Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Election 2012: A Tale of Two Americas

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Like everyone else who hasn’t been hiding under a rock for the past decade, I am familiar with the many issues which divide us – gay rights, abortion, taxes, healthcare, etc. etc.

However, while watching the presidential election coverage on CNN last night, I was struck by the more fundamental aspects of division that exist among us.

We are divided by where we live – rural America or urban America. Obama captured the vote in almost all the urban areas across the country (even in the red states) while Romney captured the vote in almost all the rural areas (even in blue states).

We are divided by who we are – white heterosexual males or not. Gay whites, women and non-whites went for Obama big time while white heterosexual males went overwhelmingly for Romney.

We are divided by how we dress – casually or formally. The folks at the Obama campaign headquarters were a colorfully dressed rag tag bunch while the folks at the Romney campaign headquarters were looking prim and proper in their pinstripe suits.

It does seem like some of us are clinging desperately to a past – where many lived off the land, white males were running the show and restrictive dress conventions were the norm.

Until everyone of us catches up and starts to live in the present, we’re going to continue to struggle to build a great future …

The future of education

Saturday, May 26th, 2007

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to observe firsthand what I believe to be the future of education.

I had accompanied my daughter and her class of fifth graders on a day long field trip to the Chabot Space & Science center. The kids had a fairly packed agenda, but the centerpiece of attention was a 2 1/2 hour session titled “Mars Mission”. The “Mars Mission” turned out to be a simulated exercise set in the year 2076 where the kids had to land a spacecraft on Mars and do a crew exchange (get a fresh crew to man the Mars control center and get the current crew back to Earth).

A few days before going on the trip, the kids had all applied for various jobs on the mission (Navigator, Data Specialist, Communications Specialist, Medical Specialist, Isolation Specialist, etc) and had all received some preliminary training related to their assigned jobs.  They had also been split into two teams (one team going into Mars and the other leaving Mars).

When they got to the center, they were all taken to a briefing room and given instructions about the mission. Then each team got into a separate room – the kids going into Mars were put in the Spacecraft room and the kids leaving Mars were in the Mars Control room. Each room was fully equipped with specialized stations for each of the teams. They had keyboards/monitors, headsets, robots, control panels, etc – very realistic (BTW, the whole thing ran on a network of Macs which explains why nothing crashed …). For the first hour, they worked through the drill of landing a spacecraft on Mars and for the second hour, the kids switched rooms/roles and worked on getting the spacecraft off Mars. Throughout, kids sitting in the control room gave instructions while the kids in the spacecraft carried them out. They worked as a team while focusing on individual assignments. There were lots of emergency drills (to be expected of course) which the kids had to work through.  All in all, it the kids were put into a lifelike setting and asked to go through a set of practical exercises which taught them lots of valuable lessons.

In a global economy that is going to increasingly value creativity and need team skills for execution, I believe that this exercise was invaluable for the kids. If only they could do much more of this type of activity instead of continuing to plod on with antiquated methods of education …

Genius at work

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

I highly recommend checking this video out. It is about Akrit Jaswal, a twelve year old Indian boy who routinely performs surgery based on knowledge acquired from reading reams of medical books and journals!

I’m sure everyone has read historical anecdotes about geniuses and the troubles they undergo through to get their message through. What is fascinating is that we now have a live example of such a story unfolding amongst us. From the video it is clear that Akrit is really confident and knows what the heck he wants to do and the establishment does not know how to deal with him; so it decides to undermine his confidence and slow him down. I think that simply sucks!

I think in this Web 2.0 world that we live in, we have a really unique opportunity to collectively support Akrit in his quest. Stay tuned for more details. If you would like to be involved, please drop me a comment.

28 tons a year

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

Did some math using the EPA’s Carbon Emissions calculator today. Looks like our household generates about 28 tons of Carbon a year. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Our cars – 10 tons
  • Electricity/gas for our home – 17.5 tons
  • Waste – 0.5 tons

A real eye opener for me.

Its pretty safe to assume that households in third world countries generate nowhere close to this much. I was thinking of my own childhood growing up in India. We did have a car, but it was used mainly for leisure trips and driven nowhere near as much as my family does now. We did not have central air conditioning or heating systems in any of the homes we lived in (we lived in some extreme climes where we could definitely have used these). We used ceiling/table fans for cooling ourselves and blankets/sweaters to warm ourselves. We did not generate even a 100th of the waste my family generates today. We simply did not consume as many goods with elaborate packaging and we did not throw away anything until it had served every ounce of its life. Could I get my family to change so we start living that sort of a simpler lifestyle ? Probably not. But could we do something to reduce our emissions ? I think so – there’s a number of very simple suggestions available here which we are going to try.

I recommend anyone reading this do the math for themselves and look for ways to conserve.

Evolving notions of trust

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

Historically, when I put my trust in someone, I did it because I believed they would do good by me.

I put my trust in a family member or friend because I believed they cared about me and therefore would do good by me. I put my trust in a business because I believed they had a vested interest in doing good by me (they would benefit from what I had to offer – my talents or my money). I put my trust in institutions (academic or non-profits) because I believed they would do good by everyone. These notions of trust have been developed over centuries and passed down from generation to generation.

In a Web 2.0 world, it seems like my notions of trust have expanded – I’m beginning to trust people using a whole new basis. I’m trusting them because I believe our interests are very well aligned. I have no other basis – I’ve never met these people nor am I ever likely to meet them.

For example, when I use an open source package, I trust the developers and others in the community because I think we all care deeply about the shared asset – the code. As another example, I trust my fellow consumers when they write reviews of products because I think we are all watching out for each other. Sure, there are examples of fraud and abuse of this trust, but they are far and few – they exist even in the traditional models of trust described above (backstabbing friends, businesses that defraud and non-profits that squander).

At first glance, this may seem like simple co-operation; however, I think there are subtle differences. Co-operation involves well-defined upfront expectation of rewards for pursuing a cause. In the Web 2.0 world, there isn’t such an upfront expectation, there is simply a blind trust that everyone who cares about a cause will make a positive contribution …

Shadowy world of cookies

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

For a while now, I’ve been using options in Firefox and IE to prompt me before accepting cookies from web sites. Boy, am I surprised to see what goes on …

I would highly recommend that everyone try this and see for themselves. In Firefox 2, use Tools -> Options -> Privacy, check the “Accept cookies from sites” box and select “Ask me everytime” for the “Keep Until” option. In IE 7, use Tools -> Internet Options -> Privacy, select the Advanced button, check the “Override automatic cookie handling” box, select the Prompt option for First party and Third party cookies, check the “Always allow session cookies” box. In both Firefox and IE, there are buttons to clear all cookies, use that to delete all existing cookies. Now sit back and watch the fun!

While I do not generally have a problem with first party cookies that serve a functional purpose (like holding your shopping cart at an e-commerce site), I find third party cookies that track your every move extremely offensive. I’ve come to detest companies like Hitbox that make huge sums of money off data collected in a very shadowy fashion. What is really scary is that when I heard a guy from Hitbox speak at a recent conference (see previous post), he was talking about how they knew the demographics of the people accessing various sites, how many kids they had, their family income and so on – loads of personal data – they are using this personal data in combination with people’s surfing habits to sell all sorts of analysis. Talk about big brother watching …

If you want to personally do something about this – use the browser settings described above to avoid any unwanted cookies (IE has a handy setting to automatically reject third party cookies – but some of them now circumvent this and act like first party cookies) and also clear all cookies periodically (Firefox has a handy option to do this automatically every time you close the browser).

No room for Aristocracy

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

Was listening to a report on NPR about the Queen of England’s visit to Virginia. The reporter was interviewing someone in the Governor’s office who is responsible for ensuring Virginians followed proper etiquette during the visit. This lady had a real fawning manner when she spoke about how there were so many Anglophiles in Virginia eagerly lapping up the etiquette lessons.

What a total waste of time and money!! I’m sure that set of skills will serve Virginians very well as they compete for livelihoods with folks from all the hungry economies of the world :-)

I cannot believe that in the age of Web 2.0 where meritocracy rules and is quickly threatening bureaucracy, we have a bunch of losers still stuck in the era of aristocracy. IMHO, aristocracy has absolutely no place in today’s society – what has the Queen ever done in her entire life to deserve this level of respect ? Virginians, get a life and quit living in the past.

Healthcare – no relief in sight

Friday, April 27th, 2007

Having spent a major portion of the past year as a self-employed entrepreneur working from home, I had an opportunity to experience all the ills of our wonderful health care system first hand. It is a real mess out there for those of you who don’t already know. I had a lot of trouble finding insurance plans that were affordable even though my family and I are reasonably healthy. Even when I found a plan that worked, the deductible was so high that I ended up paying all the bills myself – the insurance company got a few thousand dollars richer. It seems like employer provided plans are the only real option these days and it is not clear how long employers can carry the staggering burden.

While there is a lot of rhetoric around health care from politicians, I have not seen a single idea or proposal that addresses the single key issue facing us – spiraling costs. As long as there is a fantastic reward system in place for anyone making a sick person healthy, our costs can never be controlled. Individuals and corporations will continue to find more ways to declare people sick so they can be cured or keep making more expensive ways to “better cure” people! This is basic economics.

Health insurance companies were supposed to be counterbalance here – they get rewarded for keeping people healthy – but they’ve gotten to the point where they either only admit people who are very healthy in the firstplace or declare even sick people to be healthy to avoid paying their bills.

Given the old adage “prevention is better than cure” (proven to be on the mark time and again), maybe the government should foot the bill for every citizen to get full and extensive preventive care (including any necessary medications). Citizens can then purchase insurance to cover all illnesses and injuries (everyone should be able to purchase this type of insurance, the government could subsidize it for the poorest among us). This insurance coverage could be predicated on people proving they’re taking full advantage of the preventive care.

What this system would do is to put the onus of keeping healthy on us as a collective and consequently reduce the costs of health care. Afford-ability will not be an issue to keeping healthy – personal responsibility will be. Where illnesses or injuries do occur, a system like we have currently kicks in and helps out. Seems like this could work – unless I’m missing something …

Virginia Tech – What Next ?

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

Now that we’ve once again seen the extent to which a madman armed with a gun can totally shatter innocent people’s lives – what are we as a society going to do about it ? I see the following options:

  1. Ban guns
  2. Arm everyone
  3. Track and imprison madmen
  4. Wear Kevlar underclothes
  5. Do nothing

We all know what we’ll choose …

Fantasy games – the new hallucinogens ??

Friday, April 20th, 2007

At the Web 2.0 Expo we had someone (cannot recall her name) who is an “Alternate Reality Game” designer talk at one of the keynote sessions about “Happiness Hacking”. The talk made little sense to me as did the Wikipedia entry on Alternate Reality Games (of course, I’m a pretty simple minded person).

Seems like people are going to great lengths to essentially escape from their real lives and live alternate, “happier” lives. Given how much time and money some people spend on these fantasy games and how “happy” they feel, it seems like we’ve got ourselves some new forms of hallucinogens that are legit, plus you don’t need to smoke, snort or shoot up 😉