There’s something they say about words and pictures, so we won’t belabor this too much. Below you’ll find some of the most eye-catching photographs we ran on the site in the last year. Set aside some time to scroll through each one: They’re an amazing window onto everything that’s happening in the world–from Detroit’s collapse and the economic rise of China and the Middle East, to environmental disasters at home and abroad.
And then, less seriously, some great photos of those ridiculous fake tree cell phone towers, hilarious examples of what happens when strangers draw your Facebook photos, and a series of the true residents of Portland, who are crazier than anything you’ve seen on Portlandia. You’ll enjoy them all. And if that’s not enough, you can see our favorites from last year here.
1: Beautifully Mashed-Up Photos Show The Glory And Wreckage Of Detroit
The “Detroit Now and Then” project artfully combines vintage photos of the city with images of what’s there now, providing a poignant reminder of what the city was, what it is now and–maybe–what it could be again.
2: “Portraitlandia”: Photos Of Portland’s Most Portland-y Residents
If Portlandia were a photo series, it would probably look something like Kirk Crippens’s “Portraitlandia,” which features iconic Rose City residents in their natural habitats.
3: Look At These Chinese Workers Carrying Mind-Blowing Amounts Of Stuff
11: These Horrifying Photos Show A Destroyed American Landscape That Agriculture Giants Don’t Want You To See
These aerial images of industrial beef farming operations look less like shots of land and more like a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
12: These Photos Of Tiny, Futuristic Japanese Apartments Show How Micro Micro-Apartments Can Be
Micro-apartments are in vogue today. But in Japan, people have been living in the Nakagin Capsule Tower’s 100-square-foot housing for decades.
Read more of our best stories of the year in these categories: Top stories, infographics, photography, maps, buildings, design, cities, food, transportation, innovative workplaces, bikes, collaborative consumption, energy, crowdfunding, robots, environment, health, education
Questioning “General” Education
It is betterto solve one problem five different ways, than to
solve five different problems one way. — George Pólya:
Some parents want their schools to prepare theirchildren for future jobs and careers. Other parents want schools to teachspecific sets of ideals and beliefs. Some parents even want their young tolearn to develop their own, independent ideas. But regardless of thosedifferent goals, most schools assign most of their pupils’ time to learningscattered fragments of knowledge about some so-called “basic” subjects—likereading, writing, arithmetic, science, and tidbits of cultural history—and thenconsume the rest of those children’s time with incessant tests and homeworkassignments.
Surely, that kind of “broad education” helps many children tocomprehend many aspects of the worlds they’re in. However, I question how wellit prepares them to deal with more complex real-world problems—because it ishard to exploit separate fragments of knowledge until one acquires the mentalskills that one needs for retrieving and using the relevant ones.
Nevertheless, although we rarely teach children about how minds work,quite a few of them do become experts—in what we call their amusements andhobbies—as when they play computer games, or refine their athletic skills, orbuild structures with construction sets.
§2.6of The Emotion Machine:The“playfulness” of childhood is the most demanding teacher that one could have;it makes us explore our world to see what's there, to try to explain what allthose structures are, and to imagine what else could possibly be. Exploring,explaining and learning must be among a child’s most obstinate drives—and neveragain in those children’s lives will anything push them to work so hard.
Indeed,some children focus so much on their hobbies that their parents fear that thiswill conflict with their education—and try to find ways to discourage them. However, this essay will propose, instead, to postpone “broad” education untileach child has had some experience at becoming an expert in some specialty.
Critic: Do you really believe that that’s feasible?How could a six-year-old child become an expert?Surely one first needs to crawl and then walk before one can begin to run? Andsurely a child must start with concrete examples before dealing with moreabstract descriptions.
On the contrary, some recent experiments weigh againstthat popular belief:
Jennifer Kaminski et al: “Transfer of conceptualknowledge is more likely to occur after learning a generic instantiation thanafter learning a concrete one. … Knowledge acquired through a genericinstantiation can be transferred to a novel isomorph, while knowledge of arelevantly concrete instantiation does not transfer spontaneously. Forrelevantly concrete instantiations, the structural knowledge appears to bebound to the learning domain so that it cannot be easily recognized elsewhere.”
Sohere we’ll propose to re-aim our schools toward encouraging children to pursuemore focused hobbies and specialties—to provide them with more time for (andearlier experience with) developing more powerful sets of mental skills, whichthey later can extend to more academic activities. These issues are importantbecause our children today are growing up in increasingly complex and dangerousworlds—while our institutions are failing to teach correspondingly better waysto think. The result has been a global pandemic of adults who lack effectiveways to deal with increasingly challenging situations.
A Theory of Human Self-Critical Thinking
The Emotion Machine starts withthe idea that every brain contains many “resources,” some of which recognizevarious patterns, and others can supervise various actions; yet other resourcesform goals or plans, and some contain large bodies of knowledge. Then weenvision a mind as composed of amulti-level “cognitive tower,” whose lowest levels are mainly assembledgenetically—whereas the higher-level processes grow in ways that depend less oninherited genes, and more on their interactions with the activities in thelevels below them.
Self-ConsciousReflection à Values, Censors, Ideals, Taboos
Self-Reflective Thinking à Constructing Self-Models
Reflective Thinking à Planning and Self-Criticism
Deliberative Thinking à Reason, Search, Compare, etc.
Learned Reactions à Representing one’s Experience
Instinctive Reactions à Instinctive Urges and Drives
The Emotion Machine suggests that building such towers is the source ofthe unique resourcefulness that distinguishes us from other animals. If so,this suggest that a child’s first such constructions will have a large effectof the quality of that child’s later development.
Conjecture:once a child builds a cognitivetower that works well in some particular realm, that child will thereafterbe better equipped to develop proficiencies that can be used in other domains.
Theidea is that it seems plausible that the first few such developments could havea major effect on the qualities of that child’s future ones—because those willthe child’s first experiments with organizing such ‘vertical’ structures. Ifso, then this would imply that our children’s early education should focus onactivities, hobbies, and specialties that have the ‘desirable’ kinds of suchqualities. Of course, this also implies that we’ll need good theories ofwhich such qualities would be desirable’and what kinds of curriculums couldhelp to promote them.
In particular, Chapter 7.5 of The Emotion Machine suggests that, ateach of those multiple cognitive levels, certain important resources called Critics observe some events in the levels below them—andreact by selecting which sets of resources would be useful to activate next;this reorganizes the person’s mind to use a different “way to think,” of thesorts we mentioned in Memo 3. For example, whenever some mental process getsstuck, one Critic could suggest a way to split the problem into smaller parts;another Critic might recollect how a similar problem was solved in the past—andyet another Critic might suggest a different way to represent the situation.
If a problem seems familiar, try reasoning byanalogy.
If it seems unfamiliar, change your way to represent it.
If problemseems too hard, divide it into smaller parts.
If it still seems toohard, try a simpler version of it, etc.
What happens when several such critics are aroused at once? This won’tcause much conflict if each of those Critics arouses a different set ofresources because, in such a case, a person can “think several ways at once.”For example, most of us simultaneously entertain processes involved withsocial, linguistic, visual, logical, and other kinds of mental processes—e.g.,all of the kinds of thinking described in Howard Gardner’s view of the mind.
But what if your Critics’ suggestions conflict—for example, whenmultiple Critics try to control some of the same mental resources? (Whathappens when you try to think two tunes at once?) Then you’re likely to “getconfused”—and if you can’t find some compromise works, our theory suggests thatthis condition itself should turn on a higher level Critic—namely, one that candetect this particular kind of confusion, and suggest an appropriate remedy. Then, of course, the quality of your hierarchy of critics will be a majorinfluence on your competence and resourcefulness—especially if, when you’reconfused, your Critics can diagnose why you’re confused.
Abilities,Talents, and Mental Resources
Suppose you get stuck at achieving some goal. Thiscould lead you to conclude that you’re simply not suited for that kind ofjob—perhaps because you lack the right kinds of ‘talents, ’ or just don’t haveenough ‘intelligence.’ However, ifyou can recognize how yougot stuck, this may suggest moreconstructive alternatives: perhaps you did not activate the right kinds ofresources—or need to acquire some new ones, etc.
Seymour Papert: “Most children seem to have: andextensively use, an elaborate classification of mental abilities: "he's abrain," "he's a retard,” "he's dumb,” "I'm notmathematical-minded". The disastrous consequence is the habit of reactingto failure by classifying the problem as too hard, or oneself as 'not havingthe required aptitude, rather than by diagnosing the specific deficiency ofknowledge or skill.”
Whatmakes some folks more inventive than others? Why do some outshine others atsolving hard problems? Why do some people less often get stuck? The mostpopular answers to questions like these assume that each person possesses adifferent amount of some faculty called ‘Intelligence.’ However, this doesn’tanswer those questions at all, but only diverts our attention from them,because ‘intelligence’ is one of those suitcase-like words that we use atdifferent times, for different kinds of purposes—while switching those meaningsso fluently that we’re rarely aware of doing this. So, using the word‘intelligence’ can lead to a sense of helplessness, because of offering nothingthat you could change or do. However, as Papert pointed out, once you come toenvision yourself as a host of different programs or processes, then, when youdisappoint yourself, you can look for ways to ‘debug’ some of those processes!
Select appropriate representations: To think about any subject or question, you firstneed some ways to represent situations, goals, plans, ideas, andrelationships—for example, as a verbal description, a pictorial diagram, or alist of constraints to be satisfied. How can we help our children to learnto develop new, better ways to represent knowledge—along with the kinds ofprocesses one needs to manipulate those representations.?
Find appropriate analogies: Of course, one of best ways to solve a problem is toalready know how to solve it. However, no two situations are ever exactly thesame, So you can’t expect to remember as answer—unless you have alsodeveloped processes that can recognize useful analogies.
Negative Expertise: To deal with any hard kind of problem, a personmust know some possibly useful strategies—but also one will need to know themost common mistakes that one’s likely to make. A superficial survey won’thelp because one cannot achieve much competence unless, along with eachseparate fragment of knowledge, one also knows enough about the reputation ofthat fragment’s source, its common exceptions, the contexts it works in, and(when it fails) some alternative paths.
Construct more realistic self-models: Perhaps the most powerful way to solve a problem isto ask, “What makes this problem seem so hard me?”But you won’t be able to answer that unless youalready have good answers to questions like: How do I make my decisions, andwhy? How did I get into this situation? What are my goals, and how did I getthem? How do I generate new ideas?
In other words, before you can think about trying to change yourself,you’ll need to construct some models of how your mental processes work. However as Freud recognized a century ago, most of those processes work in waysthat can’t be directly observed by resources in other parts of your mind;indeed, the higher levels of our minds may even develop ways to suppress orcensor such attempts! Nevertheless, by collecting and analyzing evidence, westill can manage to achieve useful levels of self-reflection.
Chapter 7 of The Emotion Machine suggests a variety ofmental skills that might contribute to our resourcefulness—such as learningthat most ‘facts’ have exceptions, learning the most common kinds of mistakes,avoiding the most common ways to get stuck, and learning what to do when goalsconflict. It’s also important to know multiple ways to represent things, sothat if one method gets stuck, you can switch to another. And perhaps mostimportant of all is the art of making “cognitive maps” of what one learns, sothat one can make good decisions about which levels to work on, and when.
Horizontal vs.Vertical Specialties
Somehobbies are conceptually “flat” in the sense that they keep applying similarprocesses to collections of “same-level” knowledge. We see this when childrenaccumulate objects like comic books or statistical facts about movies orsports. In contrast, other more ‘vertical’ hobbies lead to higher towers of conceptsabout (for example) the causes, sources, and implications of their lower-levelfragments of knowledge—and surely that greater range of mental processes willhelp one to deal with more challenging situations and problems. Consider someexamples of these.
Thinking about Mathematic Concepts. Instead of the conventional trek through thedesert of grade-school arithmetic, we can encourage children to start climbingthe hills of ideas about symmetries, maps, and analogies—beginning with easyconcepts about geometry, logic, group-theory, and topology. Such explorationscan lead to more knowledge and power with less effort and time—and eventuallymake many other subjects easier.
Composing Music or Stories or Plays. Writing a stories, sonatas, orsongs can involve many levels of plans and designs: one needs to construct aplausible plot and populate it with themes or characters with interesting andconflicts and tensions, all of which must be resolved in a structure that onemust compress into a single temporal line! 
Athletics: Competitive, team-based sports are often claimed to helpchildren develop usefulideas about cooperation, tactics, and management skills—and formany children today, this may be their only such activity. However, theenforcement of certain sports in schools causes great fear and shame to quite afew children. To be sure, sports can contribute to physical fitness—but surelywe can find alternatives that do not cause so many injuries and disabilities!Also, we ignore the extent to which athletic prowess is largely genetic—henceit’s foolish to choose those champions as role models. Besides, competitive sports don’t always promote good social values; instead,they may even encourage wars, by teaching ways to deal with problems by usingsuperior physical force.
Physical Fabrication Crafts: To build a working model airplane, one needs tolearn substantial bodies of knowledge, such as the properties of differentmaterials, ways to form and modify them, and ways to combine them into morecomplex forms. Then eventually, one may come to see why the forces involvedrequire the wing to be stronger near the body than the tips, etc. Consider howmany aspects such a project can have: How to shape materials by using knife,saw, file, and chisel—and when and how to maintain those tools? When and how tomelt, mold, press, or bend? How to fasten things together by using nails,screws, solders or glues? How to increase a structure’s strength, by making itmore rigid or more flexible, or adding additional braces and struts, andstronger adhesives? How do axles and bearing work? What are good ways to storeenough energy? How can one minimize friction? More generally, how to plan anoverall design?
Simulated Fabrications: In recent times, Carpentry has nearly disappeared,and Electronics has turned into opaque ‘chips’—while Erector and Meccano setshave been replaced by boxes of modular LEGO blocks. However, today, childrencan simulate physical system on their computers; for example, with programslike Armadillo Run—or work with tens or hundreds of thousands of rectangularblocks at virtually no fiscal cost (See http://ldd.lego.com) Furthermore, todayone can email one’s mechanical designs to companies that use “3-D Printers” toconvert them into working physical models. Such facilities are quite expensivetoday, but will soon be cheaper: see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fab_lab.
Computational Fabrications: Although we may regret the decline of handicrafts,computer programming offers unlimited opportunities to build, test, and applytowers of increasing levels of representations. Hear Seymour Papert describingsome early examples of this: “An example of such an experience is writingsimple heuristic programs that play games of strategy or try to outguess achild playing tag with a computer controlled ‘turtle’. … A related example iswriting teaching programs—like traditional CAl programs, but conceived,written, developed and even tested (on other children) by the childrenthemselves. It is said that the best way to learn something is to teach it—andperhaps writing a teaching program is better still in its insistence on forcingone to consider all possible misunderstandings and mistakes. [Similarly, somesuch] children become passionately involved in writing programs to teacharithmetic and in the pros and cons of criticisms of one another's programs.”
Some predicaments “brainy” children face.
Weneed to recognize and remedy the common forms of hostility that ‘intellectual’children are likely to face from popular ‘jocks’ in their communities; theyoften get called by derisive names like “nerd,” “brain,” or “geek—and are oftenexcluded from other cliques. They may even get physical bullying—whereas thereis far less such prejudice against children who excel in less technical fields. I suspect that this type of intolerance is a major problem in many schools,and it could have dangerous results: million, billion,and trillion sound much alike,and unless you comprehend such magnitudes, trillion-dollar deficit does not sound any scarier.
GeraldSussman: My idea is to present an image to children that it is good to beintellectual, and not to care about the peer pressures to be anti-intellectual.I want every child to turn into a nerd—where that means someone who prefersstudying and learning to competing for social dominance, which canunfortunately cause the downward spiral into social rejection.
How can we help Self-Critical Thinking develop?
Thismemo suggests that schools should provide the children with ample time for eachto develop some specialties. I’m not proposing to eliminate all conventional classroom work, but only to allocatemore time to higher-level projects and hobbies, and spend less time on drills,tests, and homework.
Of course, few teachers will have enough time orexpertise to supervise so many specialized projects—so those children will needadditional mentors—most of whom will have to come from outside. This wasimpractical in the past—but now we’re approaching an era in which a billionretired persons could fill those roles—if we can find ways to connect withthem; for every hobby or specialty, we should be able to recruit specialists togive advice and to suggest other ways to proceed.
To what extent can a child’s mind spontaneously‘self-organize’ its higher levels, without any external guidance? To whatextent can we help children to learn how and when to make higher-levelabstractions or to resort to self-reflection? I’ve never seen much discussionof this; instead, we assume that such developments happen spontaneously if wejust expose a child to the proper kind of curriculum, that child’s mind willsomehow construct appropriate systems of processes to represent thoseexperiences. Then, when we come to recognize that some children excel atdoing such things, we simply assume that those children are ‘brighter’ than therest—instead of trying to find out what’s happening.
Would it help for us to discuss such things more explicitly? Memo 5will suggest some ways to include more ideas about minds into our systems forearly education.