Monthly Archives: November 2012

#22: Twice a Week Means Twice a Week (Only)

I realize that I haven’t made a post for a week now, but I technically still haven’t broken the “two posts a week” rule. But for this post, I will confront that rule. That rule may make me write down posts, but it’s hard to be sure if these posts are of high quality.

Just like school grades. Just because you get an A or a 95 doesn’t mean that you have gotten the learning that you deserve. It may mean a host of other factors: that you have been too much of a stickler-for-rules such that you did what was asked of you without trying out other tasks; the teacher may have been lenient, that you copied a smart-aleck’s answers off every test, and so on. Just like in managerial settings as well. Just because you reach your profit targets for this month doesn’t mean much except that you have lots of money in your hands. It doesn’t say anything about the quality of work, the personalities of the workers, or how you got that money. (Your income, frankly, doesn’t say anything about your life except your income, although people around you may have arranged your life in such a way that your income is a direct cause of a whole bunch of other things that transcendentally should have nothing to do with it, such as happiness or education.)

Targets don’t say anything much about anything else, but we act as if they’re about lots of things.

That’s why I’m close to disregarding the two-posts-a-week rule. You may have public commitment for you to mind your blog, which isn’t really necessary if you’re not pandering to a specific audience and if you’re only sharpening the way you write, blowing off steams of knowledge or experience, or just exploring writing. You may treat it as a reminder that most of writing is tiring, so you better get used to it by exercising. But if you treat writing this way, then all you get is exhaustion every time you write, not satisfactory passages.

Two posts a week, honestly, doesn’t mean much beyond the fact that you can write two posts a week. Post quality is another matter altogether. Or consider this analogy – just because a TV show promises to show itself up every Monday and Saturday doesn’t mean that the show is fine to watch as well.

But at least let me tell you what I do when I’m not writing. I’m thinking. I’m absorbing data from the environment and from reading, synthesizing them into bountiful packages, and releasing them into words. They may not be on this blog, but at least the words exist. That won’t hurt – what use is it to write about what you only dimly know? Know something first before writing. And when you know enough, write, even if it be once a day or twice every year.

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#22: Sports from Household Items

This week’s latest post, like one of my recent posts, is a Creativity assignment for Venture Lab’s A Crash Course in Creativity class. May you enjoy reading and may you get stimulated enough to think of household sports of your own, short of throwing plates to each other.

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#21: Statistical Sense-Making: Playing “The Numbers Game” (A Philippine Star Article)

This short piece began as a 500-word book review assignment for an online course Writing in the Sciences. Then. after some revisions, I raised the word count to a little more than a thousand. I thought that time: because I had 500 words already, why not chip in about 500 more and take a shot? And this is the result of my earnest effort emanating from a split-second resolve to write. This was published last Sunday, on The Philippine Star, at the Sunday Lifestyle Section.

This is the article: Playing ‘The Numbers Game’. I reviewed this book:

This book kept my thinking going even while on dizzying cab rides and steamy jeepney commutes. That there are no formulas and almost no technical terms in this book – except of course the perennial mean, median, mode, which aren’t really technical but which I believe absent (statistically!) in the working vocabulary of Filipinos. So I’d recommend this book to anyone who has time to spare and want to go to the essence of basic Statistics without having to contend with numbers and symbols, but I bought this from the SALE section of a National Bookstore (in Harrison Plaza) and from all my other visits at other branches I think no customer will sniff out this book for a long time – not maybe in five years.

Here is the article, so read on.

There are questions and questions about numbers. How did we arrive at the “average income” the popular media always trumpets? Is a positive medical test result a good indicator for having a disease? How can we make sense of international rankings in soccer, health, and education?

With data bombarding us every moment of our waking lives, we urgently need a book that can explain the nuances of statistics to the layperson. The book The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot grants us the mental agility to analyze everyday numbers and penetrate their significance.

The statistical enlightenment that the two authors brings us is amazing, despite the fact that neither are professional statisticians. Blastland, a broadcaster, created “More or Less”, a BBC radio show that became a pop hit in the United Kingdom because of its no-nonsense exposition of statistical foibles in the media. Dilnot, a principal of a college in Oxford, was once the show’s host and a fiscal officer.

Fear nothing; the book’s presentation is far from that being done in a traditional statistics class. Expect no statistical formulas in the book – it aims for clarity above technical precision. Even statistics classrooms can benefit from numerous examples and lively explanations.

Once you have set fear aside, expect surprise at statistical facts you may have heard before but without any clue on what they really meant. Note the subtlety in the language often used to express statistics. The book gives you the mental toughness to carefully read numerical findings in the media, between the lines, while deciphering what’s not really there.

For instance, you may have heard already that if you frequently use a mobile phone, your risk of getting brain cancer will double. Taken aback? In the book’s section “Risk”, once you know the proper context behind the risk increase, which is from 1/100,000 to 2/100,000 (a measly increase), you will have nothing to worry about.

Another example, from the “Shock Figures” section, alarms you by stating that the global warming temperature increase can be “up to 11 degrees Celsius”, until you know later that the average increase is just 4 degrees Celsius, a less jarring but more representative finding.

Still another, from the “Causation” section, where you will find out that a direct relationship between hand size and reading ability exists (so if I have extra fingers, I can read better?). But not because bigger hands enhance reading ability – it’s because as you age, both increase.

The lessons learned will stick for a lifetime, and you will feel that your mind gets “reconfigured” after reading. No longer will you accept numbers at their face values; you will begin demanding more information on how those numbers came to be. No more you will be dazed – or intimidated – by official claims; you can start seeing through them for what they really are, and not for what they are cloaked on.

As Blastland and Dilnot state in the Introduction to the book’s United States edition: “The alignment of power and abuse is not unique to numbers, but it is just possible that it could be uniquely challenged, and the powerless becomes powerful.” Let’s admit it; this book implicitly explains how to exploit others with numbers (while giving us the needed ammunition for a counterattack), but you won’t feel inclined to do so. In your quest for steadfastness in dealing with data, you will also want other folks to be vigilant too.

We can go beyond classifying the book as a common reader’s average statistics book. It is also a book of clear thinking. It teaches the fine art of definition. What does “bullying” mean? What does being “unemployed” mean? If we say that some number is a “big” number, what does the “big” mean? It demands that we be critical because the explanation of any finding frequently conceals something. How many samples are there? How are the data obtained? Are there other variables that can affect the relationship between any two given qualities? It allows us to practice a querulous mindset – it makes us see numbers with question marks at their end, with the invitation to probe them further.

The Numbers Game is an easy read. You can finish it in one sitting if you want to – thus making it ideal as a bedside book that can make us all sleep with clear heads and wake up with sharp eyes. Reading it is a deserved respite to the barrage of data all around us. At the very least you’ll be able to answer with candidness the “relevance question”, so often asked in Mathematics classrooms but so often ending there too: “What is the relevance of Math in our daily lives?”

The vista of settings described in the book – from hospitals to highways to workplaces – is more than enough as an answer. Whatever the questions you feel provoked to ask about the data in the book, you will also make a habit to frequently ask when dealing with numbers in local situations: political survey results, school grades, children’s allowance, and salaries, to name a few. They mean more than you think. Probing their deeper meanings brings Math close to your doorstep

In general, we learn how to detect our knowledge gaps about numbers – thus making us powerful in what we know, humble in what we don’t know, active in filling the gaps up, and able to help others make sense of their own numerical realities.

Thought-widening, grand, and clear, The Numbers Game will leave an indelible mark on its readers’ view on all sorts of numbers. In most fields of endeavor, and in the TV and Internet, statistics is an often-used currency of communication today. To be credible, one almost always needs to back up serious claims with facts and figures. Numbers are clear-cut from the outset; according to the authors, they’re “tidy; life isn’t”. But the vast number of numbers creates a sea, and in the midst of that reality the last thing we want to happen is for that sea to drown us.

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#20: Taking Its Toll

Since I began this blog I felt as if I am under internal compulsion to write something. This is mainly due to the two-posts-a-week commitment that I made (well, I narrowly missed the deadline last week, but it was OK as I was occupying my mind back then by learning new stuff online). An implicit premise for my activity is that I write about assorted topics, or I write about a topic that I may have dealt with before but with new twists. After all, as I said before, ’tis better to write something than to write nothing. Let’s call that Rule #0: the rule that separates a writer from a non-writer, and from those pseudo-writers who clutter their heads with ideas from coast to coast, without writing, just like pouring water into a pitcher and then never drinking from it at all.

This self-determined compulsion to write takes its toll in the midst of swarms of other routines on my schedule. However, this has a positive virtue, at least. It requires me to have something to write about, so I have to pay attention to the outside world every time. Everything around has to be a ready subject for exposition, analysis, synthesis, or just plain contemplation. If nothing outdoors seems fitting to write about, then there are always the inner workings of my mind, or anyone else’s mind. There’s my blog – or any random Internet article or any hitherto unread book. Anyway, I have to write or else my commitment takes a blow and a rift opens allowing a discordant voice to strike me (“Hey, isn’t it that you broke your rule last time? What’s wrong with breaking one again, if it needs be?”)

If it needs be – we frame all rationalizations as needs, and in the end the distinction between them disappears. For instance, we fancy a car that we can’t afford, but sometimes we buy it on the grounds that our work requires us to wander from place to place, that everyone else in our field of work has a car, because commuting is tiring, and so on, without assessing whether these are the real reasons. As long as they linger in our heads, there is the danger that these bogus reasons may evolve into real reasons – and we may pass them to the next generation, thereby perpetuating errors. Thus it is imperative to block all back alleys for rationalizations to penetrate our ears. We have tips for resisting temptation, but it’s quite hard to counterattack rationalizations.

There’s an additional bonus that forcing myself to write can give. What if everything looks dreary – as if peering at anything outside can make you more bored than you are right now? What if the sight of blank paper or a blank Notepad page, far from instilling a motivational sense of dread, despair, sadness, angst, fury, or fright at the nothingness in front of you – emotions that can drive you to clear out the white from any field where words and signs should be – what if the sight of blankness makes you fall asleep instead? In this extreme case, the problem isn’t my senses; the problem may be the current social, economic, political, or educational systems that bore people and then provide us with a shell to withstand the boredom, all without helping us find out why boredom has to be there, and suppressing our native childlike ability to ask why such is the case and what if another case is possible all the while.

Writing helps us clear our thinking to realize all these. Remember these two asking prompts for all time: “Why?” and “What if?” “Why” stimulates precise thought while “What if” gives a wide berth to imagination, and both are effective against general stultification bombarding us all over the place and the willing but uncritical obedience so characteristic of the way most adults – and most of their children – live with today. Who knows, most of your creative ventures will revolve around these two questions.

If all we have are a bunch of dull ideas and perceptions, then there are two simple tricks that can ease the boredom and may actually help generate useful ideas. One is to think of the opposite – a “What If?” variant. “What if I assume that the opposite of an idea is true?” The opposite need not be an antonym; something starkly different is enough. The minimal logic behind this is that the opposite of dullness is richness, so we will do well to train our minds to consider opposites. The second is to combine any number of ideas to form new ones, and then think about the newly formed ideas. If thinking about a pencil bores you, think of a pencil with wheels. Ridiculous, but if it helps you think better, then so be it.

To stay in action you have to be in action. A tautology, but true nevertheless.

In passing, I want to say something about a possible congruence between the notion of “writing something is better than writing nothing” and the “puwede na iyan” mentality, a thought process common for Filipinos who want to take a break after finishing something instead of improving a concept in increments. The two notions are different. “Writing something is better than writing nothing” serves as an idea-cooker; it’s more like writing in a journal to keep you practiced and to keep you loaded with ideas that may be useful for any future writing project. In that case, there’s no “puwede na iyan” involved because there is constant improvement, unless you find out that you write badly but take no steps to improving the way you think and scribble. “Puwede na iyan” suggests a definite stop, an aversion to “What if?” thoughts about the future; in contrast, our notion of writing just to fill blanks, while fine in itself, clearly has future value.

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#19: Practice Teaching Questions

Next week, I will begin my student teaching at a high school, a time when students take on a multiplicity of roles and may have to choose which ones to adapt and to reject. The numerous variables interacting inside a classroom can make the typical layman – who is often never inside a classroom – wonder: How can learning take place in such a place? Dealing with 30+ people at once and with a teacher who also serves as an adjudicator (not yet a peer) can seem daunting, but not for me.

Moreover, I’ve always been fascinated in how people’s minds tick ever since I graduated, and what better way to explore that than inside a classroom where everything is within plain view of anyone else?

I want to infuse the habit of questioning onto my students; the last thing I want for them is for someone else to take the rudder on their learning, whether for the noble goal of learning what they have to if they are to survive in today’s occupational and social landscape, or whether for manipulating the students’ learning for their own ends or for someone else’s will which the students won’t consent to if they knew what was going on the whole time

The best way that I have in my hands, and an affordable one, is to teach children the lesson along with questioning habits that will enable them to link their lesson with the real world. And if they don’t find any connection, that’s okay too; at least they can have the knowledge stuffed in their mind for further contemplation or if there is really no connection, then they can encourage schools to chuck out the lesson the moment they start raising children

Now, as I do my practice teaching, here are questions that I want running in my mind. You’ll notice that one question may logically precede another, so this can really keep you busy. I will stop each chain to three questions, to save space, although the chains might well as be perpetual:

1. What am I teaching? Should I teach this stuff, if at all? Why am I teaching this stuff?

2. Do the students find value in what I am teaching? Do I myself find value in what I am teaching? What values do we derive?

3. How am I teaching? Is there a better way to teach a certain lesson, after I taught it? How can I adapt my teaching methods to the cultural backgrounds of the students so that all of us are comfortable with the teaching?

4. What are my students doing during their spare time? What is the extent of my influence toward their spare time? And how should I influence the way they spend their spare time, or should I wholly stay out of it?

5. How should I deal with the other teachers and other school personnel? What can I learn from them and what can they learn from me? And how can I help them in every way I can?

Notice that they are very generic. Many more questions can sprout, depending on the circumstances. Some of them may increase or decrease in relevancy. But it’s better to keep your mind working rather than churning out the same run-on-the-mill education that students often receive. It’s better to challenge yourself when teaching – and to challenge the underlying precepts of work – rather than stagnate and regret that you should have done 20 years earlier what you want to do today.

Finally, the questioning habit is contagious, more so for people who want to retain or renew their childlike curiosities.

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#18: Booksale Observations

For my latest post this week I won’t make a conventional post. Rather, I will just post my assignment answers for an online course A Crash Course on Creativity at Venture-Lab. Enjoy, and may the book-buying bug sting you and make you more observant and reflective.

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#17: On English Teachers and Writing, Speed Drafts, Creation, and Perception

Dr. Isagani Cruz, a Palanca Hall of Famer and a renowned educator, remarked once that English teachers very rarely write books (unless they are textbooks). He stated the need for meticulousness as the chief reason. English teachers, according to him, have a boatload of grammar rules in their heads. In the rare instances they do begin to write, questions like “Is it more appropriate to use a semicolon compared to a comma in this instance?” or “Should this paragraph come before or after the next, or should it be knocked off entirely?” take precedence over “What else can I add to what I’m writing?”

Even if they have the requisite ideas and are flexible enough in changing from teaching gear to writing gear, their training prompts them think longer than necessary when writing, so they almost always lag over their projects. That’s only a general impression I have, though. But given the dearth of Filipino writers nowadays, I believe that young Filipinos will finally love writing once they see English teachers love writing and actually do some writing themselves.

***

So here in this blog, to avoid over-thinking technicalities, I am free to pen down ideas without considering whether they hang together or not. No stopping. I will just make them hang together when some major project involving writing arrives (which may or may not come). I will fill this blog with nothing more than first drafts, from now on. Never mind the grammar; the goal is to solidify and develop any given idea into a medium before it dashes away irretrievably from my mind.

What I have to do for every post is to concentrate upon a single idea for a protracted amount of time (which in our attention standard is 10 minutes or more), while stopping only for short breaks as needed to replenish my senses and thoughts. With stimuli thrown all over us while we sit or lie awake, solid concentration is becoming rare, but such is the art needed most when writing. When you have an idea for writing, you can brainstorm with yourself for ideas to write about, but in the end you have to take a single one and take it as far as you want to go.

***

Also, the goal here for my blogging is to stimulate creation and perception. Are they innate or can they be practiced? It’s often insensible to decide which actually the case is. But one can bet on either and live with it. If I think that both creativity and stark perception are inborn, then there is certainly no need for me to develop new ways to recombine ideas in my head or to find them out there in the wilds. That sort of thinking can lead to laziness.

So I am going to bet on the other: that both can be developed. The notion that the more you do something, the better you become at it, is already a truism; its clearest and most popular exposition in literature is the “10,000 hour” rule by Malcolm Gladwell. The two are also complementary in my view. Creation aids perception, because what you create is something new that can refresh your senses from commonplace things, and as the need for you to create strengthens, your senses will suddenly itch for stuff to observe, so even mundane matters turn to opportunities. Perception also aids creation by providing your mind with raw materials from the outside world which your creativity will then process.

Betting that both creation and perception can be strengthened, moreover, removes all cheap rationalizations for shirking off writing or putting off thinking. That also keeps me going in numerous directions so I wouldn’t be as resentful as someone else whose mind gets stuck in one-way traffic and then blames the world for it.

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