Archive | August, 2013

A slightly depressing fact

25 Aug

I can’t make out a single piece of it

I saw this sign today above a Chinese restaurant, and it is another reminder of how much my Chinese has degraded. I have no idea what it says. I’ve really got to get back into Chinese…

Naturally, any skill that isn’t used for a long period of time will degrade, but the ability to read and write characters is something that degrades much faster than other language skills. I can skill speak and hold a decent conversation in Mandarin, but I would be hard pressed to write a letter by hand.

But looking at the third character here also makes me think about different scripts. This character is written in a cursive style, which is significantly different from the print style that I studied in college. Just like n and N are two very different symbols which produce identical sounds, two characters can appear quite different to the untrained eye but can be identical to those who recognize them.


Arrogance of the Present

24 Aug
People are arrogant. This isn’t just my personal opinion. This is observable and recorded by science as well. But I think that people are particularly arrogant about the present, about their current self. I think that this takes two particular forms, each a little bit different.

Ignorance of the future

First is the assumption that people make when we assume that our future self will have the same emotions and desires as out present self. Why on earth should we think this? Our past selves are different from our present selves, so why on earth shouldn’t our future selves be different from our present selves. A New York Times article reviewing some of the research on this subject contains nice illustration of this concept:
Dr. McAdams was reminded of a conversation with his 4-year-old daughter during the craze for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s. When he told her they might not be her favorite thing one day, she refused to acknowledge the possibility. But later, in her 20s, she confessed to him that some part of her 4-year-old mind had realized he might be right.
It is easy to dismiss this as the ignorant thoughts of a little child. However, most people don’t realize how similar we are in our thoughts to that ignorant 4-year-old girl. Believing that we are much better is itself a self-delusion. We hear and think things such as “I’ll never forget this as long as I live.” When we say “I’ll love you forever” are are doing exactly the same things at the 4-year-old girl: we are assuming that nothing will ever change how we feel, that our current opinion will remain valid forever; exactly the same thought process at the 4-year-old  girl.
In a study published in Science in January 2013, described how “Young people, middle-aged people, and older people all believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future. ” This is called The End of History Illusion. The authors of this paper asked some subjects to predict how much they would change over the next ten years, and asked some subjects to report on how much they had changed over the previous ten years. To me it is stunning how people

“believe that who they are today is pretty much who they will be tomorrow, despite the fact that it isn’t who they were yesterday… people expect to change little in the future, despite knowing that they have changed a lot in the past.” This disconnect between the present and future self is a very strong aspect of the decisions that we make in life.

Daniel Kahneman described more of this conflict between future and present self in his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you haven’t got the patience for that, however, as least check out his TED talk.

…and therefore I assume that nothing in the world will ever affect my current feelings.

Disregard for context

Anyone who has studied some psychology should be aware of the influence of a situation on a person’s behavior. This can apply to having different emotions at a different time, (often described as hot and cold states), or it could concern the effect that different social situations have on us. Let’s discuss the effect of emotions first.
I am often shocked and amazed at the arrogance displayed in many people by not recognizing how having different emotions, or how being in a hot state would change their judgement. People easily tell me “I would never rape someone,” “I would never pay money for sex,” “I wouldn’t do something like that.” The trouble is that they are saying this and thinking in a cold state, when they are not under any strong influences. According to the Washington Post, “When we are not hungry or thirsty or sexually aroused, we find it difficult to understand what effects those factors can have on our behavior. Similarly, when we are excited or angry, it is difficult to think about the consequences of our behavior — outcomes that are glaringly obvious when we are in a cold emotional state.”

But emotional state isn’t the only thing that alters our judgement and effects our decision-making abilities. Social pressures do the same.

I recall receiving a lot of ‘resist peer pressure’ propaganda when I was a child, but is that really something that you can just will yourself out of through sheer mental force? The Asch conformity experiments, now more than half a century old, are famous and influential. They serve as a simple example of how a social situation can effect our choices and judgements, even when we are not in a hot state. But the Asch experiments are quite tame in comparison to the famous Milgram experiment and the infamous Sanford Prison Experiment, both of which are standard textbook examples of a particular context altering a person’s behavior. The takeaway from these studies isn’t about willingness to misperceive line lengths, nor willingness to inflict harm on another human being, nor even about prisoners and guards. The major point of these experiments is that our behavior is easily changeable. If we are placed in different contexts, how we act and what we do (major aspects of who we are) are surprisingly fluid. So don’t tell anyone “I would never do X,” because if you haven’t been in a particular situation then you don’t really know how you would act. To say otherwise is to fall victim to the arrogance of the present.

Yoga in Norwegian

16 Aug
Here is a little reflection that I wrote several months ago about an experience during my springtime visit to Oslo:
Similar to taking aikido class in Chinese or capoeira class in Spanish, I understood a very limited amount of what the teacher said. A far more limited amount, in fact, than in China or Spain, because I speak no Norwegian at all. But I could still pick out a few words, just due to the similarity between Norwegian and English. I remember hearing something that I clearly recognized as meaning ‘push down.’ I find it amazing that with no study at all, I could understand a few Norwegian words. This experience was repeated at museums where I also recognized various Norwegian words in the context of their displays.
But my familiarity with yoga routines helped me, too. If this has been my first doing yoga it would have been much more intimidating, but I could imagine what the teacher might be saying in Norwegian because I had heard other teachers say it in yoga classes in English years ago. The fact that is was a physical activity helped a lot, too. I never could have taken a history class or a followed a political discussion in Norwegian, but with yoga I was able to follow the movements of the teacher and of the fellow students. This is a major reason why learning dance or martial arts in another language is a relatively easy way to join a target-language activity: it is language-light and context-dense.
It was the first time that I had attended a yoga class in more than a year, and it felt magical. The relaxation and calm that I got from the class, combined with a bit of work and pushing myself, was one of the best things of my whole trip.


Where is home?

11 Aug

A great first few minutes, elaborating on how it is so hard to answer the question “where are you from.”

Introducing MOOCs: Alison

10 Aug
Alison is a bit different from many of the other MOOCs. Alison aims to be more practical, and to give people the skills that they need for doing a better job at work or for starting a new career. Such a focus on technical skills rather than on liberal arts education means that there aren’t classes on greek philosophy, literature, or microeconomics. Rather, the courses on Alison focus on how to effectively use Microsoft suite (word, power point, excel), business management, legal studies, and project management. I have to admit that I likes this idea from the start. It is great to be able to get a good liberal arts education from Coursera, or to learn how to program from Udacity, but unless you want to be a college professor or a computer programmer, those courses are just for hobbyists. I think it is wonderful that Alison is providing courses for people who need job skills. The courses are also self-paced, like Udacity, so you don’t need to wait to start learning. You can just dive right in, which is great. That where the greatness ends, though. There are a few aspects of Alison which makes it a far lesser platform than either Coursera or Udacity.


Bad formatting on Alison's site
Simply put, Alison is not as pretty or visually attractive as Udacity or Coursera. The website looks cluttered, having too many links leading to too many places on the main page. They need to collapse some of these lists and allow them to be opened in secondary menus. As an example, take a look at the image to the right. I took this image from a page on Alison’s website where links were overlapping with a photo, making the text hard to read. This is a simple thing to fix, and the fact that it hasn’t been fixed shows a very low level of care, attention, ability, or design skill.

Quality of courses

I took a course on customer service from Alison. It turned out to be about 15 pages of reading, and it was pretty basic stuff, too. I was somewhat disappointed.  I’m not sure what quality control there is on Alison, but it definitely doesn’t compare to Udacity and Coursera. Some of the classes are also very basic, such as how to use MS Word. Not all of the classes are that simple, as they also host classes such as Fundraising for Non-Profits and Accounting. These classes could be quite useful, and I could envision many people benefiting from taking some of these classes. In my experience so far, many of the classes are very elementary.
I know very little about Microsoft Office’s programs (such as power point and excel), so I started a class on Alison to learn more about how to use Powerpoint. It moved slowly and was very boring. It taught me many ways to use Powerpoint that I think weren’t especially useful. If I had been able to skip around more or speed up the class it wouldn’t have been so bad, but…

Videos from Vimeo

You can’t change the speed on Alison’s videos. This is a problem. One major feature on Coursera is the ability to speed up videos. It is built into the system, and it is a commonly used strategy to allow learners to watch one hour of video lectures in 50 minutes. Although this feature isn’t built directly into Udacity, the function is available on their YouTube hosted-videos. But Alison’s video lectures are hosted on Vimeo, which offers less flexibility to the viewer. On YouTube you can choose the quality and the speed of the video depending on your preferences and available bandwidth. But Vimeo doesn’t offer this option. I consider this to be a big drawback.
All in all, I like the idea of Alison, and the have a major strong point in offering courses on subjects that the bigger MOOCs aren’t touching. However, there are some significant downsides, too. I think that Alison is still worth it, but if I was in charge I would definitely make some major changes to the site.

The Saddest Movie You’ll Ever See

5 Aug

Olga was sad. Schindler’s List was sad.  Life Is Beautiful was adorable, sweet, and sad. These movies are about the horrors that human beings inflicted upon each other many decades ago, and the ways that people fought back. They are about the ways that people survived and kept their hope alive. But Living with Dead Hearts isn’t about an old evil, some fascistic terror that was defeated generations ago. Living with Dead Hearts is about a pain and suffering that is alive and strong. It tells the story of suffering which strikes at young families and leaves them emotionally empty inside: children are stolen from their parents, and never seen again.

When your child is kidnapped away from you are left without any help, and I can’t even imagine the pain that follows. Just watching the interviews with parents of kidnaped children leaves me shaking and weeping. My eyes are moist now just writing this and thinking about how horrific it must be to lose your child like that. In some parts of the world you could get help from the police and other institutions, but here is a perfect example of a situation in which Chinese police don’t have any incentives to help, so that these parents are left to struggle on their own. This makes the situation all the more desperate, pitiful, and sad.

Charlie Custer‘s Living with Dead Hearts has just been released, and it will make you cry like nothing before. Please share it. Please talk to your co-workers, classmates, or friends about it. Email it to family members and acquaintances. Just mention it in passing if that is all you can manage. Don’t be hopeful, though.

Unless you are a high level official in the Chinese Communist Party, there is not much that you can do about it. You can’t volunteer at a local NGO. You can donate some money to help parents look for their children, but that won’t solve the problem of the traffickers. You can’t petition your congressman because there isn’t a damn thing that he can do to help these people. Unless you are going to write op-eds for a big newspaper, the only thing that you really can do, is to make other people know about this situation, and tell them: “Please don’t adopt a baby from China. It might have a mother that is heartbroken, and you will have no way of knowing.”

If you prefer to read about it rather than to watch it, Charlie Custer wrote a heart-wrenching piece on China file recently, and he also wrote a piece for Foreign Policy several months ago. Charlie Custer is well-respected, and is a core member of the China watcher blogosphere, so feel free to subscribe to his blog.

Living with Dead Hearts Official Trailer from Songhua Films on Vimeo.

Introducing MOOCs: Khan Academy

3 Aug
English: Salman Khan, famous for the Khan Acad...

English: Salman Khan, famous for the Khan Academy, speaking at TED 2011. Cropped from the original. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love Khan Academy. It’s mission is to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere“. Khan Academy is an old classic, and I didn’t even consider it a MOOC until Udacity started up and created a lot of press about MOOCs. It originally focused mostly on mathematics, finance, and economics, but it has branched out a lot and now features videos on art history, civics, chemistry, and much more.
Khan Academy is mostly created by one guy, Salman Khan. This guy is a hero and a pioneer. Recently Salman has gotten a lot of press and funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, but for most of Khan Academy’s history it was just him and his computer. Similar to MRU, Khan Academy offers collections of his short videos (micro lectures) categorized into different topics and subtopics, such as finance, algebra, history, etc. Many of the videos are very simple and seem to have no budget for production, consisting of nothing more than Salman’s voice and a few sketches which he uses to illustrate the idea. However, that doesn’t stop him from delivering high quality content. Salman obviously knows what he is talking about:  he graduated from of MIT and from Harvard Business School, and most of the videos are very elementary for someone with his education. This shines through clearly with his lectures, as he explains the topics smoothly and lucidly.
There are a few ways that Khan Academy is doing things right which I want to highlight. The length of the videos The videos are excellent. Normally around 10 minutes long, these videos are easy to focus on. Two summers ago I had the evening habit of watching one Khan Academy micro lecture each night before bed. What a great daily habit! Some online courses have videos that are an hour-long or longer, and it is difficult to focus on a single video or lecture for 30 or 60 minutes unless it is truly, rivetingly interesting. iTunes U is often just a video recording of a normal college class, and they sometimes go on for 90 minutes. One of the advantages of online education is how we can get straight to the point. We are able to cut out all the fluff and go straight for the crunch. MRU tried to focus on this a lot, and some of the Coursera classes are forgetting this. Usually it is better to have a short video containing a higher density of content than a longer video with the information more spread out. Few longer videos are so engaging as to keep attention for long periods of time. (Randy Pauch comes to mind as an excellent exception)
Another thing that Khan Academy is doing right is the sequential nature of the videos. After watching a video on the fiscal cliff, a video on the debt ceiling is within the same group. After learning about traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs I am nudged towards a video about 401(k)s. This grouping of videos in a logical sequence, and with related videos on the same topic, is fantastic. For a collection of videos as large as Khan Academy has, I would say that it is also necessary, but there are a shocking number of places on the internet with just as more content at Khan Academy with virtually no system of organization.
As if just creating Khan Academy wasn’t enough Salman also is proposing a new type of education for the future. Check out his TED Talk to hear about some of his ideas:
So I’ve only had positive experiences with Khan Academy. You won’t earn a degree from the sight, but you will learn a lot. I sure did. When I took a finance class from Coursera (which was excellent) there were many concepts that I didn’t fully understand. I watched many of Khan Academy’s finance videos while I took the Coursera class, and they were excellent supplementary material. They helped me to better understand the content of the Coursera class, and they gave me a broader (but light) introduction to finance. Now I feel that I have a basic understanding of finance, but I plan to continue watching Khan Academy videos to learn more.