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Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.

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Archive for July, 2010

The rules came later

Have you ever noticed how the way you learned your first language was different from the way you learned your second language?

Chances are, you were taught your first language through repetition of simple exercises to build your intuition through pattern recognition. Your second language was probably taught by teaching you the governing rules (e.g. grammar, spelling) and applying them to various different cases.

The reason is simple. When you learned your first language, you were three or four, well before developing complex analytical skills. Your second language was probably taught to you when you were thirteen or fourteen, well after developing rudimentary analytical skills.

We like to think of language as a science, something that follows a specific set of rules that can be applied over and over. However, language didn’t develop with rules. They developed over centuries of use, transformation, and culture. All the irrationalities that you find are what makes up the language, not the exceptions.

The issue with teaching language as a science is that language is really a skill, similar to sports or art; theory will only get you so far. Instead, what are required are practice, repetition, and intuition building. Those are rarely best taught in classrooms. Instead, it takes a full immersion into the context of the language.

I’m sure what I write here is not unique, and there are educationalists out there taking on the same issues and trying to redesign language education. I sense that the heavy focus on the analytical skills of a language is partially driven by the fact that grammar and spelling is much easier to measure than oral fluency. I’m not advocating getting rid of grammar and spelling in language education but a shift in balance. If I were to design a language class, I would focus it mostly around field trips (assuming I’m teaching the language in a country where it’s spoken) and role plays.

I wonder how the CIA teaches languages.

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Change the world or change yourself

If you’re unhappy with the world, change the world or change yourself. The latter is much easier to accomplish.

And the world doesn’t just refer to the entire world, but everything and anything that’s around you. The boss that never appreciates your work, the government that taxes more than half your income, or even your significant other for whom you can never be perfect.

As designers, we are trained to create change, change in people’s behavior, how a company operates, or the society at large. However, the easiest and hardest change to make might be our perception of the world itself.

How do you do this? Designing the things around you? Designing the context you exist in? Designing everything that influences you?

If your ultimate goal is to change the world, you might be torturing yourself. But then can you be happy just by changing yourself?

Maybe. Probably.

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Diving into the deep end comfortably

Is it even possible?

Recently, my friend Bernhard tweeted this wonderful quote of questionable origin: “Good judgement comes from experience, and experience – well that comes from poor judgement.”

In our design community, we have the mantra “Fail early and fail often, so you can succeed earlier.”

A professor in the field of education once told me that the only time you really learn is when you make a mistake and are corrected.

We place so much emphasis on success that we often forget the valuable failures that led us there.

So how do we become comfortable with failing?

  1. There needs to be an environment that is accepting of failure. Schools are usually better environments for failing than companies, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. W. L. Gore  & Associates, one of the most innovative companies that almost no one has heard of, celebrates failure by throwing a company party every time a project gets killed.
  2. This may sound meta, but to become comfortable with failing, one has to fail, a lot. Once you realize that everything went wrong, yet you still have a job, your belongings, or your life, you understand that it’s not that bad
  3. In order to become comfortable with failing, we also need to see a lot of failures and realize that it’s only normal. One issue with the success-biased society in which we live is that failures often go unnoticed, presenting this false sense of reality that most things in life succeed. That is simply not the case, and everyone needs to see that failures are more common than successes. For example, look at the TechCrunch DeadPool for a list of failed start-ups.

While I often write about design and innovation, I believe that this applies to a much greater scope. What did you fail at today? What will you fail at tomorrow?

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From the 15 second experience to the 3 second experience

To be honest, I picked the numbers arbitrarily to demonstrate a point.

Apple was not the first company to offer apps on their phones. Many phones, both dumb and smart had the capability to download, install, and operate both first-party and third-party apps. They simply didn’t take off. Why is that?

Because it took (roughly) 15 seconds and seven button clicks to launch the application.

What Apple did that was impressive is not rolling out the market place for apps (been done before) but to make the app experience as pleasant as possible. Before the iPhone, using apps on most phones were too annoying for most people to cope with, and they were only being used by extreme users who were willing to live with the shortcomings. Once Apple dropped the level of annoyance to below the bar of mass adoption, apps took off, similar to how certain technology-based products hit mass adoption once the price drops below a certain point.

This is also why I think Apple waited to roll out GPS on the iPhone until AGPS was available. If they wanted to install the GPS feature on the original iPhone, they could have by installing a chip and writing thousand lines of code. Instead, they decided to wait until AGPS was available making sure that the GPS feature was actually usable (most GPS systems takes a while to identify its location and then consistently tracks the satellites, not a viable option for low powered devices like the iPhone).

Augmented reality, now becoming more and more popular, is currently stuck in the 15 second experience. It takes way too long between the time you pick up the phone to the time you are looking at the virtual information layer on top of reality. Once augmented reality becomes a 3 second experience, I believe that it will become widely adopted, but we are still one or two technological breakthroughs away. Meanwhile, the early adopters will cherish it and the geeks will keep implementing it, but most people will be too annoyed to use it consistently.

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Taking liberties with science

I caught this article on my Facebook newsfeed.

New York Tops Most Photographed Cities In The World:

A new study has named New York the most photographed city in the world.

Using a supercomputer to analyze over 35 million Flickr photos by more than 300,000 photographers, researchers at Cornell University not only determined the top 25 most photographed cities, but their top landmarks as well.

Most readers and the writers should realize that the city most represented on Flickr is not the city most photographed in the world. Instead, it is the city with the most photographs uploaded to Flickr by users of Flickr. There are several issues with this article:

Journalists feel the need to embellish scientific studies and conclusions in order to sensationalize their stories while sacrificing some of the truth. I believe, or would like to believe, that the Huffington Post author really did not believe that the study conclusively declared New York as the most photographed city in the world.

Some readers will inevitably believe the Huffington Post author and further spread the misinformation during cafe conversations and cocktail parties. It’s hard to predict what percentage of the readers are naive enough to believe without questioning, but it’s probably more than negligible.

This example of the most photographed city in the world is rather pronounced and non-sinister case of what happens on a daily basis. Newspapers and magazine articles quote scientific papers all the time, and you can imagine that not all of them retransmit the studies and conclusions accurately. You can also imagine how dangerous this miscommunication can be when the topics are more sensitive, such as environmental, race, or gender issues.

As a society, if we really want  to take advantage of the amazing discoveries science is making, we need to tackle some serious challenges:

News media, when evaluated and rewarded solely by the attention it can gather, will always feel the pressure to sensationalize whatever material it comes across. The issue is inherent not just in scientific writing but throughout all of journalism in both the choice of what to communicate and how to communicate.

Scientists, when evaluated and rewarded solely by publishing in top scientific journals, will always write in accurate but drab academic language. This is less of an issue when the study is only relevant to a select audience (i.e. ultraviolet optics) than when the study should be of interest to a larger audience (i.e. effects of the internet on family lives).

There are some non-profit writers (bloggers) who are doing some wonderful work translating academese into plain English suitable for the general public. Not exactly rocket science recently won the first ever Research Blog of the Year. I also skim the BPS Research Digest blog which focuses more on psychology issues. I’m still looking for a good blog that covers research in design, innovation, and teamwork.

Some academics do venture beyond the realm of scholarly journals and publish books. Sometimes, they write in plain English, and sometimes, the material is interesting enough for the general public making the book a best seller. Then there are authors like Malcolm Gladwell who compile various academic papers and interviews to weave stories around some common theme.

It’s promising to see such new and diverse ways of communicating scientific research to the general public, but I fear that they are still niche compared to main stream news and magazine coverage. To fundamentally change how we incorporate science into our lives, we have to start from the root of the problem: education of science. If we want better delivery of scientific content, we need a better audience as well.

Looking back at my education, I’ve realized that most modern education systems in the developed world focus on teaching scientific principles rather than the creation of such principles and the understanding of science itself. High school Biology, Chemistry, and Physics is focused entirely around the memorization and application of existing scientific principles. While I believe that those classes are essential in teaching analytical thinking, I think we can teach more than just the principles themselves.

Every student in university should read several academic papers to better understand how knowledge and theory is created from past work and new experiments. Every student should also write at least one academic paper, even if it is created around mock experiments or data. Also, every student should know more about the social sciences and how tools such as surveys and statistical significance are used to induce theories and conclusions.

I believe that what we are missing is not the creation of new scientific knowledge but the lack of people who understand and operate with such new found knowledge. We’ve made amazing leaps in the application of hard sciences, where only a select few need to understand the in-depth principles in order to create high-tech products like digital cameras and cell phones. However, we have yet to make much advancement in the application of the social sciences, where the general population needs to understand and operate with the knowledge as well as the politicians that they elect.

If the last few centuries from the scientific revolution through the industrial revolution was about understanding and manipulating the physical world for more production of survival resources, I hope the future will be about understanding and modifying the social world for the betterment of our lives.

As for the most photographed city in the world, I would have to bet on Tokyo with thirty million citizens, most of them toting camera phones. This would be hard to prove since most Japanese people don’t share their photos to the general public.

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