One-to-one mentoring: sign me up!

I’m a one-to-one mentor in my local school, and it’s a great thing. Everyone should consider volunteering for similar programs in you own local schools.  It’s important, dammit.

Mentoring is about building relationships of trust between a young person and an adult for the purpose of providing support, encouragement and guidance.  Each mentor is paired with one student in 3rd-7th grade.

Mentors commit to meeting with their mentees one hour a week during the school day and continue through high school graduation. They may read together, play games, go for a walk, workout in the gym, discuss current events, work on a school project or just talk.

(This description is from my own local program, other programs may vary a bit.  But you should get is the basic idea.)

In one sense, mentoring is very easy. You don’t have to tutor, and you definitely are not there to discipline.  You just have to be there.  But you need to always be there, if possible, to stick with them all the way through high school.  Not a trivial task.

Advocates of mentoring cite strong evidence that mentoring “works”, getting many at-risk kids through school and into post-secondary life. I don’t know the statistics, but my own calculus is simple: if I can help one more of our kids get through school, of course I’ll do it.

Who can be a mentor?  Pretty much anyone could, if you can commit to the time over years.  Obviously, parents with their own school kids will probably not have the time.  Also folks with intense work and/or travel commitments may have difficulty finding consistent time.  (But please consider other volunteering roles in local schools.)

Mentoring is rewarding for obvious reasons. You are touching lives and making the world a better place.

One the additional pleasure I’ve found has been meeting other mentors.  They are an amazing cross section of our local community, people who I don’t necessarily meet every day.  But we are united by some deep, unspoken common values:

Our kids—all of our kids—don’t fail.

If what it takes is a decade-long commitment, one kid at a time, to move one kid down, sign me up.

Bravo to all the mentors out them.  Non-mentors: please join us if you can. Contact your local school for more information.

Bob’s Foreign Policy

It’s a political season in the US, so we are all being pounded with bombastic, yet uninformative advertisements, and we can look forward to many months of this embarrassing junk.

No one has asked, but here is a short note sketching my own basic political policy.

Bob’s Foreign Policy:  If it makes children and mothers cry, don’t do it, and stop it if you can.  Actually, this is my domestic policy, too.

Hunger. Pain. Sickness. Violence. Bullying.  It’s really not that difficult to figure this out.  Like I said—if it makes children cry, its probably something that should be reduced.

By the way, “bullying” means “strong people pushing around weak people”, in whatever form that takes, not just physical or mental attacks, but also unfair = legal systems, coercive “contracts”, smear campaigns, anything with the purpose and effect of beating up weaker people.

It’s not OK, no matter what the reason.  And it’s not OK, even if you dress it up as “legal”.  Legal and OK are net even close to the same thing.

And let me be very clear, I mean its not OK, even if you think it serves a higher purpose.  I definitely don’t mean, this is terrible except when I agree with it.  I mean it is never OK by me.

Antiquities and Art Trade – a bad idea for so very many reasons

One of my hobbies is reading about art fraud.  For me, this is a harmless pastime, since I don’t by fine art or antiquities, and even if I had money to burn, I certainly wouldn’t.

This is very entertaining, since most of the key player are rich people and well-groomed confidence men and women, with the help of prestigious museums, auction houses, and some interesting criminals.  Basically, I have little sympathy for most of the people involved, and I love to see these schemes exposed and prosecuted.

What I’m talking about here is the traffic in old art and antiquities (such as Greek vases or Mayan carvings).  These artifacts are considered to be valuable because they are old, rare, and—according to shifting fashions—beautiful.  The trade flows from the sources, through dealers, to wealthy collectors and museums.

The trade is restricted by many countries, with the aim to preserve cultural heritage within their borders.  But the lure of wealth buyers in the US, Europe, and elsewhere assures a steady flow of materials despite the legal blockades.  How is this possible?

Almost all legitimately owned items are in museums or other known collections, and mostly not for sale.  So where do the new materials come from?

Dealers and other enablers concoct stories of “chance finds”, items discovered in an attic, or ploughed up by a peasant.  Sometimes they refer to “old family heirlooms”. And the piece is amazingly perfect, wonderfully restored.  And so on.  Wink, wink.

Where do they really come from?  In the case of ancient materials, they are looted and smuggled (e.g., Chippendale & Gill 2000, Watson & Todescini 2006).  There is a fair probability that they are modern fakes, too (see Jones 1997).

But wealth collectors (and prestigious museums) can’t have this kind of mud on their reputation, something must be done to make things seem OK.

First, we certainly ditch legitimate archaeology, history, and science, which is more interested in truth than the well being of rich art lovers.  Unfortunately, this also means that the cultural meaning of the artifacts are lost (Brodie et al 2001).

Second, we need to launder the provenance to hide or falsify the actual source and history.  This is made easier by compliant “experts” in the trade (Mason 2004, Watson 1997) and at Museums (e.g., Chippendale & Gill 2000).  These institutions “publish” artifacts with vague or non-existent accounts of context and history, not to mention fictions. “Said to be from outer mysterostan, possibly similar to the school of ‘X’”.  Much of the “scholarship” is based not on science or documentation, but on connoisseurship (i.e., supposedly refined perception by experts).

This may sound good, but it is basically promotional fluff to hide the facts:  the articles are looted and smuggled or faked.  It is a license for chicanery and faking (Hebborn 1993, 1997; Jones 1997)

When a prestigious museum lends its name to such a publication, the story is thereby somewhat legitimized and the items possibly worth far more money.

Who profits?  Presumably the collectors get their kicks (and profit, and tax write offs).  We know dealers get rich.  And we know that smugglers and fakers get rich.  Museums may gain access to fine materials, without directly violating their own ethical rules.

Who is hurt?  Some people get ripped off by fakes.  Priceless treasures are stolen from their origin, which often as not is a poor country that would benefit from tourism and legitimate trade.  I’m sure that taxes are evaded.

And history and archeology are completely obliterated (Brodie et al 2001).  Not only are the museum pieces scientifically useless, valuable scientific information is destroyed—anything that is not sellable is discarded or destroyed without record, and in some cases materials are “restored” beyond any recognition.

Its just ridiculous.  But I don’t expect it to end, since there are always people with far more money that sense, and other people who will sell them a good story.


Brodie, N., Doole, J., & Renfrew, C. (Eds.). (2001). Trade in illicit antiquities :the destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Chippendale, C., & Gill, D. W. J. (2000). Material Consequences of Contemporary Classical Collecting. American Journal of Archaeology, 104(3), 463-511.

Jones, M., Craddock, P., & Barker, N. (Eds.). (1990). Fake? : the art of deception. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hebborn, E. (1997). The Art Forger’s Handbook. Woodstock: The Overlook Press.

Hebborn, E. (1993). Drawn to trouble : confessions of a master forger : a memoir. New York: Random House.

Jones, M., Craddock, P., & Barker, N. (Eds.). (1990). Fake? : the art of deception. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mason, C. (2004). The art of the steal : inside the Sotheby’s-Christie’s auction house scandal. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Watson, P. (1997). Sotheby’s : the inside story. New York: Random House.

Watson, P., & Todeschini, C. (2006). The Medici conspiracy :the illicit journey of looted antiquities, from Italy’s tomb raiders to the world’s greatest museums. New York: BBS PublicAffairs.

Real Rocket Science: review of “Fly Me To The Moon” by Ed BelBruno

Belbruno, E. (2007). Fly Me To The Moon: An Insider’s Guide to the New Science of Space Travel. Princeton: Princeton.

With Prof. Gingrich’s possibly ill-considered proposal to build a moon base by 2020, perhaps we should review some real, far out, recent science of space flight.  (I take no position here on any of Mr. G.’s numerous proposals, though I will say that I won’t be voting for him in this lifetime.)

Besides funding, spaceflight requires delta V, i.e., thrust, which requires energy and propellant.  One of the brutal facts of life in space is that fuel has mass, and you spend a lot of fuel just hauling fuel you will need later—leaving only a tiny fraction of the load for the payload.  The Apollo moon missions were mad dashes, and they arrived home with empty fuel tanks and no margin to spare.

If you stick with this brute force approach, the arithmetic of space flight is prohibitive.  The amount of fuel needed to go to the moon and back is feasible (though insanely expensive), and we have sent small payloads to the planets, and returned small payloads from Mars.  But imagine a long term moon base: no matter how you figure it, it would need hundreds of trips, if not thousands.  Even ignoring economics, this is a preposterous input of energy, which would make the enterprise both be fragile and unsustainable.  A few missed shipments could mean disaster.

What can be done?

Professor Ed Belbruno has pioneered some radical approaches to navigating the solar system, using rather than just fighting gravity.  In his enjoyable 2007 book, he sketches the approach.

The essence of the idea is the observation that travelling in space is “ballistic”, the spacecraft is flung at the target, and needs to “fall” safely at the end. The trick is to hit just the right angle at the right speed, to arrive just right.  Furthermore, the closer the trajectory to optimal, the less fuel required to keep on target.

Belbruno’s insight is that, if you can aim just right, taking advantage of gravitational boost and deceleration, it takes almost no extra energy to safely arrive.  Brilliant!  Why don’t we always do this?  Because the desired orbit is not obvious and is ridiculously difficult to calculate, at least for humans.

The transits required are strange looking loops, that take long, indirect routes.  For example, a sketch for a proposed trip to Jupiter’s moon Europa (see Ch. 12) loops around Venus, back around Earth twice, then loops around Jupiter twice before orbiting Europa.  This will take a long time, but robots and non-human cargo don’t mind.

The secret to finding these orbits is kind of cool, and only possible with sufficient computing power.  Basically, you start at the desired end point, where you want to get to.  Working back, calculate what direction and speed would you have to be moving in the last minute (or whatever time increment) to get to the goal.  Back up to that point, and iterate, until you get to a point that is reachable from the start.

Obviously, you must read Belbruno’s book if you want to really understand.  He gives a retrospective on how he came up with the ideas, which were partly inspired by art as well as the mathematics of chaos theory.

For full disclosure, I will note that I met Belbruno in person at a meeting at NASA in 2005 (I believe).  Many of us at the lunch are interested in robot missions with actual scientific value, and consider the International Space Station a giant money pit that is sucking the life out of the space program with little benefit.  Belbruno suggested that if you want a moon base (as recently proposed by Pres. Bush), he could give us an orbit that would gently land the ISS on the moon.  Voila—instant moon base!

Finally, let me note that Prof. Belbruno was supported in part by NASA’s Advanced Information Systems Research Program, led at that time by Dr. Joseph Bredekamp.  This is program has a long history of funding ground breaking information technology, and it was my privilege to receive support from them in the past.  The AISRP, along with almost all research at NASA, has been starved for funds over the last decade, it is effectively dead now.  Appalling.

Grumpy Remarks About “Virtual Museums”

In the past few years I’ve been working with Digital Humanists, particularly folks in the “cultural Heritage”/ Museum business. I really like these folks, and deeply respect the pursuit of knowledge and respect for history.  But the encounter has made me somewhat grumpy about the entire idea of preservation and museums in general.

The problem is the focus on artifacts—objects with a carefully documented provenance, which are put forward as representing something important about human culture. I have serious reservations about this entire project—it is conceptually flawed, and its value is highly questionable.  In short, I wonder if museums are a waste of space, time, and money.

First, lets think about objects in a museum.  Obviously, isolated objects, removed from their original context, are difficult or impossible to interpret.  The information simply isn’t there. That’s why museums include interpretive materials, attempting to sketch what is missing.

The general purpose of the museum collection is to portray cultures and historical periods through a selection of physical artifacts. The result is that the collection is selected by various criteria—representativeness, excitement, or some other value.  It is not always easy for a visitor to know why things were selected—so we don’t understand the objects, nor to we understand the museum.

This entire notion is very, very problematic.  Let me use an example.

Consider a museum display of Henry Aaron’s uniform (e.g.,  It is  may be lovingly preserved, and carefully documented, lavishly displayed in a glass case.  But what do we gain from all that effort and love?

Does it tell us anything about baseball?  Does it tell us what it is like to play or watch baseball?  Does it tell us anything about what it meant to be a black man playing baseball in the 1960s? In Atlanta?  Overtaking Babe Ruth?

Of course not.

And I would say, if you don’t understand these things, you don’t understand anything important about Aaron or that uniform.

Given these deep misgivings, you can imagine how little I appreciate ‘digital collections’ or ‘virtual museums’, i.e., on-line collections of imagery of museum objects.  The content of the virtual museum is not even the actual artifacts.  They are 2D images, often from only one point of view, totally out of scale.  In other words, even less context than the museum exhibits.

And, sadly, most on-line museum collections are no more than catalogs, collections of text descriptions of artifacts.

Like I said, I’m grumpy about this.

But let me balance by thinking of some of the positive points for museums and artifacts.

Many of the artifacts are selected for preservation because they are irreplaceable, and because they either used to be, currently are, or in the future may be especially meaningful.  Given that there are an infinite number of objects, and an infinite number of reasons why something might be important, it isn’t possible to succeed at this preservation game.  But sometimes this is a good way to think, to help sort out what we think is most important.

Museums invite us to imagine other times and places, sometimes quite radically different from our own life and thoughts.  In this context, the museum’s fetish for careful documentation and provenance is critical—the artifact is absolute proof that the other place and time was real, and was created and experienced by real people not so different from you.  No amount of story telling can make that case as strongly as a real physical object in front of you.

Finally, I like museums because they are places you have to go to.  All the digital collections in the world do not replace actually dragging your behind over to the museum, and experiencing what they have to offer.

What about “virtual museums’? For my money, digital representations can have many useful purposes, including remote access and comparative studies that would be infeasible to do in person.  Also, digital imagery (in 2D and 3D) offers yet another method to document unique or irreplaceable events and artifacts.

But digital representations patently can’t substitute for the “real thing”.  If anything, this is their greatest virtue—they increase the value of the real artifact.

There will always be another meeting

For those of you who are employed, here are some not very helpful observations about everybody’s favorite gripe, meetings, bloody meetings.

A while ago I took leave to complete a book project, one day per week out.  At that time I discovered a scientific law, which I call The Inelasticity Principle for Meetings.  The number of meetings never changes.

In this case, the number of meetings didn’t change, but they had to be jammed into 4 days instead of 5.  This had the side effect that I had even less time to actually do anything.

A corollary of this principle is the rule that there will always be another meeting.  Don’t sweat if you miss a meeting, there is almost no chance that it will be the last one.  (Warning—you can get is a lot of trouble if you advocate this idea at work.)  On a more constructive note, you want to pay extra attention to any meeting that actually will never happen again, it’s probably worth attending. For example, a farewell party.

As long as I’m building moral and improving American productivity, I will note the fundamental observation that everything is obsolete, sometimes much sooner than you expect.  This is particularly obvious in the software sector, where the lifetime of a product may be months, and many times it is obsolete before it is even delivered.

And my favorite motto, if you wait long enough, it won’t matter. (Another warning—you probably shouldn’t say this out loud at work.)

Summary: Some true principles to guide your life (but don’t talk about them at work, or you’ll get in big trouble):

  1. Inelasticity principle for meetings
  2. there will always be another meeting
  3. everything is obsolete, sometimes much sooner than you expect
  4. if you wait long enough, it won’t matter

Book Review: “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal (2011). Reality is broken : why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press.

For background, I should note that I’ve been playing computer games probably longer than Dr. McGonigal has been alive, and certainly longer than computers have had screens and mice.  (Yes, children, you actually can create typewriter-based computer games.) I’ve expended my share of time in games, so much so that I’m pretty much gamed out.

My interest in games, especially massively multiplayer and alternate reality games, was reignited by Ed Castranova’s early work.  Castranova is famous for, among other things, proving beyond a doubt that virtual worlds have real economies.  But what got my attention was the results of his 2001 survey of Everquest players, in which 20% said the game is their “primary residence” (i.e, the live in Norath and commute to Earth for work), and another 22% said they would live in the game if they could.

OK, something is going on here, and I’ll regret it if I don’t pay attention.

Jane McGonigal Wants to Hack Reality

McGonigal gives her take on exactly what is going on.

The introduction sets out her thesis and manifesto:  Games are “better” than “reality”. This situation is really not satisfactory:  How can we make “reality” better?  This book, along with her many papers, talks, and games, constitutes a concerted effort to use “games” to make the world a better place.

Games make us happy, she says, because they operate on some important psychological principles, which are not usually found in ordinary life.  These principles are laid out in several chapters, with supporting research, practice, and theory. The chapter titles give you the idea:

      • More Satisfying Work
      • Fun Failure and Better Odds of Success
      • Strong Social Connectivity
      • Becoming Part of Something Bigger than Ourselves

This is a framework for understanding games, and specifically for understanding why they are fun and “addictive”, and why people will spend significant fractions of their life playing, and, also, how they change the player.

If games are so much better than real live (so much so that “reality is broken”), and people are “better” in games, too; what should be done?

McGonigal takes a radical and fearless approach: use what we know about games to make “real life” more gamelike.  This is not to say, let’s make life “meaningless fun”, what she means is let’s solve problems that matter using the principles that make games work so well.

The second section explains her project of “Reinventing Reality”. Basically, using the methods used to create great games to create activities that improve the real world and change real human behavior.

Walking the Walk 

McGonigal sketches some recent games that illustrate this idea. There are lot’s of pointers to interesting games to try out, and perhaps inspire the reader’s own creativity. For instance, she discusses quite a few recent alternative reality games, such as World Without Oil and Cruel 2 B Kind. These “games” are designed to be fun, but have real world goals and, she says, real world effects.

One of the more remarkable games is a first-person account of McGonigal’s 2009 struggle to recover from a concussion. In the depths of this debilitating brain injury, she created the game SuperBetter, which applies the design principles she has described to enable people to create their own environment to overcome illness or injury. She recounts how the game works, and how it helped her.

Not every game will appeal to you, perhaps most will not.  But, as she says, “We can play any games we want”, so it’s up to us to make up better games.  And that’s what she is trying to do with a ‘meta’ game, the ‘Gameful’ web site, AKA, “the secret hideout” (

Gameful is basically a social web site, built on conventional web technology.  The overall theme is, “everyone can and should design their own games (for improving real life)”. However, the basic social web tech is overlaid with a bunch of “gamelike” features, e.g., points and levels that are awarded for actively participating in the community.  So, ‘gameful’ is sort of a game for creating games.  Or something—I’m not sure there is a term for it.


Frankly, I enjoyed earlier works of McGonigal a lot more than this book.  “I love Bees”, and the “Puppetmaster Problem” are great papers and describe astonishing games cum psychology experiments.  RiB is much more serious and ambitious, and far less weird.  Some of the material is pretty basic (e.g., Chapter 1).  I know why she had to include it, but it is a grind for anyone who is already familiar with the background material.

I’m sure there are grounds for criticism of her ideas.  Throughout the book, we can see McGonigal’s own goals and style clearly. The games employ pretty conventional themes (quests, super powers, spy thrillers, etc.), and mostly build on conventional computer and network platforms.  These are a rather limited and culturally biased collection of ideas, mostly the games bore me.

There are certainly a raft of cultural assumptions baked into this very Californian view of  human nature and “the future”, which isn’t going to fit everyone.  For instance, I have to imagine that many religious believers will have their own ‘epic stories’ they want to be part of, and probably significantly different takes on what the world’s problems are, and how to solve them.  But, of course, everyone can use the design principles to improve the world the way they see it.

Overall, this book is both radical and soundly argued, and, as all great leaders do, she is walking the walk. She has to be taken seriously.

I especially recommend this book for folks thinking about what they want to do in life, entering college, or similar.  You may get some good ideas here.

Final summary:  She made me think hard.  I have no higher praise to give.

A personal blog.

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