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Becoming A Better Man: A Lesson From My Father

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As kids, we rarely appreciate the lessons and insights our parents give us. For the most part, we see their efforts as an obstacle to our daily goal of having candy for every meal and staying up as late as we want. It’s only after we grow into adults and learn much harsher lessons from the world around us that we truly appreciate our parents.

That has certainly been my case. I’m very fortunate and very grateful because I have the best parents I ever could’ve hoped for. My mother and father did everything a kid could ask for in a parent and then some. I try to thank them every chance I get and I’m not just saying that because I know they regularly read this site. I genuinely mean it.

Earlier this year, I shared a special personal story about me and my mother to help celebrate Mother’s Day. Rest assured, I have just as many special stories about my father. I’ve mentioned before how his parenting style is distinct from my mother’s. He’s a lot more direct in how he establishes how a good, honorable man should behave. It’s because of him that I have a healthy appreciation for noble masculinity.

There are so many stories I could tell that demonstrate why my dad is so special and how he helped me appreciate the importance of becoming a better man. On the eve of Father’s Day, I’d like to share one of those stories. It’s one I’m sure I remember more vividly than my dad because while it was a defining moment for me, he probably sees it as just another day of being a great father.

This particular story takes place when I was about nine years old. I was a kid, but a growing kid. It was an age where you start to understand what it means to mature. I bring that up because it ended up being a critical component of this particular story.

My family was visiting one of my many aunts and uncles. I don’t remember the occasion, but my family has never needed much excuse to get together and party. For me, I just loved going there to hang out with my cousins. Growing or not, though, I was a kid and kid get rowdy after a certain period of time and sugar intake. It might as well be a law of physics.

The most memorable part of the visit, however, came towards the end when it was getting late and my parents needed the kids to settle down. In a confined space full of kids no older than 10, they might as well ask gravity to reverse itself on top of that. It just wasn’t going to happen without some sort of parenting wizardry.

That’s where my father comes in. It’s right around nine o’clock and my parents, along with every other adult in that house, were low on patience. My siblings and cousins had crowded in a bedroom where I was sort of leading the rowdiness, listening to music and yelling at the TV. My father might as well have walked into an insane asylum and I was the one handing out the tainted meds.

The first thing he did was turn off the TV, which for a kid my age was like slap in the face coupled with a kick to the shin. He didn’t raise his voice or yell. He just walked in there, carrying himself like a Navy Seal, and let his presence do the talking. Most of the younger kids in the room listened, but I didn’t. I still insisted on being difficult.

I ended up making a scene, saying I didn’t want to go and I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t even cute about it either. I admit I was an outright brat. If my father’s reading this, I think he remembers this better than I do. He’d probably use much stronger words, but in my defense, I was an immature kid surrounded by other immature kids.

Despite that attitude, my father didn’t flinch for a nanosecond. He just stood there, looked down at me with a glare that could’ve melted steel, and just kept repeating my name in this stern, stoic mantra. Again, he didn’t yell. He didn’t demand my obedience. He didn’t lay a hand on me. He just stood there like a titan.

At first, it annoyed the hell out of me and that just made me more restless. I kept making a racket that I’m sure the other adults in the house heard. My dad was well within his right to grab me by the shirt and put the fear of God in me. He still didn’t do it. He just kept repeating my name, as if to wear me down.

On paper, it shouldn’t have worked. It shouldn’t have gotten an immature kid my age to shut up. I don’t even remember how long I kept it up. After repeating my name in that tough, but authoritative voice for who knows how long, I finally broke. I just fell silent. Every kid in the room fell silent as well. It was downright eerie, but it worked. My father had silenced a room full of kids without breaking a sweat.

If that doesn’t demonstrate how awesome my dad is, I don’t know what will. He still wasn’t done, though. After the room fell silent, he told me we were leaving in a half-hour. I just nodded. I then asked if we could play one more game before that. I didn’t ask in a whiny, childish tone, though. I asked in the same serious tone he’d used. My dad, being as loving as he was tough, just smiled and nodded.

As the years have gone by, that moment has gained greater and greater meaning. It was at that moment that I realized what it meant to be mature. Just whining and begging wasn’t going to get me what I wanted anymore. If I wanted something from someone, I had to show respect and humility when I asked.

My father didn’t spell that out for me. Instead, he demonstrated it in a way I would never forget. He didn’t try to explain, word for word, the merits of being mature around other adults and why I should do it. He showed me. He made it so that what I’d been doing before as a kid no longer worked. If I wanted to get my way, I had to do something different. I had to be more mature about it.

That kind of lesson is a lot to process for a nine-year-old. I don’t think I began to appreciate it until a few years later when I noticed other kids around me trying to avoid that kind of maturation. When they wanted something, they still whined and complained. I didn’t do that and I’m a better man because of that.

It made me better through the rest of my youth. Talk to any of my relatives who knew me during that time and they’ll probably say the same thing. I was a lot more mature than most kids my age. Some even said that talking to me was like talking to a young adult. That earned me more respect than most kids my age and that helped a great deal, especially as I struggled through my teenage years.

It ended up being one of the most important lessons I ever learned as a kid. It might have been the most valuable lesson that my father ever taught me. To get what you want and to get along with people, you can’t beg for it. You can’t force it, either. You have to show respect and respect begins by showing it to others. It doesn’t matter if your a kid or adult. There’s value in being mature, respectful, and kind.

There are so many great memories I have of me and my dad, from trips to the beach to just paying catch in the back yard. However, that fateful day when he taught me that important lesson in maturity still stands out, especially on the eve of Father’s Day. It’s a moment that I treasure to this day and one that has helped shaped me into the man I am today.

I hope that story resonates with fathers and their children. To my own dad, if you’re reading this, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for being such an awesome father and for showing me how to be a better man.

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Khan Academy: The (Near) Future Of Education?

Image result for Khan Academy

In talking about education, I’ve highlighted issues that give me fever dreams about my experience in high school and those that give me hope for future students. While I know it’s not a very sexy topic, it does matter a great deal.  A society full of idiots is only good for creating embarrassing YouTube videos and Chuck Lorre sitcoms, but not much else.

Our current method for education people in the western world has a lot of room for improvement. Some, like South Korea and Japan, do it better than others. Others, like the state of Texas, are easy punchlines in jokes about stupidity and I’m not just talking about their laughable record on sexual education.

Let’s not lie to ourselves. Education is hard. Every human being is wired different. Kids are especially tricky. Between puberty and sugar, it’s hard to help them learn, especially if they don’t want to learn. Our brains weren’t wired for assembly line style education that requires memorization, lectures, and standardized tests. They were wired for survival, reproduction, and avoiding hungry bears.

At some point in the future, we may be able to tweak that old wiring to make education easier. Companies like Neuralink are already working on that. However, that kind of brain building is years off. While it is promising, there are many who may lament that they or their children won’t get to benefit from this kind of innovation. They’re stuck using textbooks and number two pencils.

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Well, for once, I’m not going to fantasize about an advancement that’s way off in the future, like smart blood or sex robots. There are some amazing advancements in this field and they don’t require a brain implant. They don’t even require a private tutor from South Korea. Big changes to education aren’t just some far-off future fantasy. They’re actually happening.

That brings me to Khan Academy. I’ve mentioned them before, albeit not in great detail. I kind of feel bad about that because it’s doing some amazing work in the field of education. It is, very much, a game-changer to the way we think about education. It has the potential to educate people all over the world at a cost that’s almost negligible.

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What is Khan Academy, though? Well, that’s not an unreasonable question because it’s one of those things that is known in some crowds, but not others. It’s also fairly new. Khan Academy started only ten years ago and it started by accident, which happens a lot more than you think.

The story of how it came to be is actually pretty remarkable. The man who created, Salman Khan, didn’t intend to make it into one of the biggest innovations to hit education since the invention of pocket calculators. It just played out that way. Several years ago, 60 Minutes did a story about it and it reveals some pretty amazing insights.

However it came to be, Khan Academy’s mission is as bold as it is important. It seeks, in their own words, “to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.” At a time when the cost of education is rising frustratingly fast, Khan Academy dares to be bolder.

It doesn’t require big, fancy schools. It doesn’t require an army of trained teachers, some of which may or may not be qualified for their job. It doesn’t even require students to leave the house. It only requires someone with a computer, an internet connection, and an ability to access a website. These days, those are skills that most kids learn to do right out of the womb.

That’s not to say it’s better in every way. There are some things that you can’t just learn by doing exercises online. You wouldn’t want a mechanic, plumber, or gynecologist only learning their trade through online videos. You’d want them to have some kind of training.

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Even so, the value of having a cheap, effective way of educating young children cannot be understated. Beyond simply knowing how much to tip at a restaurant, education helps children think and reason for themselves. It helps them make sense of a world where the Kardashians are celebrities and Johnny Depp still makes movies.

We, as a species, need societies of kids and adults who can think. Until we perfect neural implants, education is still going to be a challenge. That’s why innovations like Khan Academy are so valuable.

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The Future Of Education (And The Demise Of Idiots)

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In his seminal book, “Outliers: The Story Of Success,” Malcolm Gladwell explored the factors behind some of the world’s most successful individuals. In that exploration, he stated that it took approximately 10,000 hours of correct, focused practice to master a skill. It’s an often-repeated rule espoused by athletes, artists, and YouTube stars.

It’s also somewhat debatable. If that figure really were accurate, then I should’ve mastered writing three years ago. I don’t think I have. I still find new ways to improve with every book and every blog post. I get the message of Gladwell’s rule. To get really good at anything, you do need to practice and practice well.

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Then, we see movies like “The Matrix,” where Neo mastered every martial art ever created in the span of a day. Even though it was a work of fiction, it presented a scenario where practicing a skill was for suckers. Neo didn’t have to practice anything. He just sat in a chair, plugged a gizmo into the back of his neck, and just like that he knew Kung Fu.

That scenario may have been pretty extreme at the time. Keep in mind, though, that the Matrix came out in 1999. Back then, a flip phone was still considered cutting-edge technology. A lot has happened since then and I’m not just talking about our ability to watch porn on the bus.

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The ability to upload knowledge directly into our brains, effectively learning a skill in an instant, is one of the most underrated technologies in science fiction. It’s never more than an afterthought or plot convenience at most. In terms of its utility and impact on human society, though, it’s right up there with flying cars and sex robots.

I’ve talked about the ongoing deficiencies of our education system and the human brain’s limitations when it comes to learning critical thinking skills. Now, I’d like to stop spitting on my own species and give everyone some reason for hope. I do believe that our species will one day make idiots, as we know them, a relic of the past, much like circumcision and the orgasm gap.

That’s because our species, despite its many limitations, is really good at one particular skill. That’s the ability to build tools. As we speak, the fine folks at DARPA, also known as the United State’s Military’s “mad science” division, is working on a form of accelerated learning that would make Neo proud, albeit unimpressed.

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It’s not the same as uploading a skill the same way we upload files to our phones. They call it Targeted Neuroplasticity Training, which is a fancy way of saying it seeks to directly stimulate the human nervous system to facilitate the learning of an advanced skill.

From a pragmatic standpoint, it makes sense for DARPA and the military to want something like this. A lot of time and money goes into training soldiers, pilots, officers, and operatives into mastering a specialized skill, be it flying a plane or interrogating a suspected terrorist. Not every military recruit has the skill or sex appeal of James Bond. Most have to work at it.

This new form of training will cut down on the amount of time soldiers and recruits need to learn various skills. Like many other advances that got their start in the military, it may only be a matter of time before this sort of technology finds its way into classrooms.

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There’s already a potential business opportunity, thanks to Elon Musk’s new company, Neuralink. I’ve already talked about the potential of how brain interfaces will make us smarter and sexier. The current research with DARPA will provide a viable method for using that interface to improve learning.

Once this technology matures, and there are plenty of financial and pragmatic incentives behind it, then we’ll have to completely rethink how we educate ourselves and our kids. Old methods like catchy nursery rhymes or standardized tests, which have a limited effectiveness at best, would instantly be obsolete.

The school of the future may not involve big, bulky buildings full of lockers, overpriced textbooks, and wedgies. It may just be a simple office building where an individual, be it a kid or an adult, sits down and links their brain implant to a computer. Then, through a mix of direct neural stimulation and machine interface, we learn the kinds of skills that used to take decades to master.

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That means every kid, from the age of five, can learn the kind of critical thinking skills usually reserved for college grad students and NPR talk shows. It also means learning technical skills like how to operate a computer, fix a car, build a birdhouse, or paint like Bob Ross are as easy as downloading an app to our phones.

Make no mistake. There are people working on the technology to download knowledge directly into the human brain. The incentives are just too strong and I’m not just talking about the military. Between big business and professional sports teams looking for an edge, the idea of just downloading a skill into a person has too many potential uses.

The impact this will have on society cannot be understated. It’s an impact that few, especially an aspiring erotica/romance writer, are equipped to imagine. Education is one of the few policies cited as a major tool against poverty. Also, a society of fewer idiots is a healthier society by nearly every measure.

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While education is, on orders of magnitude, much better today than it was 100 years ago, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. There are just so many practical and logistic issues that come with educating over seven billion people from different backgrounds, cultures, languages, and what not.

The ability to download knowledge and stimulate the brain directly could be the key to finally closing what remains of the education gap. That gap is still pretty wide and a huge factor in many unresolved issues, from job opportunities to sexual education. There are huge swaths of the population that still don’t know how condoms work.

As this technology improves, the barriers that keep entire swaths of people from knowing and understanding the world critically will crumble. That has major implications for the multi-trillion dollar education market, as well political parties that rely too much on idiots voting.

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It also has major implication for our love lives, our sex lives, and everything in between. Whenever I’ve talked about human enhancement, I’ve pointed out how smart people tend to make better decisions in both their love lives and their sex lives. In matters of intimacy, it makes sense to know how your partner’s genitals work. That’s just common sense.

The extent to which accelerated learning would affect our personal and professional lives is still hard to quantify. As society becomes more and more educated, we’ve had to rethink and re-imagine what it means to be in love or make love with someone.

Like Morpheus pointed out in “The Matrix,” though, our system of education is still governed by a set of rules and limitations. Our brains and bodies are still stuck on the same settings they were during our caveman days. We’re only beginning to unlock and rewire those settings.

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That means there may indeed come a day where won’t just be able to circumvent the 10,000 hours of practice that Gladwell espoused. We won’t even need practice in the first place. When that day comes, we’ll all be Neo.

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Why Standardized Tests Make You (Feel) Dumber In The Long Run

A new study finds that higher test scores don't translate into better cognitive ability.

As I write these words, there are millions of young people out there who are either dreading an upcoming exam or recovering from one too many all-night cram sessions. This is that time of year, after all. The sweet freedom of summer vacation is almost within our grasp. We just have to survive a few more soul-crushing, brain-draining final exams.

Like the final boss in a video game, exams and standardized tests are the migraine headaches of modern education. They are that stabbing pain at the base of every teenager’s spine. They know it’s coming. They know it’s going to be stressful. The most they can do is brace themselves, study, and hope they don’t throw up at some point along the way.

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I get the logic behind these tests. I think even the students do, minus the ones whose only goal in life is to become an Instagram model. I don’t doubt that the intentions behind standardized tests are good. They’re supposed to help gauge the effectiveness of our education, revealing just how well we’ve retained the material.

I don’t doubt the merit behind that. A team of underpaid, under-appreciated teachers just spent nine months of their lives trying to cram a bunch of information into our developing brains. At the very least, they want to make sure that time wasn’t wasted. How devastating would it be if the found out all that time, effort, and chalk board lectures had been for nothing?

Well, with the utmost respect to the teachers and students who have to deal with this crap, there might be a repugnant stench in the air. As good as the intentions may be with standardized testing, they have a long list of issues. Just last month, the Washington Post listed at least 34 problems with these tests. With the memory of these tests still painfully fresh in my mind, I have a hard time believing there are only 34 problems.

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That’s because, and I’ve said this before whenever I’ve talked about the horror show that was high school for me, these tests don’t really measure how well you know the material. They only really measure how well you can take a test. That may help you get a driver’s license, but it won’t help with much else.

There’s a growing body of evidence that standardized testing does not translate into better cognitive skills. It doesn’t lead to better memory, better attention, or better reasoning skills. It doesn’t even reveal how well you know the material. Even if you do remember enough to ace the test, it’s rare for students to actually retain that knowledge.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially those whose memories of high school is still somewhat fresh. Depending on how traumatic your teenager years were, you probably remember not caring much about actually knowing the material at hand. You only cared about passing the test and not triggering an awkward parent/teacher conference.

In essence, that’s the biggest issue with these tests. That’s why, in the long run, they make us feel dumber. Just passing a test doesn’t make you smart. It just makes you good at passing a test. A lot of people can throw a football well. However, just being able to throw a football doesn’t make you as skilled as Peyton Manning. Just ask Ryan Leaf.

It’s just as bad for the teachers. They dedicate their time, energy, and patience to teach a bunch of immature kids and hormonal teenagers what they think is important. However, their effectiveness, as a professional, is entirely contingent on their ability to get these thick-headed kids to pass a goddamn test every year. Even doctors and lawyers don’t have subject themselves to that kind of frustration.

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I can certainly attest to the inefficiencies of these tests. It’s pretty much the only skill that was regularly emphasized throughout high school. Every subject in every class felt like a prelude to one goal, which was to pass the test. That was always at the forefront of my mind. Actually knowing and caring about the subject was always secondary.

The only subjects I did know anything about happened to be subjects I had a genuine interest in. I liked writing, history, science, and even math to some extent. However, a lot of what I learned on those subjects wasn’t necessarily taught. I sought that knowledge out on my own.

Contrary to popular belief, not every teenager is a total slacker whose sole goal in life is to live out the rest of their days on the couch watching Netflix. Many are genuinely curious about certain topics and not all of those topics are related to food, sex, and punk rock music. If they want to learn more about something and you give them the opportunity, they’ll take it.

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For me, personally, it was writing. No teacher or guidance counselor needed to guide me to do that. It’s just something I started doing. My parents already had a computer so I had all the resources I needed. Thanks to a vivid imagination inspired by comic books and cartoons, I had plenty to write about. I haven’t really stopped since.

There were other topics that intrigued me too. Growing up, I was also interested in history, especially 20th century history. There was a period where I watched every World War II documentary on the History Channel I could. It got to the point where I knew the names of generals, battles, and dates better than my teacher.

It culminated one fateful day during my sophomore year of high school. I was in my history class and, much to my relief, we were focusing on early 20th century history. My teacher was lecturing, going over the textbook as they so often do, and at one point she got a date wrong. I, having the piss-poor social skills I had, just corrected her on the spot.

For some teachers, that would be a one-way business class ticket to getting detention. For this particular teacher, though, she smiled at me and thanked me. That was a proud moment for me. Later on, when we did take a test, I got a perfect score. I didn’t really need to study for it either. I knew the material because I wanted to know it.

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That’s both the key and the paradox that dooms standardized testing. It tries to create a one-size-fits-all standard with which to gauge every student. It ignores the fact that not every student is going to want to know the names of every Russian Tsar or how to use quadratic equations. Some students really are smart, just not on certain subjects.

On top of that, some students just aren’t good test takers either. I know this because I’m one of them. I often had to give disclaimers, of sorts, to my teachers about my test-taking skills. Some of it was due to nervousness. Some of it was just due to the mental fog that comes with the stress of taking a test. Some people can manage it well. I can’t.

The only exception, in my case, were the essay questions. I loved the essay questions because I knew I’d ace those. Writing is, I like to think, one of my greatest strengths. If I could’ve exchanged every standardized test I ever took for an essay, I’d have done it in a heartbeat. I’d have been the valedictorian of my high school.

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I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Standardized tests made me feel dumb, but I know I’m not dumb. I couldn’t manage this blog, keep track of major events in comics, or stay up-to-date on the status of sex robots if I were. I genuinely worry that a lot of impressionable, vulnerable kids will feel that same sentiment by taking these tests. They may never realize that these tests are not a reflection of how smart they are.

The issue of standardized testing is still ongoing and still controversial. There are a lot of moving parts to education, especially in large countries with diverse populations. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but an important first step is acknowledging the problem.

As usual, John Oliver has already done a far more astute job of exposing the problem than I ever will. He dedicated an entire segment of his show, “Last Week Tonight,” to it. I’ll let him fill in the blanks that I wasn’t able to cover in this post.

So to all the students out there still dreading their final tests of the school year, I can only urge you to hang in there. These tests will not determine the course of your life. These tests will not determine how smart you are. You will come out of this. Life will get better as an adult.

Sure, you have jobs, families, and taxes to worry about. Take it from me, though. If you can endure the stresses of exams and standardized tests, you can endure almost anything an adult life can throw at you.

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