Thursday, November 19, 2009

How warrior training works

This is a music video, which is probably a good tool to teach attitudes. Songs, in general, are allowed to be repetitive. People listen to them over and over again - which is important for teaching attitudes.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Tom Kratman's Teaching Method

Tom Kratman used to be a military officer. A large part of his job, and probably one of his favorites, was training subordinates(1). Now he just doesn't have the heart to do it. Literally, it was a heart problem that prevented him from going into the 2nd Gulf War.

Now he writes military science fiction for Baen. However, he still wants to teach about the military. You'd get some training just from reading his books. Using stories to teach is hardly new, but Tom Kratman does one better. Every week he posts a snippet of one of his prepublished books on Baen's Bar. That kicks off a thread discussing the reasons for various actions, how to train people to do them better, etc.

This technique is a fun way to do case studies. I wonder if it can be fit into a business context, and if so if that can be made sufficiently interesting.

(1) I think that's a large part of everybody in the military above a certain rank. They do a lot more training than civilian industry, for two reasons:

1. Good enough isn't. In industry we can set a standard and say anything above that is acceptable. In the military, where every additional bit of performance could save lives on your side, nothing is good enough. Whatever you do, some very smart people on the other side will try to undo.

2. Rapid capacity expansion. In industry, if we currently need n people to do a certain job, we train n peopl, maybe a few more. If we'll need to increase the capacity, we'll train then. The demands on the average company don't change that quickly. In the military, one day the US might be at peace. The next day, Saddam invades Kuwait and there's need to protect the Saudi oil fields right now. No time to train a few extra divisions.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Financing Short Content Units

The units of content we consume are getting smaller. Ten years ago when I needed to do something with JavaScript I bought the O'Reilly book. It provided a good overview of the language, and a full tutorial and reference guide. I still need to use JavaScript from time to time, but I don't know where my book is anymore. I haven't needed it in years – these days when I have a specific question, I just google for the answer.

The same thing is happening with entertainment. Seeing a video used to require going to a movie theater. The effort was only worth it for a movie that lasted 1.5 hours or more. Maybe it was preceded by a newsreel or a cartoon to provide even more value. Then TV came, and most shows went down to half an hour. Now even that is often too long – we can use YouTube to get five minutes of something interesting.

This is not a random change or a pendulum swing. With better technology, we have better ability to search for content. This means that instead of getting a package which will hopefully include what we want, we can get exactly the thing we want. And with so much content available at our fingertips, we don't have the time to deal with fluff.

The unit size is affecting the financing of content creation. Any time you are asked to pay for something, you have to evaluate if it is worth paying for. This mental cost is going to happen, even if the financial cost is very low. The mental cost also has a lower bound. It's worth thinking if a book is worth $30 or not. But it is not worth thinking whether a Web page would be worth 5 cents. The total cost of purchase is going to be too high for the value, regardless of how low you make the financial cost.

So how do we get content creation financed (or, from another perspective, how do we get people to pay us for writing)? I can think of several models.

0. The volunteer model. Authors working for fun and glory, without an expectation of profit. If this sounds ridiculous, remember that Plato's dialogues were an unpaid labor of love. So is Wikipedia. But this model leaves something to be desired, such as food on the table of those of authors who aren't Athenian aristocrats.

I think it's obvious why this model gets numbered zero. Great things can be done with it, such as Wikipedia, but it tends to get biased results. There is only so much work you can do for free.

1. The patronage model. If you're the Emperor Augustus and you want people to believe Rome has a divine mission to rule an empire, you pay Virgil to write the Aeneid. But this isn't limited to propaganda pieces. If you're IBM and you need people to find out how to do things with Tivoli Identity Manager, you might pay Ori to write short demonstrations to put online so your customers won't have to call support. Hopefully, the cost of getting these demonstrations written is lower than the support costs IBM saves.

It's just a hunch, but I suspect we'll see a lot more of this model. The fact that information can be copied so easily does not hurt it. It merely means more viewers, which is what the patron likes.

2. Storyteller's bowl. It's very difficult to evaluate the value of content in advance. It's a lot easier to do it after reading. If enough people feel obligated to donate after writing, you can let them decide if the material is worth supporting (and how much). This is how Dave Freer's Save the Dragons works. It's also the business model for Torah.Org, and very similar to the model for Kingdom of Loathing.

3. Business as usual. If you have really good content, you might be able to charge for it. You're competing with a bunch of free material out there, but if you have great material, such as Baen's Webscriptions, you can still get people to pay you. But as units of content get smaller, this gets harder.

4. Aggregation and subscription. Business almost as usual. If you can aggregate enough units of content, then access to the whole collection might be worth enough to decide to pay for it. This is the way Books24x7 works, for example.

I'm not very optimistic about this model, because I don't think it produces enough per unit of content. I once wrote a book about RACF. It's on books24x7, and we (the publisher and all four authors) get about $200 per quarter. At $800 a year for a full book, I don't see enough value coming out of aggregators.

5. Eyeball payment. If I need to think whether a page is worth the payment in advance, I'll go somewhere else. But if I “pay” by having an ad displayed to me, especially if it doesn't block the actual site, that's easier. Most JavaScript tip sites, for example, use this model.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Multitasking - good or bad?

Personally, I know that if I don't multitask I get bored and less effective. I suspect it's extremely variable across people, so that research isn't very useful.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Propaganda appreciation - teaching method

Obviously, just watching the cartoons is not enough. It might be with cartoons that are culturally appropriate and have a benign meaning, such as Private Snafu.

But in this case most of the cartoons are actively evil, and we're trying to subvert their meaning.

This requires a much higher level of analysis, which the students probably cannot do on their own. This requires a more structured approach:

  1. Introductory material, which the students can either hear or read.
  2. Questions to think about while watching the movie.
  3. Watching the movie.
  4. Post movie discussion.
The first two items can be provided in a student guide. The last one would require a grown up to have an actual discussion with. Therefore, it would require a separate instructor's guide.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Propaganda appreciation - engaging kids' interest


My 1st grader son loves war "stuff". He plays at shooting, etc. His favorite type of history is military history. If that's the common pattern, it might be best to use war propaganda. It's not hard to find.

Kids find it easiest to relate to other kids, so I can start with this Disney video. It teaches the background in a way I think kids will be able to understand:

To illustrate the above, here's an example from Nazi Germany:

This is similar, except it comes from the USSR and is more defensive in emphasis:

Then, maybe put a US spin on thing by showing how we do propaganda:

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Propaganda appreciation

Political propaganda is a particularly dangerous form of advertising. Normal advertising makes you buy silly stuff and get in debt. Political propaganda gets you to vote for really stupid ideas and mess up the whole country.

I'm wondering if it would be a good idea to write something for elementary school age children about "propaganda appreciation". Just as in art appreciation you learn the tricks and techniques of art, in propaganda appreciation the kids will learn the tricks and techniques of propaganda. That might help immunize them against it in the future.

I'd like to keep this project politically agnostic. I don't want to lose potential users only because their parents have silly political ideas. Kids whose parents have silly political ideas are precisely those who most need such a program.

What I'm planning to do is take some old propaganda, from governments that everybody agrees had the wrong idea: The USSR and Nazi Germany.

Kids can watch this kind of video, and answer guiding questions to realize how the video tried to get them to accept certain ideas. Hopefully, they'll be able to transfer this to modern life.

Do you think this is a viable idea?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Instructional Design and Religion

Instructional design means the science and art of preparing learning materials. These materials can include lesson plans for use by teachers, self study books for learners, videos, and so on. Given that the basic economic fact of this day and age is that labor is expensive, materials for self study are usually considered a lot better than materials that require instructors.

The are several domains of learning that instructional designer may seek to teach. A psychologist called Gagne identified five of them, of which four are actually useful.
  1. Verbal information. Basically, knowledge. "Stoves can be hot", for example.
  2. Intellectual skills. For example, the planning it takes a toddler to realize s/he can move the chair next to the stove to be able to reach it.
  3. Psychomotor skills. Physical skills. For example, the being able to push the chair next to the stove and then climb the chair.
  4. Attitudes. A tendency to select certain behaviors instead of others. For example, "I don't want an owie, so I won't touch the stove even though it looks inviting".
Out of these four, attitudes are the hardest to teach, especially to adults. Religion is, to a large extent, about teaching attitudes. Most religions teach that if you stole yesterday, worship God today, and rob somebody tomorrow you're a bad person and your worship is useless. The worship of God today is supposed to make you a better person so you won't rob anybody tomorrow.

My point yesterday was that teaching attitudes requires repetition. Road to Damascus conversions occur, but they are extremely rare. The common pattern is closer to the Israelites in the desert. You follow God, and then you panic when you get to the Red Sea. You get back to following God, and throw a temper tantrum at Marah. You repent again, and follow God, then you panic when Moses is missing and make a golden calf.

However, we are all masters at filtering information. We have to be, living in an age of over stimulation. And the easiest information to filter is information that is repeated. Nagging rarely works. If we try to repeat the same thing over and over again, we're likely to develop a mental immunity to it.

This means that we need to hear the same message repeatedly. But we need to hear it in different ways, or we will not listen. Silly ways, such as the Porpoise Driven Life, make sense if they make people listen and remember the real things to which they point.

I hope this is clearer.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Porpoise Driven Life - Silly, but not Stupid

This appears as a parody of The Purpose Driven Life. However, there is a deeper lesson to be drawn from it. Religion (at least the Judaism I practice and the Christianity I see around me) is primarily a matter of attitudes, preferences for one course of action rather than another. Knowledge (or belief) and skills play a part, but ultimately it's about what you choose to do.

Changing attitudes is hard. New year's resolutions seldom last until February 1st. To change an attitude, you often need to repeat the lesson over and over. Orthodox Jews do it by praying three times a day, and each of those prayers includes asking God for certain attitudes. Other religions also use repetition in other variations.

But our generation is chronically overstimulated. We are so used to tuning out things, it's all too easy to tune out messages that literally repeat themselves. One solution is to present the message in different fashion each time. Use jokes (such as "Porpoise Driven Life") to get people to listen, and embed the attitude changing lesson in those jokes.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Violence makes things memorable

According to this research, ads in video games are more memorable when the game includes a violent component. This makes evolutionary sense, there are good reasons to pay attention during violent incidents. If you survive violence, you should remember what happened so you'll be able to survive next time.

This ability to learn quickly in relationship with violence might be useful in Instructional Design, especially when teaching facts that are inherently boring. For example, imagine a version of Quake which requires you to shoot one specific molecule type while avoiding shooting any of the others to teach organic chemistry. While you're looking for that one molecule type, you have billboards in the game world that teach you the others, which you'll need at higher levels.