Posts Tagged ‘industry’

Our education system – is it about learning?

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Sit in ordered rows. Do what your told. Don’t question the authority. Stick to this plan and schedule. If you’re “good”, you’ll be rewarded. No, you don’t get a say… Sounds like a bad gig, but it reflects two related systems where we spend much of our waking lives: school and work. This is the “factory” model (interpreted in a loose sense). School teaches us to follow directions, be compliant, and be like everyone else. It’s perfect training for a corporate world where it’s the same raw deal.

Is it surprising that students don’t care to “learn” (is this really even learning?) when our education system reflects this dehumanizing factory model? Is it shocking that students are glued to the extrinsic motivation of getting good grades with that promise that it’ll lead to a “good job”? That’s what they’re taught after all. There’s pressure on all sides, from society at large to guidance figures, that this is supposedly the only way. Those that seek to be different or creative are often lashed out upon – I know this all too well.

When I was in school, my vision in education was about actually learning something (and everything). My motivation was intrinsic. I found the whole notion of grades and exams to be a hindrance. Most classmates seemed incapable of understanding this – they were institutionalized: set on the track to be unquestioning direction-followers. The few that understood my perspective considered me to be naive – that that this wasn’t the way the world worked and that I’d end up screwing myself over with such idealism. I was constantly challenged about my approach. Why are you taking this class? It’s not a requirement and it won’t help your career. Why aren’t you memorizing this and that? How about doing something that will look good on your transcript or resume? How can you ask the teacher that question? But I managed to do alright. I survived the system because my intrinsic desire to learn automatically bore good grades. And I sought out those good teachers that appreciated my perspective.

A side note: I feel especially bad for teachers. There’s a lot of good ones out there that really want their students to learn and care. But they have to fight the factory system on two fronts – directly from higher-ups telling them to do things in potentially demoralizing ways and indirectly from apathetic students that have had the curiosity drilled out of them.

There is some very good news though. The world is in the midst of a change – the factory model is on the decline. It’s easier than ever before to learn something on ones own time. Access to knowledge online, video lectures and way beyond, are demolishing the gatekeepers to learning. it’s so obvious now. Conversely, it’s now possible to connect with others in your field that seek to do meaningful work. It’s an exciting time, for those that understand this change. The generation that’s just leaving school now is both very lucky and unlucky – it’s the first to have the opportunity to break out of the factory model, but also the last to be engulfed by it as is crumbles beneath them. I’m fortunate enough to be in the former group, but I had to fight all sorts conventional “advice” to get there. Unfortunately, many of my peers still cling on to the factory model as they stick to formal schooling or soulless work.

There’s a really good new book – more a manifesto built of a hundred and something short blog posts – regarding education and how it will be transformed for the better: Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin. It’s free to read and share. If you agree or are intrigued by the points I made in this post, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy this book. And if you don’t like what I’ve said here, you should still check out this book – at least the first dozen posts.

For a long time, knowledge was locked down and we had to be part of this terrible system. But now the world of amazing knowledge is becoming unleashed. It’s only a matter of time before our education system is totally transformed to reflect this. And with it, students will recapture the joy the learning.

A few examples of education being transformed:
Khan Academy
TED-Ed
Skill Share

A Rally to Restore Sanity (and the First Amendment)

Monday, November 1st, 2010

This past weekend, I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear), hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It was an incredible experience, and perhaps one monumental to the direction of this country as over 200,000 individuals attended to support a cause not [directly] related to politics. The crowd in attendence was diverse – I was expecting a fairly young bunch but was pleasantly surprised to see much more than the 18-35 age demographic. There were plenty of folks older than 35 and many had brought their children with them. While this astounding rally was not a political one, it did relate strongly to the foundations of our democratic government, particularly to free speech.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution ensures the freedom of press. This is important in ensuring transparency in government and industry affairs. In essence, this permits anyone to call out these institutions on any fishy matters. Unlike in countries such as China or North Korea, you can bad mouth the government and not end up being taken away by the police. Instead, such coversation is actually encouraged in the US and we have a well paid [and listened to] media that is assigned the role of doing this. The very purpose of the media is to inform the citizenry, covering organizations and institutions such as government and business.

Despite fitting this definition, our present media machine is barely useful and perhaps even dangerous. It is full of noise – instead of providing useful information that we Americans can act upon, it tells us all the things to be afraid of, often unnecessarily so. It tells us the extreme points of view and that the country is divided among issues. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, pun intended, where most Americans are simply busy people that want a better country for everyone and are willing to compromise on issues to foster progress.

Although a significant part of our mass media is broken, there is much hope for it. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not merely political satirists – they are also the most influential journalists of this generation. Yes, journalists. They have stepped up to do the job that the rest of broadcast media has blatantly failed at doing. The hundreds of thousands of rally attendees understand this on some level, many unconsciously. And plenty clearly know what this is all about, as one rally member’s sign cleverly stated, “I get my news from Comedy Central and my comedy from Fox News.” Equally interesting is that the mainstream media didn’t understand that the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/Fear) was in fact about them, as this article [and the laughable videos of CNN, NBC, and Fox embedded] articulates.

Aside from Stewart and Colbert, the internet itself has proved to be a fantastic tool in reinforcing the First Amendment. Blogs provide a world of information in a globally accessible domain. The thoughts I share in this very post will reach more people than ever possible just a few years ago.

Transparency is not only important for the American people, but also for politicians. I believe that most government officials truly want to stand up for their official constituents (as in people, not corporations) and make the country a better place for everyone. But there are plenty of politicians that use the lack of transparency to push their own agendas forward at the cost of the American people. Likewise, insidious corporations will push for their interests when their actions can’t be unveiled.  However, we’re at a transition point, and one that’s for the better. We are reversing the consolidation of media. We have better tools than ever before to allow for transparency. A better world for Americans will prevail so long as we let useful media restore our sanity and prevent overblown media from keeping the fear alive.

The Experience of Reading Ebooks – Where it’s Missing

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

It’s about time – the book publishing industry is finally going digital and the dream of carrying a library in our hands is becoming reality. Except, that there seems to be some compromises – dampening the experience of reading ebooks over dead tree books.

Don’t get me wrong; current designs already do much to make for a familiar experience. Many ebook readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, use e-ink – which allows for a display that looks like paper. Likewise, other devices, such as Apple’s iPhone and iPad, have page turning gestures and animations. Electronic reading devices also have features to improve the reading experience over dead-tree books. They allow one to change the font, text size, and even “paper” hue.

But other things are missing, unnecessarily so. Consider the different formats of the book Rework, which is geared towards tech-savvy folks likely to be ebook users. In the dead-tree version, it’s clear that a lot of effort went into the presentation. This “atmosphere” adds a lot to the experience of reading the book. And going from paper to electronic form takes away from the experience in significant ways.

For example, the dead tree version of the book is filled with many images that span to the edges of the page – as if they engulf the entire book. Contrast this to the electronic versions. Margins are added to the images. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but it does make a difference in the experience.

The dead tree version's image spans to the edges of the page.The impact is less strong in the electronic versions which create margins.

Speaking of margins, the paper version of Rework has very large margins and generous line-spacing. This was deliberate to give a relaxed, open feel (honestly, it’s something difficult to put into words). And there’s the font choice; again, more deliberate design. Text uses a serif font while headings use a sans-serif font.

The dead tree version has a distinctive heading - size, boldness, and font are all carefully selected.Also note the large margins and generous spacing.

There’s still more, the design choices in the headings next to the page numbers (although not visible in the images, the headings run on every other odd and even pages and have subtle differences in color tone). Even little things like custom chapter title artwork is lost in the electronic version (though this isn’t the case in all books).

While the content remains the same, the unique presentation is lost.

Some of these deficiencies are tradeoffs in design choices. An e-ink display may simply be incapable of displaying images well. Or a display may not be large enough to present everything as intended. Conversely, allowing users to change fonts and sizing would conflict the with the presentation selected by the author.

Still, many of these issues can be overcome. In the case of webpages, devices such as the iPad and Android phones already reflow text to fit the screen when you zoom in, allowing the experience to remain mostly the same while providing larger, more readable text. There’s no reason why this can’t be applied to ebooks.

What really boggles me is that this ideal electronic presentation has already existed for years. Amazon.com’s “Look Inside” feature shows a limited set of pages presented exactly as it looks in the dead-tree version. Why does this not exist for e-readers? Devices like the iPad and PCs (running Kindle software) can easily make for a fantastic experience as intended by the authors.

Why can't we have this on our iPads, Kindles, or PC readers?

I have a feeling that publishers have a role in stagnating the advancement of experience. I reply with a stern warning – they’re making the same mistake that the music industry made. They’re providing an inferior experience to the very people that support them. I love to read and I’m sure that the many others that do will resort to alternative methods, if need be, to assure a good experience. Pirated books already exist in pdf form. They maintain the presentation of physical books, yet are usable on devices like iPads, PCs, and app phones.

There is a huge opportunity here for publishers. They can engage their audience with the convenience of ebooks while offering a proper presentation as meant by the authors. After all, the experience truly does matter.

Special thanks to James for providing pics from the Kindle and iPhone

Unleash the Remarkable Technology of Your Feet

Friday, August 20th, 2010

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs), shoes that emulate being barefoot. They’re actually selling so well that they’re hard to find. Even celebrities are wearing them, garnering more attention. Yes, I wear them too. Actually, I’ve been wearing them for over two years. Before the popularity and trendiness. I jumped on these weird pieces of footwear because I sensed that there was something humanly important about being barefoot. For example, in martial arts training, we were always barefoot (and in the very rare instances we weren’t, things were just very off). Still, I didn’t understand what the real significance of this was.

That is, until I read this article about 16 months ago. It discussed how increasingly “advanced” running shoes were doing nothing to help runners prevent injuries; that humans have evolved incredible foot mechanics and are better off barefoot. The author’s book on the subject, Born to Run, (released soon after and which later became a best seller) shared inspiring real-life stories of amazing runners, many of them running in a barefoot manner, as well as the research and history behind running barefoot (and not running barefoot). I share a few very important points mentioned along with my own experiences:

First, that our feet have undergone a great deal of improvement through over four million years of evolution. They contain a large number of muscles and ligaments (I believe the number is somewhere around thirty, if not more). Our feet also contain a large number of nerve endings – as many as our hands – so they provide a great deal of sensory feedback to deal with balance and mobility. Wearing padded shoes, like most sneakers, undoes much of the evolutionary benefits. Shoes are too cushioned to give feet the beating they like and hence the muscles and ligaments in the feet atrophy. Likewise, the thick sole of a sneaker deprives us of all the nerve feedback that tell us so much about what we’re walking on.

Second, shoes actually negate the most important of the evolutionary features – the arch of the foot. Any person with a hint of engineering knowledge knows that an arch is fantastic at bearing load. So it makes a great deal of sense for humans to evolve a load bearing mechanism on their feet to support all the force from walking, running, jumping, and whatnot. The scary part is that many shoes “support” the arch; an arch does not need support and giving it “support” causes it to cease function. This means that since it’s no longer dissipating the load, some other body parts must step up. Force from the foot hitting the ground, no longer absorbed by the arch, travels up to the knee and the lower back. Enter injuries to these regions.

So what if you have flat feet? Does all this still apply? Yes, because flat feet are often caused my atrophied muscles. I myself have flat feet from decades of wearing sneakers on a daily basis. However, I’ve made noticeable improvement to my arches by regularly wearing non-padded footwear, including VFFs and flip flops, to slowly build up the muscles in my feet. Another interesting argument lies at the crux of the sneaker industry: shouldn’t the padding provided by shoes be adequate? It seems not – more padding means more sensory deprivation which means the foot must strike the ground harder to know what’s going on. Any benefit is cancelled out, if not making things worse.

Third, there seems to be discrepancy about form and it often centers around heel-striking – that is, landing on the heel of the foot when running. Sneaker companies have a huge hand in this mess. Forty years ago, they came up with the idea to pad the heel of the shoe. They claimed that this would improve runner performance by allowing longer strides from heel striking, made possible by the padding. One consequence was an unnatural running form, which exacerbated the problem of shock traveling to the knees and back. With heel striking, there’s no possibility of the arch absorbing shock. This makes it a very dangerous practice. It’s pretty frightening since this is the way most people walk and run, as afforded by their shoes. It seems the proper way to land is to do so on the mid-foot, maybe even landing on outside and rotating it in as so to compress the arch. I’ve found this to work best from my own experiences. I’ve also noticed that this is the natural way people run barefoot, by secretly observing my karate students, kids and adults alike, run. Note that for walking, you pretty much have to land on your heel, but you can do so gently and then let the mid-foot take over (and hence make use of the arch).

The problem of heel striking may come as a surprise to many people; it certainly did for me. In fact, when I first had my VFFs, I was heel striking on them when merely walking, simply because I had a habit from wearing sneakers my whole life. Needless to say it was a very painful experience to walk on pavement with VFFs and I avoided doing so for nearly a year. It was after I’d read Born to Run that I understood that the problem was in technique. After correcting for this (as in, I stopped heel striking when walking) the VFF barefoot experience became very enjoyable, even on concrete sidewalks. I should note that I had to “break in” my feet and have them get used to walking “barefoot”. The muscles in my feet needed to be rebuilt and the process took at least several months.

It’s interesting that running has gotten such a bad rap – how it’s hard on the knees. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that when you undo four million years of evolution, there’ll be problems. We have an incredible amount of technology built into our very bodies. Be mindful of it. Watch the way you walk and run and jump. Note what you’re putting around your feet. Feel all the sensations from beneath your feet and what it means to be connected to the world.

The Golden Arrow of Consumerism

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Your stuff sucks! You suck! How can you be happy with that? What you need is new stuff. This is the message we’re blasted with all day and every day to propel the golden arrow of consumerism. Our American society is built around its citizens consuming more and more. Likewise, we’re distracted from all the consequences of our consumer habits – from the environmental damage, the slave-like livelihoods of those making our stuff (more on these in a future post), and the government catering more to corporations than to its citizens.

All of these points are illustrated well in The Story of Stuff (embedded above). Although this video seems geared toward kids, it provides a thoroughly important message for everyone. It shows how we’re under constant barrage of messages telling us to get new things, and how much happier we’d be to have them. Consider your daily life – how often are you exposed to advertising? On the TV. On websites. On billboards while driving. In the news. In people talking about and showing off the latest and greatest new product. We’re swimming in it!

Consumer product companies have also developed strategies to keep us buying stuff. Consider planned obsolescence, where products are designed to break (or become obsolete) as quickly as possible but lasting long enough to maintain customer loyalty. Our technological advancement is also slowed down – companies are better off holding off on features so that they have something to add in the next version of the product and so on. (It’s an unfortunate situation that most every company must adhere to this if it intends on being successful.) Also consider the more powerful forces of perceived obsolescence, where consumers are convinced that they need to buy the latest and greatest despite already owning something that is fully adequate.

All this has much to do with our daily lives and our happiness. As the video states, “What’s the point of an ad except to make us unhappy with what we have?” We’re fooled into thinking we need more stuff and newer stuff. Consequently, we have to work longer and harder to have more money to buy more stuff. The cost of this on happiness is staggering because it takes away time – something money can’t buy. This lifestyle leaves little time to spend with family and friends. It leaves little time for learning and adventure. It leaves little time to take care of our wellbeing. All of these things are core to our happiness and yet we’re doing ourselves a disservice by living the consumer lifestyle.

So what can we do about this to make our lives better? The first thing is to be aware of all these forces and how they act on us. The next step is to be mindful of any consumer product and ask important questions: Is this something I really need? Do I already own something that is sufficient? Will owning this product really make me happy and for how long? Are there great opportunity costs to get this product? Would the hours I spend working to pay for it be worth it? Or am I better off spending my time on something else?

I’ll admit that I used to buy things without really thinking about it. Watching The Story of Stuff really opened up my eyes to the mindlessness of the whole thing and how I was a slave to false desire. Since then, I’ve cut back on buying things. I’m understanding that it’s not necessary to own things. Through a more pragmatic approach, I’m living a happier life. You can too.

When Processed Food is a Good Thing (Really)

Friday, May 21st, 2010

In so many of my posts, I go on about all the evils of processed food and of all the terrible things it does to us. Today I’d like to discuss actual sound uses for processed food. Now before I go on, we should understand that the ability to process food is a technology, and one our society uses heavily. Processing often strips food of much of its nutritional quality. In doing this, the food’s shelf life and stability increase dramatically (interestingly though logically enough, this happens because the nutritionally deficient food doesn’t attract the bacteria and fungi that would otherwise cause it to go bad). This quality of “not going bad” is actually pretty handy in, let’s say, bringing food to unfortunate groups of people that would otherwise starve. In the choice between eating processed food, and eating nothing, one is clearly better off with the former from a health standpoint.

I’m not entirely sure on the history of this but I believe processed food started out this way (do correct me if I’m wrong). It was used to reach people that were hungry and starving. Somewhere along the way, food manufacturers realized that they could cut their own costs by processing foods. Longer shelf life and less spoilage permitted a lot more leeway in the process of selling food and also in creating “new and exciting” products. Of course food companies passed on some of the savings to consumers and we took the bait. Cheaper food meant we could have more. In the US we went from spending 40% of our income on food to under 10% within the last century. Is the savings in money really worth the price in health?

As with any technology, we should consider the situations we use it in. Processing food is a great tool in reaching those that may not have anything otherwise. But it’s also a curse upon those who could be eating better and have to pay consequences in health instead.

Why the Switch from High Fructose Corn Syrup Barely Matters

Friday, April 9th, 2010

We’re in a seemingly positive health trend where high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has become demonized. While it’s great to see that this highly processed crap is on its way out, it will make little difference on people’s health. It comes down to a simple point: sugar is sugar. While high fructose corn syrup is especially processed, its key evil is that it’s an added sugar. Although food companies are ridding their products of HFCS, they’re simply substituting in other forms of sugar. And the fact remains that any sort of added sugar is processed and is pretty harmful to our health. Cane sugar, brown rice syrup, organic sugar, it’s all junk.

The particularly insidious, and dangerous, part is that we are misled to believe otherwise. We’re led to think that if a product doesn’t have HFCS (as so many products now tout on their labels) or is made from some form of organic sugar, it must be okay to have. This is not the case. So take extra care to avoid such products. They are far more consequential on health than you might expect.

This doesn’t mean that all sugar is bad (though all processed sugar likely is). The sugar from whole fruit is okay to have because of all else that comes with it. Fruit is packed full of fiber, and that slows down (as in, regulates) the digestive process and thus allows sugar to be absorbed gently.

I hope that we all come to realize these facts, and instead of food companies playing off the HFCS witch hunt, they’d actually work towards something more meaningful for our health. But there’s no chance of this happening until we step up and express the desire for less processed food.

Communication and Manipulation

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Have you noticed how deceptive advertising is? Breakfast cereal companies make health claims on their products – very misleading. Website ads purport weight-loss miracles – complete scams. Trickery appears to be all over our communication mediums. It’s so commonplace that we might accept it as a normal part of society. We seem to tune it out often enough. But there’s just so much manipulation, bringing us closer to non-human animals and turning back the the clock on our evolutionary progress.

Think, in all of the animal kingdom, humans are the only species to have an incredibly extensive communication system. Language (a technology built into us that we often take for granted) in humans greatly surpasses that of any other creature. There’s a simple answer as to why no other creature engages in this: manipulation. If any information can be spread, then false information can be spread. In non-human animals, spreading false information is a good strategy as there is always competition with others. This is why non-human animals don’t evolve strong communication (except in the case of closely related individuals where we do see some level of communication). Humans are unique in their ability to suppress these conflicts of interest and because of this, they assured that information communicated wasn’t malicious information, at the time elite communication evolved. (For a full detailing our our language history, see Chapter 9, Voices from the past: The evolution of ‘language’, in Death from a Distance)

Back to contemporary society, we see that manipulation is everywhere. The ancient condition that allowed elite communication to sprout is terribly disrespected. Today, we’re constantly exposed to deceptive information. A big problem is that much our mental mechanisms are too trusting and leave us open to manipulation. Another is that companies can get away with misleading people, and they’ll do it because it’s in their interest to do so. In the ancient condition, there were enforcement mechanisms to prevent the dissemination of bad information. We don’t have a very good system in place for that now. We need better enforcement on misleading advertising. We, as a whole, would be living much better lives with the absence of manipulative information.

We’re blessed with the incredible technology of elite communication. If it isn’t used mindfully, it will go to waste. It will be ignored. It has already happened to some degree. And where it hasn’t, often lie the victims of manipulation.

The Misleading Meaning of ‘Enriched’ Flour

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

In many food products you’ll see the term enriched flour. This applies to grains such as wheat, corn, and rice. You’ll also see the addition of reduced ironniacin, and other B vitamins. This is all very misleading but, ironically, a good indication that the food has been processed.

When a grain is processed, it loses quite a lot of its nutritional value. When food companies first did this with grains, people became very sick and developed diseases. It was quickly noticed that processed grain was nutritionally deficient. The government stepped in and stated that food companies were to add back the missing nutrients. Hence they were enriched. While the quick-to-occur diseases were halted, there was no determination on the long term effects of processed grains. Decades later, we have a society afflicted with widespread obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.

The fact remains that in processing grains, the food is broken. Even returning specific nutrients to the food can’t account for all that was lost. The mechanics of food and health is a complicated thing on the level of nutrients. So next time you’re shopping for grains, avoid the enriched stuff. Go for the whole grain. It’ll make a mountain of difference in your health and wellbeing. If you don’t find whole grains palatable, slowly introduce it into your diet and you will adjust to it and even come to enjoy it.

Using Social Influence To Be More Green

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

As the adjacent graph jokingly indicates, the whole “Going Green” thing has spiraled out to a trendy thing instead of a genuine concern for our environment. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The fact is, people are being more eco-conscious. And this in turn is affecting larger level organizations. All sorts of companies are now talking green. The government is also embracing green policies. Do each of these groups really believe in being environmentally friendly or are they catering to their interests? For individuals, there is the social influence factor. For companies, it’s the bottom line and something else to advertise. For government, it’s reelection. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The fact remains that individuals are cutting down electricity, companies are limiting toxic chemicals, and governments are investing in renewable energy.

This is a fantastic example of aligning private interests with public interests. By doing this, we neither run into the problem of uncooperative players due to a lack of enforcement nor do we need to create a system of enforcement. I’m not sure how long this green trend will last, but it has greatly helped lay down important seeds. This also provides a lesson on how social forces can harness selfish interest for a common good.