by David Safier

I’m going to leave yesterday’s controversial tax-and-spend posting behind for today, though I have to ask, in response to one comment: Why is it people talk about “throwing money at education” but you never hear anyone use the phrase “throwing money at military defense”? Just asking.

If you haven’t visited the site, freerice.com, you should take a look. Here’s what you’ll find. On the screen is a vocabulary word and four possible definitions. If you choose the right definition, the site contributes 20 grains of rice through the United Nations to people who are hungry, and a new screen comes up with a new word. If you choose wrong, it tells you the right answer and gives you a new word to try. The site adjusts the vocabulary level based on your right and wrong answers to keep challenging you without frustrating you.

Since October, 2007, when the site began, 17 billion grains of rice have been donated (These are the site’s figures.) Scanning the web, I found varying figures for the number of grains of rice in a pound, but let’s go with the ballpark figure of 25,000 grains/pound. That would mean the site has donated 680,000 pounds, or 340 tons of rice to date (I think I got the math right, but correct me if my figures are wrong).

Where does the money for the rice come from? The wonderful, free enterprise answer is, it comes from advertisers. The creator of the site, John Breen, who also created poverty.com, says he makes no money from the site, and all the advertising revenue goes toward buying rice. In fact, he has raised the reward for each right answer from 10 grains to 20 due to increased ad revenues and hopes to increase it again in the future.

Teachers can use freerice.com with students. (Imagine a computer lab full of students, each of them racking up 20 grains of rice every few seconds! Then comes the math question at the end of the period: “How many grains of rice did we send today? How many pounds is that?”) Parents and their children can do it together at home. Adults like me can develop minor addictions (“OK, just one more vocabulary word, and that’s it.” “YES, I got it right! OK, just one more.” “Damn, I missed that! I can’t quit now and be a loser.”) And the bottom line is, you’re doing a little bit to feed the world’s hungry with every right answer. That’s positive reinforcement times two.

By the way, you get a running vocabulary skill level number as you go, with the top being 55. I’m at 44. Beat that, sucker!