A Plea to Homeschool Parents: Get a Bit More Tech-Savvy

I like homeschoolers.  I was one of them, grew up around them, and spend a decent amount of time interacting with them now.  I have tremendous respect for homeschool parents.  They have work-ethic, courage, and deep and genuine care for their children’s well-being.  But they leave something to be desired when it comes to digital engagement.  They seem to assume learning Latin is more valuable than navigating today’s tech.

It is in the spirit of respect that I offer this plea to all the good homeschool parents out there: Learn to use technology!

It’s easier than most things you try to impart to your kids because you don’t even have to teach it to them.  They’ll pick it up in no time if they’re around it and allowed to explore it.  But if they never see you use try to or get the most out of it they may fail to realize its power and potential.  If they sense an abiding fear of newfangled things in their parents they might pick it up too.  Here are some ways to get started…

Homeschool dads: If you’re still rocking a pager, give it to your kids.  Let them dismantle it and play with the innards.  Call it science class.  Or history.  Time to upgrade to a smart phone.  Get a protective case so that when your kids drop it you won’t stress too much.  Use it a lot.  Test out some cool new apps to enhance your personal productivity and have fun with some games.  They’ve got chess and Scrabble and other wholesome stuff.  You might bond with your kids when you need them to help you figure out how to use it too. (Oh, while I’m talking to you, you might also reconsider the whole socks with sandals thing.  Your kids will thank me later.)

Homeschool moms: Get your own email address (Gmail please).  Same goes for Facebook.  You and your husband are a well-oiled team, I get it.  But if your online communiques always come from TheRickandDSniderFamily@AncientRegionalISP.com, chances are you’re not getting the most out of the digital world.  And no one knows how to comment on posts from two people combined into a single “Blessings from Deb and Harry Jones” profile on Facebook.  Set yourself up with a few basic accounts, keep your inbox clean, and meaningfully engage the wonderful world of the internet.

Homeschool family budget-setters: Splurge a little on tech.  Your frugality is one of your great qualities.  I’m not telling you to stop buying 50lb boxes of mail-order organic bread with Bible verses on it so the savings can be applied to classes or sports.  That’s good stuff.  But if there’s one area worth spending into the slight discomfort zone, it’s technology.  To connect it to an old school medium you already dig, put it this way: I don’t have a budget for books.  If my kids really want one, we buy it.  You’d probably agree it’s worth it.  I think the latest tech is a close second in this regard.  Upgrade your laptop every few years.  Hand the old ones down to the kids, but make sure somewhere in the house is a pretty new machine.  Get a tablet at least within a generation of the newest.  Upgrade the smartphone before it needs duck tape.

I know it’s hard.  You’re busy making meals and running errands and sewing dresses and milking goats all while trying to convince your neighbors you’re perfectly normal.  But if you can lead by example and show your kids you’ve got an unrelenting spirit of adventure and a curiosity and tenacity to grab the new world by the horns and learn from it, it just might rub off.

Episode 1: Why Am I Doing a Podcast?

I’ve had so much fun listening to and being a guest on podcasts in the last year that I decided to jump head first into the medium and launch my own.  It’s a little scary.  The usual questions and fears and doubts that accompany any creative endeavor exposed to the public come along with it.  It makes me just a little uncomfortable, which is exactly where I want to be.  I’m looking forward to exploring this new medium, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

You can see a Podcast page on this site where the entire playlist will be available.  I’ll also be posting each new episode with notes on the blog under the category “Podcast”.  The show is available on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Stitcher.

I’m Launching a Podcast

There are too many interesting conversations to have with too many interesting people.  A podcast is a great excuse to get some of these people for an hour to discuss a wide range of ideas.  Why not launch one?

Like any new venture, the typical fears and doubts attend my decision to jump into the podcasting world.  What if I’m no good, or people don’t like it, or they don’t notice it at all, etc.  None of that really matters.  I want a new challenge.  I want to push myself a little further.  Most of all, I want to learn.  I’m a verbal processor and talking with interesting people is the best way for me to learn new things.  It’s like fuel to my creative fire.  So I’m jumping in.  Making it public forces me to deliver and puts enough pressure on me to take it seriously and try to get better.

The first episode will go live tomorrow.  Thereafter I’ll release one every Monday.  I have a lot of great conversations and topics already lined up.  If you have ideas send them along.

Why It’s So Hard to Create

Yesterday in a blog post I wrote “LCD” when I meant LSD.  A commenter on Facebook was kind enough to point out the error.  It was a little funny and a little embarrassing, and an illustration of one of the reasons it’s so hard to create stuff.

Typos and errors here and there are no big deal.  But if you’re regularly churning out copy, they start to accumulate.  Not only will people tell you when they dislike your content, they’ll (helpfully) point out mistakes.  Nobody emails you to say, “Hey, there were no typo’s in this paragraph”, or, “Great work getting the commas right.”  It’d be weird if they did.  Still, when you’re on the production side you can begin to feel like all you produce is error.  Why take the risk at all?  If you don’t create anything no one can tell you what’s wrong with your creation.  There is no opportunity to be embarrassed by factual or grammatical error.  There is no chance you’ll offend or be misunderstood, or what is sometimes worse, ignored.

The fact that it’s not perfect exudes a relentless pressure toward not completing or releasing your creations to the world.  Even if you think it’s pretty good, sometimes it has no effect.  Sometimes it gets no traction, doesn’t persuade or enlighten.  Sometimes it has an effect opposite intention.

I’ve responded to this pressure by not creating at times.  The world goes on and nobody seems put out.  Except me.  Humans are creative beings.  We’re not fulfilled if we’re only repeating and consuming.  Production and exchange of goods, services, and ideas are necessary for a full life.

I have to regularly remind myself why I create.  I do it for me.  With or without perfection, with or without an audience, the process and result are necessary for my own well-being.

The Three Places to Get Drugs

I was listening to the Tim Ferriss Podcast yesterday where he interviewed James Fadiman about psychedelics.  Fadiman was talking about LSD and made an offhand remark that caught my ear.  He said LSD, like almost all other drugs, is very hard to get except in three places where it’s abundant.

Schools, universities, and prisons.

There is a lot to consider in this anecdote.  These three institutions have several things in common that distinguish them from others.  They are almost always funded at least in large part through tax dollars.  They are managed at least indirectly by governments, and subject to elected officials and un-elected bureaucrats in their day to day operations.  They are seen by most members of the public as absolute necessities in any civilized society.  Because they’re seen as necessary they get far less scrutiny than institutions seen as optional.

The vast majority of those in these institutions are not there by free and conscious choice.  It may seem extreme to claim this of universities, but if you spend time questioning college students you’ll find that most don’t really know why they’re there and haven’t ever considered another path.  They’re there because the cumulative force of parents, public opinion, and perceived career safety close off all other options.  Even if they have choice, they do not think they have choice.  They are not freely choosing to be there the way someone chooses to attend a baseball game or join a country club.

These institutions tend to place a higher priority on stopping drug use than other institutions in society, yet they get more of it.  Prison is the starkest example (although schools are not far off) with absolute borders and armed agents 24/7.  Still a drug trade cannot be suppressed.  Perhaps when all other forms of individuality and rebellion are suppressed, whatever subversive activity one can get away with will emerge.

There is something delicious about the irony of these institutions being the best sources for banned substances.  There is also something sad.  What it reveals about human nature is at least a little bit inspiring.  A refusal to fully submit, and a desire to find escape, even if only in the mind.  What it reveals about the institutions and society is at least a little depressing.


Praxis is a New Combination

In an interview for This Week in Startups founder and investor Peter Thiel described three kinds of innovation.  The first is a truly breakthrough technology unlike anything seen before.  Bitcoin is an example.  The second is a marginal improvement on an existing technology or process.  The mobile phone market has seen most of its innovation in this manner.  The final category is a brand new combination of existing technologies and processes.  A unique way to coordinate and combine stuff that’s already here to produce an end result that has never existed.  That is precisely what Praxis is.

We’ve taken a host of existing technologies, ideas, resources, and processes to create a truly novel combination.  We’ve combined the age-old process of on-the-job learning with the immense value of abstract principles and self-improvement.  We’ve removed the time and money barriers that prevent people from getting that on-the-job learning until they’ve spent years and many thousands on less valuable stuff.  We’ve combined the power of curated, self-paced online content with intense, real-time interpersonal interaction and engagement.  We’ve combined the notion of a signal of knowledge, skill, and value with the insight gained in face-to-face conversation.  We’ve adapted the old European practice of oral exams in order to assess and validate knowledge.  We’ve made value created the predominant signal of potential to create value with self-driven portfolios.

We’ve broken down the barrier between work and education; learning and doing; playing and building.  We’ve combined talent identification and recruitment and job placement with liberal arts education and business education and professional development.  We’ve combined a network of small businesses and entrepreneurs hungry for talent with a network of young people hungry for experience.  We’ve merged the roles of headhunters, jobs boards, educational institutions, career workshops, philosophy seminars, coaching, and put it all in a self-directed package.  We’ve added self-exploration with the acquisition of valuable skills and knowledge so you don’t have to “find yourself” and then work or study, or vice versa.  You can find yourself while working and studying.

We’ve created an entirely new path from where you are to where you want to be; to the kind of career and life that makes you come alive; to a vibrant mind with big ideas and a work ethic and habits that can execute on them.

It’s all so simple.  All the pieces already exist.  Apprenticeships have been around.  Internships have been around.  Online learning has been around.  Personal coaching and mentoring have been around.  Virtual communities and videoconferencing have been around.  Oral exams have been around.  Job-shadowing has been around.  Skills workshops have been around.  Professional development has been around.  Communities of self-directed learners have been around.  Seminars on entrepreneurship and startup basics have been around.  Growing businesses eager for talent have been around.  Smart, hard-working young people eager for more than just a dull education-to-career conveyor belt have been around.  Praxis is the first to combine these in our own unique, original way.

We’ve built something special.  I wouldn’t have dropped everything and poured my heart and soul into anything less than a huge innovation.  I’m not an inventor or tech wiz.  But anyone with vision and a lot of work can identify a lot of existing stuff and create powerful new combinations.

Join us if you want to be a part of it.

Oil and Assumptions

Not long ago there was a crash involving a train full of crude oil.  It exploded and caused a great deal of damage.  In fact, this has happened multiple times in the last few months.  Of course reporters and pundits call for more and “better” regulation – as if somehow politicians and bureaucrats have stronger incentives to prevent this horrific scene than the owners of the trains, tracks, cargo, and homes near train tracks.

Many of the same people who lament the train explosions are completely opposed to new oil pipelines.  This is a particularly extreme case of status quo bias.  If you described the two methods of transporting oil to any sane person and asked which seems better it’s hard to imagine anyone preferring trains to pipelines.  Yet those who oppose pipelines are apparently more comfortable with millions of gallons of crude being loaded onto giant contraptions that take a mile to stop and run through the middle neighborhoods and cities and busy intersections on decades old rails.  It’s been done as long as they’ve been alive, so it gets a lot less scrutiny than anything new.

Status quo bias is a major obstacle to progress.  We fall prey to it in every area of our lives. (I’ve written about my struggles with it in parenting and educating my kids).  I like to play a game to help me combat status quo bias.  I pretend I’m a visitor from another planet and have no knowledge of earth’s past and present.  I analyze a situation in this frame of mind and think of how to describe what’s going on and the different options at play.  Imagine, for example, an alien observer in a typical college classroom.  They would assume by the looks on the faces in front of them and body language that it was a penal program of some kind.  This might queue us in to how odd it is to spend so much money to put ourselves and our children through classes we are completely disengaged from and don’t enjoy.

It’s a lot of work but it’s also a lot of fun to try a neutral examination of all around us.  When you’re opposed to something new, ask yourself honestly, “compared to what?”  Size it up to the status quo, not your imagined nirvana, and you might find change is welcome.

Things We Do To Our Children

I joined Albert Lu on The Economy Podcast to talk about things we do to our children.  We discussed whether and to what extent a parent can know what’s good for a child and force them to do things for their own good, from sports to music lessons and beyond.  We also discussed the lack of student-directed learning from grade school all the way through college and the problems it creates.

Listen to the episode here.  I’m on first and then author Richard Maybury on the same topic.

Dreams and Human Sacrifice

I once had a powerful mental image of people taking their dreams, represented as newborn babies, to an altar to be burned.  It was horrific and it stuck with me.

Dreams, goals, desires, a sense of purpose and what makes you come alive; these are akin to new life.  When you have a notion of something you are inspired to do or create it’s like being pregnant.  I’ve written before about this analogy.  When you’re pregnant with an idea, you know its birth is inevitable but it still requires you to do things to tend to its growth and development, and finally the birth itself.  When an idea comes to fruition something truly new is introduced to the universe.  New life emerges.  Something that previously existed only as potentiality is now reality and has changed the sum total of opportunity in existence.

Just like in my mental image, it’s too easy to ritualistically slay our own dreams.  Whether the fetus is aborted before it’s ever born or the newborn dream is destroyed shortly after, it has the same soul-deadening effect and is equally tragic.  We come to believe that our dreams are fun playthings, but really a lot of work and mess to take care of, raise, nurture, and watch grow.  They might be more than we’re ready for.  Keeping them is really rather irresponsible.  Who are we to think we can handle these inconvenient things or really tend to a new life?  When we mature, get serious, “grow up”, we realize the silliness of the idea that we could ever birth, raise, and unleash our dreams onto the world.  We have to get real and purge ourselves of all but their memory.

Best not to let them fertilize at all.  Best to prevent the growth of the tiniest seed.  Don’t let it come to term.  If it does, put an end to it quickly, mercifully.

Perhaps this mental image is in bad taste.  In fact, I know it is.  I did not consciously construct it.  It came to me when I was a teenager and it brought me to tears.  It terrified me.  But in that moment I realized how real and important it was.  Just as grisly and awful as the notion of children being sacrificed is the voluntary destruction of dreams.

Don’t give it over.  Don’t laugh at your young idealistic self and boast of growing out of it.  Don’t join the gruesome collective ritual of dream sacrifice.  It is a life, and when a life is lost it is tragic.

A Few Insights on Institutions and Sports

One of the reasons I love sports is the opportunity they provide to see how formal and informal institutions and norms interact to create outcomes, often surprising.  When athletics and economic thinking intersect, I’m a happy man.

An excellent article on Grantland by Brian Phillips got me thinking again about the incentives in college basketball.  Small changes in formal rules and small changes in the informal enforcement of those rules can lead to pretty big consequences.  In the case of college basketball it’s resulted in a far more painful viewing experience.  Watch some of the tournament games this year and you’ll see what I mean.  Basketball is a game of runs and big emotional momentum swings over a series of plays.  Yet instead of fast paced scoring streaks I’ve mostly witnessed a baseball-like process of a play or two followed by long pauses for TV or coaches timeouts or free-throws, followed by another play or two.

There are several possible changes that could improve the experience.  Economists Ed Lopez and Wayne Leighton in their phenomenal book, Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers discuss the origin of the shot clock.  The game was in a similar place.  The best teams were known to get a small lead and then pass the ball for several minutes at a time to run out the clock.  A sensible strategy but a horrible spectator sport.  The introduction of the shot clock dramatically improved the experience.

The shot clock is an example of a new formal rule.  Mike Munger and Russ Roberts talk about not just formal but informal rules and norms in sports in one of my favorite EconTalk episodes.  We tend to assume the order around us, in the world as in sports, is the result of formal rules and enforcement, but more often there is a far more powerful substrate of informal norms and expectations with their own unique enforcement mechanisms.  Fights in hockey, or fake fights in baseball are great examples, as is the social approbation faced by teams who run up the score at the end of an inevitable victory in football, or those who continue to foul the opposing team when trailing by double-digits in the waning seconds of a basketball game.

What I like about the Grantland article is that it touches on formal and informal institutions in its analysis of what’s happening to college basketball.  It’s not only the number of timeouts allowed and the defensive rules (formal), it’s also the way refs choose to call fouls and coaches choose to reign in improvisation by players (informal).  The article went further than this.  It had some profound insight into something even more fundamental than formal and informal institutions.  It touched on the beliefs of fans, players, coaches, officials, and everyone involved.  It’s not only the rules written on paper, or the unwritten rules in our heads that create these outcomes.  The beliefs we have about the game and the rules create the context within which all these institutions must operate.  Beliefs are the ultimate binding constraint on what kind of institutions can exist.

In the case of college basketball, Phillips argues that we all know deep down it’s a professional affair the goal of which is entertainment, yet none of us wants to admit this to ourselves or publicly.  We wrap it in the cloak of character building, preparation for life, team-work, and a lot of old-timey notions about young men getting exercise for their bodies to compliment the mental exercise of a college education.  It’s not that sports don’t do these things or offer no life lessons.  Far from it.  It’s that the primary goal of sports is to make money like any other enterprise, and in our society the great lie we all pretend to believe is that self-interest is inferior to altruism as a motive (even though the beneficial outcomes of self-interested behavior far exceed all the altruism in human history).  We have to keep up the fiction that college athletics is not primarily a moneymaking entertainment enterprise.

Lots to think about on this topic, but I think the insights about the role of our beliefs (and the contradictory nature of our stated vs. revealed preferences) in shaping institutions which shape incentives which result in outcomes is powerful.  For the future of sports and society as a whole.

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