28 November 2011

Opposing thoughts on teaching

Some thoughts on teaching by Bret Victor.

I used to think that to be a good manager of engineers, you first had to be a good engineer. I could name several particular managers in support of that theory, but that’s anecdotal evidence, right? And believe it or not I have a few counterexamples too. Now I think that management is many things, and there is more than one way to be great.

Bret says that to be a good teacher of mathematics, you must first be a good mathematician, scientist, or engineer. I think the claim is way too strong, and it’s a good thing, too, because we need many times more math teachers than there are mathematicians, scientists, and engineers who want to teach. It’s easy to suspect that Bret, who has an MS in electrical engineering, is harboring a romantic notion here. The structure of the essay isn’t encouraging—five anecdotes followed by a lot of undirected personal incredulity and vague analogies.

Look, if I have to choose between a teacher who “lives math” and one who can tell when a student is perplexed and find another way to explain it, I’ll pick the latter every time.

Of course you have to actually understand the material quite well to be a good teacher. Not just well enough to pass a test on it! You have to know it well enough to know what is actually interesting about it, to invent good demonstrations, to turn it around when you need to explain it a different way, to inspire kids to turn it around in their own minds, to recognize when a student gets it. But you don’t just have to know math well enough to do those things. You also have to actually do those things.

Many engineers are horrible teachers. Many math teachers who are obsessed with teaching, and not math so much, are great. Teaching is many things.

21 November 2011

Khan Academy

Before reading this post, go to khanacademy.org and click on “Practice”. Play around with it for a while. Neat, huh?

I turned J loose on it for a few hours. (J is eight years old, homeschooled, and way ahead of his age cohort in math.) He was absorbed for a surprisingly long time, he said it was “kind of fun”, and he learned a few things. Not bad!

A few points to curb your enthusiasm:

  • Khan Academy started out as a collection of videos. Now it’s a game with available video tutorials.

    I watched my eight-year-old open a video, watch enough of it to guess the answers to the current problem set, then close it, cutting Sal off in mid-sentence. “And the interesting thing about—” Click. This is on day one. It’s very simple: the goal here is to get points and fill out the map.

  • The curriculum is the U.S. math curriculum. To whatever extent the curriculum is the problem, Khan Academy isn’t the solution.

  • The system punishes mistakes. That’s bad teaching already, but it punishes mistakes disproportionately to the point of being inhumane. To clear a topic, you have to answer five questions in a row correctly. If you get the fifth one wrong, you start over—five more questions. A sign error can cost you fifteen minutes of your life. It’s hard to believe this system got into production. No human teacher would be so cruel.

  • Not all of the problem sets are good. As of this writing, the problem set on shifting and reflecting functions is about as bogus as standardized testing gets.

  • The system awards badges for things like answering 75 problems in a row on the same topic, without any mistakes. Gross! I’m not sure why Khan Academy needs badges at all, but if it does, they should reward behavior that the site wants to encourage, right? Don’t we already discriminate enough against non-OCD-sufferers in math education?

  • Putting this work in the commons is the right thing to do, but I think it’s a long shot to hope that it’ll flourish there. This kind of courseware is hard to develop; I imagine it will be hard to modify and reuse. I hope I’m wrong.

All this may seem kind of devastating, but I dunno. Some of my criticisms are easily addressed. Some are just points of disagreement. On the whole it’s good for a lot of people to be attacking the problem of education from different angles. I don’t think Sal Khan would dispute that there’s a long way to go.

I don’t think I’ll be using Khan Academy with my kids. So far J and his younger sister are motivated by innate curiosity. I think we should ride that current as far as it takes us. For now, maps and points and badges, like grades and tests, are just a distraction.

27 October 2011


I didn’t know there was an Occupy Nashville, but there is. Protesters have been camped out in the Legislative Plaza since October 7. There are dozens there around the clock. And if you’re homeless in Nashville it is totally the place to be now. :-\

Amazingly, the state is trying to ban this protest. Effective today, there is a new curfew. Nobody is allowed in the plaza at night. If you want to protest near the state capitol during the day, you must get a permit that costs $65 per day and get liability insurance coverage for $1 million, in case you break something.

On the plus side, the Tennessean is doing its job.

The latest: State imposes new curfew to evict Occupy Nashville protesters

Earlier: Occupy Nashville protesters may be ousted from Legislative Plaza

To me it doesn’t seem like “there’s a bunch of people out there who disagree with my politics, and homeless people” is a good rationale for making emergency rules changes and starting curfews. I sure hope this kind of action to ban a specific protest is unconstitutional.

Right now I have the feeling you get when you’re being trolled. You know the right response is to keep your head and be an adult. You know yelling will not help. Nothing will help, except to walk away.

Only the people trolling me are my government. …Actually I feel like that a lot lately.


what it looked like to be there (warning: contains loud swearing and people acting like they’re in a movie)

NYT blog

Well, firing any sort of weapon at peaceful protestors is just wrong. People who would do that or order it should not be cops, because cops should have a level head and a sense of what amount of force is appropriate.

The Oakland PD says some individual protestors were throwing bottles and bricks. That seems likely enough—I don’t mean to give the impression I think all the protestors were model citizens on their best behavior—but it’s also no excuse. Individual drunks and troublemakers can be arrested individually. It can be done without weapons drawn. This may not be conventional wisdom among cops anymore, but to me it’s just common sense.

Ordinary cops, behaving the way cops behave across the country, turned this nonevent into a bizarre police-only riot. Two cops were hurt. Several citizens were hurt. They’re lucky it wasn’t much worse. What’s next for Oakland is up to Oakland. But the conventional wisdom has got to change.

28 September 2011


“Because limited written historical sources have survived, much of what we know about the Parthians”—a powerful empire that ruled Persia and neighboring countries for five hundred years, from the collapse of Alexander's empire to the heydey of Rome—“must be deduced from coins.”

Reasons for parental censorship

Follow-up to Censorship.

There are a lot of ways to be a dad. As always, what I’m writing here is meant as a partial explanation of what I do, never a rebuke of any other parent.


The Merch.

Unfortunately this graphic got squunched when Penny Arcade redesigned their web site.

This is, of course, not to be taken seriously. It’s an insane exaggeration of American kids’ media diet. But it’s still recognizable, right? It’s really only about ten thousand times worse than the real thing. The punch wouldn’t land otherwise. There would be no joke.

This is my mutant power: I am ten thousand times more sensitive to people cynically manipulating my kids and monetizing their innocence than any normal human being. So my gut reaction to ordinary ads is like your reaction to the Merch.

I’m not the only one.


My analysis of the situation is like this.

  • Ronald McDonald exists to market unhealthy food directly to kids. (Of course it’s the parent’s job to limit McDonald’s visits to harmless levels, but the fact remains.)
  • It works. Ronald really does get kids to talk their parents into going to McDonald’s more often. If it didn’t work, they wouldn’t buy the ads.
  • The guy is not even a compelling character. The Trix Rabbit has more going for him, and that dude is pathetic. This is the real nail in the coffin.

I honestly didn’t set out to be this harsh, but seriously? Maybe nobody should tolerate Ronald McDonald. Just a thought.

The reason I banned Ronald is not because he is loathsome (though I am unsurprised to find, on closer consideration, that he is), but because I try to minimize my kids’ ad intake.


Maybe I should climb down from the word censorship here, because I think the word itself might have been the main problem the initial post poses. But I think it is basically the right word, so I’m not going to do that.

Anyway I want to counter the impression that what we’re doing is fantastically weird. It’s not. All kids live in mediated environments.

If your kids have a healthy diet, it might be because you let them choose all their meals and they have taken the responsibility to heart and make good choices. If so, good for you—you rock, and your kids are amazing. But maybe, like all parents I know, you’ve been practicing some amount of food censorship. OMG you Nazi! Me too.

It’s the same way with media, only instead of their bodies, media feeds their minds. We don’t eliminate french fries entirely from our kids’ diets, and we don’t entirely eliminate ads. But we moderate. In both cases we just think they’re better off that way. That’s all.

Every parent selects the stuff their kid is exposed to. That’s the job. Not making a choice means you’re making the default choice for your community, and you can do it that way—but to the degree that you choose not to, you have to somehow make that choice stick, which means constraining something.

Most of us do take most of the defaults; that’s what it is to live in a particular culture (though for that matter I think it is a totally fair choice to retreat radically from that culture and reject most of the defaults, as some families and fringe subcultures do). But most of us also have particular non-default parenting policies on things we care about. That is normal.


On average, advertisements are bad for you.

Some are designed to make you want things, and want is a sorry state.

Many are designed to get you to associate a brand with a good feeling for no rational reason whatsoever, a tactic I think I should find insulting.

And many are actually designed to deceive or misdirect, which is even worse.

The ones targeted at kids are worse again.


Our kids lead actively curated media lives. When we go to the library, I spend an hour picking out the books that we’ll take home. I want to find books that are near their reading level, stuff they’ll really get into and which will challenge them. I want both fiction and nonfiction. I want stories from other places and times. That is not censorship. But I do sometimes set a book aside because it’s dumb. Or because it’s about the Super Friends. That is censorship.

The TV is not always on in our house. Right now it’s not even plugged in. We do use it from time to time, but what our kids watch is pretty limited. That is censorship. (Come to think of it, every parent I know censors their kids’ TV intake.)

And as I mentioned, our kids see fewer ads targeted at them than most kids.

Why bother with all this? These three things are of a piece. Books chosen with taste, less TV, less advertising. I want kids with active minds and bodies, with things worth thinking about in their heads. Now it is possible that J. will occupy himself with whatever trivial thing is at hand, whether it’s put in his head by an ad or a book or game. It is, in fact, possible that no choice I make as a parent matters, and that the unforgeable signal of my own long-run behavior is the only contribution I can hope to make. That’s what Stephen Dubner thinks: it’s not what you do, it’s who you are. Maybe. But it’s a mistake to give too much weight to any generalization about parenting. There are a lot of variables. I’ll hedge my bets and keep doing things.


If I went with the flow in every instance, I would be doing totally generic American parenting—the straight-up propagation of American culture as it is. I don’t quite do that, because there are a few things about American culture that I do not like.

There’s a lot to like, in my view; but of course there are also things like sexism. Racism. Callousness. Commercialism. Media sensationalism. Conspiracy theories. Partisanship. The question with all these issues is not if but when.

It would be an easy question except that it seems like there is such a thing as too soon, if you want to encourage your kids to think the issues through for themselves. We went to the Pink Palace and saw the mechanical circus. If you have never seen this thing, you should go. It’s based on real circuses that traveled the South in the 1930s. The artist, Clyde Parke, worked full-time for thirty years whittling, painting, and animating all the little figures. Anyway—I figured J. is old enough to know about racism, but maybe it undermines that statement that right after I pointed out the segregated wooden crowd at the wooden circus, and explained why it was like that, I made sure to tell him exactly what I think about it. Which at this age is the same thing as telling him what to think about it.


You can take Fancy Nancy the way it’s intended, or you can take it as a revolting celebration of stereotypical feminine superficiality. Maybe neither view alone is sufficient. Anyway, Fancy Nancy stuff we get as gifts goes straight to Goodwill.

I don’t want to censor what a fifteen-year-old reads. That would be silly—by then whatever I’m doing here will be over. But I’ll be quietly fighting the soft sexism of low expectations at least until my daughter is old enough to consider new things critically. If she’s not a starship navigator when she grows up, that is going to be her choice. It’s not going to be because at a tender age there was a sparkly book that taught her A is for Accessories.


If our kids did watch a lot of TV and were up on current events in consumerland, they might be better able to blend in with other kids their age.

But you know... that’s a sucker’s game.

Everyone likely to read this remembers being different as a kid, and I imagine most of us remember trying to blend in. How did that work out for you? Did you successfully blend in by having and liking all the right things? Are you still trying to? If not, why not? Maybe because it’s stupid?

Inevitably, as my kids get older, they’ll find out all about Barbies and Ronald McDonald. The key thing here is, when that happens, it doesn’t mean I lose. The question is what happens next. Maybe my kid will think, “I can’t believe my dad never let me have this wonderful thing. I was so deprived.” If so, fine, I shouldn’t have bothered. I’ll admit it. But if they think, “hmm, that’s kind of dumb,” it’ll mean my country has one more person in it with their head on straight.

Our approach is neither thoroughly researched nor consistently
carried out. We’ll see how it goes.

08 September 2011


We bought Apples to Apples Kids. I don't reflexively buy the “For Kids” versions of things, but Apples to Apples has enough political and pop culture references that it's not really a game four-year-olds can play. Anyway, the game comes with 216 noun cards. Olivia and I looked through them and threw away eleven cards.

One was Recess. I've got nothing against recess, but the kids have no such thing in their experience. The others were Hot Wheels® Cars, Barbie® Dolls, Ronald McDonald, Rugrats, Disneyland, Dumbo, Teletubbies, Mickey Mouse, Beanie Babies, and Raggedy Ann.

So apparently this is my foible. I am sheltering my kids from intellectual property franchises. Weird, huh. Censorship always is, if you really look at it.

Bribes and rents

Here’s a bit of a twitter conversation I saw this morning:

@ModeledBehavior I prefer a politician who buys support with crooked land deals to one who does so by embracing obviously bad populist policies

@mattyglesias In a non-agricultural society, crooked land deals are probably the optimal form of corruption.

@ModeledBehavior Just transfer of rents right? In general, I'd prefer leaders who bring growth & good policy & skim off the top than populists

@mattyglesias Yeah, most corruption creates new rents. Shady land deals just transfer them.

I don’t know how serious they were. I thought there was a touch of humor there. It was cute.

But it’s worth saying: no, I don’t really think there’s any sense in saying shady land deals “just transfer rents”.

Sometimes you can see how corruption is the simple collection of a monopoly rent that’s inherent in the situation. Suppose I handle liquor licenses for the city. If I'm corrupt, I might ask for “speed money” from applicants to do my job promptly. “This usually takes 6 to 8 weeks, but if you grease the right palms around here your application finds its way to the top of the pile. I can take care of that for you.”

Economically, what's going in here is that my job is to provide a service that’s worth something, say $X, to your business. I’m supposed to do it for free. Instead, I try to extract as much of that $X as possible from you. Bwa ha ha. It's reprehensible, to be sure, but you can see how this is an economic rent. You’re only trapped and helpless because you want that $X and my department wants to give it to you, and nobody else is going to just hand you something worth $X for nothing. And note that even though I am corrupt, I still perform the same service an honest official would. I’m just being paid (out of your profits) to do it. From a certain simplistic economic point of view, what I'm doing is pretty benign.

I might get creative, though, and start carving out new ways to make money by abusing my power. Suppose I start telling restaurant owners if they don’t pay up, I’ll have them investigated for selling alcohol to minors. I’ll scrutinize their application until I find a mistake, and then I’ll reject it. I’ll investigate their employees. I’ll have them audited. Now I’m in the business of manufacturing harm. I’m an economic disaster.

So which is it when Rick Perry buys a plot of land for $300K and sells it back to a partner of the same developer for $1.15M, a profit of $850,000, six years later?

Now, maybe @mattyglesias and @ModeledBehavior were talking about some other “crooked land deal”. I can’t be sure.

But the answer is, “it doesn’t matter”. Three points:

  • The fact that it was a “land deal” does not tell you whether this was “just” a transfer of rents, or something worse, or even if there was a quid pro quo at all. How bad it is depends more on what the money bought than how it was delivered.

    Yglesias apparently sees just the payment in isolation, and calls it relatively harmless, which makes no sense to me. That’s only half of the transaction!

  • Ultimately, calling corrupt rent-collection benign is simplistic. The step from rent-collecting to rent-seeking is often small, so there’s a slippery slope. And in high offices the amount of damage you could do without even bothering to rent-seek is huge.

  • If you’re the governor of Texas, the kind of privileged access I would expect an $850,000 bribe to buy is not best modeled as a transfer of rents. Too many terms are missing from that equation.

22 August 2011

The Blob

Last week, my six-year-old daughter hopped on a bike and took off. Well that was easy.

I’m pretty sure when I learned to ride a bike my dad had to exercise more patience than that. I don’t really remember, but let me just say with absolute confidence: there was blood. Probably some pants had to be thrown out. I don’t think my daughter even skinned a knee. It was ridiculous.

The same week, we all went to a YMCA summer camp site to play. They have something there called the Blob. It’s a huge inflated bag floating in the lake. One person sits on the far end of it. Another person jumps off a fifteen-foot tower onto the near end. When person 2 hits the Blob, person 1 is launched off the end and into the water. Cool idea.

We waited half an hour for it—there was a line, and about one in four kids goes up the tower and stands there, petrified, unable to make themselves jump and unable to give up their spot, for about five minutes. This gives people a lot of time to negotiate who will launch whom. Everybody wants to be launched by the biggest, heaviest guy in the pond. My daughter was the littlest; nobody wanted her to be right after them, so they all voluntarily let her go first. She got sorted to the front of the line way ahead of me.

We waited and waited. The last kid ahead of her finally chickened out.

Up the tower she went.

Will she jump? the guy behind me asked. I didn’t know. She seemed nervous, but it was just nerves, I thought. She wasn’t really afraid. She’s not afraid of this sort of thing. At least I didn’t think she was.

We didn’t have to wait long. She jumped right away. The next kid was maybe an eight-year-old boy. He jumped right away, too.

In hindsight, I should have done the math. My kid weighs about forty-five pounds. The boy said he weighed ninety. E = mgh, right? You can guess the Blob’s efficiency by watching the other jumps. Maybe 20%, 30%. So h2 = m1/m2 × h1 × 30%? And h1 is… fifteen feet…

Everyone gasped as she went flying. None of the other launches had been anything like this. Ten feet up she went, turned a slow back somersault in mid-air, and came down with a crash in the water, on the far side of the Blob where we couldn’t see. It was amazing.

I left the line and swam over to pick her up. She had landed on her face, so she cried a little. By the time we got to the beach, she was fine. You can imagine my feelings. I love that little girl.

08 July 2011


I've been reading about geology, the most epic of the sciences.

Long ago, the continent of Africa collided with what’s now the east cost of North America. The collision lasted for, oh, eighty million years and left behind... the Appalachian mountains.

The Appalachians you see now are not the originals, though. Those were some serious, Himalayan-scale mountains, but time and water wore them away to level ground. The current Appalachians are made of more of the same rock that was left underground, untouched by erosion, and uplifted quite recently, no more than sixty million years ago.

The Earth is at a rolling boil.

18 January 2011

Powerful stuff

Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech is full of poetry, metaphor, and allusion. Twice King quotes Scripture.

Amos 5:21-24 is one of the few places in the whole Bible where God is actually said to hate anything. It is nonetheless my favorite passage in the entire Old Testament, the one that I think comes closest to reconciling fire and brimstone with love and mercy. The verse King quotes comes rather unexpectedly in the middle of an angry prophetic tirade:

I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer up to me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

King is never angry, but at this point in his speech he is firm, insistent, even stern, and so his use of this verse at the end echoes Amos slightly. It’s an artful touch and a little brilliant.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Isaiah 40:3-5 says:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

King adopts this as his ultimate dream.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

As King quotes this—there is no sugar-coating this—he teeters on the verge of nonsense. Not only is this prophecy already supposedly fulfilled (in John the Baptist, according to the gospels, all four of which directly quote it), but right after this passage about mountains being leveled, King is about to go into a series of riffs about, well, mountains (“let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire” and so on).

It works anyway, because whatever we think of the gospels, it is manifest that some crooked paths remain that want straightening, and rough places, and all the rest. King’s message is that justice will not be denied. Scripture promises the dream will be fulfilled.

13 January 2011

Dangerous eggs

Among the dangerous contraband items U.S. border officials look for when they search your car are Kinder Surprise candy eggs. The CBC has an account of one seizure. Punchline:

As trivial as the border seizure may seem, Bird said the U.S. government has sent her a seven-page letter asking her to formally authorize the destruction of her seized Kinder egg.

“I thought it was a joke. I had to read it twice. But they are serious,” she said.

The letter states if Bird wishes to contest the seizure, she’ll have to pay $250 for it to be stored as the two sides wrangle over it.

The overbearing threats, the lawyerly paperwork, the sheer pointlessness of it all—it’s like a portrait in miniature of U.S. law enforcement. It’s so poetic I could cry.

I think my view of government is getting warped. Every senseless indignity is starting to look less like random incompetence and more like a dominance display.

11 January 2011

Wikileaks, journalism, and espionage

WOLF: Jeff, can I talk about the Espionage Act because that's really what's at stake now that they've invoked it. I predicted in my book The End of America that sooner or later, journalists would be targeted with the Espionage Act in an effort to close down free speech and (INAUDIBLE) of government. And we have a precedent for that. In 1917, the Espionage Act was invoked to go after people like us who were criticizing the first World War. Publishers, educators, editors. Wait, and people were put in prison. They were beaten. One guy got a 10-year sentence for reading the First Amendment. And that intimidation effectively closed down dissent for a decade in the United States of America.

The Espionage Act has a very dark and dirty history. And when you start to use the Espionage Act, to criminalize what—I'm sure you've handled classified documents in your time as a serious journalist, you know perfectly well that every serious journalist has seen or heard about classified information and repeated it. When you start to use the Espionage Act to say reporting is treachery, reporting is spying, it's espionage, you criminalize journalism. And that's the history that our country has shown.

TOOBIN: I recognize there is that history. And I'm familiar with the red scare, too. America is different now.

WOLF: Oh, it's worse in some ways.

TOOBIN: Well, I would disagree.

SPITZER: I want to ask Jeff a question though, because I want to come back to this Woodward distinction. You would agree with Clay and Naomi, I think, that Julian Assange would be precisely Bob Woodward if he had been the recipient of these documents, is that correct?

TOOBIN: I'd have to know a lot more.

SPITZER: But it might be the case.

TOOBIN: It well might be the case.

SPITZER: OK. So your sort of clear articulation of the beginning that he clearly violated something—maybe not so much.

TOOBIN: I'm not sure. Certainly the attorney general of the United States seems to think criminal—criminal activity was involved here. But I think the wholesale taking of enormous quantities of classified information and putting it on the Internet, even if you don't put all 250,000 documents on, I think that is a meaningful distinction from what Bob Woodward does.

SPITZER: It seems to me that Bob Woodward arguably did something much more egregious. He took real-time decisions about why we were going to war in Afghanistan, the discussions are rationale, where we would go, spoke to the most senior political and military officials in the nation and blasted that out in the book. A clear distinction.

TOOBIN: Well, again, there is a distinction in part because the president of the United States and the vice president are allowed to declassify anything they want at any time for any reason. So if the president declassified—

SPITZER: A lot of people who didn't have that power were sourced in that book. Seemed to be speaking in clear violation. They, in fact, should be subject to criminal investigations.

TOOBIN: I always wondered why—why Woodward gets away with it. It's an interesting question.


—Naomi Wolf, Jeff Toobin, and Eliot Spitzer, talking on CNN's Parker Spitzer December 23, 2010. (transcript)

(Sidebar: Toobin was either indulging in a little hyperbole, or he was under the impression that all the cables were released unredacted. Not that it makes a huge difference, but this is not what happened. Wikileaks has been working with five newspapers, including the New York Times, to redact the cables before they are released publicly. As of January 10, 2011, Wikileaks has released only 2,028 of the 251,287 cables. They have been releasing a few each day.)

When Dianne Feinstein called for Julian Assange's prosecution under the Espionage Act, she wrote:

Mr. Assange claims to be a journalist and would no doubt rely on the First Amendment to defend his actions. But he is no journalist: He is an agitator intent on damaging our government, whose policies he happens to disagree with, regardless of who gets hurt.

But what exactly is Assange or Wikileaks doing that investigative journalists do not do? Cultivating contacts with privileged access? Obtaining classified documents? Reading them? Publishing them? Refusing to reveal sources? Pushing an agenda? Trying to make a difference? Those are all things journalists do. It is arguably impossible to do the job right without doing those things.

Why does Bob Woodward get away with it?

Why indeed.

Things I learned recently

Handmade paper does not have a grain. The fibers stretch out in random directions. But factory-made paper uses a process where water flows across the surface of the paper as it forms. Take any sheet of printer paper and you'll find that you can curl up the long vertical edge over using less force than the shorter horizontal edge. Even though you're bending more paper the long way, you're bending fewer of the paper's fibers by going with the grain.

According to the Wikipedia article on shmoon, “The word ‘shmoo’ has appeared in nearly 700 science publications since 1974; it is used in labs studying the bread-and beer-making species Saccharomyces cerevisiae.”

The geoid is the shape of the mean sea level of the earth. It is not an ellipsoid. Gravitational forces due to variations in the earth's density subtly distort the geoid. This is why a GPS device can tell you you're 20 meters underwater when you're at the beach: GPS measures your altitude above a reference ellipsoid, not the true geoid. The difference can be much greater in magnitude than the tides.