Several months ago I impulsively stopped at an estate sale I happened to be driving past. Among the books I rescued was REINHOLD NIEBUHR: A BIOGRAPHY by Richard Wrightman Fox. The name rung a bell, but faintly. Despite attending Christian schools for three-quarters of my educational career, America’s pre-eminent 20th century preacher and theologian had escaped me. As is my custom, I embraced my ignorance and chose to enjoy the book spoiler-free.
Aside: I confess it’s been a while since I read a book this size. It’s actually quite irritating to physically hold the thing for any length of time, to be beholden to an external light source, to forego the easy digital access of Kindle and iPhone and iPad. Anyway, I labored through it, asking myself more than once: who even reads this stuff? Judging by the $0.01 price tag on Amazon, I suspect I am in rare company indeed.
How many books will you read in your life? 1,000? 100? Should a dry recapitulation of a man you’ve never heard of make the cut? It’s certainly hard to argue it should. And yet, every biography has at least one redeeming characteristic in common. A man’s life compressed into the span of a few hours is a fearful thing. To watch a person live and strive and grow old and die in a week is, well, utterly disquieting.
Niebuhr was a giant, a restless, inconsistent, grasping giant. The gospel he preached as a young man bears almost no resemblance to the message of his later years. He was not unintelligent. He worked harder, certainly, than any man I’ve ever known personally. Yet in the end… in the end I almost pitied him. His body fell apart, his mind betrayed him. He began to be forgotten even before he died. Today, he may as well not have existed.
I say almost, however, for Niebuhr’s life was exquisitely Eccliastical. Mighty exertions, mixed results, ultimate accountability to God alone.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever … All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
We’ve spent the last two years homeschooling (or maybe unschooling) our oldest daughter. During that time, we’ve had a philosophy but not, strictly speaking, a curriculum. We’ve poked and prodded various resources (Common Core, Home Learning Year by Year), but I wanted to stay as far away from a traditional curriculum as possible. After all, what’s the point of schooling at home if you just do the same things you would be doing at school anyway?
Before we began teaching Abby at home, I outlined a few principles I believed should guide whatever methodology and material we chose:
In summary, schooling ought to emphasize the acquisition of fundamental tools and the joy of learning. While it may sometimes be difficult, it should not be onerous. Resources are plentiful and often cheap or free. Tracking progress allows the student and the instructor to be confident their time has been well spent.
This list has served us well. I might make a few modifications, but, generally speaking, the experience of teaching kindergarten and first grade concepts has only reinforced my belief that teaching a child does not require a advanced education or training.
Abby is at grade-level (at least) in reading, writing, and arithmetic. She’s been able to spend her time as she sees fit. We discuss anything and everything. We pull in resources on an as-needed basis. We’ve played games, borrowed books from the library, watched documentaries and YouTube videos on dozens of subjects (we love The Kid Should See This), dug into educational iPad apps (my favorite iPad apps and other resources for homeschoolers), watched more PBS Kids content than you would believe possible, read books together, built things, drew things, cooked things, observed things, and generally blurred the line as much as possible between parenting and teaching.
Truthfully, this approach has not been entirely by design. Having younger children around makes the traditional stationary, repetitive classroom experience a bit difficult to pull off. Combine that with my skepticism around finding a perfect curriculum and you get a family closer to unschooling than homeschooling. While this free-form approach appeals to me, I have to confess that a) I’m not our children’s primary educator and b) it does leave a little something to be desired in terms of rigor. Unless I happened across the perfect curriculum, however, I wasn’t just going to abandon my ideas about what at-home education should look like.
And then I saw The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. Oh, what’s that? I think it might just be the perfect curriculum.
The Wise/Bauer homeschooling approach (the book is co-written by Susan and her mom, Jessie) introduces several components that were not on my list but immmediately appealed to me and confirmed many deep-seated convictions. First, schooling is broken up into three distinct stages—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric—each encompassing four years. Each stage logically builds on the previous stage and provides a structure to guide the entire schooling experience. Students acquire fundamentals in the grammar stage, begin to apply them in the logic stage, and bring them to fruition in the rhetoric stage. These stages were not invented by the authors. They correspond to a classical understanding of education used for thousands of years.
The second appealing aspect of The Well-Trained Mind is the cohesion, harmony, and reinforcement of all subjects. Each stage covers the same material but in greater depth. Each year within a stage corresponds to a specific period of history: ancient history, medieval history, renaissance history, and modern history. Reading, writing, history, science, and art each revolve around these historical periods. First grade, for example, focuses on the years 5000 B.C. through 400 A.D. Second grade moves on to the A.D. 400–1600 period. When the student reaches the fifth grade level, the sequence resets to ancient history but jumps a degree of difficulty. Biology, chemistry, physics, reading, math, etc. all move beyond basic understanding to a more intermediate stage, but the trip through time remains the same, allowing for familiarity and excitement as students get to revisit previously studied material.
The third and clinching concept is Wise and Bauer’s emphasis on original sources and an ecclectic, comprehensive reading list. Rather than prescribe a pedestrian string of textbooks, Wise and Bauer recommend compelling books full of experiments, narrative, and substance. They consistently exhort parents to expect the most from their children rather than the least, to provide material that is above grade level, but above all to remain flexible, patient, and to nurture children’s fundamental appetite to discover and make sense of the world around them.
The Well-Trained Mind is a fantastic, possibly indispensable resource for anyone considering or actively homeschooling children. It provides a complete educational plan built on classical principles while preserving and celebrating the fundamental ideals of homeschooling: freedom, flexibility, and love of learning.
If you’re curious about the black hole between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance, I’ve got just the book for you: The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade by Susan Wise Bauer. Concise, approachable, thorough.
I’ve been playing Alto’s Adventure pretty much since it came out. It’s fun and cute and cheap, so if you’re looking for an endless runner game or just want to kill a few hours, well, it comes with my whole-hearted recommendation.
Wristwatches traditionally have only two purposes: keeping time and decorating your arm. Like most people, I stopped needing a watch to keep time when I got a cellphone. As a man not particularly given to stylistic flourishes, once the watch’s utility disappeared, so too did its presence. While my experience isn’t universal, it’s common enough among the young and affluent that Apple will need to do more than roll its proverbial helmet onto the field to win.
Compare the collection of watches Apple is promoting at Monday’s event with its two most recent devices, the iPhone and the iPad:
The unveiling of the iPhone was a watershed moment. It transformed the phone market by being massively better than other mobile phones. Critically for the iPhone’s commercial prospects, when it was released circa 2007 nearly everyone carried some kind of phone with them wherever they went. These phones became obsolete overnight. Though not everyone grasped the magnitude of the change immediately, the iPhone’s introduction sundered mobile phone history. Before the iPhone, only the wealthy, the gadget-obsessed, and the world of business valued the smartphone’s constant connectivity and programability. Post-iPhone, our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles found that the monthly expense of a data plan was suddenly more necessary than previously thought.
The iPhone was a perfect storm of execution, timing, and need. What of the iPad? It should not be surprising the iPad has been less prolific. Of course, the iPad has not been a failure. In fact, it’s done exceptionally well compared to the laptop industry and other, similar devices because it is a tremendous piece of hardware coupled with a compelling (though hardly perfect) software ecosystem. While not everyone needs a tablet, enough people are willing to replace or supplement their larger computing devices with an alternative that offers portability advantages and novel capabilities.
What then of the rapidly approaching Apple Watch release? Outlook not so good (at least if we’re using the iPhone as a yardstick). To succeed, Apple must convince watch-wearers that its offering is more stylish, more affordable, or more functional than what they already have or might otherwise acquire. This, however, is comparatively the easier task. To sate Apple’s own ambitions and the market’s expections, they must persuade non–watch-wearers that the phones Apple already sold them are no longer sufficient for half the tasks they were designed to accomplish. That is no small thing.
In the spirit of optimism, however, let’s try.
Identity. Today, we identify ourselves in myriad ways. Drivers’ licenses, social security numbers, credit cards, fingerprints and other biological indicators, passports, TouchID, etc. As technology continues to miniaturize and as our identities are increasingly connected to non-governmental sources, it makes sense for authentication methods to be integrated in smaller and smaller objects—today a phone, tomorrow a watch, a digital card, a bracelet, a tattoo. A watch isn’t identity‘s ultimate form, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be part of the transition.
Quantified Self. Provided an anti-technology movement doesn’t sweep the landscape, personalized health and data collection will continue to grow in importance and sensitivity. As with identity, an object worn on the wrist falls into the category of a good-not-great hire for this job. The sensors today’s Apple Watch ships with are certainly an improvement over the iPhone, but are they better than other wearables? Not particularly. Apple must hope that its strategy of integration and ecosystem overcome what is already—and will undoubtedly continue to be—stiff competition in the health and wellness space.
Communication. Does the Apple Watch eclipse your iPhone for receiving and sending information? Yes and no. A watch is more discreet. It is also less capable. It offers new ways to communicate yet runs the risk of erring on the side of cuteness and gimmickry. It justifies its existence by elevating notification to must-see status. You can tap your friends, draw silly pictures, and pick from pre-selected phrases and emoji. Is it revolutionary or merely Apple’s Nintendo Wii moment? A fantastic demo but frustrating and inefficient. Waggle for waggle’s sake. Only time will tell.
Price. “Starting at $349” is not a particularly difficult pill for much of the population to swallow. While not quite an impulse purchase, it easily qualifies as a gift or splurge under the right circumstances. What of the more expensive versions? The question of why someone would pay thousands of dollars for a device that will be obsolete in a few years has been raised frequently. I think I have the answer: Apple will offer a recycling program of some kind. Trade in your Apple Watch Edition, get a discount on this year’s model. Those that can afford the Edition model once but struggle to justify it multiple times can take advantage of the buyback program. Those whose consumption is more conspicuous will have no problem plunking down another five figures to stay current. (NB: Even if Apple chooses not to offer a first-party watch trade-in program, a market will form if for no other reason than the raw material value.)
It has proven nearly impossible to overestimate Apple’s fiscal success. Practically everything they touch turns to gold. Those that doubt Apple’s wisdom do so at their own peril. On repuation alone, the Apple Watch launch will certainly move a phenomenal number of units. The challenge will be bridging the gap between what the watch is today—truthfully a bulky and functionally limited device—and what it can become in the not-too-distant future as the underlying technology continues to mature.
The Internetification of things began long ago; Apple Watch circa 2015 is merely a milemarker on the road to an infinitely connected future. The Internet will not be denied its inexorable march to invisibility, burrowing deep into even the most pedestrian objects. The remarkability of a smart watch is a historical curiousity. I want to want an Apple Watch. Whether Apple’s vision for the watch comes to pass or its attributes are subsumed in our more general pursuit of wearable technology remains to be seen. For today, I can say that the Apple Watch is almost certainly not for me—though perhaps at half the thickness and twice the power, Apple and I will see eye-to-eye.
Before we dig in, a few things you should know:
Lords of Waterdeep can be played with up to five players. Support for six players would have been nice as one of us was required to sit out or team up with another player each game. There are fairly straightforward material cost and profit arguments to be made here for not including a sixth player in the base game, I suppose. Still, it’s a nice bonus any time a game that can be played with a certain number of people ships with support for that number. (Settlers of Catan and Dominion, for exmaple, start with support for four players and enable up to six with expansions. In contrast, Power Grid supports six out of the box. 7 Wonders—it’s right there in the name—can be played with seven people.) Each game took us roughly 90–120 minutes to complete not including setup and teardown (another 15 minutes).
Like all modern games, Lords of Waterdeeps hangs tight mechanics on a threadbare story. Maybe other people care for the contrived history of “Waterdeep” and the silly character names and artwork. I can take them or leave them. All games have a theme, this one is far from the worst. At the very least, some form of narrative helps turn lowercase “actions that help you and/or hurt competitors” into proper noun “Intrigues” and “the place you put your workers“ into “Buildings” that you own or send your “Agents” into. The “Lords” concept in particular needs to be further fleshed out. Lords were required to be played face-down during the game so other players didn’t know which types of quests were most advantageous for you to complete. Unfortunately, only one of the 10 or so available Lords had something printed on his or her card other than “Gain 4 additional Victory points by completing X and Y quests.“ The hidden agendas of the Lords had a lot of potential. Anything that can be tallied at the end of the game was available to be an agenda: Intrigues played, Agents controlled, total Quests completed, Gold collected, etc. Other games—again, Dominion—have done a much better job with this conceit.
Another area I found particularly frustrating was the lack of fluidity in the commodity market. Waterdeep allows for collection of money and multiple flavors of Agents, but aside from the Buildings, there is no standard way to exchange those resources for resources you really need. You can’t trade with other players and you can’t exchange them with the bank. When the cards aren’t in your favor (or you get nailed with a Mandatory Quest), it can really be painful. (This may have been exacerbated by playing with five players. In a game with fewer players, each round has many more useful turns.)
Because Waterdeep was so enthusiastically recommended, I definitely came in with high expecations—though not necessarily higher than normal. Nearly every game I find time to play is somebody’s game of the year, so Waterdeep was not more anticipated than Terra Mystica, 7 Wonders, Dominion, et al. Did it live up to the hype? Not really, though I can say that it was a lot of fun and comfortably sits in the upper half of games I would play if given the choice. The best part of any game is the first few games after learning the rules but before everyone knows the strategies. In that respect, we’re right in the center of the best part of Waterdeep. I expect we’ll easily get another 3-5 games in without being bored. We may even pick up the expansion to extend the life of the game.
Still, I can see the end coming pretty quickly. Having played more than a few Euro-style games, they all start to feel like remixes and variations on a formula. What does Waterdeep offer that Puerto Rico, Race for the Galaxy, and Terra Mystica don’t? Quests, Intrigues, and Buildings come up in random order, allowing plenty of tactical decisions while also preventing truly considered strategies. It’s the type of game that is engineered to come right down to the wire among experienced players. That’s a bittersweet gaming pill to swallow. It can absolutely be a blast to play with new or old players and it rarely requires your complete attention. Lords of Waterdeep is like the best of fast casual dining: consistently good without being terribly expensive. If you’re looking for the idealized form of skill and randomness in a tabletop game, however, Dominion is still the only three star game I’ve found.
This week in homeschooling: tabletop games.
Settlers of Catan. My oldest daughter (just turned six) and I played an abbreviated game of Catan.
That’s it. Although we have Catan Jr, this was her first real game of Catan. She managed her hand and decided (with a little help) when and where to build settlements and cities and when to buy development cards. I let her win a close one (6-5). Adult games are a lot more fun for adults, and with a little rule simplication, can be played easily by kids as well.
Skills: Resource allocation, card recognition, decision making
TTR is a great introduction to Euro-style tabletop games. I simplified our game by ignoring the passenger rule, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about having to work with a map of Germany. If you’re planning on playing with kids—or just don’t feel like learnign the names of German cities—get the original, U.S. version.
Scorekeeping in TTR is perfect for practicing basic addition. A scoring path runs around the outside of the board and a marker is used to keep track. Track segments require translation via an on-board key (for exmaple, a track requiring four pieces scores seven points) and tickets are in the single digits to low double digits.
Skills: map reading, simple addition, color/symbol recognition
Rummy was one of my favorite games to play with my grandparents growing up. If you haven’t played before, it’s a simple matching / sequencing game using a single deck of playing cards. It can be picked up in a few minutes by an adult.
Aside from holding the cards face up, this game doesn’t need much simplication. After a few hands, you’ll probably even be able to let everyone keep their cards hidden to make the game play as intended. Rummy is another excellent game for practicing basic math—in this case, counting by 5‘s and 10’s in both directions (anyone still holding cards when the turn ends must subtract those points from his or her score).
Skills: Counting by 5’s and 10’s, card recall, card recognition, pattern matching
By far the most difficult of the games we played this week, chess is still something that can be learned by a child. Compared with many of the Euro-games we play with friends on a regular basis, in fact, it’s downright simple. There are no cards to read, no rulebooks to consult. Each piece has a designated behavior with very few exceptions. The only challenge for Abby turned out to be the intracies of attacking and moving with pawns.
An adult versus a six-year-old is hardly a fair fight, but if you can de-emphasize the winning and losing and focus on learning the rules rather than high-level strategy, it can still be a lot of fun.
Skills: pattern recognition, behavior recall, coordinated movement
We backed Robot Turtles when it was a Kickstarter, but it’s been a while since we’ve sat down to play. Unlike the rest of the games we’ve played this week, this one is actually designed to be played by kids. There are suggestions right in the rule book for which rules to include for varying age levels.
Skills: decision making, planning, obstacle avoidance
Tabletop games make a lot of sense as teaching tools, especially for us. Our oldest daughter has seen us playing Dominion, Catan, Terra Mystica, and dozens of other games for years. One-on-one attention plus the chance to play adult games is a powerful motivator.
I have more to say about homeschooling, but it will have to wait for another time. For now, please take a look at the Homeschooling Resources page I’ve put together. (Work in progress.)
It’s heartbreaking that people can be so cruel: “Trouble at Koolaid Point“.
Kathy Sierra is one of the smartest people on the Internet and one of my heroes. Allowing people to bully and harass her is indefensible. Everyone loses.
Tilde.club is a thing from Paul Ford. (He’s ~ford on tilde.) It is “not a social network it is one tiny totally standard unix computer that people respectfully use together in their shared quest to build awesome web pages”. It is the antithesis of Twitter and Medium and Ello and Facebook and I love it. I won’t be requesting a membership. I’ll keep doing my thing here. But you can and maybe should.
I woke up this morning to a very sweet–yet–urgent summons from my wife: You have jury duty, she said. In 15 minutes.
It takes 30 minutes to get downtown in the best of circumstances. I’d be lucky to make it during rush hour in fewer than 60.
Decision time: was today an epic inconvenience—the holiday retail season is breathing down our necks and we have Serious Business™ to which we need to attend, or an adventure? I chose the one less traveled by.
Fast-forward to me standing in front of a disgruntled court employee. Why were you 45 minutes late, she asked. Traffic? I said tentatively. A partial explanation at best.
She let me in. I joined my fellow citizens. We sat and waited, not really having the slightest clue how this was all supposed to work. When would we be divided into the jurors and the not-jurors? Could we use our cellphones in the meantime?
The answer to the first question turned out to be somewhere near 10 o’clock. The answer to the second was yes, I think. I never really found out for sure. And the LTE was so slow it didn’t make any difference.
Rollcall began. I wasn’t sure whether I should be hoping to be picked or hoping not to be picked. What does it all mean?
Thirty or so jurors were named. I wasn’t one of them.
Those who had been selected were seated on the left side of the room, if you’re looking at the judge. The rest of us moved to the right side. One by one the selected jurors were brought to the front to be interviewed. If I listened carefully, I could almost hear the standard questions being asked.
Do you have any religious, moral, or ethical beliefs that would prevent you from sitting in judgment in a criminal case and rendering a fair verdict?
The selectee shifts in his chair, looking at the defendent.
Would you be more likely to believe the testimony of a police officer or any other law enforcement officer because of his or her job?
This time he leans in, offering more—much more—than a simple yes or a no. Well, I would have to hear the facts, of course, he explains.
Would you have any problem during jury deliberations in a criminal case discussing the case fully but still making up your own mind?
One by one, person after person.
Each prospective juror had filled out a questionnaire about all of this earlier. I guess the respective counsels wanted to hear the answers, to watch the body langauge, to see the favorability or unfavorability first-hand.
This went on for a while. You can be seated, number six. Number seven, please come forward. Number 13 was called. I finally got up to stretch my legs and hit the bathroom. I wasn’t sure if that was allowed, but others had moved around without rebuke so I figured I was in the clear.
When I came back a few minutes later, people were milling about. I asked the guy beside me what had happened. Four jurors were selected, he said. The rest had their papers returned and were told to hang around. Nothing was said to our side of the room. Ten jurors had been selected for this case yesterday. With the four selected today, that made the traditional dozen plus two alternates. So… we could go? Nobody knew.
We sat, mostly silently—though by this time you could hear the more extroverted chatting with their neigbors. At 11:30, we were granted a lunch break. Be back here at 1:30, they said.
I walked to Jimmy John’s. I broke out the laptop in an attempt to get at least a nominal amount of work done. The $9 per diem the state generously provides for showing up and the extra $6.80 stipend for gas wouldn’t even cover parking, let alone lunch and time missed on the job. Oh well.
An hour or so later I made my way back to the little corner of the courthouse we were assigned, Room 318. His Honorable So-And-So presiding. Or not really. He was there, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why his presence was necessary. Security guards were there also. Three of them. In case the alleged got out of hand or something. Surely the security couldn’t have been for the jury-to-be. We all passed a rigorous security screen just to get in the building. The metal detector was so sensitive I had to take my wedding ring off. That’s how I know we were safe.
Since I was early, I camped out in the vending area. Thank Steve Jobs for Internet tethering. Maybe they would call us all back into the main room at some point. Maybe they wouldn’t.
They didn’t. Around 2:15 a lady stopped in to let us know that as long as nobody requested jurors before 3 o’clock, we would be free to go, and just like that I was on my way home.
The process wasn’t efficient. It didn’t feel particularly civic. The people working at the courthouse seemed beaten-down. The whole experience was designed to be tiresome, or, I guess, not designed at all. In many ways, it’s a completely broken system. Yet I didn’t mind. My fellow juror candidates came from all walks of life. They weren’t excited to be there, but they seemed willing to do their part. Hopefully the accused gets a fair trial. I think he will.
People don’t pay me by the hour. I get paid when you buy our shirts. My wife doesn’t work. Not because I make a lot of money—I probably make a good bit less than you and definitely less than you think—but because we would rather forfeit that money than spend it to pay someone else to raise our kids. Aside from being paycheck-to-paycheck for the last five years while we try to get a business up in the air, my life really isn’t that hard. Was I happy to dodge the jury-duty bullet? Absolutely. I have work to do. I couldn’t help thinking, however, that a lot of people in that room lead more difficult lives, sacrificed more to be there today, and would, if given the choice, have traded places with me in a minute.