Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Filtering Bias from Fact

News organizations have long had a reputation for biased reporting. As news outlets become increasingly ideologically polarized, bias has become more acute. To distill the facts of a situation, the consumer has to be skeptical as to the completeness and even the accuracy of any given report. He or she must also be aggressive in seeking out alternative reports to piece together the full set of facts and draw informed conclusions.

This takes time, but is easy to do because technology makes it easier to access different sources of news and perspective. But while the demand side of news has never been so democratic, it’s also never been so easily distorted. As consumers, we can choose to seek the comfort of “reinforcement” under the aegis of seeking “truth” by subscribing solely to ideologically aligned sources of news/information/opinion. We can just as easily choose to completely ignore outlets that are unaligned with our worldview. Consider how this could impact our interpretation of the current state of global economics: depending who you listen to, either capitalism has completely collapsed, or it’s time to buy equities. Exclusive focus on one perspective or another because it reinforces your opinions or satiates your fears puts you at risk to miss the complete picture.

There are many important lessons to teach our children in all of this. Three stand out.

One is that it is important to teach our children to look for the “story behind the story:” what is the motivation behind the choice of facts that are presented in any story by any news organization. Some years ago, a major US airline on the brink of bankruptcy was seeking concessions from its unionized workforce. In every story covering the situation, one US newspaper always made sure to point out that the labor union’s own investment bankers were advising the union to accept the terms, while another US newspaper always mentioned the executive compensation packages. Each was an important piece of data in the full picture, yet one newspaper had a completely different worldview than the other. The point is to understand the motivation behind what it is that each news source elects to include – and exclude. Filtering through this requires time, patience and balance.

Another is that our children have to expect that the people with whom they interact may not be working from the same set of data (and I use that term loosely) in any given situation. Whether engaging in debate, negotiation or just casual conversation, the fundamental facts may be highly suspect. There is no doubt that in the history of time, challenging "facts" has led to all kinds of breakthroughs and revelations. Less dramatically, challenging facts and assumptions was a contributing factor as to why many people elected not to invest with Madoff, or not to invest in opaque securities.

Finally, while our children need to be open-minded to new facts and opinions and need to be ready to acknowledge when they’re wrong, they also need to have the courage of their own convictions in any given situation. As John Kenneth Galbraith said, “The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.” It’s easy to get carried away by momentum and emotion. Precious few had a good year in the markets in 2008, but for those who did it wasn’t entirely accidental. Many (such as John Paulson) identified the signs and implications of a deteriorating credit market and found plenty of willing counterparties for their positions. (Granted, the signs were there for a long time and getting the timing right always requires luck, but taking the positions in the first place was no accident.) Sustaining contrarian thinking in the face of overwhelming conventional enthusiasm is difficult. It requires one to have fundamental objectivity – and tremendous inner confidence in the integrity of one’s objectivity.

The best way to prepare our children for whatever lies ahead is not to impart ideological dogma, but critical thinking and critical analysis. If we do this honestly, of course, we’ll quickly realize that we each have our own biases. We must be willing to acknowledge that we each have our own motivations and so shall our children. Learning to distinguish between the two within ourselves is no easy task.

It also gives us an opportunity to return the repetitive questioning, challenging them with "why? why? why?" with each answer they give.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Unstructured Time

There's a series of children's books written in the 1970s called Frog and Toad designed to help young people learn how to read. One of them - Frog and Toad Together - contains a short story called "A List." In it, Toad makes a list of all the things he has to do by the end of the day: wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, and so forth. He then follows this script as his daily plan, never straying from it. As his day progresses, he scratches off items from the list.

Then a strong wind blows the list out of his hands.

Enter Frog. Toad immediately reaches out to Frog to chase after his list, because "running after my list is not one of the things I wrote on my list of things to do." Frog is unable to recover the list.

Despondent that he has lost his list, Toad does nothing. Frog writes a new list for Toad with a single entry, "go to bed." This Toad does, and he completes his day.

In addition to helping young people learn to read, it offers insight into very common workplace behaviours: Toad is a contract employee, Frog is his manager.

Toad does only as he is told to do, nothing more and nothing less. He isn't engaged in solving problems, he's simply performing tasks. Additional tasks that come his way that are pertinent to the problem he's working on are deflected to other people. (As an aside, if he works for a firm that supplies contract employees, those additional tasks would increase revenue for his firm.) And, of course, the loss of his task order left him idle and helpless rather than liberated to engage in more creative pursuits.

Frog, meanwhile, doesn't redirect Toad's energies in any meaningful way (nor does he furlough him, although that would be a bit of a stretch.) His priority is to restore order to his team.

There are some interesting lessons in this. Our children's lives are increasingly structured for them. They follow fixed routines of school, athletics and activities, which limits the times during which they can complete homework (a surprising volume of which is assigned to them in the very early stages of their academic careers). Because their daily lives are mapped out for them, they're constantly being told exactly what to do from minute to minute, which means they don't learn how to make best use of time. So it's valuable for a child to learn how to deal with - indeed, capitalize on - unstructured time, precisely because their lives are so highly structured in the first place.

It's also important that our children recognize the difference between performing tasks and solving problems. We can map out a series of steps that we need to take to accomplish a goal, but that series of steps is only as relevant as our current understanding of the problem space. If the problem space changes, we have to change with it if we're going to accomplish our goal. We also have to recognize this and make these changes independently and not constantly look for instruction from others. Sounds obvious, but we see it all the time at work, particularly in the Information Technology space, which is increasingly long on service-level agreements and short on results.

This is all a bit out of reach for a 6 year old, but it makes the story a lot more interesting when we read it together. But she does come up with some very creative things when she's left to her own devices.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Antiquity and Youth

Antique shows, flea markets and eBay have done big trade in nostalgia and collectables in recent years. Until recently, there has been a market for just about anything from toys to cookware that could bring back memories of the halcyon days of one's youth.

These things have some characteristics in common. To survive that long (and be available for sale somewhere), those items have to be of durable construction. To still be usable (and not simply very large paperweights) they have to be of simple technology. To be held in value, they have to be of recognized quality. To have staying power beyond a single generation, they have to be of timeless identity, and not products of fads.

This doesn’t describe the over-engineered, cheaply produced, pop culture dominated world in which our children are immersed today. We don’t build for durability, we build for consumption. We don’t define value systems, we define marketing messages. And we believe we improve everything by adding a battery.

Our creations today are infused with situational context: you need the right operating system, the right power source, the right hardware, and watch the right television shows if you are to get any use out of the things we create. Quality has become relative to context, not absolute to a standard. And, of course, today’s context will be tomorrow’s obsolescence. This means that the stuff we make today is “quality” more by matter of opinion or limited experience of the consumer than it is by fact. It also means that this stuff has a built-in expiration date of usefulness. It’s hard to imagine that 30 years hence our children will be ecstatic to discover a Hanna Montana DVD. It’s hard to imagine they’ll remember what either is.

There are some things – furniture, musical instruments, even houses – that are functional and timeless. They represent craftsmanship and values of those who came before us. If we are fortunate enough to have something like this in our care, we are aware that it is in our possession not so much to be consumed as to be taken care of for another generation.

This is, of course, a subtle lesson that "it isn't all about us" after all. But there is also something to be said for sustainable consumption. If we don't teach our children to value "sustainability" in ordinary things, how will they learn to apply it to their relationships with one another?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

"Partnershipping" is a Perfectly Cromulent Word

In the The Simpsons, the Springfield city motto is: "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." In the episode Lisa the Iconoclast, elementary school teacher Edna Krabappel challenges the legitimacy of the word "embiggens," only to be swiftly dismissed by another teacher: "it's a perfectly cromulent word."

The other night, my daughter's school held a curriculum night, intended to give parents direct visibility into the people, process and content of the school. During an address to the parents, faculty and staff, the superintendent used the word "partnershipping." Not "partnering," but "partnershipping."

It's a perfectly cromulent word.

I feel embiggened.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Real versus The Contrived

Stealing away for a few final days of summer at a place with a lot of outdoor activities (swimming, canoeing/kayaking, hiking, etc.) makes clear how far removed we are from the world around us. We go to great lengths to recreate natural experiences artificially, and we add layers to insulate us from the world around us.

This disconnect from the world is a Faustian exchange as it denies us the full experience of life. There is simply no comparison between swimming in a spring-fed lake and taking a chemical bath in a pool. Nor is there between the experience of canoeing and powerboating. Gliding over the water under your own power, a wake the only footprint of your presence, lets you pause to witness first-hand the intricacies of life. By comparison, repeatedly going in circles through the water at full engine-assisted throttle not only ignores nature, it creates an exhaust “leave behind” that scars the waterscape. Even perambulating has surprising upside. A short hike on a footpath is a form of time-travel: taking a trail trodden for over a century gives exposure to all kind of “postcards” left by those who came before, the thoughtful time-capsules that document history and change of a place.

The real world is never that far away, and it’s great fun when we’re fully exposed to it. But breaking free to find it takes concerted effort. We’ve contrived our own world to insulate us from the real one. We’re completely insulated from it in our day-to-day. That contrived world, as sensory-encompassing as it may be with sounds, imagery, priorities, urgency and so forth, is of comically limited depth: no artificial system is as resilient as even the most primitive ecosystem.

As parents, we have an obligation to make the real world accessible to our children. From a young age, they build points of reference that are resilient to an ever-expanding plasticine layer. As they mature, these sustainable connections will enable them to recognize and appreciate the difference between the real and the contrived.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

It isn't edutainment, it just fills time

Somewhere along the way, programming for children became sanitized claptrap designed to sell merchandise more than entertain by story telling.

What passes for plot are combinations of shallow storylines masquerading as problem solving, situational "dramas" (as much drama as there can be in the life of a person in a midddle-class, stable household who is under the legal age to vote, drive, work and consume alcohol) where nobody comes out a loser, and mindless, lightweight action sequences that stretch episodes to fill network program slots. There are no fables, parables or stories being told. There are no distinct characters. There are no winners and losers. Children's programs are just time fillers.

Of course, by being nothing but eye candy, these programs run little risk of being offensive. This creates commercial upside. By ostensibly offering educational value, they blunt the guilt parents feel for putting their children in front of the photon-blasting nanny for hours on end. This increases viewership counts and “brand awareness.” The absence of even a hint of something which may offend defaults these shows into a state of “mass appeal.” This, in turn, translates into other revenue streams, as merchandise bearing their likeness are a "safe" gift to children in just about any household.

Contrast this to children's entertainment of previous generations. The studios owned by the brothers Warner produced hundreds of action-packed mini-dramas that told a story with genuine characters. In a seven-minute short, they offer a far greater insight into life lessons: the progression of axe-pistol-shotgun-cannon-flowers-chocolates-engagement ring-wedding dress-wedding is representative of life coming at you fast. These brief episodes also introduce us to the types of people we deal with on a daily basis. Sylvester the Cat or Wile E. Coyote needing to secure at any cost mouse or bird for their next meal is the salesperson needing to close the next deal to make quarterly targets. Elmer Fudd, a vegetarian who hunts for sport, is the corporate leader with wealth considerably beyond his needs for sustenance who is hyper-competitive strictly for reasons of ego. Foghorn Leghorn is a loud mouth schmuck to his cube- I mean, barnyard-mates.

But these cartoons aren't educational! That’s ok, they tell good stories. Children recognize the difference between mindless, shallow forms of entertainment and content that is both deep and complex. They're too violent! Children aren't idiots. For the most part, they have an intuitive understanding of basic concepts of physics such as gravity, or force == mass x acceleration, or the destructive power of different forms of weaponry (ranging from anvil to firearm to disintegrator). It isn’t the responsibility of television to instill this appreciation, it's our responsibility as parents to teach them these things. Cartoons won’t "desensitize" factual knowledge tought by people. Indeed, statistically we've seen neither rise nor drop in incidents of free-falling anvil-related injuries in the last 50 years with the comings and goings of these cartoon shorts on broadcast television.

Besides, where else is a 6 year old going to learn how to conduct an orchestra? It's a handy skill when learning to appreciate Beethoven.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Rhythm in Life

It’s a rare opportunity to be able to share with a child the experience of a live performance of something that is timeless in character. We heard Dave Brubeck play live last week. He’s an outstanding pianist, and surrounds himself with equally outstanding musicians.

He's best known for music of different rhythms: Take Five is in 5/4 time, Blue Rondo à la Turk is in 9/8. These are unusual rhythms, common time being four beats per measure. Both Take Five and Blue Rondo are (for most people, anyway) intrinsically appealing, even if the source of the appeal remains a mystery to most.

Recognising what makes these pieces unique is itself a form of meta-awareness. Rhythm, like harmony, isn’t always something we notice. Rhythm isn’t the centerpiece of music. It isn't even in the background. It just is.

So it is in life. We encounter people who "march to the beat of a different drummer." We may hold them out to be oddballs, or we may find them mysteriously appealing. The question remains whether we see everything there is to see about a person so that we understand why it is we see them the way that we do. We don't usually look for "rhythm," so we don't always recognise it in other people. Something that forms a significant portion of our impression of other people is below the radar. It’s just there. It takes meta-awareness to notice it at all.

It isn’t clear yet whether my daughter even marginally appreciates the experience of hearing Dave Brubeck perform live. Maybe the next time she hears “Take Five” on the streaming audio server at home she’ll notice what isn’t there: the improv of the live performance that isn't in the studio recording. Perhaps she’ll be aware of the music she doesn't hear.

Or perhaps not. She's only 6.

But she will know what is in the frame, snapping her fingers as she counts out the rhythm while Dave and the band play: 1-2-3-4-5-1-2-3-4-5 …

Monday, May 26, 2008

Situational Awareness

Sometimes, we are to our children as the Acme Corporation is to Wile E. Coyote: we supply equipment that enables the pursuit of some objective, only for the pursuit to end in misadventure. While these are certainly opportunities to teach responsibility, determination, or just better hand-eye coordination, they are also opportunities to help our children develop situational awareness.

From the perspective of executor, it is difficult to critically root-cause the reasons for our successes and failures. We must learn how to externalize so that we recognize the difference among execution failure (the Coyote flying of his own volition with the aid of the Acme Bat-Man costume, only to slam into a mountain because he didn’t have his eyes open), situational failure (being run over by a truck whilst setting a trap using “free bird seed” as the bait), and structural error (powering up the outsized electro-magnet and attracting every sizable metal object – steam rollers, boats, busses – in a very large geographic region and thus becoming the target of his own plan.)

By looking holistically and retrospecting an entire situation and outcome, we learn that it is worth iterating through some pursuits (note to self: keep eyes open), while others are just outright bad ideas (question to self: could what I am about to do become a self-targeted missile?) And it’s important to know when we failed but have no data points on the fitness of our solution, as the proverbial truck will trump the best laid plans of coyotes and men.

Society doesn’t necessarily value this. It encourages us to deny responsibility and be victims of outcomes rather than responsible for them. Is not the Acme Corporation responsible for the misadventure of the coyote? Does the manual to the Bat-Man costume explicitly require that the operator keep his or her eyes open at all times? And what business do they have selling such a powerful electro-magnet in the first place? Whether the coyote is a Super Genius or not is irrelevant; the Acme Corporation is culpable!

Understanding as completely as we can the spectrum of events that form both situation and result allows us to take better informed decisions and improve our quality of life. It gives us independence and greater confidence in our future actions, things we do not get if we deny the responsibility we have for our fate. But it is up to us to develop this capability - and stress the value of it - to our children. In a blameless society, constructive-critical self-assessment is not something our children are likely to learn from anybody else.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Learning How to Teach

Earlier this month, I learned how to teach my daughter how to ride a bike.

We worked backwards. First, we made sure we knew how to work the brakes. Then we learned how to maintain balance. Finally, we learned know how to make a standing start. Put it together, and you have an end-to-end ride.

She tattooed two brick walls, a fence and a shrub on her first day with a low, even, prime number of wheels. She didn’t immediately recognise what it is she was learning with each passing impact.... er., experience, so she needed a bit of coaching. She also needed some encouragement to get back on the metal-and-plastic horse. But get back on she did, and her maiden voyage from start to (intentional) stop is now in the books.

In learning how to teach a subject, we increase our own mastery, giving us as teachers the potential to learn as much as our students from the act of knowledge transfer. But teaching offers even greater possibilities. Sometimes our students surpass our own knowledge, and become the masters from whom we learn. While this may be upside for the teacher, this is not necessarily an easy transition for the student. They may find it difficult to cope with the change in role-state, struggling to cope without defined boundaries. Rather than evolve into a master, the student may rebel or drift because they are not properly prepared for this change.

We hope that our children's capabilities will surpass our own. For that to happen, we must pay attention to more than just their tacical execution: we must also be situationally aware enough to recognise when they have outgrown us as teachers. This allows us to change that aspect of our relationship so that even if we’re in their wake as executors, we remain sufficiently engaged with them as they carry on their journey into undiscovered country.

Although she had a difficult first day, she couldn’t spend enough time with her bike on the second. May she direct it on many voyages of discovery.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Three Questions

There's a children's book by Jon J. Muth called The Three Questions. It's based on a story of the same name by Leo Tolstoy.

A young boy is searching for answers:

  • "When is the best time to do things?"
  • "Who is the most important one?"
  • "What is the right thing to do?"
The book concludes:

"Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.

This is why we are here."1

We denominate our business achievements in some currency (Euro, Pounds, Dollars, Francs, Yen...) but the richness of our lives is determined by how we interact with other people. We don't always get this right. Sometimes we get it horribly wrong. When we do, we hope it is not so wrong that we are disallowed the opportunity to ask and answer these questions again.

To live this is difficult enough. Being on the receiving end while somebody else gradually comes to grips with it is a challenge - and privilege - of parenting.

1 Excerpts from Muth, Jon J. The Three Questions Scholastic Press, 2002.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Confidence Building Doesn't Replace Real Learning

In the Girls Just Want to Have Sums episode of The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson asks her math teacher: “Confidence building can’t replace real learning, can it?” This is quite an indictment of current educational values.

Nearly everything in which children participate - sports, arts, school - is accompanied by a constant barrage of reinforcement, to the extent that children are showered with awards and trophies for just about everything they do. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, the “you’re all winners!” messaging won’t change the cold, hard reality that in any given activity, some people are better than others.

Of course, there are two sides to the participation trophies: if everybody won, then everybody also lost. Our children’s cabinets are filling up with “loser trophies.”

Skill and performance aren’t matters of opinion, they’re matters of fact. Denying this undermines a person’s development of self-awareness. At younger ages, participation in everything from arts to sport is primarily concerned with skill discovery and skill acquisition. Achievement is important, but achievement is meaningful only after sufficient skill development has taken place. To wit: recitals from introductory music students have more cute value than musical interpretive value. Cheapening achievement creates false confidence, and undermines work ethic to achieve. Nothing is served by this, as everybody will, sooner or later, come face to face with their limits. The question is, will they recognise that success comes from hard work and dedication and not just from showing up.

We shower children with awards and recognition because we hope to build confidence. This reinforcement is external and temporary. Confidence comes from within. It is a byproduct of self-awareness, a result of knowing our strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness comes from success and failure, independently achieved. There are no awards for self-awareness, but it engenders strength of character. Better to nurture this in children than to fill their cabinets full with loser trophies.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

True Joy is Serious Business

In the 26-27 January edition of the Wall Street Journal, James F. Penrose reviews After the Golden Age by Kenneth Hamilton, a book that traces the change from passionate, individual interpretation of classical music towards dogmatic recital of what is believed to be the composer’s original intent. In describing Mendelssohn’s very strict interpretation of music, Mr. Penrose quotes Seneca: Res severa est verum gaudium. In English: "true joy is a serious business." This is a charge to all parents.

The joy that young children experience knows no bounds. As they grow, that joy is gradually overrun by cynicism. To master that cynicism, and to still experience joy in this world, children must learn to balance discipline with passion. Passion without control is recklessness. Control without passion denies a person the experience of life.

We guide children on this path in everything they do. Mindless execution in pursuit of technical perfection stifles creativity. Performance may be technically excellent, but lacks the soul of the performer. Similarly, execution requires discipline. Performing in the absence of any sense of discipline denies the fact that excellence requires a context. To wit: an unstructured collection of stanzas isn’t a Haiku simply because one asserts that it is; in actual fact, it’s nothing more than a poorly written poem.

Those who achieve this balance can produce works of profound joy. When one hears Seiji Ozawa’s interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, one hears unquestioned technical talent balanced with aggressive interpretation true to the baroque style. One never hears the piece in the same way again. When one reads Kenneth Yasuda’s thesis on North American Haiku, The Japanese Haiku, one realizes that in the hands of one who is master of language, the rhythm and rhyme of the Haiku is liberation, not limitation. One destroys nearly every Haiku he has written and begins anew. When one hears Benny Goodman’s interpretation of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (K. 622), Mozart’s enthusiasm for the clarinet is uniquely evident in Goodman’s recital. That enthusiasm is immediately conspicuous by its absence in one’s own recital. One sets about re-learning the piece from the first measure. Those among the generation of people in our charge who learn to balance excellence with passion will contribute their own rich interpretations and add to the world's collective experience of life.

It is our responsibility as parents to engender this in our children. The scope of this responsibility goes beyond what it is our children elect to do, it applies to who they are: each individual’s life is a work art, thus a potential source of joy. Guiding a child as she or he masters the tools of the artist in the media of life is serious business indeed.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Silence is Golden

Read this on a Gem sugar packet in Athlone. In Gaelic: “Is binn béal ina thost.” In English, “Silence is golden.”

We are all of us subjected daily to an aural onslaught. Some is incidental, byproducts of the way we live. Some is intentional, targeted attempts to command our attention. Some is psychological, ploys to “set a mood” in a commercial experience. All of it is an invasion of serenity.

One wonders if we have not become that much more mentally steeled. To maintain our modicum of peace, we must subconsciously allocate mental cycles to tune out the noise now indigenous to our environment. This means we constantly expend energy to maintain a semblance of tranquility. It also means there's a brisk business done in noise-cancelling headphones.

Gold was, at one time, the coin of the realm. ‘twas precious to be sure, but far more accessible. ‘tis accessible no longer, not since the abandonment of Bretton Woods. ‘tis now a commodity, and far more dear indeed.

The same fate has befallen silence.