Category Archives: homeschooling

Future Work

3d_printing-partsMy 14-year-old got a strange little cable from China the other day. It has a USB thingie at one end and a big honking industrial grade connector at the other. It came with a CD. To get it to work he had to partition his $15 ThinkPad’s hard drive, install Windows XP and then install the software. He can now do dealer level diagnostics on about sixty different sorts of older cars. It cost him $20 which he earned himself doing online reviews (big hint, diet pills don’t actually work.)

He got it running just after installing a new keyboard on my AIR – chocolate milk is not your friend as his younger brother has been learning. And before that he did a sketch-up version of a forty dollar plastic part for a BMW rear window awning which he sent off to an online 3D printing shop and which should be here for $15.00 for two, including shipping, in a couple of days.

One of the reasons why we homeschool is that I am pretty much convinced that the idea of a “job” economy where you punch assorted academic tickets and then take an entry-level position and work your way up is pretty much over. Yes, there will still be lots of STEM jobs where the ticket punching makes a lot of sense – you can’t design or build a serious integrated circuit without a good deal of electrical engineering training – but a lot of the other career paths manufacturing, banking, government, even teaching, are undergoing radical transformations. So are the low skill jobs like taxi driving and retail sales.

[I am going to ignore the AI elephant in the corner. Once that gets out of the lab a lot of bets are right off the table.]

The whole question of “what do you need to know to get a job” is a moving target. There is no question at all that the ladies at HR will be looking for “qualifications”. Captain Capitalism suggests that college has become a fourth layer of government in the US because you can’t get the good jobs without having passed through its sorting hat. I suspect he is right, he usually is. But it is the layer of government which is easiest to evade.

I went to college for a long time. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I learned many things. I had an excellent time and would recommend the experience highly. I also started university when a year’s tuition was $450 and when I went to law school it was something like $2800. (Yes, I really am that old.) But to put it in perspective, I paid for a third and fourth year myself as well as grad school and law school with part-time jobs. It was totally doable. Now, as my elder son is finding, it is close to impossible.

The credential itself is a lovely thing but, by the time you are in your early thirties, no one ever asks what you did as an undergraduate. They are interested in what you can do for them right now.

Richard Feynman got off to a great start taking apart broken radios in the 1930’s. Eventually, he understood enough that he could actually fix the radios. He learned about locks and security systems and, eventually, noticed that a brittle O-ring brought down the Challenger and proved it with an elegant little experiment.

I am a huge fan of university. I am also aware that the life expectancy of my children is, as I write, something on the order of 100 and probably closer to 150. Taking four years when you are 25 or 30 to study something you are interested in makes a lot of sense. But, if you have a capacity and a curiosity about how stuff works and how to fix it, it may make a lot more sense to run with that for a few years in your late teens and early twenties. If there is a credential required, a trade ticket is forever. Robots will serve you that Big Mac, they will not rejig the fuel injection on your BMW or get your cooler to be cold.

Building apps is a wonderful thing. It is nice, clean work. Hacking code is lovely and it is very lucrative. The Google guys who made Sketch-up and 3D printers have given kids like my son the ability to make “things” which would have taken a complete machine shop to build a decade ago. And that is changing the nature of work in ways which make the entire idea of credentials seem rather quaint.

A kid who goes into a trade program already knowing how to make custom parts without the machine shop is in a different world. We didn’t teach Sam how to draft or how to take measurements with a set of digital calipers. We told him it was possible and that there was a need for a particular part. He taught himself the rest.

The new jobs are going to be the old jobs with new technology. Fixing your cooler will be the same set of HVAC issues but being able to scan and replicate the broken part changes the entire ball game. More importantly, knowing that it can be done is the key bit of knowledge which will change how work is done in the future.

The credential is a “nice to have”, the knowledge is essential.

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Form Factor Future


Tackle Box Robot

A lot of the substantive content with my homeschooled boys is looking at interesting things and then discussing them and digging a bit deeper.

For no particular reason this past couple of weeks we’ve been discussing:

  • pallets and containers
  • delivery drones
  • 3D printing
  • autonomous and electric cars
  • economic aspects thereof

Now the fun part of this is that we can find useful things on the internet like Captain Capitalism’s thought provoking post on “Post Scarcity Economics” or Walter Russell Mead’s post on “Is Downton Abbey the Future of the US Economy?”.

While the economics are interesting, the actual history of things like containers can be riveting for boys and their father. (Susan decamps with a good book.) An article about the humble pallet gives the boys a fair bit of insight into everything from the global economy to the logistics of Ikea cup design.

One of the recurring themes which has emerged is how standardization improves efficiency. Containers have to be the same size, pallets – in an ideal world – would be the same size. A decision would be made about metric vs. imperial. Merchandise packaging would be optimized to max out pallet efficiency. There’s room for a bit of math and some basic geometry.

Once you start talking about pallets and containers you can also consider the “last mile” problem. How do you get the goods to the customer? Amazon uses the mail and UPS. Walmart wants you to actually go to their store. Nothing is more fun than thinking about how that last mile can be crossed without a trip to the mall or the UPS guy finding you are not at home.

In Australia there is a company set to deliver text books by helicopter drone. (And, yes, we did discuss this quaint idea of a paper “textbook” in a Kindle world.) No question that for things like pizza, prescriptions and drycleaning the flying delivery drone makes sense.

But, for my money, the autonomous vehicle is a better bet for the day to day business of getting stuff to people. (3D printing is still a distance away for every day use.) The excitement and hype in the autonomous car world has been about passengers – essentially moving people rather than things. But moving things is a huge business and it could get much bigger if an easy, inexpensive, means to get your groceries to your house could be devised.

We already have automated warehousing. (Worth looking at this video at Amazon’s Kiva systems site. However those robots merely pack the boxes with the customer’s order. Now what?

The last mile problem is going to get a lot of attention in the next few years. Autonomous delivery vehicles are one part of the solution; but the other part is actually delivering to the customer. Canadian start-up Buffer Box (recently bought by Google) has a fairly elegant partial solution. Your stuff is delivered to a Buffer Box kiosk which has electronic lockers you can open with a passcode from your phone. Nice for your online kite purchase, not too brilliant for the chicken you want to cook tonight.

There are lots of ways to attack the last mile problem. Each family gets a personal box and deliveries are made right to your box. Or, if price can be brought down, a person or family would have one or more “boxes on wheels” which would travel on some sort of schedule to the various places the family needs to have stuff picked up.

Part of the educational process here is that these are not questions which, at present, have answers. But they are not abstract issues: even a partial solution to the last mile problem is a billion dollar business. And it is a business which will occur very, very quickly. The horse was replaced by the internal combustion engine in less than 20 years.

Marrying a GPS/internet/Google Map aware computer to the rather well understood technology of the golf cart or electric scooter and you have an autonomous delivery vehicle prototype. With a secure storage capacity – think trunk of a car – you could probably build such things for $1000. They don’t have to go fast and, with good logistics design, they would not likely have to go far.

Now, think about what the introduction of such personal pick up and delivery ‘bots would change, especially in cities. Just one example: at the moment even if the Lady of the House is hyper aware of which items are on sale at which grocery stores this particular week, she is not particularly willing to make five stops and go through five checkout lines to save a total of, say, $10-20. But her pick up agent would be delighted to make those stops. (And, of course, now the supermarkets – if they are smart – are going to want to attract the pick-up agents so the scope for price matching and agent loyalty programs is huge.) On the other hand, think of the congestion these pick-up agents might cause. How to solve that problem. (Two hints – first, the number of car trips to get stuff would go down as would the number of manned delivery vehicles, second, it should be possible to build anti-congestion imperative right into the software which runs the pick up agents.

As I have pointed out to the boys, one interesting thing about robotic pick up agents is that they can operate continuously and therefore quite slowly. If your agent has to make four pick ups all within a one mile radius of your home over the course of, say, three hours it can accomplish that at a walking pace even allowing a ten minute stop at each pick up location. While I am not all that thrilled with the prospect of driverless semi-trailer trucks running at 60 miles an hour (which is an irrational fear but there it is), box toting pick-up agents sauntering on the sidewalk or in designated road lanes seems pretty manageable.

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Kathy links to Megan Macardle’s article on the homogenization of America’s (and, realistically, Canada’s) ruling elite. Being the son or daughter of Harvard grads and a Harvard grad yourself is now, apparently, the ticket to alpha jobs in politics, law, the academy, journalism and finance. Which is a) likely more true than not, b) hardly surprising given the entrance requirements act as a ferocious cognitive screen, c) of less and less importance.

It is becoming less important because big government, the academy, big law, huge finance and big media are dying. Not quickly but they are on their way. Why? Because the mandarinate has not done much productive in forty years. And, in fact, the elite activities of governance, anti-trust litigation, climate action, tax law, derivatives and queered gender studies have largely left any possible reality. Spending a trillion dollars a year you do not have is a flight from reality, explaining why such spending is a good idea is financial surrealism, but actually financing the spending is an error that only a really well trained, Ivy League kinda of a guy could make. The rest of us are simply not cognitively capable of ignoring reality at that level.

As many people are starting to notice, the wheels are falling off the more cherished social tropes of the mandarinate. Cost benefit analysis of a black studies degree from Yale is being performed, legal analysis is being out sourced to India, banks are being bailed out to postpone the day when all those derivatives are going to come back and bite. Climate action is being quietly under bussed by smart politicians.

Smart parents are looking for ways to prepare their children for both the alpha cognitive world and the world where things are actually made and services performed. A trade makes a lot more sense than an internship at the end of a 200K debt financed “education”.

As with the end of the catastrophic global warming scam, the political elites will be the last to know because they are advised by mandarins.

It is instructive to look at what happened when the Chinese Manchu mandarinate was confronted with a changing world. The denial of the 18th century gave way to the decline of the 19th and the collapse at the beginning of the 20th. The mandarins did not become dumber nor were the examinations any less tough; the fact was that the modern, western, world arrived at China’s door and would not go away. The mandarins had no answer to a radical change.

Our mandarinate is, to a degree, innovative. But it is the phoney innovation of people who share precisely the same central world view and argue about the margins. Real change, radical restructuring in the face of a changing world is simply beyond the stunted imaginations of the test taking classes. It was not on the exam.

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Wussy Brits

Worried parents will ban their children from making snowmen and having snowball fights this winter – for fear they will catch a cold, a study found.

The protective one in five mums and dads, 20 per cent, will try to stop their youngsters falling ill by keeping them wrapped up warm indoors.

Furthermore, 29 per cent say it is “too dangerous” to let them outside because they may slip on ice or be bruised by a tightly-packed snowball. the telegraph

I am just trying to imagine how you could keep a normal kid inside in a big snowfall…nope, can’t do it. Impossible.


It was the law professor (and prominent internet commentator) Glenn Reynolds who first popularized the phrase “higher education bubble.” Drawing on Stein’s Law, Reynolds argued that the market for higher education, like the housing market before it, is on an unsustainable, inflationary path. “Bubbles form when too many people expect values to go up forever,” he observes. “Bubbles burst when there are no longer enough excessively optimistic and ignorant folks to fuel them. And there are signs that this is beginning to happen already where education is concerned.”

the new criterion

The New Criterion article goes on to discuss the wave of online university level course which are being offered for free. Given a choice between spending 20-60k per year in a bricks and mortar university or effectively nothing online the initial decision should be pretty straightforward.

But there are intangible social goods that four years of an undergraduate degree bring: friends, connections, romantic partners, drinking buddies and hooking up. Viewed from a purely logical perspective these things are hardly worth 20k a year; but they are not worth nothing.

So, a modest business proposition: why not set up what amount to tutorial centers? These would be very much free enterprise units where students could meet other students, create study groups, take tutorials based on online course material and, in time, write exams to test their knowledge.

Oddly, this is very much the way that the old Universities – Oxford and Cambridge – evolved: the colleges being the equivalent of tutorial centers with the added bonus of accommodation.

Of course, the major course providers such as Coursera are counting on online student interaction; but I suspect a more intense experience would be offered by local centers with loose affiliations to the course providers. We’ll see.


Radio Silence and Moving

Sorry to be off air for few days. We have just moved which is massively disruptive as always. But we are in snug for Christmas and the books are returning to their shelves.

A couple of random observations. The place we are moving from was a lovely, large, Uplands house which is going up on the market. There it will join literally two dozen other, lovely, large Uplands houses which have, I fear, been rendered relics of a demographically and socially lost era. Ours was relatively sensible in that it had only four bedrooms. Most of the others have 5 or more. Families are simply no longer that big. Plus, families tend not to buy 2 million dollar houses. (We got an incredible deal on the rent for a couple of years; but even if we had the money we would not have bought the house.)

Along with the couple of dozen listed on MLS, there were, in fact, four vacant houses on my daily dog walk. As well there were a dozen more which had been for sale but had been pulled from the market. Call me crazy but I have to think that the upper end of the Victoria housing market is due for a significant price correction.

Second, I was in a small supermarket the other day and there was a staffing panic going on. It was occasioned by one person phoning in sick to an already short staffed store. And the reason it, and many other stores like it are short staffed is that there are not that many kids around to do the cashier/restocking jobs. I suspect this trend will continue (which is great for my younger boys who will be looking for work in a few years.)

All the kids my now childless female friends from highschool and university didn’t have are, of course, not around to fill entry level jobs while going to school or university.

A final and somewhat related point: sitting in our much cozier living room last night Sam, my nearly 12 year old, and I were talking about what he would actually like to do over the next decade or so. “I’ve been looking at some Apprenticeship programs Dad. You can start when you are sixteen and have your ticket by 20 or 21.” “University?” I asked. “Absolutely, but I’d like to do it part time and then do refrigeration stuff three days a week.”

For the refrigeration idea I want to thank the nice, 20 something guy who bought the double oven from us. HVAC and refrigeration has been good to him…he runs $90 an hour and has more work than he can handle. Which he told Sam and Sam is good at multiplication.

Many years ago, I met a guy named Joseph Tussman, a philosopher of education, who maintained that a candidate for a graduate degree in any of the Liberal Arts should be required to have a trade. I suspect he was right.

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Model Railway Gone Wild

Sam is interested in building an HO railway…He got to work researching. He found this.

Fun…and maybe educational – Tinkering

When you homeschool, along with trying to remember the math you actually never knew, you are confronted with loads and loads of free kid time. Realistically, you can cover what kids need to know by the time they hit Grade 7 with about 2 hours a day four days a week. Which leaves a huge amount of time for other things. And the Internet, and the X-Box.

I have no problem at all with screen time. If anything my older son learns far more from the Internet than he learns from me. But, and it is a big but, watching Cracked twelve hours a day is not on. Happily, Sam likes “the News” and, more importantly, has discover the rich vein of handyman, fine woodworking, Mr. Fixit videos. My lovely wife no longer even bothers to ask me to fix stuff around the house – a skill I entirely lack – she goes right to her father (Mr. Household “to do list”)”s grandson. We are all much happier.

These days it is all about compressed air. When an 11 year old finds a free compressor you know you are going to be inflating all manner of things. The best part of the free compressor was that it was hand built about forty years ago. It was a straight plug in so it needed a switch. And so Sam found a light switch, an electrical box at the dump and got to work. (His poor mother is now riding her bike to the Oak Bay trash transfer station daily (about three miles there and back) so Sam can strip useful objects and cart them home. Susan does not go to the gym.)

I’ve had to lash out for a couple of fittings and an air hose – call it $20.00 – but Sam is a born, what? recycler, scavenger, McGyver? He calls guys up who are advertising air tools on UsedVictoria and convinces them that they should deliver their wares for, effectively, nothing. He adapts bits of old tubing and cast off pressure gauges to calibrate his primary pressure gauge.

“Dad, I’ve got an oil leak.” or “Mum, I have to drain the water.” are good for a couple of hours of tinkering.

Tinkering is a bit of a lost art. Figuring out how to get a good seal or the right fitting is not something you can teach. It is about exploration. Getting stuff wrong until you get it nearly right.

For Sam this is about the compressor. But it could just as easily be a radio or a bit of software.

Now tinkering is enhanced. Instead of having to rely upon your mechanically challenged parents for useless advice, you hop on Google and look it up. Compressor leaking oil, type in that search string for the wisdom of the masters.

Knowledge is changing very quickly. And the means to acquire knowledge are changing even more quickly. Teaching children you quickly realize that the general principles contained in a printed book are not nearly a match for specific, useable information which you can get on the net. No longer do you have to tinker blind, whether you are eleven or somewhat older, you can instantly find the exact information (and often a video) about what you need.

I can’t imagine schools in the conventional sense managing to last much more than a decade as anything other than baby sitting services – and, hey, I suspect there is an App for that.

Garage Sale Moment

Sam, my 11 year old, and my wife are huge garage sale mavens. His younger brother, Max and I prefer a Saturday morning lie in.

Today, as I was weeding the garden a pick-up pulled into our driveway. Out hoped Sam. “Got a compressor for free, Dad.” And he had. A home built 5 gallon compressor which a kind man, seeing the kid pulling the monster up a hill, had put in the back of his truck. Mum held the bikes as Sam brought his prize home. Plugged it in and it works. (Sam had actually checked this before beginning the long haul.) It’s a bit loud but that is the nature of compressors.

Now he is off scouring the net for cheap air tools.

Beats the heck out of Nintendo.

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