Sunday, August 26, 2012

Check out Flatland 2: Sphereland, now on DVD

Many of us have likely seen the movie Flatland and/or read the book back in high school. This is a classic book that tells the story of flatlanders, who live on a two-dimensional world, only to be visited by SPherius, who shows two mathematicians of Flatland the 3rd dimension.  It is such a creative way to present the concept of dimension to math students, and the movie has been shown to millions of students around the world.

A sequel to Flatland is now out, with Kristen Bell once again being the voice for the main character, Hex.  It continues the story to where flatlanders want to explore their 2-D universe, but a young mathematician's measurements show something strange - straight lines that are not straight, and triangles whose three angles add up to more than 180-degrees.  This is the basis to the geometry on 3-D surfaces, and this story provides a very good extension on the concepts used in the original Flatland movie.  The notion of a 4th and higher dimensions is brought up in Sphereland, which coincides with modern physics ideas of general relativity and string theory.  In addition, the idea of multiple universes (the so-called multiverse) is used in the story.  Again, this provides a very creative way to add visuals and a story to get students to think about these really strange, abstract ideas in math and physics.  There are also worksheets for many of the math and physics concepts on the Sphereland DVD (yours truly helped out with these).  Check out the Sphereland Facebook site for more news on this project.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thoughts on What it Takes to be Successful

The most recent book by Malcolm Gladwell, “Outliers: The Storyof Success,” has some interesting findings about those who reach levels of success that are out of the ordinary. 

One of the ideas I found most interesting is that we typically view successful people as those who have a ‘natural ability’ or talent within their field, and that they have achieved success and greatness because of that talent.   We say that about great singers and musicians, athletes, businessmen, scientists, and so on.  But when this is studied, an interesting conclusion is reached.  Almost never is there a case of someone who is considered an expert or master within their field who got there solely based on talent or ability.  Instead, it takes years of plain old hard work to reach great levels of success in just about any field.  What’s more, there is a threshold that is really prevalent in just about any field – 10,000 hours.  That is, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master something and reach a level of success that is considered to be ‘outlier’ status.  The Beatles, Mozart, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, and countless others did not simply arrive one day as one of the greatest in their respective fields.  Instead, the Beatles used to play 7 or 8 hours every night in clubs before anyone knew them as THE Beatles.  Mozart, although a child prodigy, did not compose anything of recognized greatness until he was in his late teens, with countless hours of playing and composing behind him.  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had about 10,000 hours of programming practice before they made their breakthroughs.  There are many ‘natural,’ gresat athletes, some of whom are better athletes than Jordan.  But no one worked harder or put more time in the gym than Jordan because he simply wanted it more than anyone else. 

But there is something that comes along with the 10,000 hours.  In many instances, such as Gates and Jobs, timing (i.e. pure luck of the draw) cannot be overlooked.  Gates and Jobs, if they were born a few years earlier, would have likely been in technology, but so far into a career that it would have been difficult to find the time or have the freedom to make the changes they had in mind.  Had they been born later, they would have missed the period of just 3-5 years where personal computing breakthroughs and access became a hot fad and everyone had to have one.  In other words, society has to be at a point where it is ready for your idea or product; otherwise, it will not have a chance to take off. 

Studies of IQ show that those who are of ‘genius’ stature on paper are not automatically guaranteed success in life.  And what is the biggest factor rather than the IQ value?  It is cultural upbringing and what the parents did for careers!  Now, these are highly correlated factors for anyone to attain success, but it also shows up for genius level IQs, too.

 In a classic project by Lewis Terman, he selected a pool of some 1400 childhood geniuses (called the 'Termites') based on IQ, using the assumption that high IQs was the driving factor for success.  But Terman then followed these students over many years, all the way through college and into their careers.  The findings for their success split almost exactly along the split of families that were middle class on up and low income families.  In middle and high income families, parents practice what Annette Larens calls ‘concerted cultivation.’  This is where parents are actively involved in their children’s lives and education, the homes are filled with books, a sense of entitlement is picked up by their children, and talents and interests of the children are pursued.  In lower income families, there is a different way of raising children she refers to as ‘natural growth.’  Parents provide basic needs of the children (food, clothing and shelter) but are largely absent from their children’s education and interests, there are few books, and parents rely on others to focus on specifics of their children’s needs – teachers are responsible for teaching, doctors are responsible for their health, and so on.  So the child is largely on their own as far as growth and finding their way in the world.  This is a feature of low income families, regardless of race.

This leads to an interesting suggestion for education.  What the findings in this book suggest is that it requires a full community to help low income children.  And, most importantly, THIS NEEDS TO BEGIN AT AS YOUNG AN AGE AS POSSIBLE.  The attitude of success, a sense of entitlement, being read to and having access to books, ensuring that students and parents are aware how the education system works and what opportunities are available, and so on, need to be part of the education system for young, poor children.  Parents are not doing this for most children who fall into this demographic, so the system must – if this does not happen, then we already know the results, which is effective failure for academic success of these kids.  To me, this sounds so similar to Hillary Clinton’s ‘It Takes a Village,” and in my experience it is true.  I have seen this work for Excite children where I work, and I have seen kids who make it to high school without any support – they are beaten emotionally, are far behind academically, see no chance of success that is related to anything academic, and are just putting in their required hours in school, with no opportunities as part of the picture.  It is largely too late for many teens, which is why we need to be doing this on a regular, massive basis in elementary schools.

There will be more to come on some of this.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Semantics of the ‘Did you or Did you not Create your Business’ Debate

The silliness of the presidential campaign season is in full gear.  Not much substance in August, as the two campaigns need to do anything in their power to focus on negatives of the other side.  One of the topics under debate, if you want to call it a true debate – probably a war of words is more accurate – is built around a comment made by Pres. Obama, to the effect that someone who has a successful business did not do it entirely by themselves.  Gov. Romney and his surrogates make it a point at any speech or interview to make the comment that the Republicans DO think that that same business owner did create his or her business on their own. 

Both sides are correct, but of course cannot simply go on to provide the details that show both are correct because both want the issue. 

Did Bill Gates come up with Microsoft on his own?   Well, in the sense that he co-founder Paul Allen developed the idea for a software company that would have a graphics-based operating system to do the same and much more than the old DOS system, absolutely.  It was their ideas that led to the formation of the concept of the company.  Romney and the Republicans have a check in their column.

However, I believe the point the President is trying to make, and he and his surrogates make this point at all their speeches, is that forming a company that is successful absolutely takes the countless hours of hard work from the founder, but is not at all possible without help along the way.  Gates, for instance, would not be where he is without the teachers at his school that allowed him to use one of the few personal computers available in the vicinity for countless hours.  To get a company going almost always involves the assistance of the banks to get the loans and seed money, or family and friends to help put pieces in place.  One can get extremely detailed with the ‘village’ view, where it takes all the public infrastructure like roads and bridges and airports and shipping services to get your product to market, and the public school system that allows an educated work force from which to hire your employees, and all the other companies and stores and employers of the world that provide jobs to the masses so you have customers to be able to afford your product, and so on.  It truly does require a community with MANY parts in order for any business to start up and succeed over time.

In the end, ideas and concepts for products and services aredeveloped in many different ways, by individuals and small groups of individuals.  It does take that willingness to take on often truly staggering risks for an individual to put everything on the line and invest the time, effort, money and other capital into the project of developing a company.  Many do have wonderful ideas, but cannot take that step into a risk of losing possibly everything, so kudos galore to those who can and do take that giant step into the unknown!  They deserve to reap the benefits should that idea and company take off…capitalism at its finest.  But there is also truth to the fact that one cannot sell a product or service if there are no potential customers or ways of getting the product to those potential customers.  This is where the ‘it takes a village or community’ mindset comes in.  This is the ‘big picture’ view of success. 

So BOTH are right!  Can we please just move on and get to the main issues that Americans are worrying about???