Web-enabled mentoring

A lot of the talk about technology and education these days is about changing the classroom or inverting the lecture. These represent ways of rethinking the mainstream classroom, and there are a lot of interesting experiments underway.

But there’s another exciting form of education that’s showing real promise: web-enabled mentoring for deep skills.

The old school model goes like this: you sit in a big classroom and learn your basic skills. Then, if you’re good and if you show promise and if you have the wherewithal, you travel somewhere to apprentice directly with a master craftsman. This kind of one-to-one apprenticeship can be extraordinarily valuable for certain deep skills, particularly in the arts. Most people, even very talented ones, will never be able to study with a master. At least in person. But now the web is unleashing a new wave of mentoring to people who’ve never had the opportunity before.

I’ve come across two of these in the last few weeks: Animation Mentor and the Academy of Bluegrass. Watch the mentor testimonial video for Animation Mentor. It’s inspiring.

I also enjoy reading the blogs of artists that I admire. You can get so much closer to answering the question “how do they spend their time so that they can make that thing?

By the way, this is what I’ve learned: buy the same markers and notebooks they use. Then be talented and work really hard. So far I’ve got some really nice markers…

One thing you shouldn’t do in the next five minutes

If you want to sell copy, sell a list.

Try this: do a Google search for things everyone should know. On the first page of results, you’ll find lists of 10, 20, 50, and 100 things everyone should know. Writers are happy to make extravagant claims on our time. And we let them do it, because if you don’t read this list, you’re in grave danger of not knowing the 10, 20, 50 or 100 things that everyone should know.

Needless to say, you don’t know most of those things, and you never will.

The urge to complete checklists is so strong that simply unrolling a long list in front of someone can induce panic. Have you ever experienced Netflix queue stress, Tivo tension, or bookstore anxiety? There’s this absurd thought: Look at all those books I have to read! Try this search: books you must read. Now how do you feel?

Jay Czarnecki saw what I wrote last week about marking things to read later. It’s easy to put too much food on your plate at the Internet Buffet, telling yourself you’ll certainly read it later. But you won’t, and the great bromide is this: That’s Okay. Jay was kind enough to send along this essay on the melancholy pleasure of Not Being Able To Do Everything: The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything. Don’t have time to read it? That’s okay. Here’s the big idea: If you don’t have time to read it, that’s okay. Reading everything doesn’t make sense anyway. The letters get all mashed together.

As for the one thing you shouldn’t do… don’t do this search: places to go before you die. You don’t need to go to all those places. I absolve you.

Latering and the Universal Later Feed

When you record something on television to watch it later, you’re time shifting. That’s the fancy term for what might be called “latering.” I can’t watch this now. Let me watch it later.

Time shifting was a big deal when the first video recorders were introduced. It seemed almost magical at the time, since video content flowed like a river, never to return. Since then, technology has opened up many more possibilities.

These scenarios have the same basic time or place-shifting premise in common.

  • I’m at Starbucks and I hear some music that I’d like to play for my wife at home.
  • I’m checking Twitter on my iPhone and I see a reference to a New York Times article that I don’t want to read on my tiny screen.
  • My brother recommends a book that I want to check out next time I’m at the library.

All of us have evolved tools for dealing with scenarios like these, from pen-and-paper lists to spreadsheets and specialized web services. I manage a bunch of these lists with a variety of tools. I keep books that I want to read on an Amazon Wish List, but books that I’ve read get added to my archive on LibraryThing. I use Shazam to identify music and then I listen to it with Rhapsody. I use iTunes to keep track of podcasts, but getting the podcasts into iTunes can be tricky. Individually these systems are powerful and convenient, but taken together they can befuddle. It was Instapaper that made me realize the value of something more universal. Instapaper lets you mark any URL with the magic words “read it later”. It then gets added to a queue that you look at later. That’s simple enough. The cool part is that so many other applications have added an Instapaper “read it later” hook. So I can route things to Instapaper from any device, any application (almost).

One of the nice things about Instapaper is that it’s platform agnostic. It’s not trying to keep you in its own ecosystem, the way Apple or Google might. Here’s an example of what I mean. While at my work computer, I happen across a YouTube video, and I want to tag it for watching on my AppleTV at home. But Apple has no interest in playing nicely with Google, so they make it painful to watch YouTube videos. Wouldn’t you rather watch one of *our* videos instead?

I want a universal “later” button that lets me add any resource to a single feed and then lets me sort and filter later in a way that’s appropriate to that device.

Here’s a more advanced scenario to illustrate how it might work:

  • In a tweet someone mentions a video of a good conference talk. I add it to my “later feed.” In my car, I open my music player which can see my feed. I filter for videos and select the option to play it back with audio only.

This sort of thing isn’t hard, but it should be much much easier. Plenty of smart people are thinking about this. So tell me: what’s the right vocabulary here? General Systems Theory people call these stocks and flows of information. They’re related to Twitter feeds, Google+ Circle streams and Facebook activity feeds. Until someone tells me the canonical nomenclature, I’m going to refer to it as Latering cool stuff to my Universal Later Feed.

Cheap fusion at Helion

A few months ago I posted a hopeful note about the fusion research going at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California. I was impressed with a speech I’d heard by lab front man Ed Moses. He’s very slick and tells a good story. But since then I’ve spoken to a real honest-to-goodness fusion physicist from MIT who painted a convincing picture that Moses is more snake oil salesman than prophet. The only thing likely to come out of the NIF, he says, is bomb research. Sigh. Get your hopes, and see what happens? Fusion is still 30 years away, as always.

Still, it’s an interesting topic. Most physicists acknowledge that, while we find it difficult to manage now, it should become workable at some point (more than 30 mythical years from now, presumably). There’s no magic to it. So we really should keep plugging away at it.

The other day I was lucky enough to get a tour of the fusion reactor at MIT, and the work they’re doing is impressive. I had no idea you could do so much nuclear fusion in the middle of Cambridge. But the people working there don’t have any illusions about cheap fusion power right around the corner. The big new fusion reactor in France called ITER won’t even start doing serious work until well into the 2020s, and it’s still a science machine (as opposed to something that a utility company can buy).

The real problem seems to be the capital-intensive nature of the work. This has plagued nuclear fission too. When even the smallest experiments cost insane amounts of money, you become extremely cautious. Many good ideas never get tried, because you have to put all your effort behind the one idea that is considered most likely to succeed.

Given all this, I was amazed to read an article in Popular Mechanics about a small company in Seattle called Helion Energy. These guys are doing real fusion research in a small company setting, and they appear to be completely legitimate. What they’re doing now is research, and nobody expects it make any big breakthroughs anytime soon, but it’s very encouraging to know that all our bets don’t have to be big.