Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Crass lessons from 2013

1. Lessons should never be compartmentalized, because decompartmentalizing them always seems disruptive. Yet, progress cannot be achieved without continuous criticism and learning.

2. Everywhere in life, contradictions are inevitable, especially amidst human activity.

3. It's a meritocratic world. Contribute something valuable or perish. 

4. You live a finite life. Therefore, self-interest is necessary at some, if not all points in life.

5. Sure, the world changes and so should practices. But the experience of elders counts. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Settlement of Thought

There was once a group of Thoughts that called themselves the Envies. They distinguished themselves apart from another group of Thoughts who were known as the Tomorrows.

At some point in time, all Thoughts were one huge body of thought. There was no real distinction, and so there was much diversity. Each Thought saw themselves as unique yet living in unity. When they bumped into each other, they explained their perspective. When two Thoughts were in disagreement, they spent all the time it took to understand one another, whether it was to conclude that they were almost the same, or nothing alike.

One day, one Thought decided that it was time to make a decision and settle down. It did not want to learn about new Thoughts. It did not have the patience to walk around and learn where other thoughts originated, or why. It felt completely sure of itself. So it named itself an Envy Thought.

Eventually, other Thoughts grew attracted to Envy's settlement. It saved them the effort of going about and learning about other Thoughts. They grew complacent. They grew shorter tempers. And they moved less.

As the Envies gathered a critical mass, everyThought else wanted to do something about it. They couldn't keep losing themselves to settlement because it endangered Thought itself. So all the other Thoughts decided to focus on tomorrow, and how to best think about the future of the existence of Thought.

And that's how the Envies got distinguished from the Tomorrows.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

People vs. process

Processes were never defined without people. Many processes are made completely by humans (procurement processes, roadworks, negotiations, etc). Natural processes that do not seem to originate from human actions, such as tidal waves or earthquakes, are attributed to bigger powers that humans disassociate from themselves. But even in the case of these natural processes, the language in which you understand the process is was a human creation and, subsequently, the form of that thought is as well.

When do processes take over people's lives?

Are these processes really "taking over" people's lives or only their decision-making power?

To what end will processes be more important than people?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The 24th hour paradox

On our 24-hour clocks, we say there are 24 hours, with 12-midnight being 00:00. But why does this clock never actually hit 24:00? And since it is impossible for it to ever get to 24:00, does it make sense that we call it a 24-hour clock?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Boundaries and thinking

When do we think most efficiently? A joke with one of my managers at work today got me started on this (thanks, VL). My guess is that boundaries, such as an office with all the objects and activities it involves, focus thinking. That is why we institutionalize great ideas. And when one needs an "open" mind, they tend to leave the confined set of objects and activities in order to "think outside the box". In short, leaving boundaries helps thinking.

But what about other, bigger boundaries. Such as our households, education systems and nation states? Surely, we come to point where we can't actually leave because we've been brought up in those boundaries. To step outside those would be to go insane, to lose touch of what we know and hold as truth.

So, can we ever think outside boundaries?

I believe we can, and this is what makes religion and/or metaphysics interesting. There are concepts in religious values, ethics and morals that cannot be described in words (see a previous post on Wittgenstein here), but they exist in thought. The struggle we face is to bring these thoughts into the world through communication with one another in a way that is as close to the truth of the thought as possible.

Perhaps this means we while we can think efficiently in different spaces, will never speak our thoughts with 100% efficiency. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Buying as saving?

Do you ever get the feeling that disposable cash in your hand is more risky than buying something that will last long? Some economists are suggesting that reasoning may be sound (original paper here).

Since cows will earn the cow herder money through milk, dung and eventually meat, it's no surprise they are seen as assets. But what makes the above articles special is that this is continued even though cows have negative returns for the herders after accounting for the cost of labor in herding, caring and maintaining the space of the cow.

So why do they continue buying cows?

Well, as the Economist article also suggests, it's because immediate desires outweigh the prospect of future benefits. It seems as though the cow will earn the herder good money later, so they put in the labor to buy, herd, care and maintain the cow.

Cow-caring can become easier, or the cost of cow-caring can be reduced, but the human/emotional pull of immediete desires will remain.

So perhaps it is sometimes "more human" to buy rather than save, and in some ways it is also economical. But do we always have the foresight to know how much it takes to maintain/use what we buy?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

More on MOOCs

I just came by this NYTimes article which is a somber reflection on the progress of MOOCs.

One example (from a few):

"Much of the hope - and hype - surrounding MOOCs has focused on the promise of courses for students in poor countries with little access to higher education. But a separate survey from the University of Pennsylvania released last month found that about 80 percent of those taking the university’s MOOCs had already earned a degree of some kind." 

The first opinion on the article posted here agrees with this reflection.

For me, the power of MOOCs lies in the ability to (1) disseminate content in a smartly moderated way, and (2) to collect feedback directly from any number of students. Perhaps I am blurring the lines too much between MOOCs and VLEs, but the ways in which a "stranger"-student would be able to contribute to the content that will be taught next time around seems powerful to me.

Why, then, do we busy ourselves in worrying about how students will learn what we already teach in classrooms? Isn't it time we reviewed what truths we prescribe for the future's people? If they don't shape it, do we expect that we will shape the rest of history?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Risky truth

About 300 years ago, the scientific method was developed as a way to find new knowledge while making room to discredit faulty knowledge.

This Economist article brings this method into question today. It discusses how the new knowledge we read in journals today could be unverified. It could be unverified because experiments are seldom repeated, when they once were to test the authenticity of findings across different contexts.

What's the implication of this? It means that "new" knowledge is spreading uncontested, meaning it could be totally baseless. And if this is what ends up shaping how we educate the young, from primary to secondary to higher education systems, then what will they really know in 50 years? 100 years? 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Risk mitigation

Niel to Vincent (Heat, 1995):

A guy told me one time, "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner."

Monday, December 2, 2013

When rhythm meets rhyme

It's not everyday I come across a track that just fits. The rhythm meets the rhyme. Something about the chords enveloping the emotion makes a lotta sense.

I get the impression this happens best when the artist tells it like it is. In this Bruno Mars / Damian track, I find the message to be depressing, but it's still a track that clicks on point for me.

Damian has the only line in the track that actually tells us the whole story is a depressing one: "Nuff ghetto youth cannot escape the trap".

The rest of the track seems quite sarcastic, telling it like it is, getting messed up today thinking tomorrow's going to be just fine. Yet, if the track had rhymes like most others do, discussing the problem and really getting down with the message, I don't think it would ring the same tone with me.

There's also the music, and it could be that the construction of this track is really what's special about it. But I like to believe that when rhythm and rhyme meet, when you tell it like it is, that's when truth becomes most apparent. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Moto thoughts / Motots: The big picture

It's been an absolute pleasure going to the Moto meetings once a month. Our discussions span a variety of topics in the art and culture of writing, including formulating good storylines, character development, dedication to drafts, copyright, etc.

This past Wednesday, as we were discussing someone's piece, it became apparent that we were divided in how we think an author should visualize their story. One half of us contended that in order to write a terrific story, even if it ends abruptly, the author needs to have the whole story clearly laid out in their mind. The other half of us contended that the author doesn't necessarily have to have the whole story mapped out, since they may want to involve the readers' perspective in shaping the "rest" of the story.

So what is this bigger picture in the mind of an author: Is it the entire story, including words not included on the page? Or is it many different stories, some finished, some unfinished?

Perhaps this has to do with how we treat/understand time. If time and the events that happen in it are predictable, then we can see the bigger story. If time and events in it are unpredictable, then the bigger story is difficult to see in one go; it unfolds more and more as each event transpires.

I found this discussion very relevant to The Global Eye series. I did not initiate that story with the whole story in mind. Rather, I wanted to see what kind of spin others could put on it. And the more we wrote for it, the more I began to see the story unfold. Strangely however, since I have been developing the entire story in mind, I cannot seem to write another short episode... trying to though. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Local versus national change

Governments cannot possibly deal with all street-level issues that arise on a daily basis. So they appoint representatives, such as local authorities, to deal with or channel such issues so they get attended to.

This presents a paradox. How can an institution interested in national, long-term, wide-reaching policy work with an institution that is interested in street-level, shorter-term policy?

A few variables are at play, such as:
(1) The number of people who you consider constituents;
(2) The level of resources required during implementation;
(3) The amount of time it would take for implementation; and
(4) The number of changes possible in a given timeframe.

I'm sure this paradox is a daily consideration for those policymakers who mediate between the national government and local government authorities. But a presentation this morning at Twaweza on declining access to water amidst rising population (thanks Ruth!) got me thinking twice about this set up.

Perhaps what we need to do is assess how much authority local government authorities actually have. Can they make a decision on policy? Can they implement that policy? And are they awarded/faulted when results of that implementation are out?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

More humbling thoughts

It could just be me and the field I have been involved in for some time now. But I observe many people have a career tagline that usually ends with something like "... improving people's lives". 

It seems that, to make a statement like "my work improves people's lives", you need to actually have three things locked down:

1. Grounded understanding of the people you are talking about, including their language, history, religious values, other cultural values, ways of dressing, ways of walking, etc.

2. Experience in seeing what does not actually lead to improvement, including many failed programs with well-defined and clear indicators signifying failure.

3. Proven successes in the business of life-improvement, including many successful programs.

Now, do people who openly say that they are in the business of improving peoples' lives really have these three on a lock down?

It seems impossible to me to get 1 straight. I still feel like I am always learning new things about my own community, let alone others. So how do we ever have a "full" grounded understanding of people?

(I think the process of development is about doing everyday "ordinary" tasks with the consideration of how that task leads to our future kin's prosperity. To be continued inshallah.)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Humility and glory

One of my good friends from Lafayette, who is currently travelling the world supporting international study programs, sent me Thabo Mbeki's "I am African" speech.

My favorite part of this speech comes near the end:

Together with the best in the world, we too are prone to pettiness, petulance, selfishness and short-sightedness.  
But it seems to have happened that we looked at ourselves and said the time had come that we make a super-human effort to be other than human, to respond to the call to create for ourselves a glorious future, to remind ourselves of the Latin saying: Gloria est consequenda - Glory must be sought after!

What does he mean when he says "together with the best of the world, we are too prone to pettiness..."? Does he mean to say that all humans are fallible, regardless of who they are? Or does he mean that we have conditioned ourselves to think temporarily, when in fact, we are built to think of eternity?

Whichever it is, I think these are important considerations. We are usually caught up with value that helps us live today. We are not usually caught up value because we want to see the next 200 years provide a constructive envirionment in which future kin can improve what and how we know about our world.

So I agree - Glory must be sought after - but it implies a lot: It implies acknowledging how our pursuit of "value" today may not be productive for the future. It also implies significantly shifting efforts - education, employment, systems of public provision, industry, etc. - to building the next 50-250 years. And it implies a form of knowledge exchange that is not only restricted to formal settings, but a fluid exchange that can happen anywhere because the value of knowledge is seen in direct relation with building a future.

(Thanks, Sancho)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Humans are adverse to change

Historically, we have settled with our tastes. At least we used to settle down with our tastes/demand for goods and services for longer periods. Not sure if that is still the case today. But if that still stands in our everyday behavior, then how do we explain changes related to development? That is, in all the behavior change efforts transpiring today, what changes are likely to last more than others?

Friday, November 8, 2013

Deliberating an alternative to school

How else can learning happen? Here are 10 alternative options to how we design formal learning today:

1. Learning circles with one mentor

2. Home schooling with one teacher

3. Parents as teachers throughout the learning "cycle"

4. Friends circles with no one teacher

5. Self-teaching

6. Pre-programmed learning software

7. Learning by experience

8. Vocational training; one mentor, one skill at a time

9. Visiting the library

10. Conversations with one friend (paired learning)

I am sure some of these options do happen. In thinking about these options, I am curious about the following:

a. How are pupils qualified?

b. Who awards the qualification?

c. Do qualifications need to be standard across many people?

We have reached our current popular version of schooling after some research and thought into pedagogy and rising populations. My contention is that it is never too late to reassess that research and thought. The world and how we communicate is changing fast, and we need to adapt to this rather than simply follow conventional models. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

EAC and beyond

I have been thinking about this article and about TZ's involvement with the EAC. There's been a lot of speculation that we're holding the rest of the region back from the next step in the process (common market, then monetary union). There's also been speculation that TZ is willing to continue. This has come after a series of postponed general assemblies, unannounced meetings by some heads of state, etc.

Not sure whether the politics is indeed holding things back (in general), or whether broadcast media is pervasive on this series of power showcases that actually tiptoe around important issues.

If it's indeed the politics holding things back, we've got to get real. This isn't about the heads of state, this is about people and getting bolder in global business.

If it's broadcast media, then we ought to look at the kind of tastes we have for news, because broadcast media is likely to be producing what the public wants to know. And I think we can ask better questions of our heads of state, such that the EAC proceedings continue meritocratically. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Marketing and knowledge

If marketing is an effort to ring in new customers by relating product/services to them, and if knowledge exchange involves sharing deep stories about the effect of things, then marketing is indeed a form of knowledge exchange. 

If companies publicized why their news was good for the world rather than just provide the good news to the world, marketing may just begin to make more sense. It may also get tremendously easier. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Intuitiano

(in-too-ish-ee-yah-no)

Once, there was a small town,
Intuitiano,
Which was very simple. 

People lived by their will,
By what drove them to act,
And they lived peacefully.

A young woman was once
Robbed near her family,
And nobody said shit.

You see the town just lived,
Day in, day out, it lived,
On intuition.

And intuition,
Called for continuous
Existence. No matter (what). 

So she went on living,
Without her precious things,
But her instinct was hurt.

Nobody seemed to care,
Nor did she want them to,
She was simply puzzled.

Then a strange man arrived,
He was not from the town,
And he brought her things back.

"Why did you steal from me?"
Asked the young woman.
She was a bit confused.

He said: "It was a test.
I wanted you angry.
You people need to wake."

She replied: "That we are.
Awake for tomorrow.
Asleep for yesterday."

Him: "But what about rules?
And what about having 
The freedom to break them?"

Her: "The only freedom
Is that which is among
Those who saw you become."

Him: "But they shall change too.
So why risk complying?
You are much more than that."

Her: "I am only me.
We are us. You are you.
Godspeed, or join me here."

And thus was the story,
Intuitiano. 
The town grew to be big.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Public vs. Private work: An inevitable division?

I think about the difference between public and private work a lot. That is, the difference between a public school and a private one, or between an awareness campaign sponsored by an NGO and a music show sponsored by a phone company.

It used to make no sense to me that there had to be a division; that "work" should mean anything that produced some value to mankind, whether it was done in public or in private; and that anything else really ought to be considered non-work, an obstruction.

Of course there is the obvious, well-defined difference of money: While private work is self-funded, public work is oftentimes funded by public finances (taxes, etc.) and in-kind grants.

But there is something deeper, at the core of an institution, that is hinged on how it wants to think about fairness that could be the inevitable division between public and private work.

One observation I made recently is that many differences in decision-making come from the degree to which an institution wants to be fair in its dealings.

A public institution, such as the government itself or a non-governmental, non-profit organization, will usually want to be super fair. For example, when it procures computers for schools, it will want to vet all potential suppliers and then distribute the computers in an equitable manner. The priority is to ensure that the most deserving schools get the best deals. At least, this is how it is done in theory.

A private institution, such as a mobile phone company, will usually prioritize an outcome of some sort over the way in which it will achieve it. For example, it is likely to work with the cheapest-best possible supplier it has in its own phonebook and pick a particular school and deliver the computers much sooner than the public institution. There is no special consideration for other potential suppliers or other potential recipient schools. The priority is getting a school hooked with computers.

These examples might be far-fetched. But fairness is worth considering as the main divisor between public and private work. While public institutions try to be as fair as possible, private institutions admit they cannot afford to think about fairness.

This has other implications: How fast decisions are made, when progress is achieved, who benefits and with what. Whether private work is more efficient than public work or vice versa is hard to tell. But I find that we can never achieve perfect fairness, and we should understand this when we try. It's cool to assume things sometimes.

Claiming perfection - and complete fairness - just does not seem humble enough for our capabilities as human beings. Yet, claiming imperfection - and admitting unfairness - also runs the risk of complacency. Perhaps this is why there is an inevitable division, at least in this day and age, between public and private work.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Questions on social media (3)

In the first post of these series, I basically asked how people will choose what they read in the future. In the second post, I asked what will information will be available when they go looking.

Now I would like to ask: What will be an 18-year-old's motivation to read about a random status update from his or her's counterpart on the opposite side of the world?

There is a ton of information out there these days. You can hardly avoid it when you log into your social media accounts, even after all the filtering and careful choosing of "friends". You might have logged on in search of something specific, but you tend to get distracted by the waterfall of everything else.

So, if this grows, what will motivate one to check on the waterfall at all? Will there be mechanisms to further customize one's content to their own tastes? Will we develop an interest in peer-to-peer learning that is complimentary to formal, productive, more industrial learning?

My gut tells me there is no formal, productive or industrial motivation to read randomly today, yet people do read randomly. We're further developing a taste for sensation and drama that is losing touch with what actually happens outside our houses and workplaces. If this continues, new worlds may be created. And when new worlds are created, then we might as well bounce to Mars tonight. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The education economy (I)

Who demands education and who supplies it? In this post, I refer to "education" as formal education, that is the learning that takes place in school classrooms.

There is a consistent tendency among people and institutions today to assume that education is demanded by students and their parents or guardians and supplied by teachers and schools. So, when anything happens to go well in education - a certain year showing exceptionally good results, or a surge in engineering professionals - schools are rewarded. Similarly, when anything devastating happens in education - a year of terrible results, or an increase in exam-time suicides - schools are blamed. 

But this assumption begs a question: Where is the students' and parents' or guardians' demand for education rooted? Is it an esoteric demand that comes from within the household at any given inspirational moment? Or is it an exoteric demand that comes from outside the household, nudging the household itself to want it?

My belief is that the demand is exoteric. That society has created a demand among people for education that is sufficient to make every new household want it automatically.

Then, education is really demanded by society.

If indeed education is demanded by society, then can the commonly-understood suppliers meet this demand? That is, is it teachers and schools that meet the entire society's demand for education? Or is it the students themselves who, after attaining a certain qualification, move from the classroom into the world to manifest their learning in something productive for society?

My belief is that the students, with the help of their parents and guardians, meet society's demand for education.

Then, education is really supplied by those who learn. 

If we consider this perspective on the economy around education, then perhaps what we expect of it will change. Perhaps we ought to scrutinize society's demand for education and the student's supply of knowledge onto society when critiquing or complimenting education. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The time is now

To whom it may concern:

Your situation in the future is influenced by your actions now. Your actions now are influenced by your vision for the future. So while you are here now, think big and do big.

There is no other way around it.

If you believe your situation in the future is influenced by random events, and if you also believe that your actions now are randomly contingent, then you cannot think big, because you do not believe you control your thinking. And you cannot do big, because you are not thinking it.

"Thinking big" is an expression to refer to your ambition. The thinking does not have to indeed be "big" in the physical sense; just big in its impression on you.

Carpe diem,
Jack D

Aside: One way to understand time is to assume it is cyclical. On a macro-scale: The state of affairs in the world today is similar to the situation at a point in time in the past. Similarly, the state of affairs is likely to arise again in the future. On a micro-scale: You have experiences that you almost know you have been through before. Similarly, your experiences are likely to be repeated later.

So what changes about time? It doesn't: Time is what it is, time. What changes is our human response to what happens around us as time passes. And our response is a product of our thinking.

(Thanks Moto, particularly M, S and Z)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Orwell, Politics and English

One of my friends sent me this link to an essay by George Orwell from 1946. In it, Orwell critiques modern uses of English words. Particularly, he makes the argument that while words will always carry their meanings, their combination in sentances is poor and remains poor because we imitate eachother. It's worth reading the essay for yourself. So far, my favorite extract from this essay is this:
In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.
If only we could remind ourselves of this while watching, reading and listening to popular media every day... (Thanks, Omar)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Orwell on 15th September 1942

I was browsing an archive by UCL of George Orwell's work today, and came across this:

Ghastly feeling of impotence over the India business, Churchill’s speeches, the evident intention of the blimps to have one more try at being what they consider tough, and the impudent way in which the newspapers can misrepresent the whole issue, well knowing that the public will never know enough or take enough interest to verify the facts. This last is the worst symptom of all – though actually our own apathy about India is not worse than the non-interest of Indian intellectuals in the struggle against Fascism in Europe.

The exact writing can be found on Folio 85 in this political diary.

Another archive is Orwell Diaries 1938 - 1942.

The mentions of airpower and propaganda is particularly intriguing, considering the current state of affairs in the world today.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Questions on social media (2)

A couple of posts ago, I asked: How will we assess information in the future?

Today I am thinking of another question: What kind of content will people pick up 10 generations later?

The question assumes that we will not be able to archive every post, every status, every piece of content that is put on the Internet in a clear manner. It would be very interesting to discuss our options should we find that this is in fact possible (step back: how would different companies harmonize their privacy policies?).

And the question also has at least 2 implications: What will be important to people in 10 generations' time? And what systems will be used to govern what content is relevant?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Forms of work today

I was intrigued by this blog post at the Economist titled On "bullshit jobs". It explores how administrative work today compares to assembly line jobs in the past.

One part of this blog post reads: "The issue is that too little of the recent gains from technological advance and economic growth have gone toward giving people the time and resources to enjoy their lives outside work. Early in the industrial era real wages soared and hours worked declined. In the past generation, by contrast, real wages have grown slowly and workweeks haven't grown shorter."

It is easy to see that time and resources are both in shortage across anyone you meet, anywhere in the world. So as this author frames the argument, I think jobs or any kind of work is always about using one's time and resources in the most efficient possible way.

The problem for me is in definitions. How do each of us define "efficient"? It is likely to be very diverse: For one person, efficiency might be the best possible situation for themselves. For another, it might be the best possible situation for a group of people. For yet another, it might not be about situations at all but about saving.

The possibilities are many. Without a firm, universal definition of what "efficient work" or "efficient outcomes" means, then it becomes difficult to decide how we should all use our time and resources.

Other thoughts:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Questions on social media (1)

Yesterday, I found the following video on more than one channel of communication I maintain, including e-mail and social media timelines.


The video is a Fox News interview with Reza Aslan on his new book on Jesus. I find Fox's "critical" questioning of Aslan's work quite uncritical. I also find Aslan's defense graceful yet exactly the kind of critical that the discussion as a whole should have been. As Aslan points out, instead of targeting the 8 or so questions over 10 minutes towards the author's personal life, Fox should have targeted the questions towards the arguments put forth in the literature.

In any case, I think the discussion on social media has been lazily unfair. How many people who are cajoled into ridiculing Fox news as "ignorant", "bitchy", "low", "illiterate", etc. have actually read Aslan's book and genuinly understand him?

Further, how many people actually make informed judgments as Aslan is encouraging us all to do? I find that we tend to react to works like these exactly how Fox News did: By taking things at face value and repeating them for others as true, valid and coherent information.

We all inject our values when we perceive media. A coherent comment on any media should enhance its quality through questioning and/or critical revision. Otherwise, if it is being promoted or dismissed based on seemingly opinionated and subjective comment, how will we assess information in the future?

Monday, July 29, 2013

On cultivation

According to a rough search, the word "cultivation" yields two types of definitions. Bot relate to growth based on something.

One type concerns biological cultivation - that is growth of living things - particularly of plant life.

Another type concerns metaphysical cultivation - that is growth of a certain sense - particularly of human and communal life.

I was prompted to conduct this rough search after a conversation with MK last night. The conversation - as always - covered many topics, but one seemed to stick for some time. That topic was about cultivation. Though we didn't use the word, we spent some time contemplating what it is that we grow up to be. Growth is inevitable, it is something we cannot prevent or whose rate we cannot decrease. So what is the reason for which we grow?

Some options we discussed for answers to this question were: To make a living, to reproduce, to maintain the young or elderly, to search for new frontiers, to create from what is around us and to compete with one another.

While this discussion is far bigger than one blog post, my opinion is that we grow to reproduce. The process of reproduction comes with many other roles and responsibilities, such as to make a living and to maintain the young, which in turn come with further responsibilities. For instance, to make a good living, one needs to create something that is equally "good", and this sometimes also implies a certain degree of competition with fellow human beings.

But I also think that the answer lies in individual pursuits of life. I can already think of human lives whose stories have travelled through time, not because their growth was for reproduction, but because their growth was associated with something larger than themselves. People like the Prophets, Ibn Sina, Christopher Columbus and Mother Theresa did not necessarily live to reproduce, yet their acts of cultivation did something to our humanity as a whole.

See definitions:

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Virtual estates

While real estate concerns space on land, virtual estates concern spaces in the media. "Media" here refers to broadcast media (radio, print, TV, etc.) as well as digital media (the Internet, mobile networks, satellite, etc.). Spaces in the media are not as scarce as spaces on land, particularly because more space can be created in the media than on land. Yet, because human beings have limited attention spans - much like we have limited needs for space on land - the media cannot possibly be consumed in its entirety by any one human being.

Therefore, securing virtual estates could mean that you secure your content for future generations to observe. How well these estates are secured could foretell how long they will last before they are taken over. And how long they will last could foretell how many future generations could observe this content. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Forms of work during school

Through historical accounts, we can find different forms of employment that required a special kind of education. This education did not only involve learning the theory from an institution, but also involved working with the institution in the very business it taught. Fields such as teaching, philosophy, exegisis and translation, vocational skills (building, cutting, refining, binding, etc.) were all fields in which you went to someone to learn something, and learned by doing.

Today, we may regard schools as being completely absent of paid work. In some cases, we may even go so far as justifying why paid work during school is a bad idea.

But I think we would be contradicting ourselves if we went into this justification. There are forms of work that exist in schools today. Examples such as apprenticeships, interships, externships, work-study schemes and co-ops all point to the existence of learning programs that call for practical experience. The practical experience compliments the theoretical learning. 

The complimentary relationship between work and study seems to be part of how we have always learned how to be productive. It seems, therefore, that any initiative that eliminates the practicality of learning from learning itself is training young minds for something else. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

The education business

In this article from The Economist, some key concerns about the business of education are raised. Given the increasing use of massive open online courses, some have begun speculating on MOOC income streams and how they could affect the business of traditional universities.

Two main concerns intrigued me:

1) The possibility of advertising within education is raised, as a means to have degrees sponsored for people. One commentator says: "Ads propelled radio and TV, why not education? There is a lot of misplaced snobbery in education about advertising." At first thought, brands being infused within lectures sounds disastrous. But on second thought, can this be avoided if we want to provide free education that is not backed by Governments? Also, are there no brands in our current curriculum, such as inventors, popular designs and particular texts?

2) Several companies seem to have offered longer-term pay offs to students by betting on their learning systems now. One way is through direct job recruitment. Another way is through the offering of credit as a reward upon completion. The second option makes more sense to me than the first. Yet, in the background of both options is the risk that options are tailored by private actors with private interests. Should this not be backed by a public institution, such as the Ministry of Education, to ensure that learning is still imparted in as fair, global and pluralistic way it should?

In general, though the article offers excellent ways of thinking about the future business of education, the role of public learning interests is absent in the article. It only seems humane to regard education - learning, thinking, pondering - as a public good and service. If not, it is likely that massive numbers of youth will learn only what some rather than all interests want them to learn.

-- Update, 23rd July 2013:
Apart from needing government investment, it also seems like our society should be open to involving paid work within curricular programs. That is, embed an employment aspect into schooling. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Conflicts of opinion

Around this time last year, I contemplated the value of conflicting positions, using the example of how the status of a hero is reinforced by his enemy.

Can the same value be applied to conflicting opinions?

Here is a scenario: I am in a crowd of 200 people. All of us work at a construction site. One day we are told that we will no longer have a lunch break. I know for a fact that one of my coworkers disagrees with this. I have mixed feelings.

In this case, is it better to keep quite in order to keep my coworker quite in order to let the company run better so that the building can be completed? Or is it better for me to speak up with my coworker and express difference in hopes that the rule may somehow be dropped?

The first option benefits the building contractors, the building occupants, and perhaps a few others, but it brings trouble to us construction workers (no lunch!).

The second option brings trouble to the contractors, occupiers, etc. but benefits us.

Who counts? And does it have to do with how large the population with the differing opinion? Or does it have to do with economic power? Or with how noble, righteous or sustainable the cause?

In many ways, I think this challenge - of finding a resolution to conflicts of opinion - is part of this world. It is a challenge we can't get rid of but that we should rise toward. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Why old tech matters

The most successful technologies throughout humanity have been ground in processes that actually assist people. Technologies that were introduced as new processes seldom lasted for long. It's no wonder that proceeding technologies are built on those very same processes.

Today I came across this article from The Economist, which contemplates whether the telegram is dead. It concludes by saying the telegram is not dead. Rather, new mediums have risen that emulate the telegram but in cheaper and faster ways than the telegram: "The 19th-century technology of the telegram lives on, in spirit at least, in our 21st-century devices."

In this respect, old technologies are worthy of attention for people who look forward to new technologies. Humans tend to go with default options, and the most default of options in everyday life are options that are ground in historical behavior and innovation.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

On public reasoning

On May 11 last year, I briefly discussed Amartya Sen's recommendations for how media could be more useful in the promotion of justice.

One of these recommendations was to use the media as a tool for public reasoning.

"Reasoning" can be defined here as the act of thinking logically, rationally and/or analytically. Public reasoning, then, can be understood as logically, rationally and/or analytically thinking as a group or as the citizenry.

For this to happen, two things need to be in place: There need to be people who are thinking, and there needs to be a way for them to deliberate on thoughts collectively.

Everybody has thoughts, so I will assume that there are thinking people wherever you look.

But not everybody has a way to deliberate their thoughts with other actors in the public sphere. Sure, they may be able to exchange thoughts with their neighbor, local storekeeper or family members. But will this really be "public" or private?

In order to have a public deliberation, a few more things seem to be needed:
  1. A space where all thoughts can be shared indiscriminately, save for constraints created by scarce resources, such as time.
  2. Free and open access to spectating this space by any citizen. 
  3. A form of expression that can be easily understood by any citizen.
  4. Free and open access to contribute to this space by any citizen.
  5. A mechanism to periodically draw up conclusions when deliberations reach stalemate status.
Given these five suggested needs for a public deliberation framework, which seems to give way to "public reasoning", here are a few tangible systems that I think may be useful:
  1. A physical space in every city; all spaces are somehow centrally coordinated.
  2. A space based on radio channels.
  3. A space created online. 
Out of all the spaces that already exist in this respect, why are they not seen as central, dependable systems of public reasoning? Herein lies the argument against public deliberation in general: That it may not be possible to achieve a space where the freedom of expression is perfect, ie: every citizens willingness to spectate and/or contribute to this system is ground in the same motivations and resources to do so. 

It seems futile, however, to end the investigation here. Motivations change, as do resources. The philosophical need for a system of public reasoning is important enough to warrant a continuous reflection on this goal and its implications for a more equitable, resilient and peaceful society. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Obama in town

Barack is in Dar today and tomorrow. The country has seen crazy amounts of media focusing on his visit. To me, this is awkward.

It's not awkward because it's overhyped. It's awkward because from what I know about leadership, security and communication today, a lot of it is engineered.

Imagine you're in Barack's shoes: Your trip to Tanzania was tentatively scheduled about a year ago. You have an adviser who has at least 10 arguments why the US is politically and economically invested in the East African region. You have an agent who is advising you on the method of your travel; everything from the suit you will wear to the wheels of your car. You also have a media analyst who has been studying the country's most common and least common media topics.

The set up can be further illustrated.

My point is this: Barack isn't the only guy visiting Tanzania. He comes with an entourage, indeed a country. This comes with a complex set of considerations for all Tanzanians. Instead, we seem to be awkwardly focusing our attention on the man himself. As cool as he may be, unfortunately I don't think this is a time to be jazzed by the guy. 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

On definitions

Writers need to use definitions in their work. Today's texts move across international boundaries like never before. It is just too risky for writers to assume that all their words will be understood in the same way across the world.

For instance, I came across a theme-issue by the Economist last week, which focused on Iran. Three articles were in the June 22-28, 2013 issue:
Among these articles, there are many many terms that are deserving of definition. They are deserving of definition because their use across so many writers and so many "brands" has add too many variations to the standard definition. This calls for a discussion on the various definitions in an effort to sensitize the reader on how terms should be understood in respective articles.

Here are a few examples of terms that I think are deserving of definition in the respective articles listed above:


1. Persian power: Can Iran be stopped?
  • Ayatollah
  • Inflation
  • Sanctions
  • Theocracy
  • Democracy
  • Nuclear capacity
  • Nuclear programme
  • Uranium
  • Centrifuge
  • Enrichment capability
  • Fissile material
  • Implosion device
  • "Client" (of Iran's)
  • Nuclear negotiations
  • Draconian

2. Iran's nuclear programme: Breakout beckons?
  • Military threats
  • Divert
  • P5+1
  • Comprehensive inspections
  • Enrichment
  • Reactor
  • Medical isotopes
  • IR-1
  • Hexafluoride
  • Engineering capacity
  • Unilateral strike
  • Alliance building
  • Diplomatic ultimatums

3. Iran's new president: Will he make a difference?#
  • Revolutionary guard
  • Platform of engagement
  • Reformist
  • Islamic system
  • Middle ground
  • Boost (the ruling establishment)
  • Bellicose posturing
  • Party-cum-militia
  • Terrorist outfit
  • Fissiparous (rebel groups)

Sure, some of these words are self explanatory. Sure, others can be defined by reading the sentances they are placed in. And sure, I could look some up in a dictionary. 

But my point here is to call on writers to define their terms as they meant it. Words tend to come loaded with bias. It is this bias all writing needs to make clear to its reader.

I understand this is a semantic issue that, if resolved in-text, could risk losing the attention of the reader. But there are other ways to do this, instead of using in-text definitions. A glossary, for example, would be a nice end-note reference that readers could refer to when they came across a suspiciously-common word or term. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

On learning

For several years now, I have noticed that systems of formal education globally appear skewed. Specifically, interests in "learning" do not seem to match interests in "managing education".

Today I came across an article in the Economist from 2010 titled The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time. It discusses the contention between academia and productive work particularly from the perspective of PhD programs.

Here is one quote:
There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.
Either my eyes are opening up to global debates, or this debate is getting louder globally. Whatever the situation, it is encouraging to see the concern being recognized at different levels - in this article's case, at very advanced levels - of academia.

I imagine that the following questions could be asked to potentially yield some solutions:
  1. What does the industrial world want to know?
  2. How do academic systems and employment systems communicate?
  3. What industrial examples or cases are provided in academia?
  4. Where do find the "real world" as opposed to the "non-real world"?
  5. Why do we learn?
Question 1 concerns demand for knowledge. In what areas are new knowledge needed most? Why are these areas in the greatest need for new knowledge? How will new knowledge help us advance as a society in those areas?

Question 2 concerns how academia understands employment and how employment understands academia. Do career experts in schools and universities have a keen eye of where students can be most productive? Likewise, do HR managers keep in touch with schools to either recruit or suggest curriculum changes to suit industry standards?

Question 3 concerns how curriculum relate to where people work outside schools and universities. If they are unrelated, how do students bridge the gap between school and the street? Where they are related, do they relate geographically, chronologically, scientifically or otherwise?

Question 4 concerns the definition of "real world". We have all heard this term being used in situations of learning. But is learning itself not an everyday, physical, observable and therefore "real" pursuit? If not, what distinguishes the "non-real" from the "real"?

Finally, question 5 concerns the definition of learning. From what I understand, we learn to be productive citizens in society. We learn so we can create valuable things for society. But where students - even those who are the best in their class - fail to directly contribute to society, we must ask ourselves, what did they learn for? 

My suspicion is that the business of schooling is a thriving business and will not cease to exist in the next 10-25 years. It may evolve in this time, however, into something that is more demand-driven. It may take into account both, the demands of students on what and how they want to learn, and the demands of industrial society on what they need learned. In this time, I hope we can find a way to bring schooling back to learning for doing rather than continuing to make school a divergent kind of work in and of itself. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Replicability implies continuity

The scientific method ensures that the system of building knowledge respects what has been built already; what continues to prove existing theory is retained, what breaks it is further investigated.

The further investigation aspect has to do with replicability. A scientific experiment should be able to be tested repeatedly, otherwise it is merely a one-off activity that cannot do much to established knowledge.

But replicability is often taken for granted. Our experiments assume that our version of time is continuous, ever-lasting and indefinite.

Can we help it?

Even under the assumption that time is continuous, things change over time. Value increases or decreases based on prevailing circumstances.

Does this change affect any part of the scientific method?

There is a clause in proofs - "ceteris paribus" or "all other things being equal" - that is a slight fix for the assumption that time will not change value. But this clause is also the extra, unexciting part of proofs.

Why, then, are we convinced that tomorrow will come and we can continue as we have done today?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Involvement

I saw one of my FB friends post a quote from Confucious:

"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I'll remember. Involve me and I'll understand."

It reminded me of when I studied Paolo Freire and participatory communication. Coherent research aside, it just seems to make more sense to invite a student to be part of their own learning. In a world where facts fly fast and proof proliferates profusely, everyone could be right. But could everyone truly understand eachother?

(Thanks AJ via EoQ!)

Friday, April 12, 2013

On individuals and institutions

The following thoughts were inspired by a discussion I had at work today, particularly on how we want to market our brand versus market our customer (who happens to be the "average" citizen).

If we think about "work" or large amounts of physical or mental energy dispensed on a focused task, we can imagine that it might involve the following to reach critical scale:
  1. A workforce;
  2. A communicative function;
  3. Some capital;
  4. The ability to transcend time; among other things.
Both individuals and institutions can have a workforce; the individual has him or her self and institutions have members or employees. Both individuals and institutions can have a communicative function; the individual has voice and and institution has the media. Both institutions and individuals can have capital as well. 

Considering this basic list, it seems the only difference between institutions and individuals is factor # 4 - the ability to transcend time. While individuals are limited by their life spans (and subsequently by the different abilities age provides as it comes), institutions can be passed from one individual to another.

Further questions arise though: What happens when an institution works contrary to the sustainability of workforces, communication and/or capital? (Would it still survive?) How do you measure the lifespan of institutions? Did institutions exist even before modern definitions of employment, communication, capital or even time? And finally, is there a 5th element of self criticism that needs to be considered here as well, or is it a conflict of interest for institutions to think of ending themselves?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Looking forward to it

In the last few years since I completed grad school, I have been thinking about why history seems more difficult to reminisce than the future is to look forward to.

But this Economist blogpost from the other day highlights some new research in this area.
"They used to think that time does not have a direction, at least at the subatomic level, though they now agree that it does. Ordinary people, of course, have always known this. Nearly all cultures have a version of the arrow of time, a process by which they move towards the future and away from the past. According to a paper to be published in Psychological Science this has an interesting psychological effect. A group of researchers, led by Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago, found that people judge the distance of events differently, depending on whether they are in the past or future." 
It's interesting how the psychology of time has been found to work similarly to the sound of moving objects. Events in times past seem "farther" than events in times to come. This raised a few questions for me:
  1. Does "Earthly time" differ from "mental time"?
  2. If there is a difference, what units are used for mental time?
  3. If mental time is directional, must it have a start and finish?
Coincidentally, I picked up Henry Corbin's Cyclical time and Ismaili Gnosis last night and started reading it. The beginning mentions this difference between time and Time. More on this later. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Rumi on grapes and wine

I was recently sent an extract of Rumi from a former teacher. According to a translation by Andrew Harvey, it goes something like this:

The grapes of my body can only become wine
After the winemaker tramples me.
I surrender my spirit like grapes to his trampling
So my inmost heart can blaze and dance with joy.
Although the grapes go on weeping blood and sobbing
"I cannot bear any more anguish, any more cruelty"
The trampler stuffs cotton in his ears: "I am not working in ignorance
You can deny me if you want, you have every excuse,
But it is I who am the Master of this Work.
And when through my Passion you reach Perfection,
You will never be done praising my name."

Thanks, KR.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Jobs in communication

Jobs in "communication" come in many forms. They may relate to B2C communications, B2B communications or internal business communications. These jobs also come with various titles, such as Public Relations Manager, Communications Officer or Strategic Communications Consultant.

In this brief blog-essay, I want to try to think about the scope of these jobs. What exactly are activities that people with expertise in communications are involved with? And to what degree is the expertise differentiated?

First, I will define "communication" for the sake of this essay as a process by which ideas are sent and received.

At a very basic level, one might imagine jobs in communications to involve three types of stakeholders: (1) Those who provide ideas, (2) those who process ideas and (3) those who communicate these ideas.

Type 1 stakeholders - those who provide ideas - seem to relate to people who are experts in other fields and provide knowledge that is to be communicated. So they could actually be anyone - from interns, to researchers, to managers - who contributes their experience because it matters to the good or service being provided.

Type 2 stakeholders - those who process ideas - seem to relate to people who design communication. They may be graphic experts, data scientists, financial analysts or creative writers who take a mess of ideas and compose them into something that makes sense. These people have an eye for what looks and sounds interesting.

Type 3 stakeholders - those who communicate ideas - seem to relate to those who have an eye for what people "out there" actually want to hear. This might sound like people in the second case, but people in the second case may be on the edge of the market, innovating new ways of understanding things. Here, in the case of people who speak the peoples' language, it is all about appealing to existing demand and tastes, no matter what the content of the message is.

Of course, all three types of stakeholders could exist in a single job description, from collecting content, designing the way it is to be presented, and presenting it. But these seem to spread across most roles involving communication.

One of the biggest loopholes I see in most communication jobs is the absence of receiving information, as defined above. In order to do well at communicating, communicators (especially in stakeholder type 3) need to be good listeners. Otherwise how would they (again, type 3 especially) know what is demanded, what is preferred, whether what they are about to say is even going to get any attention? In short, communication happens out in the open among clashing voices, not in a vacuum.

Now, where would communication be without language?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Serendipity

According to my favorite source of definitions:

Serendipity means a "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise"; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it.

I came across the word recently while trying to figure out a blog post title. It reminded me of a prayer I had once read that goes like this:

God grant me the serenity 
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can; 
and wisdom to know the difference. 
(Reinhold Niebuhr found here)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Neighborhood networks 4: Who

The essence of neighborhood networks lies in the people who send and receive information that the networks host. The "people" here refers to residents, business owners, community representatives and anyone else who has a stake in the well-being of people coming by the neighborhood.

The developers of the neighborhood network are arbitrary, so long as they are not directly involved with the information that is sent or received. The developers only play the role of facilitating the flow of information. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Neighborhood networks 3: Where

Of course, the information system would need to be sourced in the neighborhood it represents. Rather than having a central and physical go-to location, the system would need to be accessible to all involved - residents and businesses - such that they can update information at any time.

Then again, residents and businesses are likely to have different preferences. Some may prefer to update via the web, other via e-mail or phone or even in person. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Neighborhood networks 2: How

Hypothetically, a neighborhood network would consist of a flow of information to and from people who occupy it. The information system coordinating this flow might:

  • House residential and business directory information;
  • Enable residents and business owners to register, update or remove their details;
  • Encourage contributions from occupants themselves;
  • Provide businesses with value-added services, such as showcasing products;
  • Facilitate the physical movement of goods and services across the neighborhood;
  • Promote events targeting all neighborhood occupants;
  • Host discussions about infrastructural concerns of all occupants; and/or
  • Assist community-based organizations in mobilizing knowledge and human resources.
The information system could be based on:
  • Print media, ie: leaflets, newsletters, magazines, etc.
  • Visual media, ie: photo essays, videos, TV channels, etc.
  • Audio media, ie: CDs, podcasts, radio, etc.
  • All three, ie: a website. 
An iterative needs-assessment would also have to be built into the information system such that it is rated for usefulness by the occupants themselves for usefulness on a consistent basis. 


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Neighborhood networks 1: What and why

A neighborhood network, I speculate, consists of information flows between those who live, work and/or pass through in a particular neighborhood. 

Neighborhood networks can be useful because they can:
  1. Increase one's own general knowledge of surrounding people, businesses and events.
  2. Facilitate communication between demands and supplies.
  3. Create new avenues of marketing and promotion that yield loyal responses.
One potential reason why a neighborhood network would not be desirable is in the case of neighbors conducting activities that put each other at physical or mental risk. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Knowledge and action

Work that concerns social development seems to have gone from one extreme to another in the last 30 odd years.

We used to think that institutions knew what people needed and thus provided for these needs in the best possible way.

More recently, we seem to be thinking that people know their own needs best, and so to know how to provide for themselves given capabilities.

But the capabilities of one person are not the same for the next person and assuming this is an injustice. So, from a capability perspective, it appears more accurate (and humble) to say that nobody "knows" what the heck people need. Instead, learning about capabilities through observation, analysis and interpretation seems to be a better approach towards doing things that matter in peoples' lives

This is not to say that once a "solution" is observed, analyzed and interpreted, it will always apply. Human lives (preferences, tastes, moods, actions, etc) are contingent on different variables, so any solutions to development should be just as contingent

This should be continued. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Chinese whispers

He said that she said that you don't like the way we do things. Ergo, in order to improve what we are, you need to change so that she can tell him to tell me how it is.

Or you could just tell me and we can get this done.

Institutions, including profitable ones, are there to enable people, not to disable them. Their enabling and disabling factors should be governed by Governments. It's not as simple as that, but it can be. Just tell it is like it is, no bullshit.

Happy 2013, world :)