Saturday, June 15, 2013

Learning the nature of work

One of the latest apps to have caught the little ones fancy is ‘Tiny Troopers’ where a triad of soldiers have to keep plodding through combat missions. 

As they complete each mission, they make money and collect medals which they can use only for the very next mission – the coins and the resources are consumed - and the missions are built in a way that you will generally end up spending what you earned. 

And if the mission fails, they have to ‘buy’ the resources again. The only way to do that is (especially if your stingy dad refuses to buy medals and equipment and what not random virtual items) – is to play in the lower levels, make money and use it in the mission you want it for.

Recently, I saw him plod diligently through yet another mission. I asked him what is he upto playing on it since in the last mission, he was beaten black and blue. He replied, “I am working in the lower level to make money and then I will buy a flame thrower and win the next mission.”

Wow…that’s what we all do and what better way to learn it than by doing. 

Slog to get something…practice to reach a higher skill level…go back knuckle down, practice, get fit, conditioned, visualize, spar, study so that the upcoming performance is a success.

Interesting learning, I thought..

If that is a learning…sure…keep playing...

Saturday, June 8, 2013

History and Technology

As I read "The Most Powerful Idea in the World" by William Rosen, I had a bunch of thoughts (as you may have guessed, this is the 3rd post after reading the book).

The first is of course that science as we learn in schools and colleges is mostly a linear narrative. Somebody worked on something, they invented it. Of course, narratives are not as simple as that - there are problems, opportunities, passions, networks, geniuses, unsung assistants and unglorified tries along the way, until it all falls in place. The fact that we miss the story behind the invention or the discovery is actually an exponential degree of enthusiasm lost. In reading a linear narrative, any reader is hardly ever going to be inspired.

Perhaps knowing the story and the person behind the science or the invention or the discovery is as useful as learning the fact of the matter.  Perhaps the history of technologies needs to be an important course in any engineering or science syllabus.

And perhaps it is a similar story in mathematics as well or biology.

Recently, I spoke to someone who has a deep passion for Unix and he said, "How can someone teach Unix without telling the story of Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson."

Indeed? What is the point of teaching a subject in a sterile way without arousing the passion of atleast some of the users."

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Most Powerful Idea in the World

The above titled book by William Rosen (and I am still reading it) has set me thinking. As it goes through the industrial revolution (rather, the beginning of it) - it explores as to why the industrial revolution happened when it happened. Rather, how a lot of factors came to play in making it happen. For that alone this book is worth a read. It is worth reading how a 'dotcom' kind of ecosystem existed in England with the combination of tinkerers, rich patrons, correspondence and of course, the right kind of institutions.

When one studies engineering, or even science, what we hear are the rock star stories. For instance, we know that Archimedes had a 'Eureka' moment. Likewise, in this book, I realized how a 'Eureka' moment helped James Watt resolve the problematic steam engine into a workable design.

While it is very romantic to believe that discoveries happen accidentally, the fact remains that somebody like a James Watt (or others) slogged through many many hours, trials and errors before 'stumbling' on that creative insight that makes for a steam engine. And this aspect is missed when is taught engineering. What is engineering today (across any fields) is really the equivalent of a 7 year practice that one had to put in England to earn the title of an 'apprentice'. But of course, only in terms of the time spent - the fact that today engineering is reduced to a collection of formulae, courses, practicals and exams to clear is a travesty to all those people who made 'engineering' possible.

Clearly, there is ample scope to instill a passion in the subject in the engineering which is underutilized. Atleast when I studied. There needs to scope to tinker, make something, create something. Though we did some of it in our workshop sessions, that was barely any tinkering that we did, any creation that we went after. In a nutshell, for being an engineer, very little hands on work we did, if at all.

The fact that any creation is not possible by sitting in an ivory tower. Behind every invention is a story of industriousness, perseverance, creativity, application and quite a few other things like dirt, grime and grit. And every engineer can be a 'creator' in that sense.

And yet, instead of 'job creators' we end up making 'job seekers'.

A 4 year engineering course is about 4000 hours of investment - nearly 40% of the 10,000 hours required to be an expert. And yet, after 4000 hours of the course and allied areas - the student comes up thinking that she does not know much. Another missed opportunity to reinvent almost the entire way we approach education in our country.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Thermodynamics Tale

I have been reading 'The Most Powerful Idea in the World' by William Rosen - with much interest. Ever since I saw the book mentioned in Bill Gates annual letter to his trustees or something, I wanted to read it.

The reading did not start in a promising way. And then came James Watt. And the story of the condenser in the steam engine.

The story of how James Watt  while working on a steam engine finally figured out the condenser as an answer is worthy of thought. It is part science, part industriousness, part perseverance, part insight, part creativity and totally engrossing.

It struck me that in college, when we studied about the steam engine - we had but a theoretical rendering of the steam engine in Thermodynamics. There was no story there. We learnt about the steam engine in a matter of fact way, with about as much passion as one would read a telephone directory, totally bereft of the history or the emotion behind it. Or the time. Or the effort. Or the passion of a few men.

After all these years, I finally understood (or wanted to understand) how a steam engine came into being and the aa-ha moments in making that invention possible. And what an insightful read it was - far better than any textbook has ever treated it.

The book gets into the same level when it deals a little with metallurgy as well.

And it struck me that engineering and science can be taught with so much more passion - especially since it lends itself to active experimentation, day to day observation among other things.

Around the same time, I spotted this on Storify on 'making science narrative'.

There are arguments in making keeping textbooks bland which are about as valid as arguing in favour of a colourless world.

Clearly, an idea that has been missed no?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Games that teach

As children spend time learning from digital methods - like playing games on the iPad or tablet etc., a moot question comes to mind. Are they learning? If so, how much and what?

This really is a sequel to my post of yesterday where I figured how 'Subway Surfers' is making the little ones think about resources and resource allocation. They have a limited number of gold coins that they have accumulated by playing which can be used to 'buy' various things. Some of them useful, some useful, some worthwhile, some just embellishments. So, there are various temptations that are 'short term gains'. Should they go for the short term gains or wait for their 'long term goal'? The younger one is all for short term gains while the elder one wants to wait.

And this is not the only game. In many games they have to try out a particular maneuver many times before they get it right. They need to wait and see a pattern before they jump into something. They need to try out various strategies before one succeeds. And I am sure, that is a very limited range of the things they need to do. Many a times, they go through a maze before finally hitting a eureka moment.

And this sort of learning is better than learning that is taught. Somewhere as parents, it might be a great way to integrate learnings from some games back to them (but I am yet to figure out how). Right now, I have opened my eyes to the various types of learning that happens in games. And this happens in a world that they are completely in charge of - where, if at all they fail, all that happens is one more attempt or some more perseverance and what better safe arena to try out than in a game?

Does it teach them a little planning? Or perseverance? Surely, the games will not teach them everything, but perhaps at some point, their mind will pull in all these experiences together?

I think it will...

Clearly the debate between whether the iPad is a waste of time is not going to end anytime soon, but the answer like in everything else lies in moderation. And secondly, technology is going to be around - and we are better off trying to make friends of it than enemies. And in any case, this interactive technology is far far better than watching non-interactive television. And moving away from television is a world of good anyway...

Monday, June 3, 2013

Subway Surfers

Most of us who have smart phones would know of a game known as 'Subway Surfers'. And most of us would agree that it is a practically useless game.

There is a random person running along the railway tracks collecting random stuff and paraphernalia. And to help the addiction thing continue, they helpfully change the 'city' and some associated graphics and 'stuff' and 'characters' every few weeks - just so. And that was my thought as well.

Until I heard this conversation between the kids.

"Don't waste money" said one to the other.
My ears perked - did they figure out how to buy an app? Did they crack my password? And then I figured that they were talking about how to use the gold coins that they had collected in the game.
"Dont buy the skateboard now. It is a waste of your money. Use a skateboard when you get the skateboard free. Use the coins for other things that will help you more."

The conversation continued until one convinced the other about the need to use their resources smartly.

And that brought to me this thought - that many of these games while they learn about defeating enemies, building cities, logic - they also learn the importance of using resources smartly - and in a 'osmosis' kind of way.

So, Subway Surfers is not that useless a game - it teaches resource allocation. Hah, let them play.

Creativity to taste

How many of us get this request at work "I made something. Can you add some creativity to this?"

How would you like it if you went to a restaurant and the chef said, "I made a dish, please add salt to it?"

Yet that is how we expect it to work and think we are doing a great job of it.

If our work life was a recipe and there was a salt equivalent to it - then creativity would be it. People would write the work recipe as "Add creativity to taste". Just the way they treat salt. Without salt, your dish would be bland, almost inedible in most cases. Also salt does some wonderful things - it does not just make your dish salty.It does wonderful things to food. The trick is when to add salt - you cannot always add it at the end and that is a technique in itself.

Which is the same thing with creativity. Creativity is not an add-on. If it has not existed in the thought process, very unlikely that it will exist at the end when someone who has no clue about your thought process is asked to make it creative. If you do this, the very least you can do is to let your creative salt adder ask questions. If not, well, be happy with your insipid product and get on with it. If you think that creativity belongs to the artist types - those who will come in and that dash of creativity to your project that will suddenly make it a work of art - then all the best to you.

And if that is what you do, most likely, that creativity would be a distraction. As Edward Tufte says, most likely, that creativity is being used to construct decorations - and not decorate your construction. The difference need not be explained, but if  you dont 'get' it, you are probably doing the above - getting someone to garnish your insipid dish with creative onions.

Creativity is all about the process. It is about re-imagining the thing that you are putting together - or imagining in the first place. It is about questioning, at every stage, if there is a better way to do it - better for your customers and usually better for yourself - not just the latter. It is also opening up to a different world view - among other things.

Think about it the next time you want 'creativity to taste'