Monthly Archives: September 2016

Which politicians still talk about the “information superhighway”?

Erik Paulsen and Louise Slaughter

Who still uses the term “information superhighway”?

It’s the most 90s coinage ever. It was an attempt by boomer journalists — whose chief technology of teen liberation was the automobile, but who by the 90s were solidly middle-aged — to find a metaphor for digital networks that made sense to them. Hey guys! Let’s all get in our, uh, cybervehicles! We can roll down the windows and go cruisin’ on the Highway of Information.

As “the Internet” and “the web” took off, though, eventually people stopped using the “information superhighway”.

Or did they? In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance analyzed Donald Trump’s fascinatingly incoherent use of “the cyber”, and along the way she noted one cohort that seems to constantly use dated digital slang: Politicians.

So it made me wonder — who’s the last politician to have uttered the phrase “information superhighway” in the Congressional Record?

Step forward, Erik Paulsen.

A reverse-chron search of the Congressional Record finds that Paulsen used the phrase on July 17, 2014, speaking in support of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act.

A snippet of the Congressional Record, with Erik Paulsen speaking in praise of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act

To give Paulsen credit, it seems like he might be using the phrase specifically because of its historic echo of the 90s: “… grown the information superhighway to what it is today.”

Trivia: “Information superhighway” has been uttered 291 times in the Congressional Record. Interestingly, other recent-ish uses seem to be when politicians are talking about net neutrality — possibly because there, the highway metaphor is useful; it evokes tolls, fast lanes vs. slow lanes, etc. So maybe the phrase has got some life in it yet.

Me, I’m a fan! “Information superhighway” is much more metal than “the Internet” or “the web”, which are functional but now rather lifeless. Given my druthers, I actually prefer the full, florid coinage of “the global information superhighway”. I have been waging a dogged campaign on Twitter to revive it; I am failing.

(That photo above is from the Creative-Commons-licensed Flickr feed of Rep. Louise Slaughter.)

People tell political pollsters that the economy is going down the tubes; but with  economic pollsters, they’re much cheerier. A Polish auto-body shop still uses a Commodore 64 (via boing boing). Here’s the “hello, world” example of the Google Books API, which I’m playing around with to make a potentially weird, fun toy. A hacker in Cairo makes a DIY robot for inspecting IEDs. Behold Cryptpad, a text editor where only the people collaborating on the document can see the plaintext; it’s inscrutable from any interlocuters and even the server itself. (Thanks to Nat Torkington for this latter one!)

Awesomely nerdy dice

"NYC Cuisine Dice" by Eric Harshbarger

The other day on Twitter, Benjamin Edwards posted a picture of some gorgeous milled-aluminum dice a friend made for him. In response, Eric Berlin pointed us to the work of his friend Eric Harshbarger, who designs insanely cool custom dice.

Above is one of Harshbarger’s creations: A set of dice for New Yorkers who are heading out to eat dinner but are paralyzed by the paradox of choice. The dice are labeled:

Die 1: West Village, Chelsea, EV/Nolita, LES, Soho, Roller’s Choice

Die 2: Italian, Roller’s Choice, Sushi, Mexican, Asian, Ethnic

Heh. Below, an even nerdier concept: Binary dice. I’m going to order a pair of these for my son to bring to his middle-school math class …

Binary dice by Eric Harshbarger

Here’s some deep meta — a die of polyhedral shapes:

Polyhedral die by Eric Harshbarger

And here are some DNA/nucleotide dice — useful for synthetic biologists want to add some randomness when they’re inadvertently creating unstoppable superbugs!

DNA/Nucleotide dice by Eric Harshbarger

Below are perhaps my favorite — a pair of dice Harshbarger created after he posed himself a puzzle: “What is the greatest number of dots that can be removed from a die and it still be determinable what is rolled?”

Behold …

Two-pip dice by Eric Harshbarger

His fuller explanation of how to read these:

  • If the ‘center-side’ pip is face up, then a “6” was rolled, because that is the only number with a dot in that position.
  • If the center-side pip is not visible anywhere on the die, then it must be face-down. Meaning you rolled a “1”.
  • Otherwise, the center-side is on one of the four side faces. In this case, look for the ‘center-center’ pip (which, given its position relative to the center-side pip, must be the “5” face). If that center-center dot is face-up, you’ve rolled a “5”. If it is not visible, you’ve rolled a “2”. If it is also on one of the side faces, then you need to know that the 4-5-6 values are placed counterclockwise about their shared vertex (on Bicycle Dice); with that knowledge you can determine whether a “3” or “4” is face up.

This guy’s a genius. Check out the rest of the dice on his page; the ones here are only the tip of the iceberg.

What I love about Harshbarger’s work is how it leverages humanity’s longstanding fascination with randomness — a force that has long tweaked and teased society’s ideas about logic, reason, the will of God, the arc of life. Over at Aeon, Michael Schulson wrote a terrific essay on the situations where a random choice can be better than a reasoned one, and he opens by noting the peculiar allure of the random:

As moderns, we take it for granted that the best decisions stem from a process of empirical analysis and informed choice, with a clear goal in mind. That kind of decision-making, at least in theory, undergirds the ways that we choose political leaders, play the stock market, and select candidates for schools and jobs. It also shapes the way in which we critique the rituals and superstitions of others. But … [snip]

… As any blackjack dealer or tarot reader might tell you, we have a love for the flip of the card. Why shouldn’t we? Chance has some special properties. It is a swift, consistent, and (unless your chickens all die) relatively cheap decider. Devoid of any guiding mind, it is subject to neither blame nor regret. Inhuman, it can act as a blank surface on which to descry the churning of fate or the work of divine hands. Chance distributes resources and judges disputes with perfect equanimity.

“Eureka,” a 19th century machine that generated a line of Latin poetry (26 million possible combinations!) and may have inspired Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. A one-handed cutting machine from Sweden; I had no idea such devious devices existed! Guy Sims Fitch was a prolific and published journalist in the 50s and 60s who did not, in fact exist; he was a propaganda invention of the US government. The “man-in-the-browser” attack uses browser-sync between mobile and desktop to defeat two-factor authentication. “I thought you might like it”: A study on the reasons why people SMS links to one another. And a truly gorgeous pair of custom dice made from machined aluminum.

On the cognitive value of having a bazillion tabs open on your browser

my open tabs

Right now, I have 52 brower tabs open. Behold the madness above! (The tabs are off to the far right; it only shows the top 21.)

It’s kind of nuts. Why do I work like this? Is there any good reason to keep open so many tabs?

“Tab freaks” like me are in the minority. When the Mozilla foundation did a study of Firefox users, they looked at the high end of people’s tab usage, i.e., what was their maximum number of tabs they kept open. The biggest chunk of people clustered around 5 or so tabs — people with 20 open tabs were pretty uncommon. Nutjobs like me, with 52 tabs open, are so far out on the X axis we don’t even appear on the chart, heh.

chart showing how many tabs people keep open in Mozilla Firefox

Why precisely do we “power users” keep open so many tabs? Me, I do it partly as a memory aid. As I’m reading and researching, I’ll find a link to something interesting, and open the tab in the background so I can read it later, when I’ve got time free. Or, in the middle of a piece of reading, I’ll get an idea I want to chase down — so I’ll briefly interrupt myself to a) google the concept, b) find a relevant document, and c) open it in the background so I can, again, come back to it later.

How typical is my “memory” behavior? Pretty common, it appears. A while ago I read this fascinating 2010 research: “A Study of Tabbed Browsing Among Mozilla Firefox Users”, where the researcher Patrick Duboy and his coauthor interviewed 21 browser-users to ask about their tab usage. Many of the subjects talked about using tabs to manage remembering things:

  • “Having the tab open is a reminder to me. […] if it’s at the end of the day or lunch time while I am cracking a sandwich or something and I’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I want to go back and look at that link’ because I see the tab sitting there.”
  • “If I search for something on Google, I just go ‘right-click, rick-click, right-click’—you know, opening all the tabs. And then I would look at them later.”
  • “Usually I find interesting links halfway through the article, and that’s why I like tabs.”
  • “Just a quick little side task, when, you know, I want to come right back to what I was working on.”

I often leave tabs open for days, which again turned out to be a reasonably common behavior:

  • “If it is something I plan to refer back to in the near future, like later that day or the next day, […] sometimes I’ll leave the tab open.”
  • “I will often lose interest in something, and I think I might go back to it, so I will leave the tab open and open a new one. I don’t necessarily always go back to them, but the opportunity is there if I want to.”

One interesting finding: Of all the tabs people opened, 25% were never looked at. People opened them to leave dangling the possibility that they might look at them … but they got around to it before closing the entire browser window.

It also turned out that people flipped between tabs pretty frequently, using them to A/B compare stories or pieces of information. In fact, this was such a common behavior that 71% of the time someone flipped over to a tab, it was a revisitation.

When I look at all this data, and reflect on my own behavior, it reminds me a lot of the ergonomics of paper — and specifically, “pilers” of paper.

A black and white old photo of a man looking at a pile of paper on his desk

Back in the 80s, MIT’s Tom Malone (not the person in the picture above, BTW, that’s just some rando) studied people’s desks and how they dealt with paper documents. He found two types of people: The first group were “filers”, people who filed every document after working with it, because they liked having a clean desk. Then there were “pilers”, who had stuff all over the place and were quite happy with it. You might think that the pilers are just disorganized freaks who never get anything done, but that’s not what the research showed; indeed, as Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper found in The Myth of the Paperless Office, “pilers” could usually find a document just as fast, or faster, than someone who’d filed it neatly away.

What’s more, the riot of documents in front of “pilers” could be creatively useful. In a terrific 2002 article on “The Social Life of Paper”, Malcolm Gladwell summed this up nicely:

But why do we pile documents instead of filing them? Because piles represent the process of active, ongoing thinking. The psychologist Alison Kidd, whose research Sellen and Harper refer to extensively, argues that “knowledge workers” use the physical space of the desktop to hold “ideas which they cannot yet categorize or even decide how they might use.” The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity: those who deal with many unresolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desks, because they haven’t yet sorted and filed the ideas in their head. Kidd writes that many of the people she talked to use the papers on their desks as contextual cues to “recover a complex set of threads without difficulty and delay” when they come in on a Monday morning, or after their work has been interrupted by a phone call. What we see when we look at the piles on our desks is, in a sense, the contents of our brains.

In a way, this is what I do with browser tabs. I let them pile up — sometimes for days! But later on I can wind up re-glancing at them and having a memory or idea triggered. Sure, the tabs are chaos, but they can be creative chaos.

I say “can” be, because frankly the ergonomics of browsers are still pretty lousy. Paper strewn around a desk — and an office — has good glanceability. You can often tell what a paper document is with a very quick glimpse. Book spines work the same way: When I pass by my bookshelves a quick glance at a spine reminds me of the contents of a book, which can trigger memories and new ideas.

color coded books on a shelf

Not actually *my* bookshelf. Very pretty, though!

(This is why I recoiled in total horror at the Marie Kondo insistence that one should toss out nearly every book you own, keeping only 30 of them. I have about 1,000 books around my house — mostly nonfiction and poetry — and getting rid of even one feels like I’m lobotomizing myself. I wrote a column for Wired a few months ago detailing my freakedoutness at the Kondo concept.)

But browser tabs aren’t as glanceable as paper, I find. For the last year I’ve been using the Vivaldi browser (which you can see in the screenshot above) in part because it has superb tab-management features, including a control-E quicksearch that lets you refind a tab and zip over to it. That’s great for refinding, but not for idly rummaging your mind’s eye over your open tabs. Frankly, I’ve never seen anyone produce a good browser plug-in that lets one visualize open tabs nicely. I think it’s a problem of the comparatively tiny size of a computer screen. Even a 27-inch monitor is pretty chintzy compared to the real estate of a desk, where you can really spread out documents and look at them. (I seriously doubt I want to work all day long with a VR helmet on, but I was intrigued by a point that Kevin Kelly made in his piece on VR — which is that truly high-rez VR could allow you to view lots of different digital documents, spread out before you, in the way we spread out paper.)

One problem with having tons of tabs open as a memory device is that it can create huge psychological “sunk costs”: I resist closing the browser because, well, hey, there might be something valuable in an as-yet-unviewed tab, and I’ll LOSE IT FOREVER.

But while talking about tab madness on Twitter the other day, Sue Gardner pointed me to One Tab, a supercool browser plugin: When I have 53 tabs open, a single button-press closes them saves them as a single list. Which you can later open up! So now I’ve been using this thing like mad, because it adds a new mnemonic heuristic: I can look at a big huge list of days and days of links, getting jolts of serendipity and remembrance.

Indeed, I don’t keep a diary, but sometimes I think tab history is just as good better. It’s a record of where your mind has been.

The joy of grinding, or, Why young men would rather play video games than get a job

Danny Izquierdo playing a video game in front of a TV

This is Danny Izquierdo, “a 22-year-old who lives with his parents in Silver Spring, Md.”, as the Chicago Tribune reports (their photo, too). Izquierdo, the Tribune writes, is part of a trend: Young men who are opting out of the job market because it’s more emotionally fulfilling to play video games. It’s not that they couldn’t find a job. It’s that they don’t want to. Games are a better mode of living.

Can this trend possibly be true?

University of Chicago economist Erik Hurst says so. He’s been studying the workplace fates of young men who haven’t completed a four-year degree. In the 2000s, their employment rates took a nosedive. What were they doing with all those newly free hours? They weren’t going to back to school. Mostly, all the hours they used to work are now leisure — and fully 75% of that leisure is one activity:

Playing video games.

It’s practically a full-time job for them. And they’re pretty happy about it! As Hurst puts it:

The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of 12, and sometimes upwards of 30 hours per week. This change marks a relatively major shift that makes me question its effect on their attachment to the labor market.

To answer that question, I researched what fraction of these unemployed gamers from 2000 were also idle the previous year. A staggering 22% – almost one quarter – of unemployed young men did not work the previous year either. These individuals are living with parents or relatives, and happiness surveys actually indicate that they are quite content compared to their peers, making it hard to argue that some sort of constraint, like they are miserable because they can’t find a job, is causing them to play video games.

So, why exactly would games be more appealing than a job? In one way, the answer is screamingly obvious: A game is designed to be fun, to immerse you in teasingly intriguing goals, and there are few real-world consequences if you screw it up. Of course it’s more pleasant than the sorts of crappy service-sector jobs guys like Izquierdo have been getting.

Ah, but it’s worth looking a little more closely at a point that Izquierdo himself makes in the Chicago Tribune piece. He mentions playing Pokemon Go, Fifa 16 and Rocket League, and then adds:

“When I play a game, I know if I have a few hours I will be rewarded,” he said. “With a job, it’s always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward.”

Ah, now this, I find fascinating. And familiar!

He’s talking about the joy of grinding.

Back in 2008 for Wired, I wrote about this phenomenon. In many modern video games, there’s a mechanic of “leveling up”. You begin the game playing a character that’s relatively weak, but after you complete a few simple quests or tasks or nail a few early victories, you get more powerful: You go from level one to level two. And at level two, hey — suddenly you’re noticeably a bit more powerful! All that work was worth it! So, duly encouraged, you set about playing some more, because you know that pretty soon you’ll hit level three, and sure enough: Boom, another level up, and you’re more powerful yet.

People will spend hours and days and weeks doing this, going around and tackling every tiny sidequest in a game just so they can get a teensy bit closer to the next level. It can get kind of monotonous; that’s why it’s called “grinding”. But the reward — that jolt of satisfaction when your character erupts in a halo and emerges more powerful yet — is so catalytic, you can’t stop.

That’s the joy of grinding. And as I argued in Wired, grinding is in a certain sense the American Dream. If I just do the work, dutifully and over and over again, I’ll be rewarded. 

As I wrote back then, while talking specifically about playing World of Warcraft (WoW) …

… there’s something enormously comforting about grinding. It offers a completely straightforward relationship between work and reward. When you log into WoW, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you just plant your ass in that chair for long enough, you’ll level up. It doesn’t require skill. It just requires putting in the time. Play 10 hours, you’ll do better; play 50, you’ll do better yet; and yet more so with 500 hours.

The thing is, almost no arenas of human endeavor work like this. Many are precisely the opposite, in fact. When you go to your job at the office, there’s little or no linkage between effort and achievement: You slave like a madman all year long, only to watch the glad-handing frat guy hired two months ago get promoted above you. And if you’re a really serious nerd, the logic that governs interpersonal relationships — marriage, kids, your parents — is even more abstruse: Things can actually get worse the more time and effort you put into them.

But grinding? Grinding always works. Always. You get a gold star just for showing up. This is a quietly joyful experience. It feeds our souls, as well as our sense of justice and fair play. We grind because we can’t believe what a totally awesome deal we’re getting handed here, often the first time in our entire suck-ass put-upon lives.

So maybe it’s not just that these men are avoiding work because they’re lazy or immature or short-sighted (though these things may certainly also be true). Maybe it’s partly also that they’re craving work that feels like it’s progressing somewhere — that isn’t just punching the same entropic card every day. Which is what too many of those go-nowhere service jobs are like, frankly; they’re dispiriting even to someone who approaches them with the chirpiness of a Dale Carnegie. If the economy offered better jobs, maybe the competition from games wouldn’t be quite so stiff.

Mind you, another factor here is that today’s games are fine-tuned to provoke compulsive, nonstop playing. Young guys get sucked into playing all day long because — well, that’s sort of what the games are intended to do. It’s in the design spec, a feature and not a bug. I can attest to this compulsive power, because as a lifelong gamer, I wrestle with it all the time!

In fact, I’m currently getting sucked into Trove, a new game that’s a mashup of Minecraft and World of Warcraft. Oooo, it’s grindalicious. I spent three hours grinding last night, and plan to do the same long march tonight. And frankly, these binges of play inevitably interfere with my actual work. Unlike the twentysomethings in that Chicago Times, I actually enjoy my job as a journalist; even so, games are an amazing mental respite, because they’re a relief from the sheer complexity of reporting. When I’m working on a book, the way forward is often foggy; I often struggle with the question of, what should I be doing today? Next hour? Right now?

In contrast, grinding gives you a neat list of tasks to check off. Put your butt in the chair, play for an hour, and you’ll level up. Working on my book is confusing, a tramp through a fen. Trove gives me goals that are militarily clear.

I can't stop playing Trove, help

I can’t stop playing Trove, help

This siren call of games has become a subject of regular conversation between me and my kids, as I try to impart what I’ve learned about the need for moderation. I tell them, more or less, that a lifetime of gaming has taught me that a) video games are a total joy and proof the universe wants us to be happy, but b) their talons wrap tightly around your immortal soul and do not easily let go. It is the samurai work of a lifetime to keep games in harmony with a balanced life. I’ve done it (I hope!) But whoa, it takes self-awareness.

But, back to the young male gamers who are avoiding the workplace. In the short run, they’re happy. But they’re almost certain to develop massive problems down the road, as Hurst points out: “The obvious problem with this lifestyle occurs as they age and haven’t accumulated any skills or experience.”

One more thought about games as a radical alternative to daily life: This reminds me of a passage from Jane McGonigal’s terrific book Reality is Broken. Early on she quotes Herodotus’ tale of an ancient king who used games to conquer the pain of hard times:

When Atys was king of Lydia in Asia Minor some three thousand years ago, a great scarcity threatened his realm. For a while people accepted their lot without complaining, in the hope that times of plenty would return. But when things failed to get better, the Lydians devised a strange remedy for their problem, The plan adopted against the famine was to engage in games one day so entirely as not to feel any craving for food … and the next day to eat and abstain from games. In this way they passed eighteen years, and along the way they invented the dice, knuckle-bones, the ball, and all the games which are common.

(Thanks to Morgan for pointing out the Chicago Tribune story to me!)

In which I may have played a bit part in the inspiration for Youtube

vintage television

I’m currently in Poland, where I’m giving a talk to Blog Forum Gdańsk, the city’s annual confab of the country’s bloggers and youtubers. While having lunch with Arlena Witt — who runs a terrific channel explaining the cryptic nuances of English pronunciation — I told her the story of how I may have played a small bit role in inspiring the creation of Youtube.

It begins back in January 2005, when I published in Wired a profile of Bram Cohen, the creator of Bitorrent. Jawed Karim, one of Youtube’s cofounders-to-be, read the Wired piece — and what happened next is recounted in an old Gigaom story:

Karim traces the idea for YouTube to a Wired Magazine article about BitTorrent by Clive Thompson in the magazine’s January 2005 issue. The story included the calculation that 867,000 people watched Jon Stewart’s brilliant on-air harangue against Crossfire, while three times that many saw it online. Karim, recounting the online reach of the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” and camcorder/cameraphone videos of that winter’s Asian tsunami, says he was captivated by the idea of an emerging clip culture.

Heh. So, if you’ve wasted half your workday today watching cat videos, you can, in part, blame me. (Personally, I prefer to waste my workday watching faked UFO videos. Speaking of which: Man, the quality of the homebrew CGI in those things has become superb! Industrial-Light-And-Magic quality, my friends. I also love the fact that there are now Youtube tutorials on making your own fake UFO video.)

By the way, it’s worth noting the other two Youtube cofounders — Chad Hurley and Steve Chen — tell a very different story, one where Karim’s role isn’t so important. (They say the idea began after “they had trouble sharing videos online that had been shot at a dinner party at Steve’s San Francisco apartment.”) Karim soon left Youtube to go to grad school, and didn’t become as famous as the other two. The origins-of-Youtube tale has thus become a peculiarly modern trope: The memetic war over who controls a company’s mythic origin-tale. Joseph Campbell arrives in Silicon Valley.

Either way, there’s a lovely irony at the end:

Once they had the site up and running, Karim and partners Steve Chen and Chad Hurley set about pitching the site to every Wired writer they could find. Nobody bit.

You can catch “mathophobia” from your parents

Picture of plastercine doll alarmed at "math"

Are you mathophobic? You might have caught it from your parents.

“Math anxiety” is precisely what it sounds like — “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance”, as one scholar puts it. No-one knows how exactly how prevalent it is, but it affects a lot of folks. One study found that 25% of US college students (and 80% of community-college students!) suffer from it; a 2010 survey found that about one in five adults feel “frustrated” or “anxious” when doing math. It also found that 30% of Americans “would rather clean the bathroom than solve a math problem.”

No-one’s quite sure where mathophobia comes from. Educators have suggested all sorts of causes, ranging from abstruse math curriculum, working-memory issues in certain students, supergendered cultural messages telling girls they’re innately bad at math (women suffer from math anxiety more than men), or the high-stakes panic of “timed” math tests.

But it’s also a social thing. There’s a pile of research showing that many elementary-school teachers feel nervous about math. (Some examples: here, here and here). Since they’re the ones teaching it, kids pick up on the fact that math is freaky and scary. So mathophobia is also an emotional virus: You catch it from anxious adults.

And now a recent study identified another source of transmission — your parents!

Parents, of course, are often encouraged to be involved in their kids’ homework, because research finds that when parents are engaged in schoolwork, children are more likely to thrive academically. But recently, a group of academics noticed one aberration: Math. Sometimes, when parents get involved in their kids’ math homework, the students do worse.

Maybe, the reseachers wondered, these parents have math dread — and they’re infecting their kids:

We considered the possibility that it is specifically parents with high math anxiety whose homework help is negatively related to their children’s math achievement. These parents may have inadequate math-helping skills or rigidly use instructional strategies that conflict with those that teachers use in the classroom, which could confuse children and negatively affect their math learning. Frequent involvement of parents with high math anxiety in their children’s math homework could also create opportunities to communicate their fears about math to their children.

So they tested it. They gathered 379 first- and second-grade students (211 girls, 168 boys). They checked the children’s math abilities at the beginning and the end of the school year. Then, crucially, they checked with the children’s parents. How often did they help their kids with homework? And what were their levels of math anxiety?

The result? The scientists’ hunch was correct. When parents had high math anxiety, they passed it on. The more they helped their kids with math homework, the worse their children did.

So if you’re a mathophobic parent, what are you supposed to do? If your kid is struggling with homework, you feel like you have to help out, right?

Maybe not. The researchers also analyzed the performance of kids a) who had mathophobic parents, but b) whose parents didn’t help them out when the math got tough. And what do you know — the math performance of those kids did not decline. In effect, the parents emotionally quarantined themselves from their children, so their math-panic didn’t rub off on the younguns. Consider it the Euclidean version of Hippocratic oath: First, do no mathematical harm!

By the way, neither I — nor the researchers — are blaming mathophobic parents for their fears. The odds are high that the parents were taught math horribly too, by people who were themselves taught horribly; these biases go back generations, and deepen like a coastal shelf. So the long-term solution, the researchers argue, is palliative. We need to help parents out, by developing strategies to alleviate their mathophobia. As they suggest:

These might include structured activities that allow parents to interact with their children around math in positive ways, which could be delivered in the form of math books, computer and traditional board games, or Internet apps. Parents’ homework help could also be facilitated by providing tip sheets with general guidelines for math-homework help and through video models of effective math-homework help (Robinson, 2014). With support, parents with higher math anxiety may be less anxious while helping their children with math and be more equipped to positively affect their children’s math achievement and math attitudes (Frenkel, 2013).

A gender note here: The teachers of those kids in the study? Of the 79, fully 76 were female and only 3 were male. The vast majority of elementary-school teachers are women, and have been for decades (for a welter of economic and sociological reasons). This becomes part of the math-anxiety cycle. Because girls have been told for decades that “math class is tough”, society has, in effect, assiduously cultivated math anxiety in the very people most likely to wind up teaching the subject to young children.

So one can see how the social transmission of mathophobia is liable to happen inside the classroom, too. It’s a good lesson for why we need to stamp out all lazy generalizations about the how men “get” math better than women; these memes have consequences.

(That Creative-Commons-2.0 picture above is courtesy Jimmie at Flickr!)