Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Archive for July, 2011

Seven year mystery solved

Seven years ago, I visited Frankfurt at the tail end of my (mostly) Eastern Europe backpacking trip. Back then, I didn’t think highly of Frankfurt, placing it at the bottom of my seventeen city ranking. Never did I imagine that I would be living here seven years later and discovering nice neighborhoods and local watering holes which I missed entirely during my two-day visit.

Back in 2004, I came across a restaurant that peaked my interest, an Indian-Italian Restaurant. I wrote on my old blog:

“Indian-Italian Restaurant”

Possibly one of the most bizarre combination of cuisine. I didnt check the menu but I wonder if you could get Curry Spaghetti or Nan alla Marinara.

This weekend I finally ate at the restaurant which offered both authentic Italian and Indian cuisines on a menu that’s over a dozen pages long. However, I only identified one hybrid dish which was chicken mango curry pizza. Besides that, the menu was strictly Italian or Indian.

I asked the waiter why the restaurant offered both cuisines and the answer was rather simple. The chef, who is Indian, trained for ten years at an Italian restaurant, so when he decided to start his own restaurant, he chose to offer both.

The truth can be rather straight forward sometimes.








ピータードラッカーが百年以上前に論じた “Creative Destruction” は商品、企業、産業に適する論だったがこのごろ人間もそうだなと考え始めた。現場ではもうとっくに若い社員に第一線を譲ってを勇退したがそろそろこの世の中も次の世代に譲る時期かな?




Beyond Poka-yoke (ポカよけ)

Poka-yoke is a Japanese design principle that loosely translates to avoiding stupidity. The closest English equivalent is fool-proofing, and it was developed with regards to manufacturing but is now applied much more widely.

Poka-yoke is everywhere in our daily lives. Does your key fit in the keyhole in only one way, the correct way? That’s Poka-yoke. Does your hotpot turn off once the water is boiling so you don’t boil off excess water? That’s Poka-yoke. Does your car lock the shifter so you can’t shift into reverse while driving down the highway? That’s Poka-yoke.

The principle behind Poka-yoke is simple. The easiest (often the only) way of doing something is the right way. I think this principle needs to be taken beyond just products to larger social challenges and focused on not only the right way but also the good way or the best way.

Why is it that eating healthily is so difficult? That junk food is cheaper and more heavily marketed than fruits or vegetables? How could eating be designed in such a way that it would actually be difficult to eat poorly?

Why does schooling have to be boring? How can learning be designed in such a way that students would actually want to learn instead of playing video games or joining gangs? (I should point out that there is a strong movement now to bring gaming mechanics and new modes of motivation to education)

Lastly, how can we design our society such that being nice is the easiest way of being?

Many of these kinds of challenges exist in the realm of wicked problems and complex systems although solutions could be simple (but not simplistic). Solutions could be the design of products, services, the combination of the two, or even laws, but we need to see human motivation beyond the overly simplified carrots and sticks.

Some examples:

In the U.S., Association of American Feed Control Officials created a labeling system for dog foods where dog foods labelled “complete and balanced” must include all the vital nutrients for a dog so that if that was the only thing the dog ate, it would be healthy. Ironically, it’s easier to feed dogs more healthily than humans.

For something more serious, over 60 years ago in the US, scientists were trying to battle tooth decay, especially in children and were debating how to administer fluoride, an effective prevention. In the end, instead of running awareness campaigns or creating toothpaste standards, they added fluoride to the public water system, effectively administering fluoride to all children who drink tap water. We’re fighting cavities without even knowing it.


Let’s get rid of grades

Note: I wrote this over a year ago but didn’t feel comfortable publishing it when I was in a teaching role. Now that I’ve moved on, here it is.

Students are grade optimizing machines. Think back to your college days. Did you ask your roommate or friend about easy classes to take to fulfill some requirement? Did you ask which professors graded easier or gave the least amount of work? Did you shop for classes with the least amount of reading or shortest syllabus?

If you consider higher education to be the platform for satisfying one’s intellectual curiosity and furthering personal development, than you can imagine how grades can have a negative impact on this goal. The motion of going through learning is different from, and much less meaningful than learning itself.

Why do we even have grades?

Grades as motivators

Simply put, good grades are carrots to motivate good work, and bad grades are sticks to punish bad work. Are carrots and sticks good motivators? Hardly. Social Scientists has shown over and over that carrots and sticks are terrible motivators for most non-remedial work (i.e. learning, design, project management). Daniel Pink calls this one of the most robust findings in social sciences and the most ignored in business. He proposes an alternative set of motivators: autonomy, mastery, and sense of purpose. Sounds too Utopian? Judge for yourself:

In general, I’ve found workshop participants, people who come to learn the material, much more engaged than students in a class, many of whom are just going through the motions. Students with the best output work without caring about grades, and they often end up with the best grades. The class I taught does a wonderful job at providing a sense of mission (real world projects) with a meaningful budget (five digits in dollars) and an extremely engaging community of students, instructors, coaches, and alumni.

Grades as feedback

Grades serve another function of providing feedback to the students. However, one alphabet or number is rarely a meaningful feedback. Instead, a short sentence or paragraph can transmit both tone and content, which can communicate not only the perceived quality of the work but also suggestions for improvement. Just using grades is simply lazy.

Grades as evaluators

This is the toughest barrier to implementing the no grades plan. As a society, we’ve come to expect external evaluations of people, even if it is a nearly meaningless number or letter. We need a better system for evaluating people so that we don’t focus and optimize around the wrong parameters. However, for now, students who have no grades will be at a disadvantage because graduate schools and HR managers will have no idea how to classify them for admission or employment. This is why only the best universities could execute something like this as acceptance to those universities is already an evaluation in itself.

I am not proposing this idea for basic education (i.e. primary school, middle school, high school). There, we still need motivators to have students repetitively practice remedial topics like math and grammar, and we still need evaluators to measure the mastery of certain topics (but we need to stop using grades as proxy for hard work or intelligence). However, in institutions of higher learning like universities and graduate schools, we should stop using grades to prevent distracting ourselves from the real goal: learning.


Adventure Next

A blogging-less month caused not only by general busyness but a life-altering job-changing move to Frankfurt, Germany from Paris. I’ll share the details in due time.

My life has gotten increasingly unpredictable since that one day my visa application was rejected because of a misplaced checkmark.

This life clearly wasn’t by design, but I’m still trying to design it.



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