Disneyworld Day 2: Blizzard Beach, Epcot, Boardwalk

  • The free intra-resort bus service has pretty good thus far. In some cases it’s been faster than an Uber, since the buses can usually get closer to the actual entrance of the park. But on average, I think the buses are about 10-15 min slower than Uber, which is not bad given the savings. My main wish is that more stops would have ETA boards; some places do, most don’t.
  • Blizzard Beach was a lot of fun! Sure, the competition isn’t strong, but this has to be the best watermark I’ve been to. There’s a great range of slides, everything is clean and well-signposted, and all the staff were friendly. We’d read that on park opening you should run to the tallest slide, Summit Plummet, to avoid queues, but the entire park was very quiet. The longest we waited was about 15 minutes, and most slides had barely anyone at all in front.
  • FYI, while I like near-vertical drops, Summit Plummet wasn’t worth a second ride, whereas Toboggan Racers and the Purple rides were.
  • Epcot shouldn’t work as a theme park, and yet it does. It’s educational, but not as educational as a museum. It’s fun, but not as fun as the other parks. It’s got miniature versions of other countries… and yeah, those are pretty unique. I don’t say this to knock Epcot – I’m just amazed that Disney keeps it running. I guess the scale helps soak up a lot of visitors, and a lot of the capital expenditures have already been made.

Continue reading “Disneyworld Day 2: Blizzard Beach, Epcot, Boardwalk”

Brain Training Games Don't Work

A few days ago, 73 scientists signed a letter asserting that brain training games – which typically feature puzzle games and mental exercises on smartphones, tablets, PCs, or handheld devices – do not successfully increase general measures of intelligence or memory.

I have long had my doubts about the efficacy of games like Brain Age in improving general intelligence. Doing simple arithmetic exercises, in my mind, only improves your ability to… do simple arithmetic. Supposedly there are some mental exercises you can do to improve working memory, such as the n-back task, but these are really quite difficult and not fun to do. Still, I have not been a practising neuroscientist or experimental psychologist for several years, so I didn’t feel qualified to comment.

I suggest you read the whole letter in full, or failing that, the Guardian’s summary (which also handily includes responses from game developers) but there are some important excerpts that are worth considering:

It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products. In the brain-game market, advertisements also reassure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence, as the games are “designed by neuroscientists” at top universities and research centers. Some companies present lists of credentialed scientific consultants and keep registries of scientific studies pertinent to cognitive training. Often, however, the cited research is only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell.

Too many times have I seen apps and games that use the badge of being ‘designed by neuroscientists’ as a mark of efficacy and quality. It makes me sick. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their intentions, but they are being misleading. Just as often, I see game designers trot out a long list of papers of varying quality that are barely relevant to the actual experience being offered. This also makes me sick.

…we also need to keep in mind opportunity costs. Time spent playing the games is time not spent reading, socializing, gardening, exercising, or engaging in many other activities that may benefit cognitive and physical health of older adults. Given that the effects of playing the games tend to be task-specific, it may be advisable to train an activity that by itself comes with benefits for everyday life.

Another drawback of publicizing computer games as a fix to deteriorating cognitive performance is that it diverts attention and resources from prevention efforts. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the message that cognitive vigor in old age, to the extent that it can be influenced by the lives we live, reflects the long-term effects of a healthy and active lifestyle.

People shouldn’t play sudoku or solve crosswords or go to the bingo in the belief that they make you smarter. They should do them because they’re fun. If you want to improve your cognitive health, do a range of mental tasks and be physically active – there is lots of good research demonstrating this works. Unfortunately, this is more time consuming and tiring than sitting at home playing on a smartphone, and thus is a harder sell.

Do not expect that cognitively challenging activities will work like one-shot treatments or vaccines; there is little evidence that you can do something once (or even for a concentrated period) and be inoculated against the effects of aging in an enduring way. In all likelihood, gains won’t last long after you stop the challenge.

Like I say, read the whole letter.

On a related note, another thing that makes me sick are the pseudoscience apps I regularly see in the Top Health and Fitness category these days, including “Hypnotic Gastric Band” and the endless apps that promise to reduce your stress and anxiety. In some ways, these are no worse than self-help books that have been with us forever; but I think the veneer of science and professionalism delivered by the App Store and by the whole ‘quantified self’ industry is encouraging people to believe in effects that are not proven to exist. More on this another time.

The UK is not the same as the US

In Louis Menand’s insightful article about why we have college in this week’s New Yorker, he highlights the increasing selectivity of private US universities (in contrast to the very accommodating nature of public universities) and reinforces his point by comparing them with Oxford and Cambridge:

In 1940, the acceptance rate at Harvard was eighty-five per cent. By 1970, it was twenty per cent. Last year, thirty-five thousand students applied to Harvard, and the acceptance rate was six per cent.

Almost all the élite colleges saw a jump in applications this year, partly because they now recruit much more aggressively internationally, and acceptance rates were correspondingly lower. Columbia, Yale, and Stanford admitted less than eight per cent of their applicants. This degree of selectivity is radical. To put it in some perspective: the acceptance rate at Cambridge is twenty-one per cent, and at Oxford eighteen per cent.

This is not a useful comparison. Under the British university admissions system as administered by UCAS, people can only apply to up to five universities and they can’t apply to both Oxford and Cambridge; they need to choose one or the other. No doubt if these rules were changed (and the UK were as big a country as the US), the acceptance rate would plummet.

This is not to say that I disagree with Menand’s overall point, but it speaks to a disappointing lack of appreciation in how other countries’ university admissions schemes differ from the US.

University tuition fees, and private schools

Here’s what the government is currently saying about the change in university fees:

  1. Allowing universities to charge students anywhere between £6000 to £9000 will create competition, leading to better value and higher quality education.
  2. These fees – which can’t be paid upfront – shouldn’t be considered like normal kinds of debt since they don’t need repaying until you earn £21k, and the rate of repayment for most people will be lower than it is now, plus an awful lot of students will never repay their fees.

In an apparent surprise to the government, most universities are charging the maximum £9000, which was expected for the likes of Oxbridge but not for non-redbrick universities. What’s happened is that practically all universities have decided to signal quality through high prices, meaning that no-one wants to lower their fees and make their degrees look cheap and nasty. It also doesn’t help that due to other government spending cuts, fees of around £7500 are required just to maintain current funding levels.

But maybe students will rebel and demand for lower fees at ‘worse’ universities? I think not*, precisely because the government will – eventually – convince students that going to university is a good thing and that the up-to-£27k fees they’ll pay aren’t ‘real’ debt; in which case, it really doesn’t matter how much a degree costs, since you’ll never have to pay it back if you don’t get a high salary – and if you do, a few grand here or there is hardly going to make a difference. So much for a market for universities.

*Unless there was real competition for university-like entities that were much cheaper, say £3k a year, and demonstrably more effective. But unfortunately it’s not easy to set up new universities, so that’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

Another mantra of the government is that despite raising fees to £9k a year, they’re still worth paying because graduates earn so much more over their lifetimes. There’s no doubt that historically, graduates have earned £100k more than non-graduates over their lifetimes, but there’s clearly no guarantee this will continue. As any investment ad will say, past performance is not a guarantee of future returns.

And when you consider that:

  • Far more people are earning degrees
  • There are more and more ways for smart people to earn money and have a fulfilling job without university (just look at the proliferation of startup-founder dropouts these days)
  • The skills and knowledge that many, if not most, graduates pick up are not, in fact, terribly useful in actually performing a job (which wasn’t a problem back when a degree was a sign of smarts/background, but no longer)

then I don’t believe that all grads will continue to have such an edge on non-grads, certainly not to the degree they used to. Yes, university is meant to be more than a job training service, but unfortunately that is how a lot of people justify it; it’s not as if the government is suggesting that students pay £27k in order to become better and more enlightened citizens.

On Private Schools

The Guardian reported today that six private schools are in line to become ‘free schools’ from September, and spun this is being largely a bad thing:

Their bids are controversial, not least because if they are successful, parents who had opted to pay school fees for their children’s education will suddenly find themselves gifted it by the government.

Around 7% of children in the UK are at fee-paying schools, with an average spend per pupil that’s significantly higher than what state school pupils receive. If you look at Mumsnet, then you’ll see plenty of complaining about having to ‘pay twice’ to educate children privately (first in taxes to state schools, and then to the private school) so it’s easy to understand why some parents are pretty pleased that they’re saving money.

I can also why other parents might be unhappy that these previously privately-educated pupils are now being ‘gifted’ education for free; in the short term, it could easily cause a shift in resources to previously-private schools, hurting state schools. But of course, private schools that become free schools can’t be anywhere near as selective about their intake, which ought to help everyone.

In the long run, I don’t think it’s healthy to have a society where hundreds of thousands of people can effectively opt out of state education. Whether it’s transport or housing or healthcare, when you have the rich segment of the population simply walling themselves off from everyone else, it’ll only result in resentment and bitterness on both sides; the rich unhappy about paying taxes for benefits they don’t use, and everyone else envious of their unreachable status. Just look at America.

Better to create education systems that everyone wants to send their kids to. Canada, which beats the pants off the UK in the PISA ranking, has a far lower proportion of kids going to fee-paying schools. It can be done.

A Civilized Education

I’ll say it: I don’t think Civilization is all that educational. It’s more educational than most videogames, certainly, but that’s not saying a lot.

There are four arguments made by the pro-educational camp:

Firstly, that Civilization teaches people about technologies, cultures, buildings, leaders, and of course, civilizations, from all over the world and across the sweep of history. I’m fairly sympathetic to this view, and I admire the game’s expansive worldview – it makes a real effort to include civilizations other than those already familiar to the West.

However, I question exactly how much any player takes away from the game – it’s not as if you need to read the in-game encyclopaedia (the ‘Civilopedia’) to perform well, and the entire point of the game is that you get to play around with history – it’s not as if you’re learning about ancient Chinese or Persian battles. I’ll grant that a motivated student of history might read up on all the game’s historical articles – but once you find that student, the job’s mostly-done already.

Secondly, that by playing the game, Civilization helps people understand concepts like the scarcity of natural resources, the importance of geography, and the impact that small decisions can have across centuries (basically, it’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ in game form). Again, I’m not sure if people actually take away these concepts from the game unless they’re specifically pointed out to them. In some ways I think that Civilization presents a very deterministic and mercantilist view of history, one with constant advancement being the norm; the role of chance and of total disaster is papered over, in the (very understandable) service of gameplay. Maybe this chimes with a particular Western (or perhaps American) view of history, but it’s not something I recognise from reality.

Thirdly, that Civilization is a powerful tool for teachers to provide context to history lessons. This is actually a pretty good idea – not one that I’ve seen in practice or know much about myself, admittedly. I can see how a good teacher could use Civilization to think about counterfactuals like “Why is my country the size/power it is now, instead of what it is in my game?” and to illustrate some of the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ concepts. I don’t know if a single teacher could do this for a class of 30 students, but if you lowered the number, or perhaps played a few democracy games, it could work very well. One can imagine a game of Civilization providing the spine for an entire term’s worth of activities, from art and language to science and politics; I’d sign up, for sure!

Lastly, that mods to Civilization (community-created modifications or expansions to the game) can give players very good lessons in specific subjects. In 2007, Telefilm Canada funded the imaginatively-named The History Game Canada, a million-dollar expansion of Civilization 3 that lets you play as one of nine civilizations, including the Algonquin, Mohawk, French, and English, to rewrite the country’s history and explore various counterfactuals like:

“What if the Huron had displaced the 5 Nations Confederacy rather than the other way around?” or “What if the French had retained Canada, and the English colonies to the East and South had failed to prosper?”

Civilization 3 was the clunkiest and most frustrating game of the series, so I am in no hurry to try this out, but it sounds very enticing, and potentially a real improvement on dry, didactic history lessons (though not cheap, of course).

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find many other overtly educational mods for Civilization, which isn’t surprising, since good mods can require surprising amounts of graphical assets, text, code, rules, and design (I speak from bitter experience after having attempted a couple of total conversions in my youth). It takes a remarkably motivated and skilled teacher to make the effort of designing a custom map, arranging all the cities and units just so, and tweaking the rules to fit the context – but it does happen, as demonstrated by Shawn Graham, who made a mod called The Year of the Four Emperors, aimed at teaching his undergrad students about the events after Nero’s assassination in 68AD, and how someone other than Vespasian might have won out.

Given that Civilization 5’s lead designer, Jon Shafer (who you might remember as the Minister of War in Apolyton’s ISDG team), cut his teeth in the modding community before he joined Firaxis, I think there are good days ahead for modders of all kinds – but it’s never going to be easy to create an educational scenario with accuracy and depth.

Summing up, it’s a bit of a mixed bag – I don’t think Civilization imbues players with any real historical knowledge or understanding, but I do think that it’s an incredibly powerful tool in the hands of smart educators and modders who have specific lessons they want to convey.

When you consider that, in their own words:

…It cannot be overstated that Firaxis has never set out to make an “educational” game

the fact that Civilization is lightyears ahead of most games (including many ‘educational’ games) is an impressive feat of game design.

Educational games from 3500 years ago

Freeborn children [of Greece] should learn as much of these things as the vast throngs of young in Egypt do with their alphabet. First as regards arithmetic, lessons have been devised there for absolute beginners based on enjoyment and games, distributing apples and garlands so that the same numbers are divided among larger and smaller groups.

…The teachers, by applying the rules and practices of arithmetic to play, prepare their pupils for the tasks of marshalling and leading armies and organizing military expeditions, managing a household too, and altogether form them into persons more useful to themselves and to others, and a great deal wider awake.”

This is Plato, writing around 360BC, about how Egyptian children learned about maths through ‘enjoyment and games’ [Laws 7,819].

I heard this during the A History of the World in 100 Objects podcast about the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus from 1550BC, which “contains 84 different calculations to help with various aspects of Egyptian life, from pyramid building to working out how much grain it takes to fatten a goose.”

The Unbidden

If you’re a parent, you want the best for your children. You want them to eat healthily, to do their homework, to keep fit, and to be well-mannered. You may go a step further and carefully study nutritional information to make sure they receive the right balance of calories, protein, and vitamins. You’d hire a private tutor to help them with the maths they’re struggling with, or send them off to summer school to learn a musical instrument. You’ll drive them to football matches and shop for the right boots and equipment.

You’ll want to keep them safe; you’ll tell them how to cross the road and ride their bike properly, and you’ll teach them never to talk to a stranger – someone who might want to hurt them – whether in the real world or online.

One way to keep children safe from strangers is to never put them in a position where they could ever meet them.

The Purpose of a Child

What would you like your child to be? A doctor? A lawyer? A CEO? A soldier? A politician? An artist?

I’ll make it easier: would it be better if they earned a lot of money, or a little? Do you think they should have a family, with lots of kids, or would you mind if they never had children?

Maybe you can’t answer those questions, so let’s step back a little. Is it important for them to go to a good university, like Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge, places that might given them better opportunities? If it is, then what’s the best way for them to get in?

This is something we can answer (or at least, we think we can): it’s by getting top grades at school, and by racking up a list of extracurricular achievements that’ll impress admissions officers. If you have the right enough time and resources, and the right kind of environment (and many people do not), and you’re sufficiently dedicated, this is quite doable. A 2006 article from the Times Educational Supplement shows exactly how doable this is:

In 2005, 55 per cent of all pupils achieved five GCSEs at grades A-C. Breaking down the figures by ethnicity reveals that white pupils were exactly in line with that average. Above-average results came from students of mixed white and black African descent (56 per cent achieving five or more A-Cs); mixed white and Asian (67 per cent); Indian students (70 per cent); and Chinese students (81 per cent). Those groups that fell below the national average were Bangladeshi (53 per cent); black African (48 per cent); Pakistani (48 per cent); mixed white and black Caribbean (44 per cent); and black Caribbean (42 per cent).

I don’t believe there are any differences in intelligence between ethnicities, and neither do the vast majority of scientists. This means that the very significant difference in GCSE scores shown above is down to environmental factors, which could include poverty and culture. However, it doesn’t seem as if poverty is the sole answer, if this 2008 LA Times article about the performance of poor ethnicities in California is accurate:

With about 2,500 students, Lincoln High draws from parts of Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Chinatown.

Both the neighborhood and student body are about 15% Asian. And yet Asians make up 50% of students taking Advanced Placement classes. Staffers can’t remember the last time a Latino was valedictorian.

…According to a study of census data, 84% of the Asian and Latino families in the neighborhoods around Lincoln High have median annual household incomes below $50,000. And yet the Science Bowl team is 90% Asian, as is the Academic Decathlon team.

This makes for uncomfortable reading, but the point is that money doesn’t appear to be required to perform well academically. So what is required?

“They only start paying attention if I don’t do well,” said Karen Chu, 15, whose parents emigrated from Vietnam. “They don’t reward me for getting straight A’s. I don’t get anything for that. But if I get a B, they’re like, ‘What’s this?’ ”

If her grades slipped, she said, her parents laid on the guilt extra thick. “My parents are always like, ‘If you don’t do well in school, then it’s all going to be worth nothing,’ ” Karen said, laughing nervously.

Julie Loc, the daughter of a seamstress and a produce-truck driver, said that if she gets a B, her parents ask whether she needs tutoring. She said her father used to compare her to other people’s children, noting their hard course loads or saying, “They have a 4.3 [grade-point average]. Why do you only have a 4.0?’ “

Overwhelming and unyielding pressure to excel – that’s the answer. It’s not easy to do, but it does work, and it’s not isolated to Asians either – it just seems to be more common among them. And believe me, it’s often not pretty. I’ve seen kids get nervous breakdowns from this pressure; I’ve seen kids who had heartfelt ambitions to become artists or musicians, only to be forced to abandon them so that they can become the doctors and lawyers their parents so desperately crave.

Among less academically-driven parents, I’ve seen extraordinary hot-housing of kids, who are cajoled into taking hours of music lessons, tutors, and sports clubs to get those all-important extra-curricular activities for their university applications. I could see this was getting ridiculous when many of my friends on the Duke of Edinburgh course outright admitted that they were just doing it to get into university, and had zero interest in any community service. Continue reading “The Unbidden”

The Quick Rise of Reading

A mere two weeks after I wrote about The Long Decline of Reading, which drew largely on the US National Endowment of Arts’ (NEA) 2007 data, the NEA promptly released a report (Reading on the Rise) showing that fiction reading rates significantly increased from 2002 to 2008. Not just for certain age groups or ethnicities, but for practically everyone. I don’t think anyone was expecting this, since reading rates have been declining ever since the NEA began its survey in 1982.

Reading rates among adults

Despite the fact that the report has blown a gaping hole in the premise of my previous post, I’m very happy, particularly because the most dramatic increase in fiction reading was in the dreaded 18-24 age group. These guys, who have an excess of distracting media in their lives, increased their fiction reading by a full 21 percent, neatly reversing the 20 percent decline seen in the last survey. Other notable drastic increases were found among Hispanic and African-Americans.

Reading rates among 18-24 year olds

It’s not clear whether this rise is a blip, attributable to ‘fads’ such as Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code, or whether the US’ attitude towards reading has been transformed by book clubs, an increased appreciation for the arts, and improved education (and, yes, also those fads). We’ll just have to wait until the next survey to find out, but it’s a pleasant piece of news that I hope will be mirrored in other countries.

Ernst Choukula

There’s been some ruckus about a History class at George Mason University in which students created a hoax about an ‘Edward Owens’, the “Last American Pirate”. They made a blog, put up some YouTube videos, and most annoyingly, created an article on Wikipedia.

I find these hoaxes tiresome. We all know that it’s easy to publish misinformation online; it’s done thousands of times, every day, on small and large scales, and it’s as easy as pressing an ‘Edit’ button. If someone is going to put up misinformation, I’d rather they do it with style and panache, like this brilliant addition to the Count Chocula article on Wikipedia (archived):

Ernst Choukula was born the third child to Estonian landowers in the late autumn of 1873. His parents, Ivan and Brushken Choukula, were well-established traders of Baltic grain who– by the early twentieth century–had established a monopolistic hold on the export markets of Lithuania, Latvia and southern Finland.

A clever child, Ernst advanced quickly through secondary schooling and, at the age of nineteen, was managing one of six Talinn-area farms, along with his father, and older brother, Grinsh. By twenty-four, he appeared in his first “barrelled cereal” endorsement, as the Choukula family debuted “Ernst Choukula’s Golden Wheat Muesli”, a packaged mix that was intended for horses, mules, and the hospital ridden. Belarussian immigrant silo-tenders started cutting the product with vodka, creating a crude mush-paste they called “gruhll” or “gruell,” and would eat the concoction each morning before work. The trend unwittingly spread, with alcohol being replaced by sheep–and then cow’s–milk, and the demand for the Choukula’s “cereal” reached as far south as Poland and as far west as the northern Jutland province of Denmark.

It wasn’t long before the unmistakable image (the original packaging, a three gallon wooden vat which featured a burnt etching of a jubilant, overalled Ernst holding a large dog and grinning broadly) made a pop-cultural splash throughout the entirety of Europe and northern Africa. In fact, Tunisia’s “Carthagian Sand Crunch” was seen as the first imitation of the Choukula form; the aforementioned product was presented in broad leathern bags with the woven insignia of a nude tribesman holding a sword and a bunched stalk of oats. Sadly, this would neither be the first nor the tamest appropriation of Ernst’s iconic visage. Continue reading “Ernst Choukula”