Khan Academy

Education as entertainment? I think so – I think this might be the next Wikipedia. Each segment is explained much in the manner you’d explain it yourself to, say, your own kids or younger relatives. I hope you’ll check out and bookmark Khan Academy.
Alex Forbes

Sal Khan of Khan Academy was a guest on the Charlie Rose Show today. I found Sal to be an articulate and captivating speaker with a contagious enthusiasm for whatever he’s talking about. Listening to Sal talk about what turns him on is like stepping out of a dodge-em car and into a Tesla. What does Sal like to talk about? Everything.

Khan quit his day job as manager of a hedge fund to create free online course content for students, teachers, professionals and those of us just interested or curious about a topic. He offers over 2100 short bite-sized videos on topics as diverse as finance, astrophysics, math and biology.

If you sign up and log in, you can actually take the coursework and save your work. Courses are staged in linear progression so, in Algebra for example, you “get” graphing of lines first, before learning the dependent concept of the slope of a line.

Each segment is a video “chalkboard” of about 10 minutes duration. There are about 45 segments to Cosmology and Astronomy, or about 150 segments and examples for Calculus. It’s an actual “course” for those who step through the entire progression of segments.

With no particular itinerary in mind, I thought I already knew Arithmetic, so I watched the videos for Lattice Multiplication and Least Common Multiple, learning something in both cases.

Since I majored in business and finance back in the previous century, I then monitored Banking 17: the gold standard – “what happened to the gold?” I learned that even when we were on the gold standard, we were on a fractional reserve system: only a fraction of US bank notes were ever actually backed by hard gold.

Being an astronomy buff, I monitored Radius of Observable Universe, Supermassive Black Holes and How we know about the Earth’s core. I understood that run-of-the-mill, garden-variety black holes result from core collapse of stars in the 30-solar-mass range, but I didn’t realize “supermassive” black holes, such as the one lurking right in the heart of our own Milky Way, may have been “primordial” – formed by an entirely different process shortly after the Big Bang.

Course content is staged logically and progressively so that you “get” each concept before moving on to the more advanced concepts that depend on them. This works for me, since I seem to be fundamentally incapable of learning a topic until I grasp its constituent and underlying concepts. Khan never talks down to his audience and never assumes “you should know this.”

Education as entertainment? I think so – I think this might be the next Wikipedia. Each segment is explained much in the manner you’d explain it yourself to, say, your own kids or younger relatives. I hope you’ll check out and bookmark Khan Academy.

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April Nights

It’s 8:00PM and 80 outside tonight in Phoenix. But it’s still April. It’ll be down to the low sixties by midnight. A perfect evening to open the windows and let in all that free air conditioning.

I notice our Home Page hit counter crept up over one million today. Holy cow, how did that happen? We’ve only been open for business here (so to speak) since 1995. So, even though I’ve been working on my BIO and haven’t posted a lot in the last month, folks are still coming to I hope you liked my recent ramble, “Golden Age of Rail.”

My BIO is coming along fine. All the autobiographical content is there. Editing my own writing is a lot harder than editing someone else’s, but I get far fewer complaints.

Nothing on TV tonight, which is good, actually. All my magazine subscriptions come to Phoenix now, and I’ve almost caught up on my reading. That’s good too, because I brought along a book I want to read when I have a nice chunk of uninterruptible time.

I caught one of those introspective pieces The New Yorker is so fond of publishing. I can rarely quite get into that genre. You know: the author looking at his life qua author, him writing about him writing it, comparing himself and his fears and aspirations to those of other authors living and dead, and re-living the trials and exaltation of writing about it as one’s own critic and obituary writer, all wrapped up into one long drawn-out cackling echo of angst and self-doubt. “Spiegel im Spiegel” sums it up: a beautiful musical piece by Arvo Part whose title means “mirrors in mirror” in reference to what you see, looking at yourself with parallel mirrors positioned both front and back. It’s two sides of the same picture, but you get extra thumbnail prints.

The article itself isn’t really the item here, but it’s “Farther Away” by Jonathan Franzen, in the April 18 New Yorker. In fairness, it’s exceptionally well written; as you can tell I just couldn’t quite get into this bit of Byronic self-eulogy.

The one phrase that caught my eye was: “the California woman I live with …”

Okay girls, I bet I know what you’re thinking. Is she so unimportant she doesn’t even rate a name? Everybody else in the story has a name, dead or alive. Is this a throwback to my own parents’ generation when we still heard “the little women” and “the missus” a lot? This is a SURPRISING slip for an author. This author doesn’t give away his age, but Franzen’s somewhat younger than I am based on what he describes of his youth. I’m 67. Is this an anomaly, perhaps just a decent gesture of privacy for this unnamed woman in California he says he yearns to be with? Are we basing harsh judgement on the only one instance where he fails to supply a name, or on the dozens of other instances where he does?

In the last century we would frequently hear married men refer to their spouses as “my wife”, which doesn’t raise any flags until you finally realize they never mention their wives’ names at all. It was a consistent pattern with some men, though never with others, who would always be heard to say “Mary” to the point where you’d pick up who “Mary” was just by context. “My wife” wasn’t an age thing either. I had one married friend ten years my junior who always said “my wife”, and I would tease him about that in earshot of his wife, and the mannerism still remained a complete compulsion with him.

In the case of The New Yorker author Franzen, we may never know for sure, but I’m betting he should have just written “the California woman I used to live with …”

No, still no TV tonight, but I do have the FM radio on, and that’s always tuned my favorite classical station, KBAQ 89.5.  I rarely go to any theater performance, and I am not normally a fan of critics’ reviews. I do have to make an exception for one Chris Curcio, KBAQ’s Theater Critic. I heard the following this afternoon.

You owe it to yourself to check out the KBAQ link to the audio review below. Chris Curcio has an unusually well modulated speaking voice and remarkably succinct and to-the-point commentary, backed up with ample examples of exactly what he’s asserting. Everything about his reviews (normally a very boring event for most of us) is fascinating to listen to. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He awarded this play below zero points out of five, and his review is without doubt the funniest review I have ever heard or read in my life, besides being one of the best-articulated.

Circle Mirror Transformation“, audio file review by Chris Curcio (audio broadcast, April 25)



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All In A Day’s Work

  • Somebody posted a spam comment to my site. The text: “Genial post and this enter helped me alot in my college assignement. Gratefulness you as your information.”
  • Good news for those of us still unemployed. Vanguard Week in Review, with the encouraging header Uncertainty abounds as job losses mount , says: “Most of the other economic news that came out this week was also negative, as factory orders fell, the manufacturing sector lost momentum, and personal income was flat.”
  • History (Channel) repeats itself. Concerning the feature WWII in HD, “For over two years  we scoured the world for color World War II film. Some of this footage has never been seen before” … except at 10AM this morning, last week, last month and tomorrow.
  • Mute Awards 2010: Staples, for its “shouting” ad WOW, THAT’S A LOW PRICE! I’m not the only one who hated it. As Jami Bernard writes in a blog post Ad Rant, “In one of the Staples ads, a dorky guy in a deserted aisle of the office supply and electronics store leans toward an item to read its price …”

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Captain Memo

Mondegreens, Mumbling, and Mis-speech

Examples of good speakers

In the world of public speaking and narration, not everybody can be a Mike Rowe or Max Raphael.

1) Mike Rowe does the distinct and recognizable narrative for many Discovery Channel shows. His speaking style is characterized by clearly enunciated and animated dialog. Continue reading

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‘Knight and Day’ Plot Gimmick Used Before

I recently read a New Yorker review of this new Tom Cruise movie (they did not recommend it).

I need your help to identify the origin of the unlimited-power battery plot gimmick. You would probably have to be 60+ years of age and to have read a lot of the sci-fi of the mid to late 1950’s.

The movie “gimmick” was that Cruise plays a future-world soldier of fortune type who has somehow acquired or invented a battery. The battery is physically about the size and weight of a pack of cigarettes — or perhaps, if you prefer, an iPod nano. Defying many laws of physics at once, THIS battery can supply enough electrical energy to run a large city, and do so indefinitely. Continue reading

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Notes From All Over – or Not

I was reading a New Yorker article about Afghanistan. A successful independent radio and TV network there was said to receive grants from foreign governments and N.G.O.’s. All right, I’ve seen the abbreviation before, but could only guess it meant “non-government organization”. So I was goaded into looking it up on Wikipedia:

A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a legally constituted organization created by natural or legal persons that operates independently from any

There you go. Too bad we can’t Google magazine pages directly. No, I am not getting an iPad.

Getting to “or Not”, I’m always on the lookout for new gas stations on my road trips. I like to get in and out fast, so am willing to try stations a bit to the left of “off the beaten track”. That means making some mistakes, too.

NOT: Shell station, Lebec, California (I-5, on the grade up to Gorman). They boast two stations, a Shell and a Chevron. I tried Shell first. Red flags on all the credit card scanners: “Out of Order. Please prepay at cashier’s.” You know what that means: underpay, and you resume your trip with less than a full tank. Overpay, and you get to make another trip inside, stand in line again, and watch them figure out how to give you your change or modify a debit or charge. SO: I crossed the road to the other station.

NOT: Chevron station, Lebec, California. This one was cleaner and friendlier, but the pump LCD displays were absolutely illegible. I couldn’t get the pump to dispense. I had to go in and see the clerk. This is kind of rare, because I’ve been doing this for over forty years. She asked me if I hit the CANCEL button on my debit transaction when I couldn’t get the gas to pump. No. I had never had to do that before. She asked me if I lifted up the lever under the nozzle handle. Sheepishly: No. The newer pumps do this automatically, and I had gotten out of that habit.

The nozzle still didn’t pump well. I had to milk the handle trigger to get something approximating a full tank. The clerk had been very polite, but it’s not likely I’ll stop in Lebec again.

NOT: Lamont, California (about 10 miles north of Lebec, June trip). This town has one gas station that I could find. All I remember about it (or want to) was that the parking was practically non-existent, and you have to get a key to use the one tiny restroom. I think they were charging about $3.89 a gallon, too. Far be it from me to inconvenience them again.

NOT: Blythe, California (1st offramp).  It seems that I had been to BB Travel Center before, but something had changed, and it was in the air that you breath (or not), not the air in your tires. There are better stations in Blythe for those who can wait the extra few minutes to take the second or third offramp (or just drive across the Colorado River into Arizona and save over 20 cents a gallon). But I had to, well, I was anxious to make a stop as soon as possible. Something wasn’t right about this place. As soon as I opened the door to the “Travel Center”, I was hit with a heavy whiff of the problem. I surmised a pipe must have broken, specifically the one that empties into the sewer system or septic tank.  To my immense relief, it wasn’t in the restroom. There was an old gent eating lunch at a table near the door. The smell was still enough to gag a maggot. The old gent appeared not to notice. That doesn’t speak too highly for the quality of the food fare.

YES: I’m a fan of the PBS’s Poirot series, originally dramatized in Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, which I have never read, but now surely intend to. The PBS TV series stars David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. Suchet does such a delightful job in this unique role, and I never miss a showing if I can possibly help it. Tonight Suchet did a one-hour PBS “Masterpiece” special as himself, not as Poirot: David Suchet on the Orient Express. The Orient Express has been in service for about a hundred years, and ran for most of those years from Paris to Istanbul. Service was extended from the UK after completion of the “chunnel”. It rode for the last time in 2009. The TV show explained how the elegantly restored old railcars corresponded exactly to the passenger seating and sleeping compartments on Agatha Christie’s actual train trip. She got the details down exactly for the famous thriller novel. And David Suchet was as refined and personable as the Poirot character he plays, if not more so. A perfect TV special for train buffs, Christie fans, history hounds and anyone looking for one hour of very solid and informative entertainment.

YES: In that vein, I also enjoy Martin Clunes in Doc Martin, and he did a one hour special last month, in which we again get to be introduced to the actor as a person. Clunes toured countryside and oceanside  settings of England and Scotland, offering a thoroughly delightful hour of personality and travelogue. If you know the TV series, “Doc Martin” is a brilliant physician and means well, bringing to the show a monomaniacal devotion to the arts of healing and diagnostics, and a TV personality as thoroughly and insensitively abrasive as you might have the good fortune, in real life, to be exposed to only once in a lifetime. One desperately wants to like Doc Martin, but his embarrassing behavior is suspiciously like Asperger’s syndrome as one character in the show finally suggested. Somehow, he always gets past that to do the right thing, which is why I like the show. Martin Clunes (actor as a person) is winningly likable and personable. Like Suchet, it makes one appreciate how much real acting skill has been required to deliver to the audience such convincingly eccentric yet brilliant roles.

THE WEATHER here in Phoenix, officially 106F today, “about average” for this day and month. I arrived yesterday afternoon. The shock of walking from the air conditioned car into a 100-degree house is just wilting. A dip in the pool helped, but I felt like I was in shock for most of the evening. What you do, down here, is turn on the AC and let it cool down to 78-84 (78 the first day, to get used to it, and gradually adjust it up during the course of the week). If you shoot for much more than a 25 degree indoor/outdoor differential, the AC will run pretty much continuously, and you’ll pay for that in the utility bill, if not a huge repair bill. What I still can’t wrap my mind around: I can afford to cool the house down to about 80, in the summer, which is warmer than I can afford to heat the northern California apartment up to, in the winter.

Monsoon season is almost here. 10% chance of T-showers this weekend. Yippee!

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Most of us grew up on Clint Eastwood movies. We rued the evolution of the original iconic roles over the decades, in ways we didn’t fully follow, and then he started producing movies like “Unforgiven” and “Gran Torino”. You could make a case that Eastwood grew up faster than some of his fans.

New Yorker reviewer David Denby has written a brilliant review of Eastwood: not just the movie career, but the evolution of the actor.

Now, returning to elements from “Josey Wales,” he began to notice and even to celebrate true outsiders, people who had much less power than his own characters did. Had he become, of all things, a liberal? Probably not, at least not in any overtly political sense. It’s more likely that, as he got older, he saw his own prized values embodied in people he had essentially ignored before.

Read more: Out of the West, Clint Eastwood’s shifting landscape. by David Denby.

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Television Pandering

PBS ‘History Detectives’ Goes Paranormal

I still happen to think it’s deplorable and even morally wrong for the entertainment industry to pander to unfounded fears and superstitions of undereducated people who, for lack of better grounding in history and the sciences, actually believe in ghosts, monsters, and extraterrestial aliens infiltrating Earth.

This stuff is coming to PBS, but it’s straight out of the History Channel mindset:

PBS History Detectives

As early as the 1870s, Edison and other scientific minds explored psychic phenomena like mediums. They believed every living being was made of atoms that could “remember” past lives.

Did Edison make a machine to unlock the secrets of the dead? The wax cylinders could hold the answer. History Detectives travels to the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park in New Jersey to find out.

The key concept here is the framing of the question “Did Edison make a machine to unlock the secrets of the dead?”

It’s a matter of historical fact that Edison and many of his contemporaries were involved in “paranormal” research. A Google search on ‘Thomas Edison paranormal’ is instructive if you want to take a quick look.

But when a supposedly reputable 21st-century broadcaster asks the carney barker’s question “did Edison raise the dead?”, intelligent people don’t have to click the link and watch the video to find out, because we know a priori he couldn’t have, and therefore didn’t. The real question becomes: if the question isn’t aimed at the intelligent, who is it aimed at? Continue reading

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Master and Commander


We finally saw the DVD last night. My note to a friend afterwards:

Now, remember that I am not a moviegoer.

Master Commander is utterly and magnificently strong, powerful, wonderful, awesome and honest. It is a maritime epic, splendid naval battle, and Galapagos naturalist adventure all in one. I love tall ships and this exceeded my hopes and expectations in every way. I am humbled. I can hardly wait to watch it again. Russell Crowe should be knighted. My faith in movies as entertainment got a big and badly needed boost today.

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