Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Out of Joint

Do we need nature?

A Weary Question Someone Once Asked Me



We are out of joint with our world.  Needing nature is not an issue; we are part of nature.  The problem is how we are to fit into our tiny world.  Our civilisation is a new thing under this sun and we have not yet learned to run it in a limited world; we need more new things under the sun.  If we cannot adapt our economy to stability instead of growth, we either must expand beyond the planet or die. 

We cannot abandon our nature, but we must adapt it.  As long as humanity sticks to moral values that once we could afford, we will be unable to progress beyond social parasitism that threatens to destroy us.  If we are to stay on the planet for the next few millennia, we must model ourselves on ecologies that have remained stable for millions of years, even though based on self-interest.  Otherwise we had better master the technology and sociology that will equip us to expand off the planet.

Do We Need Nature?


We have been out of joint with our world for the entire brief dawn of humanity.  This won't last.  We have broken all sorts of evolutionary records in the last fifty thousand years or so, and we shall break at least one other in more like fifty years.  Which one, I cannot say, but if it is the wrong one, that record will go unrecorded except by possible future palaeontologists -- and not human palaeontologists. 

For millennia prophets have trumpeted doom in this key, and been derided by realists when the sky did not instantly come tumbling down.  Both prophets and realists were blind to the differences between global and personal time-scales, forgetting that the whimper that ends the world may draw out over many human generations: the twinkling of an eye certainly, but the eye of a planet, not a human eye. 

Out of joint.  That is the problem, not our greed, our cruelty, our stupidity; nature produces many cruel and greedy species and we have rivals in stupidity just as thoughtlessly frantic and mindlessly destructive.  Our special problem is that our world has limited scope for exploitation, while we, like rats, have no limit to our capacity for consumption, but lack the capacity to appreciate the consequences of our consumption. Rats accept such consequences with uncomprehending philosophy. Uncomprehending recrimination is more like our style.

We are ill-adapted in several dimensions at once; we live too fast, too small, too large, too chaotically…  And in the face of evidence or logic we deny that once consumed or destroyed, our cake cannot be uneaten, nor our seedcorn replenished.  A human heritage takes time to build, an infrastructure takes generations, and a biological heritage takes ages upon ages, beyond the entire prehistory of modern humans. 

Nor is the problem the agony of the biologist who sees beauty after ineffable beauty disappear into dead-end slums and unproductive deserts, where a ten-gram sunbird is the only bird in sight, and then because it is on its way to the pot.  Such effects now are legion in countries where within living memory there were over a thousand species of birds, many of which should in fact have supported food production indefinitely.   

No, distasteful though it might seem to people of delicate taste and perception, species and entire ecological systems have come and gone for billions of years, and they have a billion or so to go, as far as we can tell.  The problem is not whether we can alter such facts, but whether we can pilot the human heritage into and through challenges beyond any that a species has faced, or been equipped to face, in the past. 

Our human heritage…  How affected, how pretentious…  What is so special about our human heritage?  What is it about our nature that entitles us so much as even to speak of it in terms of our human heritage?

Well, it is what we are.  To let it go is treason against ourselves and against all that it makes any sense for us to care about.  It is reasonable and proper to foster our future as something precious.  Through some hundreds of thousands of years of short, nasty and brutish lives, through suffering, selfishness, vandalism and shame, humanity has inched upward, slipped back; we have fought nature, terrifying, ruthless and inexhaustible, in environments beautiful, exploitable, and very, very exhaustible. In particular we have faced humans, superstitious, selfish, thoughtless, and self-righteously genocidal. 

For tens of thousands of years of smug brutishness we took what we could for gain, and destroyed what we could for fun; forget the noble savage, the nature-wise hunter-gatherer -- in what single case has that nobility or wisdom survived overpopulation with nowhere to evict competitors, with no agronomist to heal the scars of slash-and-burn? 

And yet on average mankind has risen, not year by year at first, but age by age.  Through disaster and disgrace, by grinding toil and rare leap of intellect, we somehow improved our situation to create something truly new under the sun.  Human civilisation, in particular technological civilisation and universal suffrage, are new, new, new.  Unbelievably, we now have greater power to steer our fate, than any species in the last four and a half billion years on this planet. 

Humanity has vitality and power, but we will need more than that to survive the parasitism that our social structure breeds: the whinging liberalism of the privileged, the destructive resentment of the poor, the smug greed of fat cats, the rapacity of the professional criminal, the self-indulgent cruelty of idealists.   Faced with decisions that dwarf the dilemmas of crossroads in times past, we make do with the excuses and recriminations of politicians that exploit social parasitism.  Our strengths are infrastructure and intellect.  Our threats are inertia and expedient justification of half-baked principles. 

And a good job too!  Alternatives to what our leaders try to enforce are immoral or impossible. 

Actually, in this sense "immoral or impossible" simply means "unpalatable to the audible public and therefore to the politicians".  The outcomes of sound alternatives would not be nearly as unpalatable as the inevitable failure of self-serving or half-baked ideologically posed political or religious schemes or parasitic traditions, but such consequences are comfortably down the road; in day-to-day politics our leaders can safely deride them as illogical, obscene or naïve.  Or, if they come to pass inconveniently early, can be presented as lies, misunderstandings of actual successes, and above all, as someone else's fault.

Well, anyone can yap slogans from the sidelines, and nearly all of humanity does nothing better; but if that is how things are, then what is the recipe for continuing our struggle out of the slough? 

Judge for yourself from the parable of the yucca moth; it is one parable among many similar in nature.  Each female yucca moth gathers pollen from one yucca plant, enough pollen to make a lump generously sufficient to pollinate a flower on a distant plant. On that pollinated flower it lays just a few eggs.   The caterpillars feed on the seeds, but leave perhaps half those seeds uneaten, enough seeds to produce new yucca plants.  Without the assistance of the yucca moths, yucca plants hardly ever set any seed at all. 

This arrangement has developed and endured through ages beyond anything that most people can comprehend — millions of years longer than the history of humanity.  It has survived even though the moths feed on nothing else and nothing else pollinates those species of yucca.  Destroy either, and you guarantee the extinction of both. 

Nature teems with related examples.  Pyralid moth larvae eat perhaps half the seeds in thistle heads, but also eat rivals or other insects that would destroy the rest of the seed.  Thistles do very well where those moths, those apparent parasites of the thistles, are common.  And Lewis Thomas's haunting essay: "The medusa and the snail" describes even more intimate mutual exploitation. And our own body cells are stunning examples of endosymbiotic self interest. 

Such controlled self-interest, greed if you like, is the key to human survival.  The alternative is death, death alike for the future generations of the destructively greedy, and for those who fail to stop the destruction that greedy men cause and commonly try to justify. In the past humanity lived destructively like pigs in clover, not like caterpillars in yucca fruit, and conservation has been driven largely by the gamekeepers of powerful dogs-in-the-manger or by unworldly tree-huggers.  Within living memory opposition to unsustainable whaling has been cursed as woollen-headed interference with the profitability of whaling companies, although the commercial extinction of species after species was common knowledge.  That sort of thing was simple-minded, self-defeating greed, destruction of seed corn. 

Within the body, uncontrolled self-interest manifests itself as cancer.  There is another parable, if you like. 

Schooling is too impotent and does too little to form human nature into what we need for our future.  Love and husbandry foster smug stasis; progress demands need and greed.  Hate combines the drive and the smugness into something monstrous, the malice of modern versions of Macaulay's  puritans, who cursed bear-baiting for hatred of the pleasure rather than hatred of the cruelty.  In the past such hate took the form of racial or religious persecution, but nowadays we have added the hatred of science, hatred of wealth creation, in fact, hatred of anything like progress by other people or other parties.  As Russell observed, the infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to the moralists.  The good conscience of these modern moralists requires nothing better than sabotage and murder according to their dogma.

Simple pleasures, however unoriginal. 

So how are we to emulate our yucca moths, let alone apply their lesson to a larger world than theirs, a larger world than most humans recognise, who cannot  respond rationally even to threats of cometary impact or of pandemics?  The problem is not a meaningless "do we need nature?"; we are part of nature.  The problem is how we are to fit into a world, a "nature" that will be worth living in and possible to grow out of.  If we don't, we die, and before nature has another go at intelligent life, humanity will be as remotely forgotten as the fossilised amphibians in our coal seams. 

First, that weary paradox: to fit into nature demands costly research and technology without obvious benefit.  True of course, but compared to our other problems the challenge and cost are trivial.  Certainly, useful answers cost lives, careers, tragedy, and delay, but such investment could largely be financed out of the world's tobacco consumption alone.  Next, we need design and implementation.  That is a lot harder, cruelly hard; it demands the disciplines of engineering, of application of what science has taught us.   

History, especially recent history, is punctuated with technocratic and political disasters.  One thing all the failures had in common was the absolute faith of the perpetrators in their rightness, harebrained though some of the schemes were.  Few lasted for even one generation.  Self-interest has made free enterprise the most robust of economic systems. 

The trouble is, to survive indefinitely, humanity needs something new, something beyond free enterprise based on greed — and that need is terrifying in the light of the history of economics.  Free enterprise relies on growth.  The merest slackening of growth, let alone reversal, causes national, even world-wide, disasters.  No one has learned how to run a modern country, never mind a planet, even on a steady-state economy, let alone a shrinking economy. In fact, most economists, let alone most businessmen, regard the concept as incomprehensible, even meaningless. Humans are not yucca moths.  We cannot  even maintain a steady growth curve, and to judge from our history, it would be wildly optimistic to predict nothing worse than a global Calcutta in a century or two. 

If we do nothing new, we will die, very messily, fairly quickly, and unmourned, with no one to mourn us and certainly with no one that has reason to mourn us.  If we are to do the yucca-moth trick, we will need to learn new morals, new economics, new sociology, and a lot of technology, and do it all in a few decades at most, rather than centuries.  If we were to succeed, the success not only would be an evolutionary record, but a record for humanity: a stable population, a sustainable economy and ecology…  The very idea sounds like a mockery, and yet, nothing less would work! 

Mind you, there are many ways of achieving such a world; we could cut down our population to a billion or two and live on nature's bounty in a world of free oceans and teeming rainforests.  Or we could fill ocean and land with our husbandry, with videos for zoos and virtual reality for game parks.  Who could ask for anything more?  Then again we could reject wasteful photosynthesis in favour of industrial thermodynamics and chemistry, with a video of a cornfield to satisfy the archaeologists, with house mites for domestic pets, and a bedbug to still the yearnings of anyone who in the twenty-first century probably would have kept a Rottweiler.  

The alternative is to look outward if we prove that we cannot change human nature, and have no choice but to expand.  With proper technology we could conquer Venus and the minor rocks of the solar system within a couple of millennia.  If we were to do it properly we even could leave room for real game parks to accommodate a Rottweiler or two. 


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Small Fetters

Small Fetters

Until we clarify our objectives we will go nowhere worth going.  Engineering is a truer index of civilisation than art and in fact makes art possible.  Furthermore, engineering is the key, not so much to human survival in the next few decades or centuries, but in the long term.  To survive as a species we need to marshal our hubris and adjust our concepts of economics to drive projects orders of magnitude greater than anything in the past.  We will have to adjust to time scales of the order of millennia rather than  decades.  Confined to one planet we are doomed to a brief and sterile future. We need commitment to colonise other worlds and the best place to start is Venus.  By adjusting its rotation we can quickly turn it into a world richer in resources than Earth.  That however, would be just the first step in a series of projects to render us immune even to the red giant phase of our sun or supernovae in the vicinity of Earth.  This would give us  scope to improve our individual lives and perhaps to raise art to the stature of meaningful creation and activity. 

Small Fetters

"Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do:
and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do."

In their multiple dimensions, human engineering achievement and endeavour dwarf their arts in conception and creation. Fashionable belittling of the subtlety and intellectual depth of engineering stems from the ignorance or insecurity of people unequipped to appreciate such things.  Unconscious of the infrastructure that supports them they mock the very powers that create the tools to feed, educate, and develop artists and to convey their visions to human senses.

Humility is strong meat for weak stomachs. 

Engineering is the most objective index of human civilisation.  In turn, the most essential virtue of both civilisation and engineering is hubris, without which both are sterile and humanity is no better than the other beasts and will perish with the other beasts as yet another beast, and not the most attractive at that. 

Or perish sooner.

We exist in a little warm splash of moisture, vulnerable to dangers from without and within.  The merest flying rock or swirl of heat or cold could wipe us out long before our planet's inevitable incineration.  If we permit smugness and short-sighted greed to chain our descendants to this planet, we doom ourselves to sterility; our species need not even hope for the dignity of ripe senility, let alone a golden age in the future of humanity. 

(Golden ages in the past?  Be serious!) 

Things look bad.  Selfishness and arrogance feed terminal complacency and myopia.  Without the humility of hubris we shall trap ourselves on a planet already well past its prime. Smallness of conception fetters us to our own destruction.  To save ourselves, our people, we need to think in millennia, not decades. We are on the threshold of our ability to build a real civilisation and if what we build lacks scope, we will have earned our destruction by failing to abandon human war in favour of war against the confines of our planet and the walls within our minds.  

Of which the latter are the greater threat.

Like any chick that pecks first at the scraps round its nest, we started by fouling and consuming most of our planet.  It is time to break out and work more widely and a good deal more creatively and less wastefully and destructively.  As we begin we may hope that the necessary scale of building and co-operation will develop a greatness of spirit in us that also will enrich the spirit of our civilisation. 

It needs it.     

Let's take a practical example, one that we could begin to tackle in the present century and that should come to fruition about the end of the current millennium, or maybe the one after.  It is a finger exercise, but we need finger exercises before we can undertake really serious works.  The exercise I propose is the colonisation of Venus, the most rewarding and easily accessible of the planets in this solar system. 

Venus is almost suspiciously tempting in the combination of its characteristics.  It is near, comfortably sized, and needs only a tweak to convert it into an industrial powerhouse with twice the habitable capacity of Earth.  Its atmosphere is nearly perfect, the main problem (and opportunity) being an excess of carbon dioxide, and all we need if we are to deal with that is to speed up the planet's rotation till its day is the same length as its year (which it already nearly is).  Once one half of the planet is in perpetual darkness, the equatorial winds will die, the night side will cool and within decades carbon dioxide will rain down in the dark to form a hemisphere of dry ice with an eventual average depth of some two kilometres.  That is nothing excessive, we have mountain ranges on Earth about four times as high. Sulphur compounds and water would have settled out earlier, ready for mining at need, a repository of concentrated chemical feedstocks for industrial purposes.  

As a generalisation, industrial chemists love concentrated chemical feedstocks; high concentrations tend to increase yields and reduce costs.

The residual atmosphere would be largely nitrogen, similar to earth's atmosphere once we generate enough oxygen.  Plants, bacteria, and photochemistry would have no shortage of carbon dioxide and solar energy to work on.  

To adjust the planet's rotation, we would exploit the solar system's resources of angular momentum and potential energy, both in huge supply.  The trick will be to steer bodies from the Kuiper belt and from between the planets so that they hit Venus as nearly as possible tangentially on the equator, to adjust its spin.  Some tens of thousands of kilometre-sized comets and lumps of debris should do it.  This is roughly equivalent to the mass of Mount Everest plus some of its foothills; an almost embarrassingly tiny contribution.

The best way to run the project would be to harness private enterprise.  Pay prospectors a bounty to find the missiles and steer them to impact.  Going rates would depend on the effect achieved and the hydrogen content of the missiles; Venus is poor in hydrogen.  Professions and specialisations would arise and skills would be developed beyond anything that Earthbound hand-wavers and armchair pilots could foresee.  Whole dynasties of space dwellers would rise and fall during the exercise, generating epics to trivialise the likes of Gilgamesh and the Iliad. 

And maybe even Dallas. (errr... Remember "Dallas"?)

Those dynasties and their technology would found the generation to pioneer the next great frontiers. 

Simply redirecting the orbits of Kuiper and Oort objects to fall sunwards should yield something like a hundred times the energy input, but hauling huge masses would still be an expensive business and we would want to give our missiles the highest possible velocities.   Fortunately, between Venus and the sources of the missiles, lie our four gas giants: Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter.  Prospectors would steer their rocks past as many of the giants as possible, using gravitational slingshot effects to achieve speeds much greater than those available from the unaided sunward fall of a Kuiper belt rock.  Harnessing the momentum of the gas giants to spin Venus is a heady thought. 

Because Venus is poor in hydrogen, missiles rich in water, ammonia and methane would be more valuable than dry rocks.  Prospectors would get premium prices for deliveries rich in such volatiles.  If the Kuiper belt turns out to be poor in snowballs, the inner Oort cloud probably would be more generous, though probably too tardily so for our purposes.  On Earth we would be treated to about a thousand years of pyrotechnic miracles as comets rain blazing onto the target a few tens of millions of kilometres away. 

It is sobering to imagine how blasé such armchair audiences would become. 

After the bombardment and the snowstorm, what will there be for us on Venus?  It may be a little optimistic to hope that the thousands of titanic blows would raise valuable metallic material from inside the planet, but that certainly is one tempting thought.  More realistically though, the night side will remain a useful landing ground for missiles.  After all, once rotational adjustment is complete the planet must not expose its night side to the sun.  For the foreseeable future we would have to monitor Venus's attitude.  For one thing the precipitation of carbon dioxide would affect the rotation for years, possibly centuries, after the end of the rain of fire.  When nanosecond-per-day errors accumulate, surgical bombardment would be necessary.  Where better than in the remote cold and dark?  

It once was believed that Mercury was locked into a year-long day, but that has since been shown to be an error (reasonable, but none the less an error). Therefore Venus would become the first planet in the solar system to have, not two poles, but at least six: the sun-ward solar pole,  the outward dark pole, and of course, a North and South pole, and an East pole on the leading limb of the planet  as it moves in its orbit, and a West pole on the trailing limb. Anyone with a taste for such exercises could define an indefinite number of other poles, but those six would be the most significant for most purposes.

The day side of the planet would range from freezing in the deep twilight, to baking at the sun's ground zero at the solar pole.  That spot would have about twice the intensity of the hottest sunshine on Earth, and it would of course remain so throughout the year and round the clock.  This is a recipe to make any power engineer's mouth water.  Venus would need neither nuclear nor fossil power as long as the Sun lasts.  With huge sources of intense heat and vast sinks of intense cold, you have power to drive any industrial process you like; with perpetual solar power of high intensity, solar cells would be really profitable.  The hottest areas would be the hottest industrial sites in the solar system and between fire and ice about half the sunlit surface would be comfortable for humans. 

This amounts roughly to the entire land area of Earth -- all the continents and islands combined! 

Between night side and day side there would be a twilight belt, the zone where the sun approaches the horizon.  It would be girdled by an enormous stationary smoke ring, a steady and permanent wind of more than hurricane force blowing towards the warm side, balanced by high altitude winds blowing towards the cold.  Like the climatic belts on Earth, but much more stably, there would be weaker convection cells on either side of the twilight zone, combining into a planetary conveyer belt bearing harmful gases to the night side where they would freeze out.  This convection would also warm the night side, preventing part of the rest of the atmosphere from freezing out once the carbon dioxide had settled.  No runaway greenhouse concerns on Venus, either hot or cold!

You get the idea.  The project would create a shmoo on a planetary scale.  Power, material, lebensraum; challenge and reward such as we are not currently equipped to conceive realistically.  We still are weak and callow in our hubris.  Man is old, the planet is older, but our engineering is young -- infantile in fact. We must foster and develop it before we lapse into racial senility.  If we succeed we will gain a new lease of youth, perhaps another ten thousand years or so, during which we can begin to tackle more challenging projects.  At that rate we should have a civilisation extending from the heart of the solar system to the limits of the Oort cloud long before the sun expands into a red giant.  By the time that happens we also should have  established footholds in nearby solar systems, and if we spread fast enough, then as a species we should become immune to destruction of our sun or  to local supernovae, events against which there is no defence but distance.  

Long before the sun blossoms however, we will have had time to colonise Mercury as well, using related, but drastically different techniques. Mercury too would have to be abandoned as the sun expands, but we still could expect more than half a billion years of comfortable living and riches from Mercury before that becomes a concern. 

By the time we have to abandon the inner Solar System, we can stop worrying about our survival as a species on the scale of millennia and start thinking in terms of billions of years; maybe longer.  Of course we will have changed in the process.  Our lives should by then be measured in thousands of years, our brains developed to deal with science and economics in the large and with a lifetime in which an individual's education could be regarded as a serious investment, instead of marginal preparation for a few decades of marginal usefulness. 

Maybe by then we can at last start thinking about art for art's sake in a meaningful way, as part of a meaningful life in a meaningful civilisation, a worthy partner for engineering. 

But not as long as we fetter ourselves to smallness. 

Reading or Writing Haberdashery

          Reading or Writing  Haberdashery

A surprisingly large number of years ago I wrote this essay on what we learnt from our attempt at teaching our sons to read. A few people have asked me to publish it, and we feel strongly that the subject is important enough to justify more attention. Get it wrong and you can do harm. Use a little patience and good sense, and you can do more good than you might believe. The whole process proved simpler and cheaper than we had expected, but a few warnings that I include might prove helpful. 

Before we undertook the project of teaching our children to read we did a lot of discussion and heart searching in the light of dire warnings about everything that could go wrong. In the end we elected to damn the torpedoes because, as we saw it, potential harm as predicted seemed speculative at worst, and besides we could not imagine what harm would be worse than depriving the children of their second most important channel of communication. 

Not to spoil your anticipation of the outcome, we had no regrets then, and have not developed any since. Trying to get any coherent evaluations out of our sons is not easy, because neither can remember learning to read, any more than he can remember learning to converse. Accordingly it is hard for them to imagine what the deprivation of pre-school reading might have meant.

So: for anything it might be worth, and hoping it does readers and prospective readers a lot of good, here is our

Basic Recipe for teaching young children to read.


The child:
·     is willing
·     has no relevant disabilities
·     can already speak fairly fluently
·     is at least of more or less average intelligence

The adults
·     have a good rapport with the child
·     can afford 10-20 minutes per daily session for several weeks

Note that these assumptions are not absolute, and some of them require some subjective, but sound, judgment.  Still, the less confident one can be about them, the poorer the prospects for good results. 

If reading is taught as fun, and enjoyable reading material is available, a child can learn basic reading skills in several weeks of brief daily sessions.  The method I describe here worked well for us and neither of our now adult children can remember learning to read, any more than they can remember learning to talk.  One of them can remember how, at the age of about four, he learnt to read silently instead of reading aloud; in our lessons he had learned to read aloud, and it had not occurred to us that there was a distinction; in fact we did not even know about his epiphany till more than a decade later. Apparently he had been reading while his mother was on the phone one day and she had called out to him to be quiet. So he duly was quiet and discovered that he could go on reading just as well in silence, or even better. That was that. The other cannot even remember any such experience, so I cannot answer for him. 

The method is a derivative of that described by Glen Doman in his book “Teach Your Baby to Read.”  The edition we used may be a bit dated by now, and it is highly politically incorrect in some educational circles, but the method works like a charm.  Doman himself stresses that the book describes basic principles, not rigid instruction. 

The essential points are that:
·     Most healthy children in a healthy emotional environment enjoy reading as much as they enjoy other media of communication; that is to say tremendously. 
·     To read effectively they need to have the necessary neural paths trained. 
·     One key difficulty is that normal print is too small for untrained brains. 
·     The solution simply is:
·     to present the first words in very large print, say with characters several centimetres high
·     to keep the typeface simple and unambiguous (unambiguous in particular!)
·     to start with simple words of direct interest to the child
·     to move on to interesting text as soon as possible (avoid either teaching long lists of unconnected words, or Dick-and-Jane, Janet-and-John inanities.)

First prepare flash cards with words written plainly and vividly in simple, unambiguous letters.  Avoid typefaces in which say, lower case L and upper case I are identical.  (This may be unexpectedly difficult.  Publishers of children’s books no doubt select typefaces for their simplicity, but they very often offend in this respect.  At this stage the simplicity of a typeface is far less important than unambiguity.  The problem need not be fatal and there are a few approaches for dealing with it.  Firstly, one simply can ignore it until children object.   If they object, you explain why the letters are illogical and agree how stupid some people are, and you might say that if they print books when they grow up, they can use more sensible letter shapes.  Otherwise you can neatly ink a small curly foot onto the lower case ls.)  It does not much matter whether the letters have serifs or not as long as each letter is clearly distinct in appearance.  At first use lower case only. Most of the typefaces commonly available on computers nowadays are suitable, including Bookman Old Style, Times New Roman, Verdana, and the pointlessly maligned Comic Sans. I mention these not because they are the best, but because they are freely available and completely adequate for Western circumstances. Obviously, users of other alphabets and scripts would have to adjust accordingly, but I see no reason why there should be serious problems in general. 

Colour and illustration are important in that both should be strictly avoided at first.  This is one of the few firm rules.  No matter what your views may be concerning visual interest and cheerfulness or beauty, it is crucial at first to avoid distraction or confusion.  Colours should be simple and stark and there should be no distracting drawings or decorations.  Black print on white is fine; so is any other easily readable, strident contrast.  As a rule, keep all the print the same colour, especially in the first few weeks.  Only mix colours when there is a special reason to highlight something, and not until the child quite clearly understands that the words are the things that matter, not colour, illustration, decoration or anything else.  For instance, once you are well into the lessons and are building sentences, you might want to show every place that the word “and” appears.  Probably this is best done by using  a bolder or larger font, but one just might have a valid reason to use colour.  But for the most part colour has no place in this exercise.  It is noise, a source of confusion and distraction at a time when confusion and distraction are the last things one wants.   The more Spartan and uniform the presentation, the better.  At first there is just one objective: clarity and distinctness.  The aesthetics of variety can wait a few weeks. 

Start with just two words on the first evening (Doman says one, but I found it easier with two, so that it was immediately clear that different cards could say different things.)  One word could be say,  “mama” and the other “baby” or “girl” or something equally basic and visually different, but in the same size, print and colour.  The only difference should be in the spelling, not in the shape, size or other visual clues.  One convenient way to prepare the cards is by printing them with a word processor on a laser printer, but one can do just as well with paint or ink on card if one works neatly.  Letters of say 8 cm or three inches high, written in thick, smooth, bold lines, do nicely.

Prepare a number of cards with a selection of words.  Many shops sell such printed cards nowadays, but home-made cards work as well or better if they are clear and stark; some commercial fonts commonly used on such cards are not particularly suitable, and in preparing your own cards you can choose fonts to suit yourself.  Also, in constructing one’s own cards, one can prepare a selection designed for building sentences that should suit the child’s interests and tastes.  Commercial cards often fail in this respect too. 

The first lesson is one of the most critical.  Let it once set the wrong tone, and you might have to drop the exercise.  The whole process should be in a mood of anticipation and excitement, with no distractions.  The lesson should last just one or two minutes. 

Show one card dramatically, holding it still and very visible.  Say: “This says: ‘mummy’!”  No explanations, no analysis into letters, just the bald statement.  Say it several times over.  You may hide and re-display the card as you repeat the word.  Then put the card face down and display the next card, saying  “This says: ‘girl’!” You can then alternate the cards, each time with a  “This says:...!”  but do not alternate them rapidly or confusingly.  Each time give the child a good, leisurely look.  Show the same card twice in succession  a few times.

If everything goes well and the child is obviously keen, then towards the end of the first evening you can hesitate before saying the contents and see whether the child supplies the word.  But DO NOT PUSH AT THIS STAGE.  Even just a little pushing can spoil everything.  If the child does not read the words on the first few nights, be patient.  Do not be long-suffering; be eager and encouraging.  Be willing to go over the top; it is easier to teach restraint later than to instil enthusiasm by beginning with sighs and droning.  Doman said that the mother who screams: “WOW!” when the child gets something right, gets better results than the intellectual mother who says “That is very good,” even if she and her child are more intelligent. 

In a few evenings the child should be able to read a few words as the cards are flashed.  Do not show separate cards for little words such as “to” and “and”.  Concentrate on familiar names and concrete nouns.  Follow them with a few similarly clear verbs.  When a few suitable words are comfortably mastered, begin to make sentences and let the child read them.  Put the little words in and deal with them casually in passing.  Most pupils will pick them up almost without noticing.  If the child asks about them specifically, just say: "Yes, this says ‘to’ and that says ‘and’," and leave it at that. 

It is crucially important that the lessons are a treat and that there is no pushing.  The child should be so keen on the lessons that after a while the threat of withholding them would be a serious matter in case of naughtiness.   If ever you push you have lost the game and should drop the lessons for months or until you can sneak in the teaching in some other guise. 

At this point it becomes convenient to reduce the size of the print to say 3 cm or an inch or so.  At this size one can put interesting or amusing statements on a convenient size of page, say a favourite snatch of poem, or a sentence with a ridiculous unexpected twist, say:

Are you green? 
No, I am not.
How long have you been not?

Word tricks like this go down well and also serve to keep the child alert.  They help in preventing any  tendency to recite expected words instead of reading.  Another game that children seem to love, is to set up a form sentence like:  “the big girl eats the red apple”  and keep swapping keywords.  “the big girl eats the red worm”, “the big apple eats the green worm” and so on.  Let the child suggest sequences. 

It does no harm if the child discovers your cache of words and wants to know what the unfamiliar words are.  Be sure to make the child confirm that each word has been learned, instead of just telling the word and forgetting it, before letting the child continue with the next word.  Pushing consists in telling words before being asked.  Anticipating lessons is no problem as long as it is the child’s idea.  But do not encourage it. 

Doman strongly warns against teaching the child letters and phonics.  His reasoning was sound, but the degree to which he emphasised this contradicted our experience.  Certainly one should not deal with them out of context, such as by teaching the alphabet in advance, but when a child say, has initial trouble recognising the difference between “head” and “hand”, then one trick is to mask the word with one's hands and say  “Look, this in an ennnnn.  There is an ennnnnnnnnn in hannnnnd!” 

In our experience this worked marvellously.  There were no objections along the lines of “Why is it an n?  What is an n anyway?”  For a couple of evenings there was a quizzical “No nn?”  Head shake in reply.  “Head!”  This can also be made into a game with: “Look there is a ‘win’ in ‘window’!  An ‘in’ in ‘win’...”  and so on.   That same child, about a year later, heard the word “haberdashery” for the first time, asked what it meant, and without ever having seen the word, was able to spell it out of his head when challenged.  What is more, as he came to the first “r”, he hesitated and said “r?”, looking at us for confirmation.  Though he never had been taught spelling explicitly, he had recognised that there was an ambiguity.  Having got that right, he continued and finished the word confidently.   

The next, and bigger, problem is to find reading material that will hold the attention of the children and keep them reading during the critical stage between when reading is a new thrill and when reading becomes an automatic skill. 

This may demand some persistent and intelligent shopping.  Surprisingly few books are suitable.  It is important at first that the fonts should be clear, that the letters are closely spaced within words, but that the words are distinctly separated.  Many children’s books deliberately aim for simplicity by separating the letters widely in words, and they compound the felony by setting the words close together.  That is about as bad a combination as one can get! 

We used to use an excellent series of small, cheap booklets by Methuen.  Their only shortcoming was that they had sans serif Is and ls.  They ranged from really simple four-page large-print stories, to informative natural history suited to children of say five or so.  However, even the simplest stories had a point:  At the beach the little girl’s bucket drifts away... despair!  Mummy fetches it back; triumph!  A more complex story at the next level tells of hermit crab looking for a new home; intriguing, accurate and exciting, but easy to read.  A parent with a flair for creative writing for tots can bridge this stage with original works.  Alternatively, there are many fine works for children, but not in a suitable format.  With modern word processors, such material can be keyed or scanned in and printed in a suitable format. 

Another trick is to leave notes to be found about the house, with little jokes or interesting trivia: (“A hungry snake can swallow another snake a little bigger than itself.”) or news of a surprise: "There is a new book (or an apple or some other treat) in the bottom drawer." 

It is particularly important not to let pictures disrupt the acquisition of the reading skill.  At first the flash cards should be barren of all but the words.  Later on, pictures may appear, but they should neither lead the story nor illustrate words.  Apart from reducing the challenge and encouraging mental laziness, illustration can be misleading and a child might for example read “tree” where the word printed is “oak”.  This may undo progress and take a long time to recover.  In this respect comic strips are particularly pernicious.  They do little harm in small doses once reading is fluent, but they are no good during the learning phases.

Learning the alphabet can be done in any enjoyable way, towards the end of the elementary reading lessons.  It is much more important that they can recite the alphabet in sequence than that they learn the letters in odd sequences as they learn to read.  One reason is that the alphabet is important for looking things up or sequencing lists.  The phonics of letters the children will pick up almost automatically.  For instance, a child that sees "Philips" on an appliance and reads it as "puh huh lips", will without fuss accept it when you explain that there are many silly spelling rules and that we say "f" when we read "ph", for instance, we say "filips" when we read "Philips". 

Horrible warnings against early reading are easy to come by.  Children will grow up unable to spell; they will develop language difficulties and be bored at school; they also will miss the joys of childhood stories.  Both our sons are multilingual, being fluent in at least three languages and competent in more, both have spelt excellently since the age of three or four and both did well at school.  Both were reading for their own pleasure before they were four years old, in spite of a major family disruption which delayed their home teaching.   Both read their own choice of stories before they were five, so that they actually read more children’s material than they would have done if they had had to depend on grown-ups for stories.  Both read to classes or to friends when appropriate.  None of this reduced their pleasure in family readings of stories.  Obviously the worst consequences of early reading are not inevitable.

Learning to read other languages was also easy — practically automatic.  Our children were bilingual but learned to read in English.  They spontaneously picked up reading Afrikaans almost without instruction.  When we found them reading Afrikaans newspapers, we did explain that v, w and a few items like that sounded different in Afrikaans.  They accepted the information without comment, but I suspect that our intervention was unnecessary.

One thing one might have to guard against, is bookworming.  It also may be necessary enforce good reading posture to avoid eye problems (e.g. one of our children got a ‘lazy eye’ from, we suspect, lying and reading with one eye in the pillow.)

If there are adult books lying about the house, and a child elects to read them, no problem.  No real censorship is necessary.  The parts that one might censor usually will pass the child by.  At the age of six, one of ours found, read and re-read “The Broken Sword”, a Nordic fantasy by Poul Anderson, full of violence, non-explicit sex, incest and so on.  The book did not dwell on such things; it just happened to be based on material from a tragedy in Norse mythology, and it was consistently in character.  It happened also to be a rattling good story, well written.  (Well Anderson generally was very good, of course.)  Incomprehensible items in the book, such as sex, the child apparently skimmed over as uninteresting. 

One difficulty in later years was that by mid-primary school, they had exhausted the resources of the local public library's children's shelves.  In the face of considerable resistance, we had persuade the librarians to permit them into the adult section to select books for themselves.  Again, there was no problem with their selection of books.  The bad stuff generally is boring, and the children do not exude green saliva and grow fangs as soon as they encounter unsuitable material.  

We had no personal experience teaching classes of children; in fact we taught our two separately (the age difference was just over 1 year). All I can say is that that worked for us. I understand that children tend to teach other or learn very well from the teaching of other children. No doubt there also is a lot of on-line experience dealing with the likes of that. I suspect that the major factor is the way the topic can be worked into the ethos or activities of the group. In a group in which reading is valued, encouraged or admired, I should expect any "well-adjusted" child to progress not just rapidly, but almost unconsciously; in various ways the process of learning to read is suspiciously similar to learning to speak, and in particular to learning sign language for the deaf. 

Our own experience has been of such low investment, and such lasting and nearly unalloyed benefit, that we cannot but recommend the approach to others.