Progressive Bikeshedding

I’m in Tahoe this long weekend with my extended local family. My in-laws have kids in SF public elementary schools. They are very involved parents in the Richmond district. On Friday night after the kids went to bed we were chatting about school life and the struggles of remote learning in the community.

Deeply regrettable stuff. I learned of the hotline where parents can call in to vent for 60 seconds. Seriously, 1 minute. It’s a desperate outlet. Parents feeling that “they are unfit to be parents”. Totally overwhelmed by the demands of holding down jobs, guiding their kids 24/7, being short with their kids, and their kids becoming distant, troubled, sad or any other strain of negativity you can imagine exacerbating the parents’ dire year even further. A vicious cycle.

Then there’s the clinically tragic. Consider the alarming reason why SF is suing the schools for remaining closed:

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital has seen a 66% increase in the number of suicidal children in the emergency room, and a 75% increase in youth who required hospitalization for mental health services, the lawsuit said, quoting pediatricians, child psychiatrists and emergency room doctors.

Last month, UCSF Children’s Emergency Department at Mission Bay reported record high numbers of suicidal children seen and treated, according to the legal filing which did not provide detailed numbers of cases and hospital visits. It also quoted doctors citing an increase in anxiety, depression and eating disorders among children, consistent with national data. (Link)

Now this is all quite bad (after using a thesaurus to find the right word I rejected all the candidates. “Bad” wins.)

But it’s not shocking. If Covid revealed how our economic supply chains were globally optimized to the penny, we should not be surprised to discover that a typical household was already driving on a spare.

What was shocking was what I read about the SF Unified School District, coincidentally, just before the conversation with my in-laws. After they told me their stories, I simply read aloud what I learned in Bob Seawright’s Better Letter earlier that day:
The school board of the San Francisco Unified School District recently voted to move ahead with a plan to change the names of more than 40 schools. The plan called for removing from schools names of those who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings,” who “oppressed women,” who committed acts that “led to genocide,” or who “otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Among those to be excluded are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John Muir, Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Revere, and Dianne Feinstein.

[pause for family to grok the irony of reading this together on President’s Day Weekend]

The board eliminated Lincoln’s name because of his policies toward Native Americans; Washington’s and Jefferson’s names were struck because they held slaves. The Paul Revere Elementary School will be renamed because of Revere’s role in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779, a Revolutionary War naval assault on a British fort from the Penobscot Bay that the committee assumed, bizarrely and wrongly, was intended to colonize the Penobscot people.

Perhaps it will become Robespierre Elementary and the school board will offer instruction in Maoist constructive self-criticism. 

Robert Louis Stevenson, an important area literary figure, is having his name removed because the poem, “Foreign Children,” from his famous collection, A Child’s Garden of Verses, used the rhyming word “Japanee” for “Japanese.” James Russell Lowell was wrongly claimed to have opposed allowing Black people to vote. It was enough to cancel Lowell. The name of James Lick was ordered removed because his legacy foundation funded an allegedly racist art installation nearly two decades after his death.

Clarendon Elementary, named for Clarendon Avenue, on which it sits, will lose its name because, as the Board of Education explained, the name “can be traced to a county in South Carolina, one of the 13 Colonies named for Edward Hyde Earl of Claredon [sic] impeached by the House of Commons for blatant violations of Habeas Corpus.”

[I was reading all this aloud and decided to take a let-that-sink-in pause. They would need a moment to collect themselves before the crazy train picked up speed again]
Gabriela López, the head of the San Francisco Board of Education, defended the overall decision along with the decision not to consult any historians during the process because she doesn’t want to “discredit the work that this group has done” despite their questionable judgment and glaring use of false information. In her view, those pointing out even obvious errors are “trying to undermine the work that has been done through this process.” 

López insisted that people are “up in arms” because they “have a problem with the discussion of racism.”

Oh, and “Lincoln is not someone that I typically tend to admire or see as a hero.”

In general, any breach of political purity precluded a name from fronting a school irrespective of countervailing good works. There was one exception, however. When a member questioned whether Malcolm X Academy should be renamed because Malcolm was once a pimp, and therefore subjugated women, the committee decided that his later deeds redeemed prior errors. Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, the Roosevelts, and the others did not receive similar forbearance.

In other San Francisco school news, the school board has deemed acronyms racist, and SFUSD’s vice president, Alison Collins, asserted that the concept of merit is also racist. Just this week, after two hours of debate, the board rejected a gay dad of mixed-race children from volunteering for one of several empty seats on a parent advisory group that didn’t have any gay members or men. Their problem was that he’s white and doesn’t bring diversity to the group. Really.


Let me stop here for a moment. I don’t especially like bringing attention to the most ridiculous and therefore straw version of progressivism. Doing so undermines progressive ideas that actually deserve attention (Moontower readers might be surprised that I almost agree with “meritocracy is racist”. In fact, the reason I don’t agree, is because that statement is an object level instance of my meta belief that meritocracy is largely “besides the point”. Maybe I’ll discuss this at some point when I’d feel less bad about a flock of unsubscribes. Like right before there’s enough readers to shove me into the paid tier of Mailchimp.) But also, I couldn’t help but share the insanity as it collided with what my family was telling me.

I’ll let Bob’s pragmatic sentiment be the outro…

Meanwhile, the SFUSD has no plan to reopen its schools despite the weight of scientific authority establishing that reopening can be done safely and that remote school is bad for kids. Priorities, people.

While nearly half (48%) of San Francisco’s residents are white, only 15 percent of public-school students are white. It’s hardly a coincidence that San Francisco’s private school are open, all but conclusively establishing that the city’s care for “the least of these” is far more symbolic and performative than real. As the Apostle James made clear, believing the right things without action on them is worthless.

Sparking My Kid’s Interest In Coding

My niece is learning to code using pygame. Pygame is a Python based module for writing games. When she told me, I hopped on to YouTube to watch a tutorial with Zak (7) to see if we can learn together. Hmm. It was quickly clear. He was going to need some basics first.

After he went to bed, I decided to script a simple text-based game that might enjoy. It also had the oblique purpose about teaching him the basics of business math. You’ll recall I planted this seed with Zak and his podmate back in the fall. I described the process in A Socratic Money Lesson for 2nd Graders.

I’ve shared the game with cousins and his friends, and it gives them a quick little competition. It encourages them to read, reason, and do basic arithmetic. After they played it for awhile, I told him I wrote it. Now I can’t really code but it was just enough for the desired effect — he would think “whoa, we have the power to make a game!”. Now he is interested in at least messing with Python and trying to learn some basic syntax.

Share it with your kids and see how much money they can make at the Ice Cream Shoppe. (game)

Here’s the code. It’s not pretty but it should be easy enough to spot how to change it. (code)

The game takes less than 2 min to play. And it will introduce you to Trinket, a great site for writing and running programs in a browser.

The 4-year-old wanted to play a game too. He’s learning basic addition and loves chess so I wrote him an even simpler game. It encourages arithmetic by adding the values of chess pieces. He can’t read but his bro wrote a cheatsheet on a piece of paper so he can match the words on the screen with the word on the paper. Over time, he is figuring out that the word that starts with “p” is “pawn”.

Play it here. (chess piece game)

Notes from Marc Andreessen on Education


The education system is based on model that pre-dated the printing press. It has had little innovation in light of the technological advancements. Yes there are experiments like Lambda School and its ISA alignments. There are MOOCs which offer micro degrees. But in 2020, distance learning as necessitated by Covid, has accelerated the questions we have about a system whose costs were already outpacing inflation. We are left to wonder who our current system is serving and if it is time to examine more efficient possibilities.

Recently Google dropped the requirement that new hires need college degrees and it’s expected other large employers will follow suit. It begs the question, what were degrees good for?

The CEO of Figma, Dylan Field, interviews Marc Andreessen to hear what the cost/benefit of our college system is and how recent developments will test theories about what college is good for and what alternatives may serve those requirements better or more cheaply.

Purpose of college

Overt purpose: A bundle of actual education/skills acquisition, social/dating service, network building, “attached to a hedge fund” (in the form of an endowment)

Cynical purpose: Outsourced personality and IQ testing (via SAT) as these screens have become either socially undesirable or illegal for employers to perform.

The personality dimension being tested for is known as conscientiousness 1 which has 2 components.

  1. Industriousness: Basically self-starting energy
  2. Orderliness: Attention to detail, time management, organization

The “sheepskin effect”

Somebody who goes to college for seven out of eight semesters does not receive seven eighths of the income of somebody who goes for eight out of eight semesters, they receive half the income of somebody who goes for eight out of eight. So the diploma signals your conscientiousness by evidence of you clearing the 4 year hurdle.

A diploma tells employers you are a smart kid who can get their work done, signaling conscientiousness, rather than being about knowledge acquired.

Testing the purpose of college

  • Covid-19 will tease out how much people are willing to pay for an online education which will hint as to how much of the value proposition derives from the degree, from the social, and from the actual learning (this acting as a constant). International enrollment which is unsubsidized would be an especially useful clue as you would expect the loss of social network effects would impact those students the most.
  • The test of college as an outsourced intelligence test will naturally occur as leading universities shed standardized testing requirements

Understanding the source of the student debt crisis

We need a conversation about value given vs value received of college from an economic lens because it is subsidized by Federal and state government. If the ROI is not there the victims are tax payers and the students who cannot discharge the debt via bankruptcy.

How did we arrive at a mountain of debt that cannot be serviced?

The system is a hostage of a govt sponsored cartel.

  • K-12 education is compulsory and state-run. Captive audience.
  • Hallmark of monopoly: real dollars spent on education have 3x in 40 years and outcomes are unchanged
  • Funding is monopolized
    • Accreditation: Loans are subsidized by the government and are only available to accredited institutions that are certified by the govt. Accreditation or admittance to the cartel is nearly impossible.
    • University research funding comes from the government. Can’t remember the last research university to come into existence
    • Operating a university is taxed as a non-profit
    • Endowments are taxed as non-profit

    Meanwhile between sports programs and endowments these institutions have more in common with for-profit businesses.

The spiraling costs are exactly what you might expect from a monopoly and to be contrasted with perfectly competitive businesses such as manufacturing that have led to goods disinflation.

Basically what the government does to education is just like what they do in health care, it’s just like what they do in housing. A two part strategy for managing these markets. They restrict supply. And then, and then restricting supply causes prices to rise, because there’s more kids that want to go to school than can get in. And then on the other side rising prices create political pressure which they resolve by subsidizing demand.

(This was part of his anti-govt rant. I haven’t fact checked any of this. He also points out that spiraling costs without an improvement in service is also the hallmark of 2 other heavily govt influenced areas: housing and healthcare. The story of the ultra-liberal Cal professor who called for subsidized housing while he votes against development to maintain “historical charm” came to mind.)

The value proposition of university for people in “show your work” fields is changing.

One of the most basic revelations the internet has surfaced is the different nature of professions.

Internet has made the largest difference in “show your work” professions: occupations where it is valid and easy to demonstrate your value online. For example, coding, design, music, art, game dev, animation. Open source projects and writing, democratized, pure examples of “show your work” fields.

From an employer’s point of view conscientiousness is a proxy for being a good employee. But this can be circumvented by just showing your work online. This erases the value of a degree that derives from employer demand.

GitHub has like an internal ranking and rating system for software code, and for programmers. So you can actually build an actual professional reputation as a software developer on GitHub without ever actually being face to face with another human being. People all over the world today who were basically taken advantage of this to be able to basically build these incredible track records as a software developer and make themselves more employable. Employers like my venture firm. We recommend that our employers spend as much time on GitHub looking for good programmers as they do on LinkedIn, or going to college fairs.

YouTube, blogs, Figma for design all play a similar role as GitHub does for software developers. He tells the story of South Park as an early example of a viral video that was able to spread organically through a distributed technology. The show born from Matt Parker and Trey Stone’s irreverent holiday card which made its rounds as a downloadable Quicktime vid!

“If you can go to college, go to college”

  • Even jobs that probably shouldn’t require degrees require them.

I think it’s actually quite dangerous to give somebody, somebody as an individual the advice, don’t go to college, like in the current system that we have that’s basically saying don’t prove that you’re smart don’t prove that you’re industrious, and conscientious and then basically be prepared to settle for fundamentally lower income for the rest of your life.

  • Understand the proposition

Gates and Zuckerberg notwithstanding, if you go to college finish college. Get the piece of paper.

  • The 2×2 matrix of what to study and where to study.

The spread of outcomes for technical degrees is not that wide. If you have a technical degree your choice of school matters less. This is exactly the opposite of what you find with liberal arts degrees. Since the output of a liberal arts degree are more subjective or uneven the school issuing the diploma carries more weight. 

Possible explanation: in absence of concrete skills, the network from a top school is valuable.

Tips for those in college or considering college

Execute on the opportunity — take the hardest course load you can. Get the skills (obviously get good grades but focus more on getting the skills).

If you are at a sub-tier college taking liberal arts, de-risk by acquiring marketable technical skills.

For those considering alt paths

At this point Marc, still recommends college and acquiring technical skills but if you choose an alt path be aware of the trade-offs. For example, if you choose to do open source work recognize it’s better to make major contributions to one project (as opposed to minor contributions to multiple projects) because that really demonstrates what employers are looking for. Put yourself in the mind those who will be evaluating you years down the road.

Consistent work demonstrates conscientiousness and the nature of the work is an embedded intelligence test.

What should a software developer do? Unquestionably the answer is create an open source project or go become a member of an existing open source project and make successful high quality sustained contributions to that project over time. At this point I think that’s clearly a better credential than getting a computer science degree. I’d hire people like that myself and the great thing now is you can do that from all over the world.

So what matters to Andreesen when they hire or fund someone?

The good news:

They do not care about a degree or GPA or test scores and in fact question if too much conscientiousness means you are too much of a rule-follower.

The tough news:

They measure you by what you have actually done. Building companies requires being able to do things so that is the capacity they are looking for. List of things a founder will need to be able to do:

  • Building an actual product that somebody will actually pay for.
  • Figuring out a way to actually sell it to them
  • Actually collect the money
  • Actually service the customer so they actually have a good experience
  • Actually tell their story so that anybody will even know that they exist
  • Run a finance function so that they don’t lose all the money
  • Run a legal function so they don’t get sued all the time
  • Actually get others to work with them.

There are many talented people so the way to stand out is to actually demonstrate the ability to build or create.

Steve Martin best career advice ever: Be so good they can’t ignore you.

Developments to watch

  • New credentials2 to replace bachelor’s degrees (ie Google certification program, coding tests, and math puzzles)

  • Still early innings of “show your work” online as way to qualify yourself

Let Chess Help Kids

Two years ago my wife Yinh started her podcast Growth From Failure. Her second guest was Berkeley Chess School founder Elizabeth Shaughnessy. It is one of my favorite interviews ever. We have referenced wisdom from it on many occasions since. Yinh texts with her from time to time and always comes away so invigorated. This past week I was stoked to meet the 83-years-young chess whiz. My expectations were high.

It turns out I still underestimated how special she is.

We went to lunch at Cafenated Coffee in Berkeley and 5 minutes into the conversation I immediately regretted not having a notebook. Elizabeth is bursting with passion for her mission and practical insights for teaching, life, and of course chess.

I did a full write-up that I’d love for you to check out: Lunch With The Amazing Founder Of Berkeley Chess: Elizabeth Shaughnessy (Link)

Here I’ll give a brief version of why it’s so special but the full article gets into ideas you can literally apply today in your life.

The Mission of Berkeley Chess School

BCS is a true Robinhood organization. As a non-profit, they are funded by donations and fees they receive for after-school programs around the Bay Area and private lessons (our son and his friends do group private lessons with BCS instructors). This supports their mission to provide free or low-cost chess instruction to students at poorly sourced Title 1 schools. In the past 40 years, BCS has taught over 250,000 kids.

But when you sit with Elizabeth you realize this is about far more than a game. Today, with Covid decimating enrollment, the school has re-purposed its building to teach disadvantaged kids. These are kids from low-income sections of Oakland, Richmond and Berkeley who are struggling with distance learning. These kids have no internet or computers at home. Without intervention, these kids, already struggling academically before the pandemic hit, may suffer an irreparable learning loss that could affect their health and financial well-being far into their adult lives.

From her experience, Elizabeth is convinced there is hope.

How Does Chess Help?

As a fan of games and games in learning, I like to believe that the skills acquired in play “transfer” to other domains. This is something I’ve wondered aloud about on Twitter. It is rooted in causality. I specifically asked Elizabeth if she thought a joy of chess was simply a symptom of a more general aptitude or if chess was imparting a more generalized skill that could be applied to other fields.

Elizabeth is a big believer that there is transference.

  • Chess asks kids to slow down and be methodical.

    Count how many pieces are threatening your pieces. Do this for every piece, on every turn, to find the strengths and weaknesses on the board.  Then look at all the checks you can deliver, then the captures, then the attacks. When all this is done, then make your move.

  • Consequences matter and compound.

    Chess teaches you that consequences matter. Make a rash move and you get penalized by your opponent.  Mistakes are expensive in chess and life. What scenarios can unfold if you always skip math class? How will this serve your long term objective of being a Wall Street wizard if you’re unable to calculate risk or odds?

  • Chess sharpens your focus.

    She has repeatedly seen firsthand the power of chess to harness kids’ attention. It’s an effective tool to settle kids so they can get into a better headspace for learning. Kids who start out resistant often do not want to go home after school.

Chess can show kids they are smart. It teaches them to believe in their own abilities. Many of the kids BCS teaches face long odds in life but chess can offer lessons in foresight, creativity, problem solving, and self-control.

Helping BCS

Children heatseek that which provides immediate benefit or stimulation. BCS has figured out how to stimulate children that have been written off. Any witness to that transformation will see one thing — the longest lever we have as a society to improve a child’s well-being today and into adulthood. When I listen to Elizabeth, I can feel what she has seen.

If you are looking for high impact ways to give back I encourage you to check out my full post or if you prefer you can simply head over to BCS site to learn more. (Berkeley Chess School)

Tips and Insights

Elizabeth cannot help but spill insights all over the place when talking. Check out the full post to get:

  • practical tips for learning chess today
  • how to play chess with children and why
  • insights into teaching girls specifically
  • the role of genius
  • the pros and cons of being a good loser

And if you are wondering her view on Netflix’s Queen’s Gambit — she thought it was too long but the beginning and end were fantastic. Ultimately, she thought it deserved high marks for making chess so compelling.

Wrapping Up

My 7-yr-old has been taking lessons with BCS intermittently since he was 5. Even our copycat 4-yr-old is into it. It took him all week of multiple games per night to learn how the knight (he’ll correct you if you call it a “horse”) moves. I better start learning more, they are hot on my heels. I’m MoontowerMeta on if you want to add me. I’m a beginner. I’m still beating the 7-yr-old but it’s getting tougher.

This is one of Elizabeth’s sons teaching chess at our pod a few weeks ago.

Lunch With The Amazing Founder Of Berkeley Chess: Elizabeth Shaughnessy

I’m going to tell you about Elizabeth Shaughnessy. Exactly 2 years ago, Yinh contacted to Elizabeth to be one of the first guests on her podcast Growth From Failure. Elizabeth has been an inspiration to our family since that first conversation.  I have been telling anyone interested in chess, children, education, or simply hope to listen to that interview.

This past weekend I was privileged to meet Elizabeth for lunch in Berkeley.

About Elizabeth

Nearly 40 years ago, Elizabeth, 83-years-young, volunteered to teach an after-school chess enrichment class at her children’s school. She expected a handful of people to take interest. Instead a diverse group of 72 children showed up. She was stunned. In the eighties, chess was the underground world of nerds. And if you think back to 80s movies, nerds were people jocks stuffed in lockers. (It probably didn’t help that we were in the Cold War — think about it — if Drago was a Grandmaster and Stallone a genius orphan from Brooklyn, Rocky IV would have swept the Oscars).

How times have changed. Today, Elizabeth oversees a chess school that teaches nearly 7,000 kids per year. She estimates the school has provided instruction and community for nearly 250,000 people in the past 40 years!

Her illustrious history can be found here.

The Berkeley Chess School

The chess school is a true Robinhood organization. As a non-profit, they are funded by donations and fees they receive for after-school programs around the Bay Area and private lessons (our son and his friends do group private lessons with BCS instructors). This supports their mission to provide free or low-cost chess instruction to students at poorly sourced Title 1 schools. While they are in over 120 local schools, Covid-19 has been devastating to enrollment as in-person instruction has cratered.

Always the optimist, Elizabeth has pivoted resources. With generous support from philanthropists and organizations working through the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, the Chess School now administers a program to help our most vulnerable neighbors. Her son, Stephen Shaughnessy, a former California State Scholastic Chess Champion and a teacher with more than twenty years of experience, guides cohorts of students struggling with remote learning in a safe setting in the School’s spacious tournament hall. Steven’s gifts and calling has always been to teach children, but this year this mission has been extra special. And challenging.

Coming from low-income neighborhoods in Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond, his 5th graders are from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds. Not one to mince words, Elizabeth says that without intervention, these kids, already struggling academically before the pandemic hit, may suffer an irreparable learning loss that could affect their health and financial well-being far into their adult lives. They are at a critical age, steps from a dark a road without an offramp.

From her experience, Elizabeth is convinced there is hope. BCS is determined to help kids believe in themselves and their own ability to be smart. Many of the kids BCS teaches face long odds in life but chess can offer lessons in foresight, creativity, problem solving, and self-control. It can give these youngsters a chance for better futures far from the disadvantages of their childhoods. The hope is they would have kids of their own one day for whom the sky is the limit. If the realism is off-putting, then you can imagine just how important the work is.

Lessons From A Lifetime Of Teaching Chess

While this lunch was supposed to be nothing more than friends catching up, I found her passion and enthusiasm for her work the only thread I wanted to pull on. She just oozes hard-won insights into children and learning. I immediately regretted not having a notebook. Here is what I can remember from the 90 easiest minutes I ever had of keeping my mouth shut as I tried to absorb the steady stream of wisdom.

Benefits of Chess

As a fan of games and games in learning, I like to believe that the skills acquired in play “transfer” to other domains. This is something I’ve wondered aloud about on Twitter. It is rooted in causality. I specifically asked Elizabeth if she thought a joy of chess was simply a symptom of a more general aptitude or if chess was imparting a more generalized skill that could be applied to other fields.

Elizabeth is a big believer that there is transference.

  • Chess asks kids to slow down and be methodical.

    Count how many pieces are threatening your pieces. Do this for every piece, on every turn, to find the strengths and weaknesses on the board.  Then look at all the checks you can deliver, then the captures, then the attacks. When all this is done, then make your move.

  • Consequences matter and compound

    Chess teaches you that consequences matter. Make a rash move and you get penalized by your opponent.  Mistakes are expensive in chess and life. What scenarios can unfold if you always skip math class? How will this serve your long term objective of being a Wall Street wizard if you’re unable to calculate risk or odds?

  • Chess sharpens your focus.

    She has repeatedly seen firsthand the power of chess to harness kids’ attention. It’s an effective tool to settle kids so they can get into a better headspace for learning. Kids who start out resistant often do not want to go home after school.

Tips For Learning Chess

Yinh and I are starting to learn chess alongside our 7-year-old who has been getting intermittent instruction since he was 5. Our 4-year-old recently learned how to set up the board and how the peices move (ok, he doesn’t really understand how the “horse” jumps). Learning chess can be a bit overwhelming for good reasons. There are tons of amazing resources out there from software, to YouTube, books, and communities. If you are like me, sometimes you just want to be told “Do this” and be handed a basic recipe from which you branch as you learn.

Here’s the simple recipe.

  • At first, focus on tactics.

    You can think of tactics as a series of maneuvers to gain an advantage over your opponent. They have cool names like “forks” and “pins”. They are the “fun” part of chess. Most major software and websites provide ample puzzles to teach and reinforce tactics.

  • There’s plenty of time to worry about openings later

    Don’t worry about studying openings until you have at least a 1200 rating. More has been written about openings than any other aspect of chess and it is a rabbit hole from which the beginning and intermediate chess player might never emerge.

In the meantime, take solace in the idea that beginners’ focus on tactics is not just the best use of time, but conveniently, fun. Strategy including openings and end games come much later (Elizabeth mentioned that endgame chess is especially fascinating to the mathematically inclined). Although I have just started, I find the puzzles extremely engaging. While it’s humbling, the feeling of “seeing” the move is addictingly rewarding.

Chess and Children

  • High standards

    With a good teacher, many kindergartners can visually play without looking at a board. It is not the realm of genius. In fact, one of the most inspiring feelings you get from spending time with Elizabeth is how bullish she is on children’s abilities. She believes we do not give them enough credit. They are capable of so much. We easily forget how we stunt a plant’s growth when it’s in a small pot.

  • Playing chess with children

    Do not let them undo bad moves. Remember, consequences matter. If they make a weak or ill-advised move (a blunder in chess parlance), turn the board around and play the weaker position. You can continue to do this and by the end there is a sense that nobody has truly lost which can be useful to keep kids encouraged.

  • Genius

    They exist. She has seen her share. There are children out there who can recite every move of the last games they have played. You cannot teach geniuses. They are smarter than the teachers. But you can guide them and help them explore the exponential facets of the game. BCS has had the privilege of coaching three Grandmasters, including Olympiad Gold Medalist and 2018 US Chess Champion GM Sam Shankland. BCS offers Master Classes so the best players can learn from and help one another even as they compete.

  • Not pushing too hard

    Other than World Champion Magnus Carlsen, the life of a grandmaster is hard. There are few things in the world in which you can be so close to the top and have so little to show for it. Most grandmasters are scraping by, writing books, and being paid to play in tourneys. She does not push the geniuses in that direction. The application of genius to real world problems results in easier, productive, and more prosperous lives.

Chess and Gender

  • Girls

    On average, girls in chess are more discouraged by losing than boys and this can lead them to giving up. They were not born like that. But if one child is encouraged towards cooperative play, while another child is encouraged to compete, losing will be a more emotionally significant event to the child who is unfamiliar with it. She has found that girls who play sports do not give up easily, reinforcing the idea that this is learned behavior.

    Losing is an important subject. There is a tension in being comfortable with losing. It’s necessary to be able to lose because it’s part of learning. However, Elizabeth has never seen a great player that was not deeply bothered by losing. So we must examine our own values and how they relate to losing. When daughters come off the floor after a chess tournament what does Elizabeth see? Fathers who ask their daughters “Did you have fun?”. To the boys they ask, “Did you win?”.

    Elizabeth has lots of views on women in society based on what she has seen at formative ages and observing thousands of families. She believes there is bias and while we were too short on time to get into the vast subject one thing was obvious. We carry tremendous responsibility for the scripts children grow up believing about themselves. It is the single most empowering lesson I grokked from taking in her wisdom.

    And by the way, BCS teaches girls to play chess aggressively. They are trying to balance out society’s conditioning.

    There are 65 active Grandmasters in the United States. One is female.

  • Women

    When women compete at tournaments they are extremely competitive with one another but away from the table they can become friends. Elizabeth told a story of a tournament she hosted with women coming from all over the world. After the fierce competition ended, the women organized a guided tour of SF Bay and got along like sisters. She noted this was a very different dynamic from the men. There is a balancing energy missing in our world if that story is any indication.

Why we care

Chess has exploded in popularity as nerdiness has become cool and the internet has spread access to high quality chess tools, matches, and education. Elizabeth’s life mission has coincided with a more secular phenomenon. The chess school boasts 3 of the United States’ 65 Grandmasters with the most recent one being just 17 years old (masters are getting younger thanks to online play).

If Elizabeth’s mission were simply to promote the empowering aspects of a beautiful game then she has the right to be satisfied. That baton is securely passed on to wider zeitgeist than she ever imagined. But as the recent pivot to share the school’s resources with our most neglected has shown, the Berkeley Chess School is not just a Kumon For Chess. It is a sustainable model for meaningful impact. It is a model for fostering local community. And through it’s alumni, a model for global community.

It is a place we feel lucky to have discovered and organization we are honored to give to. With enrollment down and the ongoing renovation of the School to improve ADA access, there is a lot of wood to chop. If you are interested in helping, they have several programs that you may make targeted donation to.

You can find the list here.

I’ll conclude by saying, when I met Elizabeth I had high expectations. Yinh talks about her a lot and her interview is one of my absolute favorite all-time pods, not just Yinh’s. When I met her, I was blown away. She is sharp as hell. She cares so much you can feel it. As I listened to her stories, it was clear I was in the the presence of a special individual who has spliced her DNA into the heart of an institution (this is not so figurative…her son Steven manages the day to day operations now).

We are excited for the future of the Berkeley Chess School!

(And if you want to learn she recommends starting with the tutorials on Hope to see you there!)

Fun Ways To Teach Your Kids Encryption

Here are 2 simple ways to introduce the idea of encryption to elementary school kids.



I had them try to decode the following code:

4 15 7

(with some prodding they eventually figured out it was a simple letter-number cipher spelling “dog”)



You might recognize this game from your own childhood.



You don’t need to buy it. You can play it with different color marbles, bingo chips, coins or almost any set of things lying around the house.

How to play:

    1. A codemaker constructs a hidden sequence of 4 different colored beads (out of a possible 6 colors).
    2. The codebreaker tries to guess the sequence by arranging 4 colors in order.
    3. The codemaker gives non-verbal feedback:

      a) Identifies how many of the colors used are correct
      b) Identifies how many beads are the right color AND in the right position

    4. Repeat until the code is cracked

      Enrichment questions:

      How can the game be made easier?
      How can the game be made harder?

      And if you have an older onlooker…how many possible codes can be created?

      And if you have an Excel fan in the vicinity, see how you can solve such problems using the hypergeometric distribution. (A Reddit thread targeting game designers)

A Slightly More Advanced Example: Using a “Mask”

Suppose a group of people are sitting around a table and you all want to know how much money everyone makes but of course nobody is willing to share their own salary.

Here’s a way to uncover the average pay at the table without anybody needing to disclose their pay.

Let’s pretend A, B, C, and D are having dinner together at this table.

Just follow these steps:

Masking Phase

  1. Tell “A” to add an arbitrary number to their pay and write the sum on a piece of paper. It’s very important to write just the sum! So if A makes $100k per year and the arbitrary number is 5,000,000 then they would write: $5,100,000

  2. Pass the paper to “B”

  3. “B” notes the sum and adds it to their own salary plus their own arbitrary number. They write this sum on a fresh piece of paper and hand it to “C”. Important: use a new piece of paper, we don’t want anyone to see the history of how the sum was created. 


    “B” receives paper with the sum $5,100, 000
    “B” add this to their own salary $50,000 plus an arbitrary number of $1,000,000
    “B” passes a piece of paper with the total $6,150,000 to “D”

  4. Repeat this process until the paper gets back to “A” 

Un-masking Phase

  1. “A” subtracts their arbitrary number only from the total and passes the new total to “B”.

    Example :

    “A” receives a piece of paper with the number $9,000,000 written on it
    “A” subtracts the $1,000,000 arbitrary number and passes the number $8,000,000 to “B”

  2. Repeat until everyone has subtracted their arbitrary number.

The remaining total is the sum of everyone’s pay. If we divide by 4 (the number of people) we have discovered the average pay at the table and nobody needed to reveal their own number!

You have learned a simple way to “mask” data with arbitrary numbers!

Try it yourself. You don’t even need paper — just explain the rules to some friends in your texting group and find out if you are actually under or overpaid! Just don’t kill the messenger.

(The mask example was inspired by this Twitter thread by @theemilyaccount)

A Socratic Money Lesson For 2nd Graders

I’m sharing the money lesson I did with a pair of 2nd graders on my rotation day with the pod. No worksheets involved. I just used the Socratic method to ask questions and let them develop an understanding on their own.

The concepts:

  • hourly income
  • budgets

Techniques applied:

  • addition and multiplication
  • estimating
  • brainstorming

Materials needed:

  • Poker chips or play money
  • Pencil and paper (we actually used markers and small dry-erase boards)


“Let’s suppose you make $25 per hour.

Pick something you want to buy so you have a savings goal.”

[In our example, they answered gumball machine, so I set the price at $1,000]

Question 1:  How long would it take you to save up for it?

What we are looking for in the answers:

    • How many hours it would take to save up $1,000?
    • How many hours you might work per week? (Expect bad estimates. I found myself asking them what time their parents go to and from work)
    • How the time it takes to save varies with how many hours a week you work.
    • Extend discussion to how much you would make in 1 year.

If you were a grown up you would need to pay for many things. These are known as necessities

Question 2:  Can you make a list of necessities?

What we are looking for in the answers:

We want them to identify categories. I had them create a list on their dry-erase boards. Here’s the ones we settled on:

      1. Food/Drink
      2. Shelter
      3. Transportation
      4. Clothes
      5. Utilities/Energy (including gas for the car)
      6. Hygiene(teeth, hair, soap)
      7. Entertainment/Fun
      8. Furniture/phone/computer (things you buy every few years…durable goods)
      9. Then savings!

Question 3: Create a monthly budget per category item.

What we are looking for in the answers:

In our lesson I had the kids estimate their monthly income and had them count out that much money worth of poker chips. You could use play money from Monopoly just as easily. I then had them estimate the amount of money they would need to spend on each category. They have now learned the concept of budget! Be ready to spend a lot of time here helping them walk through reasonable estimates. When one of the boys said $100 a month for food I explained that you could not even by 1 Happy Meal a day for that amount.

I had the kids stack of the appropriate amount of poker chips on each category.

It is interesting so see how much money the kids allocate to each category once reasonable ranges are established. These 2 boys had a big difference in their fun budgets!

Question 4: How long does it take to save up for that $1,000 gumball machine (or whatever they want to save for)?

What we are looking for in the answers:

Bound by the need to pay for necessities, the kids will discover that they can only make extra discretionary purchases if they amass enough savings. Compared to not having obligations, they should notice that it takes much longer to save up for that gumball machine.

Question 5: How can you get the gumball machine faster?

We want to establish the importance of this category. Adults understand it is a stock variable that changes with monthly flows. We want the kids to establish a link between savings and the things they want to buy. What can you do to save faster?

What we are looking for in the answers:

    1. Work more hours
    2. Spend less on budgeted items
    3. Earn more per hour

Going Further

This is where we stopped but next time this is my plan to continue.

Beyond Labor

This is where we will talk about creating a business. We had already started the discussion when the boys realized they could buy a gumball machine, stock it with candy, place it in Target and pay the machine off. Rinse and repeat. This got their little gears turning!

Here is some ideas I have for exploring:

Basic Accounting

  • Revenue
  • Fixed Costs
  • Variable Costs (COGs)
  • Profit

2 kinds of businesses: service and product

Service: Money-for-time businesses. For example a dentist or dogwalker or haircutter or coach. Earnings potential constrained by hours.

Product: Writing a book, or song (I want to talk about writing credit vs performing credit vs lyrics credit for songs. To make it fun I will look up some examples of a songs they like –Hamilton’s My Shot, Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road, or Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk)

Brainstorming businesses

  •  Brain dump of business ideas
  • Labeling business examples as type 1 or type 2

Application: Lemonade Stand example

  • Working at a lemonade stand is hourly labor and similar to a service business.
  • Owning a lemonade stand is product business.

Demonstrating the difference in risk: the upside and downside of ownership

Contrast the p/l after an hour’s work at a lemonade stand for the worker vs the owner on a

      • Hot day [above expected revenue]
      • Cold day [below expected revenue]
      • An AQI 500 day where people stay indoors (hey these are CA kids!) [no revenue]

We Don’t Need No Education

I kinda hated school as a kid. Sunday nights were sad. Like funerals where the weekend was laid to rest.

Why did I hate school?

It was a tiresome place to be. The waking up early didn’t help. I discovered the snooze alarm at an early age. But that could have been overcome if the destination was fun. But it wasn’t. I was bored. That’s not an “I was too smart for school” flex. It’s just that I liked playing more. I think the only aspect of school that kept me sane is the fact that I’m a pleaser. I’m happiest when I get approval. Getting good grades was a way to do that, at least from adults.

As I got to high school, getting good grades was a path to a good college which was a path to a good job, which was a path to money. I didn’t think much beyond that (money or lack thereof was a source of baggage and well beyond the scope of this post). My scholastic life started with A’s as a path to approval and ended with a 4.0 as a path to money.

Education As A Byproduct

If I learned anything along the way it was an accidental outcome of trying to win the report card tournament. Inverting, good grades are a lossy way to measure learning. The correlation between getting good grades and learning is pretty hazy.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of what good grades actually indicate:

  • Horsepower that’s well-matched to school: Reading, spelling, and arithmetic are easier if your parents are good at them and you’re not dyslexic.
  • Obedience: Your homework makes it to the teacher’s desk without a dog eating it.
  • Competitiveness: You heard ranks were being assigned to humans so you paid attention.
  • Fear: You were afraid of short term pain (getting grounded) or long term pain (being broke).

And finally,

  • Some actual learning. You could use this “reading” thing to follow Nintendo Power‘s instructions to defeat Ganon. You finally found a use for English class.

Notice how good grades are driven by extrinsic motivation more than a desire to learn. That’s a shame because losing a desire to learn was not inevitable. We are built to learn. Not for any grand reasons necessarily. We don’t need to pretend we emerge from the womb with little monk minds ready to contemplate the mysteries of the world. Learning is just the tool by which we solve problems.

If you have ever witnessed the frustration of a gesturing, prelinguistic child you know the power of motivation. Learning words has a direct bearing on the solution to the problem the child is solving for — nuanced communication. If a child points to her belly because she has a stomachache and mom thinks she’s just hungry the child realizes words are more effective than charades. Necessity, meet your baby, invention.

In contrast to a toddler’s home environment, the school environment concocts contrived problems that feel irrelevant. This makes actual learning an inefficient way to get what they want — good grades. School severs the link between learning and solution. It has replaced this link with “good grades are a solution to getting approval/eliminating pain”.  My most pressing problem in the confined setting is how do I get my parents or teacher off my back so I can do what I want. Not how long it took train A to overtake train B if A is moving twice as fast B.

For the kids who aren’t totally defeated by the seeming irrelevance of their education, getting good grades becomes an all-consuming priority. Not learning. We dangled “approval” in front of a child instead of a pertinent goal that would call for actual learning. To a social animal in a group setting, the returns to approval dwarf the returns to true understanding. This is a recipe for an underwhelming formal education.

Instead, we used our capacity to learn to onboard the wrong lessons. What follows is my evolving understanding of:

  1. What school teaches us
  2. What we mean by learning

  3. What’s necessary to learn

  4. How to actually learn

1. School Teaches Us That Time Is Scarce

Tim Ferris didn’t teach us the 80/20 rule. School did. It made us feel that time is scarce.

Nabeel Qureshi1 recounts his calculus education:

I remember being taught calculus at school and getting stuck on the “dy/dx” notation (aka Leibniz notation) for calculus. The “dy/dx” just looked like a fraction, it looked like we were doing division, but we weren’t actually doing division. “dy/dx” doesn’t mean “dy” divided by “dx”, it means “the value of an infinitesimal change in y with respect to an infinitesimal change in x”, and I didn’t see how you could break this thing apart as though it was simple division. At one point the proof of the fundamental theorem of calculus involved multiplying out a polynomial, and along the way you could cancel out “dy*dx” because “both of these quantities are infinitesimal, so in effect, this can be canceled out”.

This reasoning did not make sense. It turns out that my misgivings were right, and that the Leibniz notation is basically just a convenient shorthand and that you more or less can treat those things “as if” they are fractions, but the proof is super complicated etc. Moreover, the Leibniz shorthand is actually far more powerful and easier to work with than Newton’s functions-based shorthand, which is why mainland Europe got way ahead of England (which stuck with Newton’s notation) in calculus. And then all of the logical problems didn’t really get sorted out until Riemann came along 200 years later and formulated calculus in terms of limits.

But all of that went over my head in high school. At the time, I was infuriated by these inadequate proofs, but I was under time pressure to just learn the operations so that I could answer exam questions because the class needed to move onto the next thing. And since you actually can answer the exam questions and mechanically perform calculus operations without ever deeply understanding calculus, it’s much easier to just get by and do the exam without really questioning the concepts deeply — which is in fact what happens for most people.

This process is not limited to math. Here’s Nabeel on liberal arts:2

My problem with a lot of humanities education is that it trains you to find arguments for/against things, but does not train you to find the actual truth. You’re rewarded for generating the most original, plausible-sounding arguments, ideally backed by the obscurest writings from the coolest thinkers. At no point is “what is actually true about this topic” really the focus. Robin Hanson calls this “better babblers”. Certain combinations of words have better expected reward outputs than other combinations, so students learn to generate the “winning” combinations in clever ways. In this way everybody GPT-3’s their way to a degree.

In other words, school trains us to do what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls “guessing the teacher’s password“.3 Instead of understanding a concept, we mime an understanding by parroting a verbal sequence back to a teacher. The sequence is comprised of the bold-faced words in your textbook with the occasional memorized equation mixed in for, um, rigor.

If school is teaching us the wrong lessons, Nabeel is clear on the result.

How many people understand in a deeper way? Very few. Moreover, the ‘meta’ lesson is: don’t question it too deeply, you’ll fall behind. Just learn the algorithm, plug in the numbers, and pass your exams. Speed is of the essence. In this way, school kills the “will to understanding” in people.

Ouch. School kills the will to understand. This brings us to the next key point. 

2. Learning is Understanding

Learning is commonly defined as the “acquisition of knowledge”. This is too broad of a definition. Much of what we call “learning” under this definition is simply “labeling”. That thing hanging in the sky all day is the”sun”. That thing where food is created from the sun’s rays is “photosynthesis”.

The words “sun” and “photosynthesis” are symbols representing concepts. The symbol we English speakers know as “sun” is a link in a food chain. But it is also a source of light for illumination, heat for viability, and gravity for lassoing planetary orbits. The ideas that we assign tidy names to have many facets and are context-dependent.

Learning is to increase your understanding of each context and the relationships between them. When we scale the process up we create a web of interlocking ideas. Imagine we could project this knowledge web as a hologram. Then understanding would mean growing the web. Understanding would mean being able to walk around it, seeing it from different angles and under different lights.

Contrasting Deeper Understanding From Broader Learning

Most of school was just ‘labeling’. That type of learning is necessary. It’s a prerequisite for actual understanding.

Let’s consider the pros and cons of the shallow/broad “labeling’ education vs the deep/narrow “understanding” education. A superficial introduction to many ideas is typical of school. The benefit is self-evident. Especially at younger ages when you are a blank slate. As you progress through school you need to pass tests in many subjects. This has a sneaky cost. It trains you to stop exploring at shallow depths.

Nabeel on the risk of staying shallow:

People who have not experienced the thing are unlikely to be generating truth. More likely, they’re resurfacing cached thoughts and narratives. Reading popular science books or news articles is not a substitute for understanding, and may make you stupider, by filling your mind with narratives and stories that don’t represent your own synthesis. Even if you can’t experience the thing directly, try going for information-dense sources with high amounts of detail and facts, and then reason up from those facts. On foreign policy, read books published by university presses — not The Atlantic or The Economist or whatever. You can read those after you’ve developed a model of the thing yourself, against which you can judge the popular narratives.

In contrast, diving deeper means a narrower breadth of topics. The benefit, of course, is finding a meaningful understanding.

Evidence of Understanding

A clue that your understanding is solid and growing is that you can either answer questions (aka solve problems) or you can ask good questions. The trajectory of learning is an ascending dialogue between good questions and good answers which feed back into deeper questions. At each plateau in the dialogue, the learner should be testing the understanding either via practice.

Tiago Forte contrasts superficial book knowledge with hands-on knowledge:4

When you’re applying that knowledge directly to a real-world challenge, you won’t have to worry about memorizing it, integrating it, or even fully understanding it. You will only have to apply it, and any gaps in your understanding will very quickly reveal themselves. By the time you’re done solving a real problem with it, book knowledge has become experiential knowledge. And experiential knowledge is something you carry with you forever.

3. Prerequisites To “Understanding”

People vary in their aptitude and strengths. Fortunately, many of the key ingredients for learning are not inborn but acquired. They are what Nabeel calls good “intellectual software” habits.

Nabeel contrasts “intellectual software” from “intellectual hardware”:

Intelligent people simply aren’t willing to accept answers that they don’t understand…Importantly, this is a ‘software’ trait & is independent of more ‘hardware’ traits such as processing speed, working memory, and other such things. Moreover, I have noticed that these ‘hardware’ traits vary greatly in the smartest people I know — some are remarkably quick thinkers, calculators, readers, whereas others are ‘slow’. The software traits, though, they all have in common — and can, with effort, be learned. What this means is that you can internalize good intellectual habits that, in effect, “increase your intelligence”

Nabeel catalogs these “intellectual software habits” :

a) Determination

For most people… it’s much easier to just stop at an answer that seems to make sense than to pursue everything that you don’t quite get. It’s also so easy to think that you understand something when you actually don’t. This requires a lot of intrinsic motivation because it’s so hard. It’s not just energy. You have to be able to motivate yourself to spend large quantities of energy on a problem, which means on some level that not understanding something — or having a bug in your thinking — bothers you a lot. You have the drive, the will to know.

Many of you will recognize this habit as that annoying thing kids do when they keep asking “why?”. Louis C.K. described it best in this comedy bit.

b) Honesty

Intellectual honesty or integrity: a sort of compulsive unwillingness, or inability, to lie to yourself. Feynman said that “the first rule of science is that you do not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

c) Self-confidence

Here’s Malcolm Gladwell on his father:

My father has zero intellectual insecurities… It has never crossed his mind to be concerned that the world thinks he’s an idiot. He’s not in that game. So if he doesn’t understand something, he just asks you. He doesn’t care if he sounds foolish. He will ask the most obvious question without any sort of concern about it… So he asks lots and lots of dumb, in the best sense of that word, questions. He’ll say to someone, ‘I don’t understand. Explain that to me.’ He’ll just keep asking questions until he gets it right, and I grew up listening to him do this in every conceivable setting. If my father had met Bernie Madoff, he would never have invested money with him because he would have said, ‘I don’t understand’ a hundred times. ‘I don’t understand how that works’, in this kind of dumb, slow voice. ‘I don’t understand, sir. What is going on?’

4. How to learn

  • Make learning about trying to solve problems from the beginning.

If you want to learn Excel, don’t start with a course. Watch some videos then find something useful to build like a budget or portfolio tracker. Learn by doing. Google liberally.

  • Don’t be afraid to go deep.

Jacks of all trades and renaissance men are celebrated. As a guy, I see this embodied by brands like Art of Manliness which extol the virtues of brains and brawn. But this culture can easily give way to “lifehacking”. There’s nothing wrong with this if you are just looking for a bar trick icebreaker. But this is a far cry from being a magician. How do we marry the virtue of breadth with the type of integrity and satisfaction that only comes from depth?

The answer is focus. Consider Josh Waitzkin. Chess champion, tai chi champion, and jiu-jitsu master. As a child, he was the subject of the film Searching For Bobby Fischer. In this thread, we learn how Waitzkin defines and ascends levels of competence. How he establishes an internal locus of control. How he prefers not to “simmer” or multitask. He is either intensely on or intensely off. How he spends 5-10 years immersed in a craft before taking on a new one.

If Waitzkin represents a reliable path to mastery then our modes of spending 8 hours in an office or classroom are simply unnatural. A lion is either peacefully resting or the pinnacle of violence. Her energy is a precious resource of which she cannot spare a drop.

  • Forget the ladder

School felt like a race against time. But even worse, it implied life was a ladder. It’s true you can’t do algebra without arithmetic. But why does algebra need to precede geometry? And for that matter, why are you learning trigonometry before stats? The ladder metaphor is confining. Taylor Pearson breaks down an alternative metaphor coined by Shery Sandburg, “the jungle gym”:5

Using a jungle gym as the metaphor for your career opens up all new possibilities that a ladder doesn’t allow for.

For one, a career ladder implies a linear path. The logical thing to do after you step on the first rung is to step on the second rung. There is a very different end when you get on a jungle gym than when you get on a ladder. What do you do on a ladder? Climb to the top, obviously. What do you do on a jungle gym? Well, you can still climb to the top. But you could also hang from it and feel your shoulders stretch. You could drop to the ground and rest for a few minutes when you get tired.

No one looks down on someone for not climbing to the top of a jungle gym the way they would look down on someone not climbing to the top of a ladder. We look down at people who climb the career ladder slowly (or not at all) because why would you not get to the top of a ladder as fast as possible? That’s the whole point of a ladder.

You can also extend the metaphor in interesting ways. A jungle gym is on a playground and if there’s some asshole camping out at the top, you can simply go play on something else. Perhaps there is another jungle gym. Or some monkey bars. Or a fort. There isn’t a better or worse way to play on a jungle gym or playground. You just do what gets you excited.

  • Zooming in

Perhaps the most powerful tool we have when learning is the ability to get our hands dirty. Tinker. Throw some numbers in a spreadsheet and play. Jot words down on the page and re-arrange. Sketch. Draw arrows. Trace. Copy. Take a photo. Explain an idea to someone else and handle their questions honestly. Re-examine the holes in your understanding.

Nabeel pulls an example from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to explain how come closer to insight:

He’d been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first, he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of anything to say. One of them, a girl with strong-lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hundred word essay about the United States. He was used to the sinking feeling that comes from statements like this, and suggested without disparagement that she narrow it down to just Bozeman.

When the paper came due she didn’t have it and was quite upset. She had tried and tried but she just couldn’t think of anything to say. He had already discussed her with her previous instructors and they’d confirmed his impressions of her. She was very serious, disciplined and hardworking, but extremely dull. Not a spark of creativity in her anywhere. Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, were the eyes of a drudge. She wasn’t bluffing him, she really couldn’t think of anything to say, and was upset by her inability to do as she was told. It just stumped him. Now he couldn’t think of anything to say. A silence occurred, and then a peculiar answer:

“Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman.”

It was a stroke of insight. She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distress that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn’t think of anything to say, and couldn’t understand why, if she couldn’t think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street. He was furious.

“You’re not looking!” he said.

A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn’t looking and yet somehow didn’t understand this.

He told her angrily, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.”

Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide. She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five- thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana.

“I sat in the hamburger stand across the street,” she said, “and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don’t understand it.”

She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn’t think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn’t recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before.

The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.

When I’m feeling anxious I find that it’s coincident with thinking too much. Like I’m stuck in my own head. The remedy is to bring ideas down to the level of action. Build a model focused on a narrow problem, spend time with others, or get outside and active. It’s counterproductive to spend too much time in the abstract at the expense of field observation. Zooming in allows you to reduce dimensions and recruit more senses. When I start feeling lost I try to remember “Bozeman”.


Life is demanding. Everyone is busy. It’s not realistic nor desirable to acquire a deep understanding of most things or even many things. But when you choose to 80/20 something make sure it’s a choice and not just a bad habit overlearned from years of academic grinding.  

Personally, I never wanted to 80/20 learning the guitar by just learning a few “cowboy” chords. The best explanation for that is my interest in guitar isn’t derived (an example of a derived interest would be to learn guitar “to get chicks”). Guitar itself is the end goal. In this case, understanding requires study, deliberate practice, and tinkering. There’s no goal in mind but progress moves in many directions not along a single arrow. Developing an ear, improving rhythm, improvisation, copying songs, and applying bits of theory across all these domains is a slow but rewarding endeavor. I can’t say anything I did in school mapped well to how I approach my hobbies or career. Because in things that actually matter to me I learn because it sustains me. Not because I have to pass a test.

School is a scalable solution to a public need. I found the experience dreary. I’m not an expert on school and I recognize that the desires and constraints of all its stakeholders are varied. The system is asked to make impossible compromises. But I wrote this with a particular irony in mind. One that seems to pop up over and over amongst old and new friends alike.

People who call themselves lifelong learners didn’t actually start learning until after they were out of school.

Ultimately I just have questions.

Could we have trained our “understanding” muscles earlier and ended up in the same or better place even if our educations were narrower or more tailored to our curiosities?

Did we race to the finish line only to bring the wrong lessons into adulthood? Did those lessons dictate how we live and what jobs we choose?

We don’t need that education.

“The shortcut is twice as long.”


The Post Every Prospective Homeschooler Needs

With the upcoming school year set to be remote Yinh and I panicked. We felt like distance learning was the worst of all worlds and not suitable for young children (our kids were in preschool and 1st grade). We wanted to know our options. So we looked into homeschooling. As in unenrolling from public school and taking ownership of educating our boys.

In researching, we were introduced to a friend of a friend, who whether she likes it or not, must now be our friend too because she’s amazing and we won’t take no for an answer.

Why do I feel that way?

Because of her amazing response when I asked her for guidance on homeschooling. Remember I was basically a stranger reaching out. I got her permission to publish it here. I’ve edited it modestly, adding some headings and changing her girls’ names.

I hope this enlightens you as much as it did Yinh and I.


I have two daughters, Mary (9) and Amy (6). We started homeschooling Mary last year in second grade and this current year was my first year with both girls. I was utterly bewildered when we started this homeschooling thing, and I still feel overwhelmed at times, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how fun it is. The girls don’t always have good attitudes, there are occasional tears, but I take it as a good sign.

Some hints of unadvertised benefits of homeschooling

When we first started, Mary would occasionally burst into tears and I mistakenly thought she was trying to manipulate me. I was eventually able to coax it out of her that she sometimes felt like crying in school, but didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of her class, so she just held it in. With me at home, they can let out all their frustrated feelings when they’re overwhelmed. I was also surprised at how easy it is to gauge their understanding and progress. It is so obvious when they really grasp the material and when they need more time/practice. As a non-teacher, I was sure I would fail at this endeavor, but when it’s just us, one-on-one, it’s manageable. My sister-in-law, who was a classroom teacher and then homeschooled her four kids, told me that so much of what teachers learn in college is classroom management, which you don’t really need at home with just your kids.

Transition to homeschool

The transition from a classroom to home can be so jarring. Some kids need a “detox” period when they truly start homeschooling, and not just distance learning. As I’m sure you’ve learned already, they need lots of motion breaks, especially without the social pressure of the classroom to sit. Another big difference between the classroom and home is writing. Writing will be the source of many breakdowns. Writing is so hard for elementary kids – forming the right letters, putting them in the right sequence, considering punctuation. At school, teachers often scribe for the class while teaching a lesson. At home, we can lessen the writing burden by scribing for them or allowing them to narrate their answers. Ask what the purpose of the assignment is. Is it to assess their knowledge or to practice writing? Is it to draw out big, fun ideas from their wondrous brains? You can even have them copy the answer you wrote down. They’ll be practicing writing for the rest of their lives. They’ve got time.

Loosely scripted days

Sometimes we’re halfway through school at 8am. Sometimes we don’t start til the crack of noon. Sometimes my kids crave a schedule. Sometimes my kids want to choose what’s next. Sometimes they like to sit at the table to work. Sometimes they’re hanging upside down on the trapeze while they answer questions about a reading assignment. Moods and needs change. I’m flexible when I can be and try to pick my battles.

A custom education

There are so many different styles of homeschooling, so many different curricula to choose from. Some kids like the worksheets and workbooks because it feels like real school. Other kids need a more relaxed approach. I have a friend who just buys generic workbooks in every subject and has her daughter do one lesson a day until they’re finished. I have a friend who uses mostly online programs (Time 4 Learning, Starfall, etc.) so she can work while her kids do school. I have a friend whose kids run wild all day, and she just pulls them in for 10-15 minutes at a time for a quick lesson. I have another friend who unschools, which is a lot more work than you’d think. There’s the Charlotte Mason philosophy and Classical education. There are even people who gameschool. The options are overwhelming!

Getting comfortable with the inevitable uncertainty

The good news is that even if all you do is read books and do a little math in the next year, your child will be fine. In elementary school, science and social studies is just a repetition of what they did the previous year with a little bit more detail. Science is the plant life cycle, the planets, maybe the density experiment with oil, water, and corn syrup. Social studies is a lot of boring talk about community rules, community helpers, and US symbols. A lot of the work in science and social studies at this age is just practicing how to read for information. That can be done with much more interesting sources than dusty old textbooks. Art, music, nature, and poetry are springboards for science, history, and literature. Art includes movies and video games. Film scores are music and rap is poetry. Trace a leaf. Copy down the lyrics to a favorite song. Watch a TV show and ask “Who’s being brave?” There’s no limit to where they can go. As an example, Amy listened to a Classics for Kids podcast about Vivaldi and got curious. We listened to The Four Seasons as she did other school work. Then she painted a picture of what she hears in the music, wrote a description of her painting, and copied the sonnet that accompanies the season. She noticed similar words in the English translation and the original Italian sonnet and looked up some Latin root words. When her hand got tired, we traded off writing sentences. We listened to more podcasts about the Baroque Era, looked at art and architecture from the same period, read The Story of the Orchestra, listened to the Beethoven’s Wig series of silly songs set to classical pieces, and watched Fantasia. There’s no limit to where they can go when they show curiosity. Something to keep in mind as you explore the world with them: so many available resources are Euro-, white-, and Christian-centric. We keep a map of the world and mark where our interests have taken us, reminding us there’s a big world out there with more to offer. We ask three questions of everything we read, listen to, or watch: 1) Who’s telling the story? 2) Who benefits from the story? 3) Who’s left out of the story?

More good news: everything is learning!

Cooking, cleaning, sorting laundry, organizing a bookshelf, drawing on the wall, laying on the floor and staring at the ceiling in utter boredom. All learning! You don’t have to have a plan or a project or even an idea. Some of the best learning experiences we’ve had have been completely accidental. Learning happens everywhere all the time. It can be slow and not feel like learning but that’s okay. We have nothing else to do for the next year, right?

How to Start

There are two ways to officially homeschool in California: 1) Declare your home a private school by filing an affidavit with the Department of Education. There’s very little oversight beyond keeping records for attendance. 2) Enroll in a public charter school where the learning takes place at home. We are enrolled in Visions in Education and have friends who use Valley View. Families are assigned a credentialed teacher (CT) who offers guidance about curriculum, collects work samples, acts as a teaching coach, and generally keeps us all moving in the right direction. Because it is a public school, students are held to the same standards as any California public schools. We meet with our CT at least once every 20 school days (which works out to about once a month) where she collects work samples and chats with the kids to assess their learning. It’s very informal and we love our meetings. They’re very reassuring for me and the girls like to show off what they’ve been doing. We really click with our CT, but I have friends who have butted heads a bit with theirs. In addition to having the guidance of a CT, the public charter option provides a student budget to purchase curriculum and to pay for extracurriculars, which can be anything from art lessons to dance classes to sports. We get $2700 per student per year with Visions. The kids are able to try all kinds of classes and we use most of it to pay for the expensive outdoor ed program they attend at Sienna Ranch. The bad news is charter schools have seen a lot of interest in the last few months, but it doesn’t hurt to put in an application. I have a friend who was waitlisted last July but got a call in October because families had withdrawn after deciding it wasn’t the path for them.

There are so many other choices out there, but it helped me in my first (very overwhelming) year to deeply research just the ones that meet CA standards. Cathy Duffy is well known for her curriculum reviews. She is blatantly Christian, but she’s reviewed just about everything out there and is a great place to start if a particular program catches your eye. She is also great at noting what has religious content and what is secular. I also read a lot on the Secular Homeschool forums before we took the plunge. It offered great insights into what I could expect in this adventure. People discuss common problems they’ve run into, programs they’ve had success with, programs that were not a good fit for their learners, etc. Other resources that have guided our choices are and The latter, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been particularly useful in establishing an anti-racist learning environment.

I’ll outline below some of the programs I’ve used. It is A Lot, but homeschooling doesn’t have to be A Lot! Don’t let the following list overwhelm you.

Resources By Discipline

Language Arts

I used the Brave Writer program for both girls this year. For the 6-year-old, we used The Wand for reading/phonics and Jot It Down for writing. I was skeptical about the effectiveness of the phonics portion, but we’ve seen really great results. In fact, I was so impressed, I started having Mary sit in on Amy’s lessons and she learned so much that she had somehow missed in public school.

For Mary, we used The Arrow and Parternship Writing. The Arrow guides use a very relaxed, conversational style. It felt weird to be so informal, without vocabulary exercises and comprehension questions to answer, but they were so engaged and obviously learning. Next year for first grade, we will use The Dart for Amy and continue to use The Arrow for Mary.

We had a lot of fun with Jot It Down and Partnership Writing too. Brave Writer wants to get to the heart of what writing is really about – communicating. Rather than be restricted by the mechanics of it all, we help get all those great ideas onto the paper. Our job as the parent is to jot it down for them. Sometimes I just record Amy’s voice so we can write it down later together or I take dictation for her as she answers questions or gives me her thoughts or we trade off writing sentences. Mary does a lot of the writing herself, but I jump in for dictation or recording her voice whenever she needs it. The mechanics will come in time. Our role is to help them develop their ideas. They do get some practice with mechanics and learn grammar through copywork and dictation in The Wand/The Arrow part of the curriculum. Our teacher loves the work we do with Brave Writer so much that she’s going to use it with her kids this summer (and possibly fall, depending on what school looks like then). It’s always the first thing she wants to see when we meet with her. As a teacher, she loves it.

The downside to Brave Writer is that it’s very parent-participation-heavy. I used to schedule the girls’ writing time at the same time but I had to switch that up. I couldn’t do two at once. It also takes some prep work for you to support them. It takes a project or two of practicing but now I remember the questions and methods to use without thinking twice about it. It also helped me adjust to this new mindset when it comes to writing. I leave the grammar and the spelling to the grammar and spelling lessons. Writing is about the ideas and what they have to say. The best writing mechanics doesn’t mean anything if the writer doesn’t have a good idea! It was hard at first, but now I’m able to let the girls take their projects in whatever direction they want. It may not be to the exact letter of the assignment, but as long as it’s in the spirit of the assignment, I let them run wild. For example, Amy’s animal book assignment morphed into a trip to the zoo. She carried a clipboard around all day, copied down the names of the animals she was interested in, took pictures of them (and the informative placards in from of the enclosures), and then wrote about them when we got home. She included a little personal bit for each animal based on our trip to the zoo. (Ex: We saw seven lemurs from a tunnel in the enclosure.) She even included a squirrel in her book and was delighted at her trick because it wasn’t really a zoo animal, it just lived on the grounds. She was so excited to see her zoo trip come to life in her very own book. I had her type it on the computer so she even got to practice her typing skills for this project too. Point being, you and your learner can do as much or as little as you want. Some assignments just aren’t as interesting to them as others and that’s okay. Do as much as they’re inspired to do and let it go when they’re done.

I also use a simple writing workbook with the girls called Building Writers, from Learning Without Tears. They are short, easy exercises that help them with the mechanics of writing. So even though I may talk a big game about being breezy with expectations, I still on some level can’t let go of the mechanics! But Building Writers is truly just a little sentence practice in the elementary phase. It’s meant to build their confidence and ease with writing and I feel it’s been helpful. I also use the handwriting books from Learning Without Tears, which have been great for my kids.

We use a separate spelling program called Words Their Way. My teacher friends rave about it and my kids have been very successful with it. It involves sorting lists of words to notice their patterns. Last year, I used Soaring With Spelling. Mary never got less than 100% on a spelling test, but still couldn’t spell worth a damn, so it clearly wasn’t the right program for her. It was the same with our phonics program, Explode the Code. As I said earlier, it’s pretty apparent when a program is working and when it is not.

We used Blackbird last year with Mary and it was a great program, but very formulaic and by the end of the year, she was ready for something new. Our writing program last year was Write Source, which we liked but it was very traditional and I wanted to try something a little different.


For math, we use Math Mammoth and we love it. It’s big on pattern recognition and games, which the girls respond to very well. Last year, I used Primary Math (the Singapore math method) to teach Amy kindergarten math and it was wonderful. We started this year with Math In Focus (the Singapore math method written to align with US standards), but it just didn’t work for us. We switched back to Math Mammoth and we’re all happier for it.


For science, we used Studies Weekly for both girls, which I don’t love. It’s boring, but meets all the CA standards and was a good option for us this year as I figured out how to teach two kids simultaneously. It was also cheap!

Everyone thinks that I, as an engineer, must love teaching science to my kids, but honestly, most programs I’ve looked at make me want to die of boredom. I didn’t pursue science because I liked reading textbooks and making baking soda and vinegar volcanoes. I just liked solving puzzles and figuring things out and finding answers to questions. I like to use nature journaling as a good place to start with science. It’s such a great way to let kids follow rabbit holes to satisfy their curiosity, sometimes in completely unexpected ways. Mary likes to compose poems while observing in nature. Amy isn’t confident in her drawing but loves to take pictures of what she sees. Sometimes she’ll just trace a leaf over and over again, and then color it in using different tools – marker, pencil, crayon, pastel, watercolor – just to experiment. We jot down the things we’re interested in learning about and head to the library (well, we used to) to search for books on the subject.

John Muir Laws made his book about teaching nature journaling free and it is absolutely worth downloading. It gives great advice for how to guide your kids through observations and questions so they can really take in and process what they’re seeing. Often while investigating natural history, we learn about human history as well. (For example, invasive species are a really great introduction to colonialism!) It’s science, art, math, history, geography, and literature all from just observing what we see around us, and it’s so easy to let their interests guide us. One day, I had the kids help me pull weeds in the yard. We organized the weeds into piles after identifying them with the iNaturalist Seek app. We came up with multiple ways to measure our haul – counting, volume, mass. We identified the plant parts and talked about the life cycle of plants in relation to the seasons. We classified them as either monocots or dicots. We counted petals on roses and poppies using multiples of 3,4, and 5. They composed a song about how much they hate weeding. They each picked a flower to draw and paint. As I said earlier, their best learning experiences have been completely unplanned.

This summer, we started Life 1 from Pandia Press’s Real Science Odyssey program and we are really loving it – even me! Pandia Press’s materials are geared toward multiple ages. I was worried it would be too simple for Mary, but both girls are able to understand on their own levels. We’ve had a lot of fun with it so far. Because Real Science Odyssey is based on studying one branch of science for one academic year, it doesn’t meet the CA standards where each branch of science (physical science, life science, earth and space) is covered equally. Our CT is on board with us trying new things and is willing to help us fill in the gaps so we can continue using the program.

Social Studies

We also used Studies Weekly for social studies. Again, it’s boring, but it hits the standards and is cheap. This summer, we started a new history curriculum, also from Pandia Press, called History Quest. Like Real Science Odyssey, we are having so much fun and I am learning right along with them. It doesn’t hit the CA standards, but it’s a lot more engaging than reading boring texts about the usual classroom stuff. It’s actual history!

In the past, I used Pearson myWorld which is a very traditional program, focused on communities and a little basic geography. It was fine, but Mary dreaded it and I had to drag her through every lesson.

Unit Studies/All-in-One

There’s a curriculum type called a unit study that incorporates all different subjects (language arts, social studies, science) while focussing on a novel, though math is usually taught separately. To start the year, we did a unit study through Build Your Library for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets where we studied astronomy, botany, mythology, and Greek and Latin etymology as we read the book. The girls wrote articles for the Daily Prophet, created myths to accompany constellations they made up, and devised new spells based on Greek and Latin root words.

Build Your Library also offers a complete second grade curriculum. It’s a very affordable PDF, but there are lots of books to buy or borrow from the library. It’s the same with Torchlight, a very similar curriculum. I’ve been using the kindergarten level of Torchlight on a casual basis this year for the world geography and culture. The girls love it and look forward to reading our books and visiting places via Google Earth and youtube and museums every morning at breakfast. The booklists from BYL and Torchlight are extensive and an amazing resource, even if you never homeschool. We’ve found so many wonderful books from their lists. I chose Torchlight over Build Your Library because BYL uses Story of the World as a spine (backbone of the program). SotW is pretty problematic. Until recently, it was the only attempt to teach world history as a story, which really keeps kids’ attention. But it only starts 6000 years ago and is very Euro-, Christian-, and white-centric. Pandia Press has started releasing similar books that are less problematic, but as of now they only have History Quest Early Times 1 (elementary level) available. They are working hard to release History Quest Middle Ages 1 before September.

Some other popular complete curriculum packages are Moving Beyond the Page and Oak Meadow. The tricky thing about complete packages is that if you or your learner ends up not liking it, you’ve spent hundreds of dollars and now you need to spend more to find something that does work for your family.

Video Game Veto

Several family members wanted to get Zak a Nintendo Switch when he turned 7 a few weeks ago. I shot it down. I’m the bad guy. Sorry, not sorry. I’ll defend my stance and do you one better. I’ll explain why my stance even needs to be defended. Somehow in this battle over video games, I found myself on the low ground.

First, my defense is simple. Opportunity cost. Here’s an example. My 4-year-old Max recently lost his iPad for 10 days. For those of you who follow Yinh’s Insta (feel free to follow, her ‘stories’ are more amusing than anything I write), there was a period of this kid creating his own Marvel paper costumes and pumping out artwork like he was getting paid commission. Less screentime meant more creativity.

When the iPad resurfaced, it crowded out much of his ingenuity. It’s worse than that too. The iPad summons the devil. Every time Max is asked to turn off the screen we suffer a hell tantrum. All the phases of opiate withdrawal unfolding several times a day.

Zak, being 7 and having better emotional control, is not as dramatic but the video games are still crowding out his creativity.

You would think my no-Switch policy would be unanimously embraced. You’d be wrong. Here are the arguments and pro-video game propaganda I push back against.

  • “You played video games and look how you turned out”

    If you grew up in the era of “blowing dust” out of your NES cartridges and have managed to simply not blow your life to smithereens, people will say this to you. We have all seen the amusing correlation/causation pictures. Well, this fallacy is a specific strain of those spurious conclusions. The post-hoc fallacy. If Y came after X, then Y caused X.

    This fallacy is everywhere. Kid has hives. Sleeps in parents’ bed. Hives go away. Therefore, his bed caused the hives. (This just happened in our house). You have a cold so you drink soup. Cold goes away. Must have been the soup. These interventions are given credit for mean reversion’s work.

    The video game example is even worse in my mind because of opportunity cost. I might have a good job today in spite of, not because of, video games. How much didn’t I do because of video games? Maybe I would have been a better athlete, musician, or programmer. All activities that competed for time with video games. Hobbies that if cultivated would have been unambiguously more rewarding considering, today, I wish I was better in all 3 domains and could care less about my video game skills.

  • Video games have benefits

    When I was a kid, I was told video games “rot your brain”. Today, everything from critical thinking to reflexes are attributed to playing games. Scholarships, profits, and Ninja all lend games a legitimacy they didn’t enjoy in 1987. Nothing will make you seem stodgier, techno-fearing, and possibly stupid than being anti-video game.

    Consider Shopify founder Tobi Lutke. He is outspoken in his claims of games like Factorio and Starcraft contributing to his business savvy. Well, if you have ever heard Tobi speak, he’s really smart. A mind like his is going to deconstruct strategy and actively pull the insights from the game. Being analytical in the first place is what’s most important. If it wasn’t video games, he would have cracked something else.

    It’s not the game, it’s the approach to the game. Just like TV or movies or reading. Any passive activity can be intellectually enriching if your approach is active. When you read are you asking what the themes are? Why is the author framing things a certain way? How does it relate to other knowledge? Critically reading or watching can turn “brain-rotting” behaviors into brain-building ones.

Pushing Back Against The Modern Halo Around Gaming

You’d be forgiven for thinking I contribute to the gaming halo. The gaming section of my site is anchored by Let Your Kids Play Boardgames. Some nuance is in order. Our kids play some video games. Playing them is not especially bad or good. I put it in the same category as passively watching TV and it would count against that attention budget. (I reserve the right to modify my stance for games especially strategic or competitive).

Gaming, video or tabletop, can be an amazing way to learn. Fun is a renewable form of fuel to burn. Yet in the wrong personality, it can be horribly inefficient. Like learning about basketball from watching the Kardashians. How many people playing poker on their phones mindlessly are internalizing probability lessons? And parents, you know zombie-mode when you see it.

The halo of gaming stems from its strategic and competitive aspects. Still, strategy and planning can be acquired in many ways. Just this week I was thinking about how much Zak could learn if I asked him to break down the steps to catch a trout. He’d need to find out where to go when to go, what bait to use, and what technique to employ. Taking a big problem and breaking it into smaller steps.

Gaming has fast feedback cycles. Great for learning. But also convenient to get a mouse to push a dopamine lever. Then there’s the whole issue of transference. Does becoming a grandmaster make you better at other strategic endeavors or does it just make you good at chess? And here’s the diabolical question — if the grandmaster excelled in other domains how much credit should we give to chess? Again the fallacy rears its head, post hoc ergo propter hoc. Our minds are so easily tricked. The literature on transference is mixed, but it’s such a believable grift that most people won’t bother to check.

Overall I think the benefits of games are conveniently oversold. Just like TV, if accompanied by parental prompts and guidance they can be an enriching tool to practice critical thinking. Some kids, like young Tobi Lutke, will be inclined that way on their own. Many will just stare with dead eyes, unfazed if the house was burning down. Maybe I’m just an old crank who wishes he had that time back. I’d rather see what kids come up with when they aren’t sitting in front of a screen.