Curiosity

January 7, 2010

Article: Curiosity
Source: Seth Godin

We incorrectly think that the better a student/employee/coworker listens and follows directions without asking questions, the better they are.  It’s typically the people who are curious and ask questions that get meaningful things done in their life, and get meaningful things out of life.

If we’re ever in a position to teach, and we have a quiet class that is obedient to our ever command, we’re in deep trouble.

Article link: How to train the aging brain
Source: Barbara Strauch, NYTimes.com

“….[we need to] challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”

We all know that our brain comprises of a series of interconnected neurons.  The neurons hold information, understanding, experiences and our knowledge.  Neurons have a life of their own.  Neuron A can be connected with neuron B, and one year later, that connection may be broken due to the lack of long-term use of that pathway between A and B.  Instead, neuron A may forge a new pathway through neuron F.  On average, 11 billion neurons exist in our brain.  That means there can be trillions of possible interconnecting pathways.  You do the math for the number of permutations and combinations that can exist.

Our ability to learn and our age constitute a true inverse function.  Once we leave academia, it seems we forget the fact that the very reason we are where we are today is because of the open mind we held during the first 25 years of our lives.  Because we went to school and were forced to make a sponge of our minds, our minds were able to develop new neuron pathways everyday.  We listened, we thought, we questioned, we rethought, we hypothesized, we argued, we concluded…. and then we repeated the cycle.  Day in and day out.  That leads to tremendous growth for the neuropathic network that makes up our brain.

Then, we left academia and slammed on the brakes.

As we tenure at work and collect “experience” points under our resume, we seem to lose our ability to learn from others.  For example, when was the last time we allowed ourselves to learn something from someone younger than us?  Our first reaction is to close our minds to their lack of experience and naivety.  We forget that the reason we excelled in school and work, the reason we received a steady stream of raises and promotions, is because we were in constant flux.  We let ourselves change.  We let ourselves develop.  We opened ourselves up to learning from others and experiencing new things.  Now that we’re older, why do we all of a sudden shut off the very faucet that nurtured our growth?

Research is increasingly proving that there is real value in challenging our habits and beliefs – even more so as we age.  Research also shows an advantage older people have over younger – the ability to recognize patters and see results and solutions.  As we age, our minds become good at viewing the whole picture, taking into account the larger scope, and arriving at a more comprehensive solution to things in life. (Finally!  I knew there was a reason why only older people ran our country!)

What if we, as we age, could combine the power of experience that comes with age and the sharpness of mind that prevails in youth?  What if we can train both aspects to work in concert?

Research says we can.  We just need to approach life as if we’re in academia all over again.  We need to become students again and open ourselves up to interacting with others who question our beliefs.  We need to break out of our cliques and social groups and make it a habit to explore.  It’s tough to leave – even for a moment – a familiar perch.  It’s tough to get out of our comfort zone.  But, we owe it to our minds to do it.

Ignorance or regulation?

December 13, 2009

Article: Affordable genetic mapping of babies by 2019
Source: TimesOnline.com

A tiny prick of a baby’s heel is all scientists need to map the infant’s entire genome.  Currently, the cost can run anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 depending on how many of the 6 billion DNA genes you’d like to map.  In 10 years, the cost will be sub $1000.

By examining genetic variations using genome mapping, doctors can predict illnesses you will be at a higher risk to get later in life.  This includes cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, and other dangerous illnesses.  Prevention measures can then be applied accordingly.

From a scientific perspective, it’s simple.  But it’s not that simple when you apply a moral and ethical lens to it.  What if your genome map is disclosed to insurance companies, employers, potential spouses, etc.?  What if it’s used for unintended purposes in the future?

This brings up the much-debated question: should society avoid applying or advancing any thought, technology, or invention that has potentially negative implications?  Most inventions are undoubtedly created and introduced for the benefit of society.  All inventions have the potential of being used incorrectly.  The invention isn’t at fault, but instead, the person’s motives are.  Often time, even the someone’s motives are virtuous, the ramifications of their actions harm society as a whole.  It’s a messy equation that’s more gray than black/white.

One resolution to this dilemma is to regulate who can use genome sequencing and for what purpose.  For example, there is legislation in the works to ban insurance companies and employers from using your genome to make business decisions (i.e. – increase your insurance premiums if your genome mapping data says you’re at a higher risk for a particular disease).  However, corporations are rather resourceful and have legions of highly-paid and connected lawyers and lobbyists who can make wishes come true with time, persistence, and money.  It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when they succeed to do as they please.

So with that in mind, the question is a simple one: should we prevent new inventions and findings from emerging in society for the fear of misuse, or should we rely on regulation to prevent it’s misuse?  Or, is there another solution altogether….?

Fixing our addiction to oil

November 1, 2009

Presentation: T. Boone Pickens on reducing our addiction to oil

Just in time for the winter season when heating demand skyrockets.

This 4-minute presentation by a well-known figure does a great job of explaining what the problem is, and how we can begin to fix it.

What’s important is not only the topic of dependency on oil, but the fact that a short and concise presentation by people with influence can go a long way in clearly explaining problems and motivating people to believe that the solution isn’t very far out.

The solutions always tend to be straight-forward.  It’s the leadership or willingness to “move” that seems to be lacking.  It’s a great question to ask ourselves the next time we face a “crisis” – are we really stalling because the solution is too complex, or because we’re just not willing to take that first step?

Teaching

October 26, 2009

Article: Experiment on teacher pay
Source: Marginal Revolution

Performance-based pay has long been heralded as the solution to the poor quality of education that permeates US-based primary education schools.  These educational institutions – elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools – significantly lack quality when compared to other similar schools in other countries.  Standardized exams prove this.  The question, then, is: how can we improve those primary education institutions?

The model, it’s often argued, is to copy the strategy that US-based institutions of higher education follow, since these institutions are better than any other in the world.  Professors of higher education (colleges, universities, trade schools, etc.) get paid better than teachers at primary education institutions.  Simple.  The article by Marginal Revolution (above) proves that incentive-based teaching works, at least in their sample size (India).

But, it’s not really that simple.  While student performance may have increased in the study done in India, what about the general trajectory of the teaching profession?  That’s the other side of the equation, isn’t it?

Teaching was once considered an art of passion.  Teachers were required to have a passion for teaching, a love for knowledge, and an addiction to spreading that knowledge to the coming generations.  Will incentive-based pay transform a profession of passion into a profession void of passion?  Or, is incentive-based pay the correct solution to turning around the downward spiral of the quality of education in US primary schools?

Math, or marketing?

September 1, 2009

Here’s a math problem that we all can relate to, courtesy of Seth Godin.

Let’s say you are the Gasoline Czar, and your goal is to reduce gasoline consumption.

And let’s say there are only two kinds of cars in the world. Half of them are Suburbans that get 10 miles per gallon and half are Priuses that get 50 miles per gallon.

If we assume that all cars drive the same number of miles, which would be a better investment:

Option 1: Put new tires on all the Suburbans so that their mileage improves to 13 miles per gallon.

Option 2: Rewire all the Priuses so they get 100 miles per gallon (doubling their average!)

Half the challenge is doing the math.

The second half (and more important part when looking to introduce change in society) is explaining the results in clear and simple language, so people understand why.

Answer: here’s a video on how to figure out the answer

So what, you ask? Why did I ask you to do this math problem?

I guarantee you that all the marketing in the world hasn’t convinced you of the importance of ensuring your tires are in good condition and fully inflated.  However, this simple brain teaser hammered the point home to you.  We now believe it because someone has shown us the same fact in a creative, eye-opening way.

Cost of brain teaser: $0.00
Cost of marketing the need to maintain tires: millions of dollars

We’re all experts in something.  What if we used our knowledge to explain macro problems in a creative way that people can relate with?

Let’s face it – Obama got himself in a jam.  He spoke on national TV about matters relating to a local community, local police, and race relations.  Any one of those topics is dangerous to speak about, let alone all three at once.  To top it all off, he spoke without knowing all the facts.  Admitting to not knowing all the facts and then continuing to form opinions about the situation doesn’t exempt you from responsibility.  The only bonus points we can award Obama is for the guts to say something so bold (some call it stupid?) on national TV.

Wait, there’s more bad news.  Obama acted stupidly by saying that the  “police acted stupidly.”  Stupid is a harsh word that has no upside or chance to be interpreted in a positive light.  Add stupid in front of anything, and it’s going to be taken negatively.  If someone told you that you made a “stupid decision,” your first reaction is to get defensive.  If that same person told you that you could have acted “differently” or in a “better way,” your reaction will be less defensive.  Words matter.  The details matter.

But… let’s put all this childish analysis aside.  Besides the fact that Obama goofed (for the reasons mentioned above), there’s something powerful in what transpired as a result of this entire fiasco.  Obama personally called both parties (Professor Gates and Officer Crowley) and invited them to a beer at the White House.  Yes, he had to.  He had to in order to save himself and ever-so-cleverly do something about the mistakes he made (again, mentioned above).  But, in calling both parties and holding a casual meeting, he did something else that’s “teachable.”

Obama showed how two parties that were at polar opposites of each other just one week ago can get together in a peaceful manner and hold dialogue.  He showed the world how grown ups should act when they have disagreements.  It can happen.  It did happen.  And what was the outcome?

The outcome wasn’t some “It’s a small world” dance or “We are the world” reconciliation between both parties.  In fact, both sides still completely disagreed with each other after the beer.  The outcome, instead, was the lesson that it’s okay to disagree. Both parties agreed to disagree in a civil and grown-up manner.

What a novel idea: it’s okay to disagree.  Wait… it’s okay to disagree?  Then how do I convince others to do what I’m doing?  How do I convince others that I’m right?

The short answer: you don’t.  You can’t.  All you can do is show your side of the story.  Then, it’s up to the other side to rationalize it, agree or disagree with it, and follow or not follow it.

And here’s the secret: 90% of the battle in any disagreement is getting both sides together.

The rest is easy because most people are intrinsically good by nature and want to have mutual respect for each other.  The hard part is putting aside ego, having the courage to approach each other directly instead of using some third party to send messages through, and having the intellectual maturity to accept another “right” opinion.

There isn’t always one right answer.  Read the poll findings in the 4th to last paragraph in Donna Brazile’s article here, and you’ll understand.  Both parties are right in their own way.  Each party brings their own experiences, preconditions, and stereotypes to the situation.  It’s wrong to do so, but guess what – it always happens.  And it always will.  So why fight over it?  Instead, just swallow your ego, talk directly with the person(s) you’re in disagreement with, and agree to disagree if you still can’t come to one conclusion.  But understand that it’s okay to disagree. We don’t always have to come out of a discussion as the “winner” or the person who was able to convince or transform the other side.  Life isn’t black and white; it’s the entire spectrum of colors between those two.  Let’s not live in monochrome.

The power of posterity

July 28, 2009

Source: NYTimes.com
Author: David Brooks

An interesting (some may say ridiculous) question:
What would happen if a freak solar event sterilized the people on the half of the earth that happened to be facing the sun?

While this is entirely hypothetical and bordering sci-fi, the discussion that follows is a rather interesting take on what subconsciously drives society and many of our actions.  I don’t really have any comments one way or another; just thought it was an interesting take on things.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

Article Link: Read the article
Source: Marc Ambinder, TheAtlantic.com

Whether you like him or not, you have to admit he’s moving at God-speed during his first months in office.  He’s getting things done, regardless of whether you agree with what he’s doing or not.  That, in itself, is a refreshing change from a culture of latency that the Government has grown to adopt.

How is he doing it?

The amazing thing is that each one of us already knows how to get things done in our lives.  We’re good at it for certains things, and really bad at it when it comes to other things.  Give yourself a couple of minutes to reflect about the article for this month and I’m sure you can find parallels to just about anything else in life: family, friends, business, social work, spirituality, etc.

Jose Antonio Abreu created El Sistema.  It’s a unique music academy whose goal isn’t to teach music.  Instead, their goal is to develop self-esteem, dignity, and self-worth in kids.  Music is just a by-product.

Don’t miss this video.  It will be the best 10 minutes you have spent this week.  Watch how Jose was able to shape an entire generation of kids so they can walk with their heads high regardless of how deep their pocket books are, how fluent they are with English, or how many bedrooms they have in their houses.

Anyone who is in a position of touching or shaping the lives of kids should watch this video.  Make sure to leave the volume on when you’re watching.  Even though Jose may speak in a language you don’t understand, his enthusiasm tells 90% of the story.  We can only hope that our lives emit the same level of enthusiasm Jose does when we get to his age.

A question we should all ask ourselves: If I am good at some skill or art, how can I use that as a tool to do something positive for the next generation?  That is perhaps the greatest gift we can leave behind, and the most prominent legacy we can leave.