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Welcome to the Polymath Society International Newsletter #2. Written by Tom Lacey, Ph.D., (Poly-poli-economist and artist of some inconsequence)

Thanks to members who have made good efforts recently, to Jerry Keser, poly-biologist, for collaboration in finding links and themes, to George Heppelle, Ph.D., poly-psychologist, for making a special page in his site, to Wendy McElroy, a poly-published intellectual, and James P. Hogan, the poly-prolific science fiction writer, for their splendid links and write ups about the society.

Special thanks to poly-musical John Bullard for letting us use his wonder classical banjo music in the opening paragraph. See the link to his site where he has more samples of his work.

This web site and society is a work in progress, so check daily to see what is new. Many sections have been revised and refined, adding music, poetry and artwork to illustrate points. One section that needs input in particular, and good links, is Self-Improvement. I hope everyone has the Web Ferret to find things (free ware from

I have put the member listings into descriptive categories. If you do not like the title or category for your listing, please e-mail me as to your preference. You can make up your own category if you like.

The Polymath Society International makes a good home page. It loads fast and has poly-many links. (We have intentionally avoided a background and pictures to make the page load fast).

Substantively, there are several directions we can go, both in design and as a society.

First, we need to make the site more relevant to young people. Maybe we could have a best of youth culture page, e.g., the best skate page, the best Iria cite, the best Magic page, etc.

Secondly, it would be nice to have local polymath chapters, one in each city to highlight local (non-mass media) culture, activities, and ways that people are being involved in promoting genuine learning and culture. Hopefully, this would be much more than a tourist guide. We could make template web pages in Angelfire for people to start. This is a free web page system that has improved greatly of late. Uploading is very fast and easy, no more using an incoming directory, just browse the file you want and click on upload! No need for FTP programs. Now, it is really usable by a novice, and its a fairly fast server, faster than Geocities.

Of course, a web page is just technology, but more than technology, it is a form of personal publishing. Writing and layout skills, as well as information management and beyond, are now an indispensable for survival in the 21st century. There are many forms of cooperation already, such as web rings, banner exchanges, the rail (which we have been accepted to and implemented) etc. Like everything else, it is possible to add value or to just waste time.

Polymath Society Chapters can use the "free information highway, and tools" to organize a diverse set of people, to bring people together in many forms of cooperation. There is a tendency for specialization, going into depth into one small special area. There is also a tendency for integration, to bring many different skills and knowledge together. So the concept of the "polymath" reflects an on-going trend, actually a greater potential.

It can play a role in helping local non-profit efforts, which are inherently technologically backward. I am always doing technology things--exploring brave new frontiers. For example, I have set up a page for our local Chinese school. It will hopefully help us get and retain more American students in our Chinese classes next year. I will have something to show when I write to local companies about our school. They can log on right away, and hopefully be impressed.

There is a lot of potential to getting those who are already involved better organized, both technologically and socially. They can reach out to more people and make more contacts through a society chapter.

The emphasis of these chapters should be on doing rather than on raising money. I see so many non-profits primarily concerned with money and the symbols of success, a building fund for example. Of course, money is a problem for everyone, but the enhancement of ongoing operations will lead to financial health. This is why I see the society as a way of breathing life into existing bodies rather than as just another institution to feed.

Chapters can engage in market based activities to raise money, e.g., the young tutoring those who grew up before the information revolution, or making web pages for local businesses, or producing and distributing music and art work, plus organizing a speaker's bureau.

There are a lot of ways to do meaningful things and also get fed. I am opposed philosophically to fund raising for its own sake, to solicitation, mainly because I am so tired of being solicited. We live in a market world however, and there are many areas of inefficiency to improve, which brings a return. Just think of all the money we waste on politics! What if some of this money could be diverted to useful local activities?

Americans are very generous people. We all give a lot to charities every year. Yet, what percentage of this really does some good? Non-profits are very inefficient, particularly when they rely on the charity model, where most of what you give is spent by the same organizations in seemingly never ending postage to get you to give more.

We have to seriously consider the ethics and philosophy of various learning and fund raising activities, how they relate to art and to people, the practice of good artistic sensibilities.

A market rather than a charity model may not raise as much money from people's sense of sympathy, but it may better help those in need of improving their own skills and sense of self worth. Certainly, sending children around to beg, selling candy bars or raffle tickets, for instance, is very degrading for them. How much better it would be to sell one's own creations! And, please, not door-to-door.

Yet we should also avoid looking at art as strictly for exchange, as a way of making money. Really good artists usually die poor, and for good reason. After they are dead, collectors bid up the prices for their works, which are now scarcity items. Living art, being reproducible, does not have the same scarcity value, and also suffers the risk of depreciation should the artist fall out of favor. The market thus favors dead over living artists.

A true artist produces without any thought of the market. But then what does one do with the output. If you give it away, it will not likely be framed or hung properly. More often than not, it will eventually be simply discarded. So the professional artist justifies putting a price on his or her work as a way of giving it a universal value, a monetary value. Someone who buys a painting is more likely to take better care of it. In an exchange society, even art must be exchanged. All artists must in some sense go to market, unless they intend to keep all of their work themselves. Of course, an artist would logically prefer to sell the inferior works and keep the best, or exchange them with other artists.

Unfortunately, the more accomplished the artist, the more one can only afford their prints. Some even go so far as to try to make royalties from viewing their internet images.

If we look at art in practice, for most artists, it is not really sold for much more than the labor that goes into it. Few are is so sensational that it has a scarcity value from the start. There are so many artists that competition tends to reduce the price to the cost of labor expended, even for very good work. So if members donate some of their work for a society auction, this is really the same as donating their labor. Of course, if you have to ration your labor for your productions, then you do not have the passion to be a truly great artist. Van Gogh produced a new painting almost every day.

If this is the purpose, then it might be just as well to paint reproductions as original works, or perhaps portraits, since these have a more definite price. But portrait painting is risky for the novice as well as the truly great. Original works of abstract design can have a very uncertain value, particularly for learning artists. As Renoir said, you learn to paint in the museums, by copying the masters. You also know more or less whether you will like the result ahead of time. No wonder we live in a world of imitation. As I am personally still learning, I paint mostly reproductions, which I have sprinkled around the this site.

So it is important to understand the economics of arts and crafts if you are to raise money in this way, so that you do not waste your time. It can be a good way to finance projects and to learn at the same time, particularly as the internet provides a free method of marketing.

We could use some articles on the economics of marketing more abstract works, such as poetry for example. Also see the Wild Word, which is published by member Lorraine Lawthorne. This is a poetry magazine of some interest, having its own intellectual purpose and method of distribution.

Older people, at least those over 40, find the Polymath Society attractive. Of course, it is a harder thing to interest those who are the intended beneficiaries, youth under 20. So we need to do this. Of course, technology is something that everyone is interested in. It becomes a common focus, something that can cut across age barriers.

We also need to cut across the socioeconomic barriers, which is the real challenge of course. Those in the lower strata are not particularly interested in intellectual things. And schools, traditional education, has a way of making learning painful. Why should discovery be painful, unless it is by subpoena?

I think the traditional reaction to non-results is to get back to basics, to the "authoritarian" or limited subject approach. There is a certain plausibility to this. After all, the most important thing to concentrate on at an early age is reading.

Reading, which is logically structured symbolic thinking directly linked to linguistic and cultural perception, develops the mind, at least as long as some mind goes into the words on the page. One should not just read what is easy or comfortable. To improve, there has to be some struggle in it. The danger with reading too many books in a series is that you stay at the same level too long.

My kids have 15 of K.A. Applegate's Animorphs and keep buying the next one out, even though they have outgrown them. Kids also like to collect things, to say they have read so many books of one kind. Now I read them other books, ones I like, to get them interested in better writing and literary style, such as Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. They won't read these by themselves of course, not on their own, until they get familiar with the style. So this is why you have to read to your kids, to have a better influence on them.

There is no substitute for reading to children. Reading is much more than phonetic decoding. Phonics is important too, however, and should be the early emphasis, from ages 5 to age 8.

To demonstrate how important phonics is, it is used even in China, even though the Chinese written language is not phonetically based. They use a Westernized phonetic system call pinyin as a bridge from the spoken language to the correct pronunciation of the characters. Westerners also use it to learn Mandarin Chinese. The nice thing about it is that it is 100% consistent. If you hear a word spoken, you can translate it into perfect pinyin phonics. Unfortunately, our English phonetic system is tied up with the written language itself, so there are many exceptions to the rules. So it takes much longer to learn. In China, they teach the university students the international phonetic system to help them learn any foreign language, such as Russian, English, or French. Maybe we should teach the international phonetic system too.

Phonics enables children to read words that they do not already know how to pronounce, instead of skipping over them. Working through the MacMillan Phonics series with your child together together is a good thing to do (you can buy them in a teacher's supply store) -- they do not always use these in schools, or finish them. Also, phonics should not be totally discontinued after the third grade as many children miss parts of it along the way and all can benefit from going over the finer points again.

There is a whole science of phonetics which is quite fascinating, even for an adult, as I found out when I once worked on some computer reading software. Unfortunately, computers cannot yet read to children and hold their attention, nor are audio books of much use, in my opinion. There is still no substitute for a warm body to do the reading. And it is obvious that we as a society have a critical shortage of people who are willing and able to read to children.

So the emphasis on basics primarily comes from missed basics, by progression according to largely arbitrary stages. Yes, there are stages, but there are not really so many clear boundaries. We do not need as much age segregation as we have. Older kids can read to younger kids, can teach them phonics and learn at the same time. Strange that we should have such a shortage of teachers.

In Hong Kong, older children are used to tutor younger ones in the public schools, and they have a pretty good system. Of course, Chinese are a bit more authoritarian about education in general. In mainland China, the classrooms are largely silent as education is largely one of writing, of learning characters and writing compositions, or doing mathematical exercises.

In America, classroom time is largely spent listening (to largely incoherent lectures) rather than writing. We tend to emphasize oral and communication skills. No wonder we produce so many fine but basically illiterate BS'ers. Education is much more than basic skills, it is about basic methodology, basic attitude.

Now, how do we do remedial attitude, particularly on a whole educational system, a whole American media-cultural system oriented towards entertainment: the teacher as entertainer, the student as media critic? Part of the answer is how we structure the learning environment.

If everyone is silently writing, there is a social stigma attached to being disruptive. If everyone is making noise for noise's sake, then it becomes difficult to concentrate, let alone to think and to remember anything.

It is a simple physiological fact that one's ability to memorize or retrieve from memory is diminished while listening to the radio. The radio is not all bad -- it can make you feel better while doing monotonous tasks like painting your house or driving a long way. Students who view studying as monotonous and boring also want to have the radio on, but this is self-defeating.

Classroom noise has the same effect, or worse when behavioral problems or student-teacher antagonisms come to dominate the atmosphere. Well, we cannot reform the whole system. All we can do perhaps is to provide young people with the means and the motivation to learn either together or on their own.

Americans, by and large, would never like to be like the Chinese. It would be to boring for them, too "authoritarian," although the Chinese only consider it the natural respect due to the teacher, who is respected even more than the parent.

So, we can perhaps get kids to go to books stores, and get older kids to read to the younger ones, teens to pre-teens, for example. This is the first step. You cannot be an intellectual if you do not like to read and write.

At some point people need to write. People think as they write. But, of course, no one likes to be forced to write, or to read for that matter.

But we must also see that education is much more than fundamentals, it is about inspiration. It is inspiration that the Polymath Society should be about. We do not want to get involved in politics or any form of coercion. After all, learning cannot really be forced. If there is a social expectation for learning, i.e., if people gain social status or recognition by doing so, then they will want to learn to start with. So, an intellectual society should take itself somewhat serious in providing this encouragement.

Certainly, if teens can write to accomplished people and actually have them respond, then this will provide a great deal of encouragement. This is why I am writing to people such as yourself of course. We all need to be teachers too, at least to some degree.

In sum then, we need to organize local chapters, which means contacting people in existing non-profits, to work with us in forming chapters and activities. There are more people who have dropped out or disbanded than who are still participating in such non-profits. Perhaps we can reach them as well. Then we can integrate the local, where real people live, with the world of intellectual cyber space.

We need to give people practical things to do, things which advance their learning as well as contribute to organizing and connecting the society together.

Of course, you yourself may not have time to do this, to participate in this. This is fine. But your continued membership and referral is very important. At least discuss these ideas within your own circle of friends and associates and comment back if you have time.

Never underestimate the power of your own thoughts.

Thank you very much!


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