Thursday, June 14, 2018

We're being sorted like parts in a factory

Use a number 2 pencil or black ink, and fill in the dot completely so the machine can read it. The machine will sort right and wrong answers and give you a number that tells the decision makers how much you know and what kind of job or further education you deserve. From the ACT to the SAT to job readiness and IQ, multiple choice testing has become the key to your future or the locked door shutting you out. 

It's big business. Preparation for these exams is even bigger business. The test prep publisher ECS Learning Systems has acquired Prepworks LLC, in order to produce adaptive K through 12 test prep materials. These publications help students to do better on standardized tests and improve their chances of getting into colleges and universities.

Adaptive tests are part of Common Core, the insane educational program that requires all students in the same age group to learn the same material at the same rate and to pass the same test, regardless of their academic abilities.Our schools have been sorting students by age for over 100 years, and it hasn't been working. Our schools have been testing students with standard, multiple choice questions to sort them for about the same amount of time, and that hasn't been working, either. 

No test can measure our desire and willingness to learn, let alone our thought processes that go into learning. Choosing one dot to fill in cannot communicate the thinking that lies behind that choice. In fact, sheer luck can produce a right answer. Students are encouraged to fill in one of the dots when they don't know the answer because they might get it right by chance. When I was taking the college entrance exam, common wisdom was that "B" tended to be right more often than the other choices. When asked to identify the topic of a paragraph, we were told to choose the first sentence of the paragraph. How much thinking does that require? 

In the course of my teaching career, I have met students who couldn't do simple arithmetic at age 9, but went on to learn algebra at age 12 because they were ready for it. Other students who did well in arithmetic had great difficulty understanding the concepts of higher mathematics, but they showed great talent in creative writing. Slotting students into age groups and forcing them all to study the same curriculum leads to frustration among those who are not ready and boredom among those who learn quickly. All students are cheated by a system that forces them all to learn the same material at the same pace. Students are not machines.

 I always gave essay exams to college students. My questions gave them the opportunity to show me what they learned. Occasionally, I met a student who was terrified of tests. I did everything I could to reassure them, and they usually calmed down when they saw the questions. My favorite final exam question, which I copied from my old astronomy professor, was "What did you learn in this class?" This allowed students to write about what they did know, instead of struggling to remember a specific detail such as the classification of a species or the author of a poem. They could choose a poem that they did remember or a species that they could classify. Essay answers allowed me to get a glimpse of their thought processes, which are much more important than the ability to fill in the right dot.

The real job of a teacher is to allow students to learn, not to force them to fill in the right dot on a standardized test. 

I got a press release this morning that inspired this post. Here's the first paragraph of that release:  

SAN FRANCISCO, June 14, 2018 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Business Capital has delivered Management Buyout financing for their client, ECS Learning Systems, to acquire PREPWORKS LLC, allowing the company to create industry-leading adaptive K-12 test-prep offerings.  BizCap supported Asteria Education Inc.’s strategic acquisition of large test prep publisher ECS Learning Systems, allowing for expansion of capabilities and territory in the US.  The current transaction further grows the company’s proficiencies to include personalized learning and critical development in the lower grades to create a new kind of blended, personalized test preparation solution that aligns with rigorous state, college and career readiness standards and broadens its digital, geographic and age-group footprint.


Thursday, May 17, 2018

Another excerpt from Firebright

Our first apartment was haunted, according to the girls who had lived there as roommates before we rented it. They had conducted an exorcism after a chandelier fell to the floor, barely missing one of them. Apparently, that ritual had failed. Unusual noises seemed to emanate from the air conditioner when it was not running. One of the bedrooms had a dense, swampy atmosphere. The other bedroom, which was right next to it and had the same northern exposure and ventilation, seemed fine. The haunted bedroom felt like a place where someone had died and left behind an atmosphere of depression, along with a musty odor. At first we paid no attention to the ghostly phenomena.
Rumors were spreading among science fiction fans, at least those who had heard of Phil, that his brains were burned out from drugs and that he hadn’t written anything in years. Actually, Phil had written quite a lot, but it hadn’t been published yet. His novels often came out several years after he wrote them. He decided to attend the L.A. Con (World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles), despite his phobias, in an attempt to dispel the rumors that had been spreading since his stay at a drug rehabilitation center in Canada. The convention took place over three days during the Labor Day weekend in September 1972. It wore me out and used up all of our money. We didn’t even have enough money to attend the awards banquet. But we did meet a lady who turned out to be a very good friend. Her name badge read “Linda Wofle”, but her last name was really Wolfe. The typist had made a mistake. We used to call her Linda Waffle, affectionately. She had come to the convention on a whim when her husband asked her to get out of the house for a few hours so he could rehearse his role in a play. She and her husband were both actors. Linda and I got trapped inside the restroom by an enormous woman who insisted upon telling us all about her illnesses and injuries, as well as her membership in the Dracula Society, so we missed Phil’s speech. Fortunately, somebody taped it, so we got to hear it later. It was about how crabgrass and the telephone company were taking over the universe, as well as the difference between androids and humans. Despite the surface humor, Phil’s speech was quite serious.
Phil used to tell people that I had “karate-kicked” David Gerrold at the World Con. That is not exactly what happened. We were standing near the booth that was selling “Tribbles”, amorphous blobs of stuffed faux fur, based on the Star Trek episode that David Gerrold had written, “The Trouble with Tribbles”. While Phil was buying a Tribble for me, David Gerrold sneaked up behind me and grabbed me. I had no idea who he was or what he was up to, but I did feel uncomfortable. Almost as a reflex, I kicked him in the shin and pulled myself free.
The convention took away all of my energy. It was the first time that I ever attended any kind of convention, and it was the first time that I ever stayed in a hotel. All the booths, exhibits and conferences were overwhelming. For two nights in a row, we were up past midnight and out of bed before seven. The days were filled with non-stop action, walking around, talking to people, taking in all the sights and sounds. Editors urged Phil to write novels for them, freelance magazine writers begged him for interviews and an occasional fan questioned whether he really was Philip K. Dick, or just an impostor. The high point came when someone told Phil that Catherine Moore wanted to meet him. Even though I had no idea who she was, I could tell by Phil’s reaction that she was somebody important. He spoke to that grand lady for a few minutes in the hallway, while she explained that this was her last convention. Since the death of her first husband, she had remarried and her new husband wanted nothing to do with “that science fiction crap”. Phil explained to me later that the husband-and-wife team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner had written some of the classic science fiction novels and stories.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Excerpt from Firebright

Here's a selection from my memoir Philip K. Dick: Remembering Firebright.

Phil had been renting a room from a student at Cal State Fullerton, but when I agreed to move in with him, he rented an apartment for us. We had two bedrooms furnished in 1960s maple with several shades of orange upholstery. The furniture, which came with the apartment, didn’t matter to us, except for the lumpy mattresses on the beds. We were happy, and visitors came almost every evening to sit around and talk over coffee and wine. Phil was constantly trying to figure out who had “hit” his house in San Rafael on November 17, 1971. I met a woman who had seen the devastation after the bizarre burglary, and she showed me a photograph of Phil’s office with a mess of papers all over the floor. She also confirmed that somebody had used explosives to open his fireproof file cabinet, even though it wasn’t locked. Somebody had broken into the house while Phil was stuck on the side of the road with a broken-down car that had been sabotaged. This became a scene in his novel A Scanner Darkly, with some modifications.
Phil also wanted to know what motivated the Nazis. In particular, he speculated about Hitler’s madness – was it caused by drugs, or demons, or what? He was struggling to write the sequel to his Hugo Award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle, which would present an alternate universe in which Nazi Germany had conquered the East Coast of the United States, while Japan ruled the West Coast and a no-man’s land spread across the Midwest. He never wrote that sequel because the Nazis horrified him so much. The more he learned about them, the more he balked at writing the book.
He feared and suspected that the United States was becoming too much like Nazi Germany. We could see signs of the growing police state all around us, fed by the War on Drugs and fueled by racist attitudes against African Americans and Mexican Americans. He was convinced that the hit on his house, no matter who had done it, was motivated by illegal drugs. That is, somebody thought that he had illegal drugs in his house and was trying to retrieve them. Around that time, someone had stolen a hazardous substance from a nearby military base, and rumor had it that the substance was a form of biological warfare that caused hallucinations. A strange drug called “mellow jello”, a gelatin-like mind altering substance that had to be kept refrigerated, was circulating in the Bay Area. The heroin sold on the street had been contaminated, and junkies were dying. Rumor had it that the CIA had deliberately distributed the contaminated heroin. And Phil suspected that a bitter ex-wife might have told somebody that he had lots of drugs in his house.
So perhaps the authorities were trying to retrieve a hazardous substance, or to arrest Phil as a major drug dealer. Alternatively, drug addicts or dealers might have hoped to “score” by breaking into Phil’s house. They had dumped out the contents of his refrigerator, taken stacks of bank statements and boxes of blank checks, and made a mess throughout the house by spreading some kind of white powder all over the carpet. It looked like the work of insane people.

Thoughts on Blade Runner

The 1982 film Bladerunner flopped when it opened in theatres, but various hands have permutated the original into about half a dozen versions available on DVD and BluRay, with bonus material and such. After 35 years, director Ridley Scott produced a sequel directed by the French-Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve. It flopped in theatres, albeit not as badly as the first film. 

I did not like the first film, but I did appreciate the greatness of Rutger Hauer's death scene at the climax. I do like the later versions with the contrived happy ending deleted. 

I like the new film, Blade Runner 2049, despite its many flaws. I see plot holes and problems with the story, as well as a conflict between the first two hours of artistic exposition and the last half hour of violent action. 

Learn more about my thoughts in an interview this evening on Blogtalk, hosted by Karl Kaefer. The show starts at 5 P.M. Pacific, 8P.M. Eastern, and you can watch it later, as an archived show, through the same link.

Learn even more when my next book is published.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

People Are Reading More, Prints Books Alive and Well

I just got this press release:

ThriftBooks inaugural Reader Survey offers insights into the mind of a reader.

Seattle, WA, April 25, 2018 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- ThriftBooks, the world’s largest online used bookstore, commissioned a study of 1,000 readers to learn about reading habits. Praxis Research conducted the inaugural annual survey, and respondents were a mix of ThriftBooks customers and a panel of readers from both Canada and the United States.

According to Marcelo Nacht, Praxis Research Partners, “The robust sample size employed yields results which are highly projectible to the entire US reader population (+/- 3% at the 95% level of confidence).  Further, the incidence of reading by specific formats (print, e-book, audiobook) are consistent with other recently published studies, adding additional credence to these results.”

The results showed a variety of differences. To share the learnings, ThriftBooks is publishing a series of infographics highlighting some of the most interesting insights.

Key learnings:
  • Women enjoy Mystery more (37% citing as their preferred genre)
  • 2% of men admit to reading Romance as a preferred genre
  • 70% of respondents prefer print over e-books
  • Women prefer reading in bed, and 13% of people read while they commute (hopefully not while driving)
  • Men and women were equally likely to read in the tub

“A hot topic among readers is adaptation of books to movie or television. It was fascinating to see just how deep the rift is among the responses we got in the survey,” said Nicole Cox, VP of Sales & Marketing. “Only 35% of respondents always read the book before seeing the movie, 16% claim to have read a book when in fact they’ve only seen the movie, and a big surprise was 23% of people said that watching a movie is the same as reading the book.”

  • 55% of audiobook listeners listen during a commute
  • 52% listen to audiobooks while they exercise, and 27% while they work
  • 81% of people with kids read at bedtime
  • 12% of men with kids say they never read aloud to their kids
  • 92% of kids ages 10-17 borrow books from the library
  • Only 22% of respondents dog-ear the page to keep their place
  • 73% of readers never write in a book

The large number of people who never write in books could explain books being shared after reading; 16% said they gift their books, 15% donate them, and 8% sell them. Finally, 2% are recycled (after reading in the tub, perhaps?).

  • 48% of readers indicated they are reading more than they were 5 years ago
  • Average annual spend is $162 on books, 80% of that on print books
  • On average we read 8.6 hours per week and 23 books per year
  • The average backlog of books to be read is still a staggering 15

“Of course, we liked confirming that 70% of respondents prefer reading print books,” said Nicole Cox, VP of Sales & Marketing. “It was also encouraging to see that people are reading more, with 28% of people reading 2 or more books at a time.”

  • 30% indicate they utilize a study guide instead of reading the book
  • 1-in-10 admits to lying about having read a book
  • 75% have re-read a book they enjoy
  • 66% will pause reading at the end of a chapter
  • 81% of people will make a recommendation

We’re looking forward to next year’s results to see how the state of reading will change.

Learn more about the reader survey results and check out the infographics at
About ThriftBooks Global, LLC
Based in Seattle, WA, ThriftBooks is the largest online seller of used books in the world, having sold more than 100 million books since its inception. Founded in 2003 and backed by KCB Management, ThriftBooks employs more than 750 people and operates 9 fulfillment centers in the US that purchase, grade, and distribute used and collectible books. ThriftBooks relies on proprietary software to identify and list books, as well as a sophisticated pricing model that dynamically prices books across a variety of online platforms, including,, eBay, and others.

About Praxis Research Partners
At Praxis, we bring pragmatic marketing insight to state-of-the-art research tools and methods. Our guiding principal is to measure and create growth opportunities for our clients, through:
  • Revenue driven targeting
  • Positioning and communications guidance that leverage dimensions that drive purchasing
  • Brand extension that measures where a brand has viable growth opportunities    
  • Product development focus to maximize return, not just appeal

We offer hands-on, partner-level involvement in every engagement, throughout the duration of each project, from initial study design, questionnaire development, data analysis and implications. Praxis Research Partners ( research and consulting services to some of the biggest and most established companies/brands in the world

My next book includes a lengthy review of Blade Runner

Coming soon!