did you stop to consider that there won’t be any other kids around?”

Right, we forgot about that part.

I’ll admit that there are times I’d like to refer them to The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List.[1]

But since I rather be polite and more nuanced, what follows is how we really feel about homeschooling vs ‘regular’ schooling on the topic of socialization.

Socialization ≠ socializing

There’s a difference between socialization and socializing. Before you ask about socialization, consider whether that’s what your intending to ask about. Socialization is a process of acculturation. It’s the process by which we learned shared values, ways of communicating with one another, negotiation, and the ability to use communication to live cohesively with others. Socializing is just the process of talking with other people. Socializing is not the only way for children to experience socialization. If I were forced to make a choice (importantly, I’m not) then I’d prefer that the parents be the source of socialization rather than having ViolinGirl muddle through it with her age-similar peers.

Homeschooled kids have peers

Believe it or not, homeschooled children have peers. Outsiders view homeschoolers as quirky, socially-awkward people sitting around the kitchen table from morning to night. Or the equally strange kind that let their kids run around free-range. Neither is typical. While ‘regular’-schoolers are sitting at their desks, homeschoolers are out in the community. They are often with their peers in co-ops, clubs, extracurricular activities, park days, etc. Because homeschooling is so much more efficient that out-of-home schooling, they often have more time to devote to having fun with friends. I’d guess that homeschoolers have more friends and fewer acquaintances. That’s probably OK, given what we know about Dunbar’s number.[2]

The need for solitude

Some kids are energized by lots of socializing. Others are depleted. Out-of-home school offers no good options for children to seek out solitude when they need it. The always-on approach to traditional schooling detracts from positive socialization. I wonder if the kids that are depleted by too much peer contact become avoidant or anxious. We’ve seen evidence of this with ViolinGirl.

Stable adult relationships mean more

There is considerable evidence that kids’ success is mediated more by the stability and quality of their relationships with caring adults than by the number of their age-similar peer relationships. The picture of the rebelious teen may be mostly an artifact of the traditional schooling. When parents and kids lead separate lives, the less competent they become when trying to communicate with one another because they lack a common frame of reference; so they withdraw from one another. Among teens, this withdrawal can happen at a pivotal point in their development. Teens who lack a strong relationship with caring adults are more likely to seek to discover their identity from peers. So perhaps the archetypal withdrawn teen is not a sudden appearance at high school, but an artifact of the gradual withdrawal from family when the overlap in their lives is meager.

Bullying & adverse relationships

Not all peer relationships are positive. I’m certainly no sociologist; but observing children playing together in large groups at schools, I would guess that at least half of the interactions are conflictual. It may be more. The purpose of school is to learn. If negative social interactions affect one’s capacity to learn then the school’s mission is compromised. This is one reason why I regard homeschooling as more efficient. There are fewer negative social interactions to stand in the way of learning.

But aren’t adverse social interactions necessary?

Certainly we can learn from both positive and negative interactions. But perhaps even better is to have a adult safety-net. One author makes the analogy of a performer learning the tightrope act.[3] One wouldn’t make the argument that you shouldn’t have a safety net under the tightrope on the grounds that it doesn’t resemble the “real thing”. In a similar way, perhaps we should be more mindful about the social safety-net that we provide for children. The teacher of a large classroom is simply not capable to consistently serving this role.

Identity development

We’ve become increasingly wary of outsourcing the development of ViolinGirl’s identity. We feel that this is one of the social benefits of homeschooling. A person can only contribute to society insofar as they have a high self-regard. In other words, I can only contribute to the extent that I have something valuable to contribute. The development of an identity, then, is key. If a child has an identity of which she’s proud, then she will have something to bring to society at-large. But out-of-home school is, in essence, outsourcing a major part of the child’s identity-development. We may be regarded as helicopter parents; but I seen no other satisfactory option here: parents simply must jump-start the kid’s development of identity. Who cares whether or not it’s subconsciously fulfilling some latent need of the parents? If it’s done with the best interest of the child in mind, then it’s for the best.

These are among our reasons for not worrying about socialization. If we’re being mindful of attending to all of ViolinGirl’s needs, this is just one of the many things we’ll attend to.

It’s hard to imagine that two really good things: family-centeredness and learning are somehow detrimental in combination.

  1. Markus, D., The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List, Secular Homeschooling, Issue 1, Fall 2007. Link

  2. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar was the first to find a correlation betweeen primate brain size and the average social group size for the species. He estimated that the ideal social group size for humans might only be around 150.

  3. Gathercole, R., The Well-Adjusted Child: The social benefits of homeschooling, p. 113.

Conversation about the necessity of rebirth in Buddhist traditions

The New York Times ran an fascinating interview[1] between Gary Gutting and Professor Jay L. Garfield, Smith College on the requirements of Buddhism.

Drs. Gutting and Garfield touch on the subject of rebirth, part of the cycle of samsara (संसार|संसार). Rebirth is a difficult concept for many Westerners, and for some of the Asian Buddhist traditions. Garfield finds a solution to this difficulty by moving the aspiration of awakening to the entire sangha:

“Just as a stonemason building the ground floor of a medieval cathedral might aspire to its completion even if he knows that he will not personally be around to be involved in its completion, a practitioner who aspires that awakening will be achieved need not believe that she will be around to see it, but only hope that her own conduct and practice will facilitate that.”

So, while I may not achieve awakening, my aspiration of awakening means that through my practice, and the practice of other sentient beings, awakening is possible.

Finally, if you’re unfamiliar with the tenets of Buddhism it’s worthwhile to read what Garfield has to say about the nature of Buddhism as a religion. First, he comments on the difficult that most Westerners have with the Buddhist tolerance of syncretism. All of the Abrahamic religions have strong antisyncretic[2] traditions; whereas Buddhism - in all of its diverse instances - seems relatively happy to coexist alongside other local faith traditions. Then there’s the issue about whether Buddhism is a religion at all. Some Westerners classify Buddhism as a non-religion because it is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic as Gutting puts it. Garfield responds that this classification is: “…a serious ethnocentrism [that] can blind us to important phenomena about non-Abrahamic religions.” I suspect most practitioners of Buddhism would not care one way or other. For them, there a truths about the nature of reality[3], the refuges that relieve the suffering that distort reality[4], and the practices that constitute the path to awakening.

  1. Gutting, G. (2014, April 27). What does Buddhism require? The New York Times, Link

  2. Syncretism is a melding of practices or schools of though. A blending of separate traditions.

  3. These are the 4 Noble Truths (चत्वारि आर्यसत्यानि catvāri āryasatyāni.) 1. There is dukkha ( दुःख “suffering”) in the world. 2. There origin of dukkha is desire. 3. The cessation of dukkha can be achieved., 4. There is a path to the cessation of dukkha.

  4. To be a Buddhist is to take the three refuges - Buddha (बुद्ध), Dharma (धर्म), Sangha (संघ). Or, the Enlightened One (or the Enlightened nature?), the teachings, and the community of practitioners.

What's the trick?

I’ve been ruminating about something my wife, a vascular surgeon, told about a medical student who rotated on her service. He said that he was hoping to “learn some tricks.” I’m not exactly sure what surgical “tricks” are but I assume he was referring to little shortcuts or efficiencies that you gradually learn through practice. This bothered me for a long while for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

Now I think I understand why.

It bothers me because it seems to imply the expectation of unearned knowledge. A desire to advance one’s practical knowledge without actually doing the practical part.

I’m fond of looking for unintended consequences, mainly because they’re overlooked and usually unpredicted. I like finding things that change the fundamentals. This phenomenon is an unintended consequence. I think that what underlies this generational expectation is the culture of convenience and immediacy that has sprung up around the internet and its mobile spawn. “After all, if I can purchase and download a song or book immediately, and I can research any subject without impediment, then the slow process of learning something that you thought was difficult and time consuming is just an artifact of your generation.”

I’ve been struggling recently with an unusually difficult passage in a early work of Beethoven, the Op. 1 No. 3 Piano trio. In the trio section of the third movement there’s a fast descending octave passage. The notes are those of the C major scale; but the run doesn’t start on C, so the fingering is entirely different. It’s unexpectedly difficult for no other reason that it requires you to forget the fingerings that your hands fall into reflexively when playing something that looks like the C major scale, but isn’t at all.

So, what’s the trick?

The trick is that there is no trick.

There are still things to be learned and perfected that are impervious to tricks.[1] You can’t say a magical incantation and make your hands play the notes in perfect synchrony. You can’t cross your eyes and look at the score differently and expect your hands to fly across the keys without stopping to wonder what finger goes where.

The trick is that there isn’t any trick. It’s just accepting that some things can’t be rushed; and that doing is the price of knowing.

  1. And I think that these disciplines, at the far trailing edge of contemporary and distracted culture, are a gold mine for kids. (Only in a metaphorical sense, mind you.) As more kids get more and more distracted by their phones and social media, the ones that are anchored by a patiently earned passion will race ahead of the pack.

From the frontlines of Republican lunacy

Academic freedom has long been a hallmark of U.S. colleges and universities, both public and private. Recently, Republican lawmakers in at least one southern state seem bent on destroying that freedom.[1]

In South Carolina, at the College of Charleston, a public institution of higher learning, students were assigned to read the graphic novel “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel. It’s a book that deals with gay themes. The Republican-controlled state House of Representatives acted swiftly to punish the school by withdrawing $52,000 in funding. The same Republican politicians made a similar move against the University of South Carolina in Spartanburg for assigning a different book with gay themes as part of its reading program.

To make matters worse, Republican lawmakers in South Carolina recently appointed Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell as the next president of the College of Charleston. McConnell, another Republican, is a well-known Civil War reenactor.

Public universities are not the academic arm of religious conservativism. If religious-minded conservatives wish to avoid exposing students to material that involves sexual themes with which they aren’t comfortable, then they should create and staff their own private universities. Of course, some do. Censorship is a bad idea, whether it originates with the Right or the Left. It just so happens that Republicans are more bothered by ideas that they don’t personally endorse.

  1. Helderman, R. (2014, April 22). S.C. college production highlights political battle between lawmakers, public universities. The Washington Post, Link