Game Day at Asatte Press

We spent Monday afternoon at Asatte Press playing games with our Spring 2013 interns.

No, we weren’t just goofing off. Asatte Press is now working on its first mobile game/training app for iOS. We have been very lucky to onboard an intern named Alex Hernandez who graduated from Full Sail University with a specialized degree in game software design and he has been working on a more formal design process. The first step in most software game design efforts is to prototype the game with paper and cardboard and test it to see whether it is fun to play or not.

Game Objectives

This game is actually the first of several concepts we are pursuing. All of our games are learning oriented with an eye to assisting the oil industry with its current training challenges.

This cocktail party game focuses on the problem of transferring historical knowledge from an older generation of workers to an incoming younger generation. The oil industry refers to this problem as the “Crew Change”. The game sets up a mildly competitive test in which the younger workers vie to show mastery of historical information in several different subject areas. During testing we actually discovered by accident that the most effective way to play this game is to have the older worker (me in this case) be the moderator and let the younger workers compete against each other. Done properly, this setup allows the older worker to jump in and explain the peculiar background behind some of the seemingly obscure “trivia” questions.

Initial Design of the Game Board

The game board is in the form of a gear with 8 spokes and a trail of colored mini-gears tracing the circumference,

Initial Game Board Design

Since we don’t yet have an adequate base of knowledge for the oil industry, we decided to base our game instead on the knowledge base encapsulated in our Systematic Martini Lifestyle book.

We decided to implement the prototype game as a around-the-board game similar to Monopoly or Parcheesi. We chose a gear motif to match our Systematic Logo. Tomoko created the board using the Inkscape Scalable Graphic Editor and partitioned it into four pieces which we printed on 11″x17″ paper using our large format Epson printer. Cutting and pasting these together, we were able to come up with a reasonably sized playing board.

Initial Rules of Play

The board has five colors of tip cards as well as some plastic figures.

Prototype Board

We used the Systematic Martini Lifestyle tips developed by our Summer 2013 interns as the knowledge base. We divided the tips into five categories:

  1. Red = Wine
  2. Orange = Food
  3. Yellow = Utensils
  4. Green = Liquor
  5. Blue = Clothing

The tip database includes difficulty levels from 1 (easy) to 4 (difficult). However, for the initial test we did not differentiate and instead used all the tips together.

Tomoko went to the hobby store and found some small plastic players to use as avatars during the game.

The initial playing/scoring approach was as follows:

  1. Each player selects a plastic piece.
  2. Each player places his/her plastic piece on the red gear on one of the spokes of the larger gear.
  3. Players take turns rolling a single six-sided die.
  4. Each player moves forward clockwise around the outer path of small gears according to the roll of the die.
  5. When the player lands on a small gear, the color of the gear determines which category of question will be asked. White is a pass (no question).
  6. Each question is multiple choice with four answers, only one of which is correct.
  7. The first player to have one correct answer in all five categories wins.

Results of Play Testing

Score Sheet from 4/28

Score Sheet from 4/28

We actually did two rounds of testing, one on Sunday 4/27 and one on Monday 4/28.

During the initial game on Sunday, we started out with me as one of the players. However, part way through the game, a late guest arrived and we had her take over my position. Before she arrived, we had been taking turns reading the questions to each other. After she arrived, we switched to me being the master of ceremonies as shown in the video clip. We discovered that this arrangement enhanced both the play (making it a little more festive) and the education factor, in that it created natural opportunities to explain the quirky back stories behind the tips.

Another change between day 1 and day 2 is that we switched to from playing for 3 correct in each category to only playing for 1 correct in each category. This change shortened the play time to about 35 minutes for 5 players. It also created an interesting dynamic towards the end of the game in which players had to pass a lot, because they had already finished the color they landed on. This forced passing in turn enabled lagging players to catch up. This game dynamic is not unusual, a lot of games play this way and we have decided for the moment that this dynamic is a positive feature.

What’s Next

We are going to go ahead and implement this game for iOS and probably for Android too. Although the style and game play approach is different from the prototype we used last summer, we will be able to reused the Google App Engine design that our Summer 2012 interns did in Java (on the Google App Engine) and Objective C (on IOS). After we release this as a “Cocktail Party” game for the general public, we will start pursuing opportunities to customize it to specific knowledge domains for the oil industry.

Passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test Level N2

My JLPT N2 Certificate

My JLPT N2 Certificate

A few weeks ago, I received my certificate for passing the JLPT N2 test in December.

JLPT stands for “Japanese Language Proficiency Test” (日本語能力試験 Nihongo Nōryoku Shiken) and is administered in Japan by the Ministry of Education and overseas by the Japan Foundation. In the United States, the test is only given once per year, the first Sunday in December.

There are five levels to the test with N1 being the most difficult and N5 being the easiest. After browsing through some reference material last Summer, I decided to try the N2 level based on the level of Kanji covered. As for the selection of Kanji, N2 was indeed just about right. The test itself, however, kicked my butt. The issuers of the certificate very graciously did not include any clarifying comments like “Just Barely Passed” or “Crawled Across the Finish Line and Collapsed”  which would have been quite accurate in my case.

Although the test was tough, it was also useful in that it showed me the limits of my personal learning strategy for Japanese. About fifteen years ago my language skill had hit a plateau because I was really only absorbing Japanese through conversation. This approach had me stuck permanently at something like the level of an elementary student. Very aware of this limitation, I decided to make an all-out effort to conquer the Kanji. This is a formidable task. Although there are only a few thousand Kanji in common use, any one can have as many as twenty different reading. Even worse, most useful words are combinations of two or more Kanji and there isn’t any completely air-tight and predictable method of determining which combination of readings and individual meanings will apply to a word which is a combination of two Kanji. I attacked the task with computer power, using Visual Basic to generate flashcards  in PowerPoint which I then printed, pasted back to back, cut with paper cutter and laminated into sets of one-hundred. I then practiced endlessly with these sets of flashcards. Altogether, I made 4,700 flashcards and spent a few thousand hours in coffee shops and wine bars practicing with them.

By and large, this strategy has worked. I can read a newspaper reasonably comfortably. I can read magazines, checking a few words each page. I can read literature by alternately reading a chapter in English translation and in Japanese. However, although I did not realize it until I took the JLPT, I have pretty much exhausted the benefit of this strategy and to punch through to the next level, I need to shift my focus to another area that I had not even considered to be particularly important before.

Sample Grammar Problem from Practice Book

Sample Grammar Problem from Practice Book

The writers of the JLPT call this area “Grammar” but in any other language, this area would be referred to as “Idiomatic Usage.”  More precisely, I would describe this as something like “Usage of fuzzy modifiers and complex passive constructions”.

The terms of the JLPT forbid takers from revealing content.  Even if I wanted to, I would not be able to because security at the test was  rigorous. There were tight controls of what you could take into the room (nothing) and what you could take from the room (nothing) as well as what you could discuss with fellow participants during the break (nothing).  Instead of discussing the test content, I have included a snippet from a commercial practice text above. This snippet is quite representative of the “grammar” problems on the test. In order to pass the N2 level of the test, you have to be an absolute master of fuzzy modifier words like “mono” (thing), “koso” (matter), “koto” (thing or matter depending) “wake” (because) “to-iuu” (seeming to be) and exactly which of the numerous Japanese compound negative and passive constructions is best used with each combination of fuzzy modifiers in which circumstance.

The practice text was quite an eye opener. Japanese has hundreds of these things and thousands of possible combinations of them. My impression had always been that the Japanese just sort of shoveled these things randomly into sentences with no particular rhyme or reason. These constructions always seemed to me to be more of a decorative aural art form than anything with any particularly clear or understood grammatical meaning. The Japanese seemed to be sprinkling them artfully here and there like an artist making a work of modern art by whimsically dribbling cans of pleasingly colored paint across a large canvas spread on the floor.  The text disabused me of this notion. It had hundreds of pages of intricate flowcharts with special markings to show that certain paths through the chart would indicate firmness, while others would indicate warmth.  Clearly, to break through to the next level, I am going to have to focus my next round of efforts on mastering this intricate web of fuzzy modifiers.

Sample Kanji Problem from Practice Book

Sample Kanji Problem from Practice Book

By and large, my Kanji preparation was pretty solid. However, a test that does not different levels of mastery in its students is not a real test. The test did include a certain number of problems similar to number 18 in the snippet to the left from a commercial practice text. For native Japanese who grew up with the language and read it day in and day out, this sort of problem is probably not too tough. For non-native speakers, however, differentiating between several extremely similar Kanji, all of which are below around 1500 in the order of frequency ranking, without the aid of sentence context to help you identify the Kanji, is a tough test indeed.

Actually, Kanji and Grammar were the smaller parts of the test. The larger proportion of the test was on reading comprehension and listening.  Here again, the challenge came as a bit of a surprise to me. The difficulty was not that the text passages were inordinately difficult to understand. The challenge was time pressure. In order to get a perfect score on the test, you had to be really, really fast.

Likewise, the listening sections were tough because of the speed. The voices were clear and the dialogs were well articulated, but they were quick. I have been in a few thousand hours of Japanese business meetings and I would have to say that the pace for the dialogs would be what I would categorize as “excited” No one in the speaking sections was talking slowly or thoughtfully. Rather the pace was that of native speakers who had both just had several cups of coffee and were anxious to rush out the door.  Relatively speaking, I did better on the listening comprehension section.

All in all, I think this test is comparable in challenge to U.S. standardized tests like the GRE or MCAT. I have never taken TOEFL or TOEIC, but the concept seems to be similar.  Of course, there is quite a debate about whether such tests really do a good job of measuring actual linguistic capability. The ACTFL has a much more sophisticated approach which is undoubtedly a better measure. However, the ACTFL’s approach is also extremely labor intensive.  By my count, there were approximately 120 students just taking the N2 level of the JLPT and this was at only one of five testing centers in the United States. Clearly, the entire test covers thousands of students. The ACTFL’s approach including video taped interviews with each student would be prohibitively expensive at that scale.

At any rate, it was fun and interesting. I am glad I was able to pass the test, even if just barely. Clearly, I have an enormous mountain to climb before I can take on the N1 level of the test. With the enormous amount of effort we are putting into getting our first book written, there is no way I am going to tackle that challenge this year,


Asatte Press Spring 2012 Interns Begin Work

Dave, Tomoko and the Spring 2012 Interns

Dave, Tomoko and the Spring 2012 Interns

Last Friday we held employee orientation for our Spring 2012 Interns. We were very pleased with the quality of students who applied for our positions. As a result, we decided to expand the scope of the internships from three to seven positions.

In the photo at the left you can see Tomoko and me in the front at the left. Starting from left to right (behind Tomoko and me) the Spring 2012 interns are:


  1. Warren Cai – Marketing Intern = Warren is in the Masters of Technology Commercialization program at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business. Warren will be helping us develop our marketing and promotion strategy.
  2. Jason Roh – Graphic Design Intern = Jason is working on a Bachelor of Fine Art degree at the University of Texas. Jason will be helping us design a series of promotional products. Jason will also be looking at various other graphic design aspects of our product line.
  3. Bang Truong – IT Intern = Bang is working on a MIS degree at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business. Bang will be helping us develop our IT end user deployment and support processes.
  4. Blake Henson – Product Development Intern = Blake is studying civil engineering at the University of Texas. Blake will be helping us define our product development processes, working on packaging design for our physical products and also working with the marketing interns on the overall promotion strategy.
  5. Ilse Chapa – Facilities and Event Planning Intern = Ilse is studying communications and event planning at the University of Texas. Ilse will be developing a plan of events for Asatte Press. Ilse will also be working with the other marketing interns on the overall promotion strategy.
  6. Gabrielle Li – Marketing Intern = Gabrielle has recently completed a Master’s Degree in Psychology at the University of Texas. Gabrielle will be doing a focused analysis of the user psychology of social networks. Gabrielle will also be working with the other marketing interns on the overall promotion strategy.
  7. Di Liu – IT Intern = Di is pursuing a Master of Science in Information Studies at the University of Texas. Di will be working to setup our document management, defect management and revision control systems.
Initial Paperwork, Orientation and IT Setup

Initial Paperwork, Orientation and IT Setup

Friday’s session was consumed entirely by paperwork, orientation and setup. These days, it takes a lot of paperwork to hire an employee these days. Over the years, government requirements have gradually increased. For example, most if not all states now require a report to the state attorney general’s office so that the office can cross check for deadbeat dads who are not paying child support. The Federal I-9 form required to verify that an employee is eligible for employment in the United States is also an endlessly entertaining and remarkable document. Finally, there are any number of forms that are not legally required but are for all practical purposes culturally required in the United States. These include employee non-disclosure agreements as well as emergency contact information. I also handed out copies of the United States Copyright Office circular 9 to make the employees aware that as employees, their work efforts are “Work for Hire” whose copyright is owned by Asatte Press.

We also set everyone up with Microsoft Office 365 so that they would have legal copies of Office to work with. Most students have student licenses purchased from the university computer store and these come with license restrictions that prohibit them from using them for commercial purposes. Finally, we issued prepaid cellphones to anyone who wanted one. I don’t want student interns incurring cellphone costs for work done for Asatte Press.

Introduction to Martini Technology

Introduction to Martini Technology

At 5:00 PM, we were finished with the orientation. Asatte Press work ended and Tomoko and I held a small private reception for the students during which I demonstrated some of the implements and techniques for mixing a martini.

Asatte Press Spring 2012 Internships

We Have a Lot of Work to Do

We Have a Lot of Work to Do

We have reached a major milestone – we are ready to hire our first employees! Of course, the start is rather modest: we will be hiring three student interns for the Spring 2012 semester.

Of course, we can’t offer the lavish facilities of a major company. In fact, we can’t offer any facilities at all. Our dining room will be the “office” for our Spring 2012 interns. We also can’t offer interns the experience of working with gushing torrents of money that they might encounter in say an advertising agency working on major national accounts.

That having been said, we can offer some unique opportunities that interns are very unlikely to find at large companies. That is, students who intern at larger companies often find themselves doing glorified clerical work. Yes, the student might be working on a $20 million advertising contract, but the student’s scope for contributing or significantly affecting the course of the project will be small to microscopic. Our interns, on the other hand, are going to get to play a key role in setting up our strategy and processes. In particular, our interns are going to have a key role in defining our social media product and promotion strategy. I think this session is going to be a lot of fun!

The three internships we will be offering are:

  1. IT Internship – The IT intern will have the opportunity to help us build out our software development environment and web site. The IT intern will write the initial draft of the Asatte Press IT operations manual.
  2. Publicity and Advertising Internship – The Publicity and Advertising intern will play a key role in helping us figure out how to go to market.  Given a very limited budget, how do we get our products noticed in the marketplace? What are the most cost effective venues for us to do direct promotional sales? The Publicity and Advertising intern will write the initial draft of the Asatte Press publicity and advertising strategy.
  3. Promotional Product Design Internship – The Promotional Product Design intern will start with a a very small target budget and work with suppliers to put together several promotional products for us to sell in conjunction with our books and software. This is a position for a graphics or art student who would like to get a more detailed feel for what it takes to actually put a real product on the market. The Promotional Product Design intern will write the initial draft of the Asatte Press product development manual.

Our detailed internship description can be downloaded from the Asatte Press Employment webpage. We also have preliminary information posted there about our possible Summer 2012 opportunities.  If you know any Austin-area college students who might be interested, by all means pass this information along to them!

World Languages Expo 2011

Colorado Convention Center, Bear Peeking through Window

Colorado Convention Center, Bear Peeking through Window

What an interesting conference! Usually when I go to conferences, after half a day I have pretty much absorbed the key points and either skip the rest or spend a lot of time feeling bored. This event was different.

Last week, Tomoko and I flew to Denver for the 2011 Annual Convention and World Languages Expo of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).  Frankly, having been to any number of not-all-that-exciting conferences put on by the high-tech industry, my expectations were not very high. I signed Tomoko and myself up for the workshops on Thursday and scheduled our return flight on Sunday, imagining that we would probably be finished with the conference by lunchtime on Friday and spend the rest of the weekend sightseeing.

Nothing of the sort happened!  Tomoko and I were running from early morning until evening for three days. Each day we ended up the day so stuffed with new information and things to discuss that we headed straight for the nearest bar so we could immediately start sorting out what we had learned that day.

Of course, not everyone would be so stimulated by this event.  For me, however, the question of how the human being acquires languages is a rather fundamental intellectual and philosophical question. Furthermore, there were also fascinating discussions of tricky and controversial issues concerning the politics of education, technology, and funding. I saw a lot more true innovation going on at this show than I have seen from any sector of the technology industry in ten years or more.

First up: what exactly is language proficiency?  I spent the first day in two excellent workshops lead by Professor Chantal Thompson of Brigham Young University. Because of its close association with the Mormon Church and the church’s missionary language training program, BYU is a leader in the field of language instruction. The first thing Professor Thompson went over was the difference between “achievement” and “proficiency”:

Achievement Proficiency
What you know about the language. What you can actually do with the language.

Think about that distinction for a moment. The vast majority of language teaching programs all over the world have been focusing on the wrong thing for the last two hundred years or so. Language teachers LOVE achievement. It is nice. It is neat. You can test it with multiple choice tests. Students from Confucian heritage countries also love achievement for the same reasons: it is very straightforward, you just spend thousands of hours memorizing things in preparation for the multiple-choice tests.

The problem is that it is entirely possible to have a student with an amazing score on multiple choice tests who is not capable of ordering a glass of beer in a bar.

Teaching proficiency is much, much harder. It is also substantially more labor intensive. Instead of simply reciting a list of vocabulary to forty silent, passive students and telling them to come back on Friday for a multiple-choice test, you actually have to get them to talk and discuss meaningful content in a systematic manner. For an instructor, this task is quite challenging.

OK. So we are not going to rely so much on multiple-choice tests. How are we going to measure anything? The answer is, you need to do one-on-one assessments and you need a very rigorous framework for assessing levels of proficiency. The ACTFL has been doing outstanding work in this area, building on and extending work originally done by the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. State Department. The ACTFL’s scale starts at “Novice” and continues through “Intermediate” and “Advanced” to “Superior”. In each of the first three levels, the scale is subdivided as follows:

  • Low – Just barely there. Hanging on by your fingernails.
  • Medium – Solid performance according to the criteria of the level.
  • High – Couldn’t quite make it to the next level. That is, performing
    at the next level most of the time, but suffering from periodic relapses.

The ACTFL (more precisely its partner Language Testing International) does formal assessments of all four modes of communication: speaking, writing, listening and reading. Professor Thompson’s workshop was focused on speaking and techniques of moving students up the verbal scale.

During an assessment of a student’s speaking ability, a trained interviewer interactively talks with a student to identify a subject that the student has sufficient interest and background knowledge to discuss. The interviewer then prompts the student to have an extended conversation about that subject.  My impression is that the conversation is either usually or always recorded with the formal assessment happening off-line.

Several different factors are considered. Three of the most interesting are text type, listener and accuracy. Here is an abbreviated summary of my understanding of the scale:

Level Text Type Listener Accuracy
Novice Words Indulgent listener, used to foreign speakers Errors OK
Intermediate Sentences Sympathetic listener, used to foreign speakers Errors OK
Advanced Paragraphs. Should be able to talk in connected discourse, not just isolated sentences. Man on the street. Accent/errors should not create any sense of burden for the listener or impair the meaning
Superior Abstract. Should be able discuss politics, science, literature and the like. Should be able to present a structured analysis of pros and cons of a position. Man on the street. Mild accent OK. Isolated errors OK. Repeated patterns of errors NOT OK.

Interesting philosophical point: most native speakers in most languages only score somewhere in the “advanced low” or “advanced medium” range in their own language.  In other words, if the student does not have the intellectual capacity to deliver a precise and articulate reasoned argument in his own language, you obviously cannot teach him to do so in a foreign language!

…which led to the next point that came up repeatedly during the many different talks and workshops during the next three days: Many American university students are incapable of talking intelligently about much of anything these days. They seem to be so plugged into Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and video games that they are completely unaware of even the most critical current events.  Healthcare reform? Never heard of it. European financial crisis? Don’t know anything about that. Upcoming presidential election? What’s an election? Many university language professors find themselves having to introduce their students to the remarkable concept that there is a world beyond their little social universe and that there are subjects that require more thought and analysis than you can drop into a 140 character Twitter post.

The discussions of education politics were also fascinating. There is a certain well-funded language learning software company that has high pressure salesman standing in front of mountains of yellow software packages in most major airports. This company also runs wildly irresponsible television advertisements promising that a student can effortlessly learn Japanese “without memorizing any vocabulary or grammar rules” Having spent the better part of three decades and many thousands of hours to get to something like the lower end of the advanced range in Japanese, I can assure my readers that gaining even the most rudimentary conversational ability in Japanese requires a lot of effort. Huge amounts of effort. At any rate, this company’s steroid-induced sales force has apparently been telling school districts that they can save money by firing their language teachers and simply handing out CD-ROMs to their students. Breathtakingly unethical behavior! For obvious reasons, this company was the only language software company in the world not present at the show.

Our final session on Saturday afternoon, was a delightful talk called “Blood, Teeth and Lady Gaga” by Leslie Davison of Dillon Valley Elementary in Colorado. Ms. Davison is funnier than a nightclub act.  She teaches a sort of elementary school immersion Spanish language program for very young elementary students. She points out that if you want to get students to retain language, the first thing you have to do is throw away the traditional vocabulary guidelines and restructure the lessons around things the kids are actually interested in. Days of the week? The only day most of these kids are interested in is Saturday. Not a compelling subject. Weather?  First grade boys could care less about the weather. Any parent will tell you that a first grade boy will happily run naked into a blizzard to play with his friends. Weather is not a very relevant to a first grade boy either. Ms. Davison’s technique is as simple as it is radical: just ask the kids what they are interested in and build the lesson in such a manner that they spend all the time talking about things that they want to talk about anyway.

By the way, we did have a pretty good time in the evening finding nice restaurants with glasses of wine to help us get our spinning heads under control. We particularly liked Larimer Street between 20th and 22nd. Pizza at Marco’s Coal Fired Pizzeria was delightful as was dinner at twelverestaurant.

At any rate, I came back to Austin with many pages of notes and ideas for Asatte Press. Now the major challenge is simply to decide which of the dozens of projects and opportunities to tackle first.

U.S. Naval Academy Liberal Arts Education

It was a helicopter parent’s dream: parent’s weekend at the Naval Academy!

This treat happens only once during your midshipman’s four-year stay at the Naval Academy.  You arrive Thursday evening for a spirit rally for a football game – in this case, it was for the game against East Carolina University.

Friday morning you come back early and you get to follow your son or daughter around all day, sitting in on classes, eating lunch together in the famous King Hall, watching him or her march in a parade, and generally being a nosy, buzzing, hovering parent.

Dave and Ryan discuss Digital to Analog Lab Exercise

Dave and Ryan discuss Digital to Analog Lab Exercise

First up was the electrical engineering course. Ryan is a history major, but all Naval Academy students get a full year of electrical engineering, not to mention a full strength dose of math and physics. The lecture of the day was on digital to analog converters. The professor was a Navy commander and an active engineer helping in the research and design of state of the art communications systems for the Navy. His lecture was excellent. It covered a lot of ground in a hurry, but was very clear and did a nice job of articulating key concepts.  Following the lecture, there was a lab exercise in which the students made measurements on an actual R-2R resistor ladder circuit. I am sure that the class of humanities major students felt like they were drinking from a fire hose, but I thought that the instructor hit exactly the right balance of concept versus detail for this set of students.

Next up was a visit to Ryan’s class on the imagery of ghosts and goblins in Japanese history. Again, the instruction was excellent. The lecture of the day was on the Boshin war at the end of the Edo period. This civil war led to the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. The Boshin War is an intricate topic, but the instructor gave a lively and interesting presentation which was clear and easy to follow. Not only did he do a nice job of laying out all the foreign and domestic forces at play, but in keeping with the overall course material, he covered a few heinous political crimes that led to famous legends of ghost haunting.

Following the aforementioned lunch, we attended a course taught in Japanese by a Captain in the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces…. [In keeping with Japan’s pacifist constitution which was imposed by the MacArthur administration after World War II, Japan does not have a “military” and (heaven forbid!) certainly does not have a “Navy” All Japan has is a modest “maritime self-defense force” with helicopter carriers, destroyers, submarines, mine sweepers, etc… which if it WERE a Navy would be second in size only to the United States Navy…]    While nominally a language course, the actual content of this course covers a lot of ground about the structure of the Japanese military, the geopolitics in East Asia, Japanese naval strategy and so on. The course would be a reasonable load in English; Ryan and several others are taking it in Japanese.

The final class of the day was the leadership class. Here the instructor opted not to do a lecture, but rather hold a question and answer discussion for the parents about what leadership means to the Navy, what the learning goals of the class are and so on.

Saturday we followed up with front row seats in the end zone for the East Carolina football game. It was an exciting game and our seats were fabulous. Navy almost beat East Carolina with a touchdown being disqualified on a dubious technicality in the last 60 seconds of the game.

After the game, we attended the tailgate party for Ryan’s company. What? tailgate after the game?  Well, yes.  The Naval midshipmen have to march onto the field before each game. Frankly speaking, the marching skills of the Naval midshipmen are not that great. The Navy burns up about one Marine Corps drill sergeant per year who runs around sputtering, ranting, and raving in a futile effort to whip the midshipmen into shape. After some number of months, these Marine Corps drill sergeants end up being taken away in a straitjacket.  Needless to say, the Naval midshipmen march on parade is difficult. It the midshipmen were allowed to get drunk before marching onto the field, it wouldn’t work at all!  As such, the tailgate parties are after the game, not before.

It was a fun weekend, but the experience is germane to a more serious debate we are having nationally at the moment. The debate is about whether Liberal Arts education is still relevant. With the increasing emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)  some politicians and pundits are forecasting the demise of Liberal Arts education. Needless to say, the Liberal Arts professors are panicked and outraged. Lots of counter argument speeches are being given, notably a recent talk by Martha J. Kanter, undersecretary, U.S. Department of Education

Liberal Arts is certainly important. At UC San Diego, I chose Revelle College,  the “Renaissance Man” college. Revelle College’s Humanities curriculum was much more substantial than that of most normal universities. However, I found the material so interesting, I opted to take two full years of it, instead of the single year that was required. The additional intense (and not gentle) writing instruction has served me well in my technical career. Today, most of our engineering programs are too packed with technical detail courses which could be slimmed down and a woefully inadequate amount of writing. We tend to turn out new graduate engineers who could not write a one-page specification of something even if their lives depended on it. Nevertheless, the Liberal Arts community is dancing around the embarrassing problem that their departments have become havens for students who don’t want to study hard and who certainly don’t want to learn to think clearly.

The Navy and the Marine Corps certainly value Liberal Arts. In fact, I have learned that the Marine Corps actually prefers Liberal Arts majors for officers who need to lead troops into battle. Nevertheless, neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps can afford to have an officer who freezes like a deer in the headlights when a problem involving computer technology comes up. Likewise, neither Navy nor Marine Corps can afford to have officers who are afraid of tackling complex problems or working hard to finish something by a certain deadline. Hence the full load of math and even electrical engineering courses. Even for history majors.

The civilian Liberal Arts university community would do well to take a close look at the curriculum offered to Liberal Arts majors at the service academies and make some hard decisions about toughening up their curricula and making them more relevant to today’s highly technological society.

Otherwise, Liberal Arts really will become a quaint relic of a halcyon, simpler past.