Monday, 30 January 2017

Book: Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Mathews

This is the story of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) – a promising charter school program in the US to geared for some of the toughest education consumers – 5th to 8th graders who come from low income families – and doing so with remarkable success. I had first heard of this book through a talk by Bill Gates. He had since blogged about this book and the organization in general. I very much enjoyed this book.

In the US, the prevailing assumption is that kids from low income background, with parents who also struggled with schooling in their youth and hold low paying work, do not have the same potential to achieve higher grades as their more affluent counterparts. As such, public schools in these areas don’t often provide challenging lessons, top notch teachers, or longer school days. Students in such schools perform consistently poorly on standardized tests and the cycle of poverty perpetuates.

KIPP’s founders wanted to change that. Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin – two white, Ivy League grads in their twenties who met at a gathering for Teach for America, decided to forge their own path to education – they would be driven by a mission, focused on measuring against their goals, and upend conventional thinking if they have to – and they did.

KIPP school days are long – from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday. Every other Saturday, student comes to school for half a day, and for a few weeks during summer vacation, kids come into school also. Long school days have shown to help immerse students in the school program, and keep the children occupied for the same length of time while parents are working. Teachers provide their cell phone numbers to students so they can call anytime should they have issues with homework or seeking other kinds of help. Whereas in a conventional educational system, teachers are discouraged from visiting families, the KIPP founders saw this as an important avenue for building trust and earning support for the kids’ parents if they visited the family and accepted invitation to dine on some occasions.

The KIPP teachers work hard – beside the long hours, they need to encourage and motivate students who don’t enjoy as much support from affluent parents. It takes a different set of skills and constant attention. Feinberg and Levin didn’t start out as great teachers and struggled here initially – they couldn’t keep students focused, disciplined, and had a tough time making the lessons stick. But they search and ceaselessly pursued successful teachers in the local community to mentor them.  They learned that different discipline techniques are needed in different locales, and that kids can memorize math rules if they are taught through songs and rhymes, and how to be attentive and maintain order in class.

On the administrative side, Feinberg and Levin must do all of the above while finding venues for their program with little funding. In one instance, the lack of school space meant a KIPP class had to be held under the sun out on the sidewalk. The cofounders also had to earn the trust of low income families so they’d let their kids into the program and local education experts who they’d like to have as mentors against their Ivy League background. They’ve done so with persistence and sometimes ruffling some feathers.

The message is clear to students and their parents that KIPP is driven by founders who cared about the success of the students. The hard work seems to be paying off. As Mathews notes in his book:

About 80 percent of KIPP students are from low-income families. About 95 percent are black or Hispanic. The fourteen hundred students at twenty-eight KIPP schools in twenty-two cities who have completed three years of KIPP’s four-year middle school program have gone on average from the 34th percentile at the beginning of fifth grade to the 58th percentile at the end of seventh grade in reading and from the 44th percentile to the 83rd percentile in math. Gains that great for that many low-income children in one program have never happened before.

Successful as the organization has been, and vigorous and positive as the debate it stirred up has produced, KIPP is still young and there are questions as to whether it can be scaled across the US with similar effectiveness, or of its long term effect, or if the kids that have performed well were the result of an admission process that favoured kids with such potential in the first place. KIPP appears to be taking such discussions seriously and are conducting researches on these issues.

It remains to be seen whether KIPP can remain and sustain their earlier success, but signs are encouraging. I was glad to have read this book, to see how the entrepreneurial spirit is applied in the education space to great effect. Personally, I find it very heartening that the determinant factor to a student’s success seem not necessarily about resource and class size (though they do help), but on teachers who ceaselessly care for the students, demand the best from them, and become a champion for their cause.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Book: No Fears, No Excuses: What You Need to Do to Have a Great Career by Larry Smith

Professor Larry Smith is well known on the University of Waterloo campus for his energy, knowledge, and humour in his Economics lectures (of which I’ve been a lucky witness). In 2011, his TEDx talk on the many ways one could fail to have a great career garnered millions of views. As a topic of importance and broad appeal, Smith received numerous replies asking for the other half of the talk – “tell us how to pursue a great career”!

This book is Smith’s answer. His premise is that the marketplace has become even more competitive than during the previous generation. A university degree was a guarantee to a great job, but no more. One must provide uniquely value to the customer or employer to remain in demand in the market and have decent quality of life. This is my biggest takeaway from the book – it urged me to reflect on how I can provide more value in my current work.

In Smith’s mind,

A career is great when it offers satisfying work, impact on the world, a dependable and adequate income, and personal freedom.

Furthermore, he believes that to acquire such a great career, one must have passion for the work – it makes the going easier in tough times, and passion gives rise to creative problems solving as a differentiating edge, simply because one becomes quite literally, more “thoughtful” in those areas of intense interest:

A passion is more than an interest, although a passion may first appear as an interest. An interesting idea is easy to think about; when you have an idea that evokes passion, you cannot stop thinking about it. When you find a domain that engages passion, you want to understand it totally; you naturally see gaps that should be filled, errors that should be corrected, and innovations that cry out for creation. With passion, there is an inherent tendency to take action. None of those elements is necessarily present when you find something “interesting”. Passion invites an intensity of enduring focus.

Smith has had more than 30,000 career statements and conversations on the subject of great work, and this book draws from it. I found the examples were vivid, grounded, and illustrates his points well. In these stories, passion isn’t found through some quick moment of insight, but through lots of zig-zag and trial and error. It is not mere emotional excitement, and has components of conscious curiosity and commitment.

Even when a passion is found, it can take years for one to learn to nurture, conserve, and shape it to the demands of the market and to the values of the individual to become a great career. Passion can be an overloaded term, and Smith advocates against acting on a whim – quitting one’s day job and search for the elusive passion. Instead, one should search and research methodically about the area of interest. It is conscious and effortful hard work, but its results can be equally rewarding. The road to passion requires dispassionate analysis and discipline, Smith argues, and I heartily agree.

It is clear to me through this book and others that a life filled with work that one detests can hardly be satisfying. This book is a concrete guide for those having a drive and passion waiting to be discovered through very accessible tools – read trade journals and books to see broad trends, talk to industry insiders to further understand the needs of the market and one’s ability to create unique value, and set benchmarks for progress. Its analytical approach to great career provides great value, in my opinion. Other approaches I also value are Mike Rowe’s approach of doing practical work or Cal Newport’s exhortation on finding enjoyment through mastery or even Mark Zuckerberg’s talk about doing work (entrepreneurship in this case) with a sense of mission.

All the aforementioned ways, however, are in the pursuit of fulfilling work that provides value to family and society, and often requires courage – the courage to abandon the safety of conventional wisdom, to leave the comfort of social conformity, and accept the constant challenge of pathfinding. Perhaps that’s why great work is rewarding, because it is so arduous. Smith knows this intimately, as he also overcame painful shyness and endured much trial and error before finding his own great career that requires much public speaking as a teacher and industry consultant.

Courage is essential, Smith would say, but as to its origin and where one finds it? Smith perks ups and looks solemnly at his students – now that’s the mystery.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Book: What Do You Want to Do Before You Die, by The Buried Life

Provoked, I picked up this book from the library shelf on which it stood. The title with the 4 guys in the picture suggested a wild journey, and it was.

They are 2 brothers, a neighbour, and a close friend; each had his own reason for uncomfortable questions in life. Jonnie endured his parents’ surprising divorce and became skeptical in what he held to be true. Dave, reeling from the wild life as a competitive break dancer, felt finally ready to change the joint-a-day and overweight life he had. Faced with adulthood and the tragic drowning of his close friend at the graduation camping trip, Duncan found no solace in his backpacking trips and wanted more. Ben, a competitive rugby player who was invited to play at national level, turned it down and went into depression and felt powerless in his future direction.

They wanted to feel a sense of control, the joy of truly helping others and to connect. So in 2006, they asked themselves – “what do I want to do before I die” – a bucket list was born. It had crazy ideas like “singing the national anthem to a packed stadium”, “opening the 6 o’clock news”, and “be dumped by a stripper for being too slutty”. They found a mossy, ‘77 Dodge Coachman, named it Bedadu, and crossed the country realizing these dreams. To add some purpose, they made it a goal to help someone else realize their bucket list item for every one they cross from their list.

As they gone on, words spread about their journey and they gathered a small following, some suggested newer items to the list (a WWII vet urging them to teach youngsters not to forget the terror of war), some to offer help in any way, others wanted to join in for the ride. This book is a collection of some of the items they’ve managed to cross off from their own list or for others. The items grew more ambitious – they swindled security and crashed an MTV party and played basketball with president Obama. But it’s the more somber moments that remained memorable for me – their visiting the Folsom prison, helping a man raise money to organize a ranch for kids in need. These were cherish reminders for me that what some others yearn to have – a shelter, nurturing from parents, relative health, I only deign to dispense. It puts many things in perspective.

They’ve since gone on to give speeches and interviews at various events, urging others to consider what really matters to them in the face of mortality, and how might one matter to others. The fame also culminated a feature show with MTV. So far, they’ve managed to keep themselves poor while being famous, in the hopes that it’d keep them grounded, not be slave to the advertising deals that might distract from their goal of finding that which is meaningful and ambitious.

The older adult in me wonder what they’d do after this. Would anything less exciting become too mundane for them, even if it’s useful for society? I certainly hope not. But for what it’s worth, their journey provides a thought experiment, a deeper inquiry into whether one’s living “the buried life”. And that’s a valuable lesson.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Book: The Outside Circle by Patti Laboucane-Benson. Art by Kelly Mellings

This is a Graphic Novel around the protagonist, Pete, an Aboriginal young adult who is involved in a violent gang dealing drugs and whose mother is a heroine addict. One night, out of self defense he killed his mom’s boyfriend, landing him in jail. The guardianship of his brother, Joey, would be forcibly transferred to the government of Alberta. Pete never knew his father and would not see in mother again until she passed away.

While serving his sentence, Pete became involved in gang violence in jail, but also joined a rehabilitation program that combined counseling and traditional Aborigional ceremonial practices for healing. Pete came to terms with his past and in the end, found his calling as a protector for his family and became a counselor for others who have the same challenges as he once did.

This is a heavy and tragic story of loss, but also of rebirth. I was in a dark mood while reading it, but it felt a necessary aspect of the Canadian culture to be aware of. While I had learned of the maltreatment of Aboriginals from some Canadian history textbooks, having it depicted in visual form was all the more immersive. The cycle of violence and poverty was vivid – of kids removed from parents, of the fights in gangs, the anguish of a minority whose cultural values are vastly divergent from the majority.

While the main character is fictional, it is drawn up from the author’s 20 years of work and research on healing of gang-affiliated or incarcerated Aboriginal men. The book also contained some appalling statistics: 57% of First Nations children in Canadian cities live in low-income families, and 68% of children in the Albertan child welfare system are Aboriginals. I’ve been ignorant of these facts until now. Fostering an amicable relationship with Aboriginals was pressing during John A. Macdonald’s time as Prime Minister. The outcome wouldn’t be satisfactory then, and I wonder if Macdonald would approve of the progress made thus far. Perhaps he wouldn’t.

This book is, in my opinion, beautifully illustrated and tells a compelling and important story. It had brought me better understanding to the tribulations of the Aboriginal Canadians and I recommend it, especially to fellow Canadians.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Book: Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times by Richard Gwyn

This is the second of two volumes of the biography on the life of Sir John A. Macdonald by Gwyn. I had read the first volume back in 2014.
This volume starts just after the confederation, and encompasses the building of the national railway, the establishment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that had taken a more cooperative approach with the natives and became one of Canada’s well known symbols, and the unfortunate incidents and handling of the the uprising of Louis Riel and the natives which still have consequences today.

A previous biography of Macdonald, George Parkin, summarized Macdonald thusly:

He believed that there was room on the continent of America for at least two nations, and he was determined that Canada should be a nation. He believed in the superiority of the British constitution to any other for free men, and that the preservation of the union with the mother country was necessary to the making of Canada. He had faith in the French race, and believed that a good understanding between French and English people was essential to the national welfare.

“Had there been no Macdonald, there almost certainly would be today no Canada”, Gwyn argues. The nation came into being after much hardwork and was by no means a given. Many issues, including foreign relations with many nations and domestic policy with the natives, remain to be solved. I look forward to the next chapter in Canada’s making.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Book: The Eleventh day - the Full Story of 9/11. By Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, two planes loaded with fuel for their intercontinental journeys crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center within a mere 17 minutes. With the blaze that ensued, one more plane is to hit the pentagon, another would crash to the ground thanks to the brave defiance of its passengers.

The entire terrorist attack on this day, including the collapsing of the two towers, would unfold within 2 hours and at its wake, 2,982 lives would be lost. Nearby hospitals were fully mobilized with doctors who had worked continuous shifts on standby ready for the tidal wave of patients, only to realize that most victims had perished during the attack; many with body parts severed and unidentified. Some body parts would be still discovered in 2009. This was the largest rescue mission for New York City to date.

Economic activity ground to a halt. The New York Stock Exchange would close for the rest of the week. The Federal Reserve Bank in New York would evacuate, but no one knew how to lock up the bank as it had never been unmanned before. Within 24 hours of the attack, King Abdullah from Saudi Arabia sent 9 million barrels of oil to America to stave off an economic crisis in the States. A year later, the damage to NYC is estimated to be between $83 to $95 billion.

Ever since, the shockwave of the attack rippled through America and beyond. My own motivation to read this book was to understand this event better, but more questions seem to be raised than answered, all of which have no simple answers:
While the deaths on the day of 9/11 is known, many rescuers have since died slowly and painfully after the incident due to respiratory problems.  Their stories aren’t often told. During the Iraqi war, a war instigated on false premise, it’s estimated that 100,000 civilians died during and following the invasion. Could they find justice?  What of the lacking of details on intelligence work prior to the attack and the accompanying accountability?  What of the transparency in various country’s involvement in the attack? The cost of the attack was estimated at around half a million and 10 years on, the war had costed 1.15 trillion.  Could this be a sustainable response to future attacks?  How could different peoples resolve such differences and seek understanding?

I have learned a tremendous amount through this book.  It is a detailed and articulate account of the 9/11 attack – its historical background, the urgent question of Israel and Palestine, the stories of the perpetrators, the intelligence and military response from America and other countries, and of the pillars of the conspiracy theorists and how it does not stand up to the evidence at hand.

Since then, the attack has permeated every form of artistic expressions – in languages, in films, and even in clothes. While the original leader of the attack, Osama bin Laden, had been killed, the conflict between various peoples persists. I fervently hope in the near future this contention can see a peaceful resolution.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Book: Losing the Signal by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff

This is the story of BlackBerry's dramatic rise and fall. The company pioneered the smartphone product category and in 2009 became its biggest maker with roughly 20 billions in revenue.  Its phones started as a tools for business executives, then was seen carried by celebrities, politicians (Obama refused to give it up after having been elected President), and regular consumers seemed to embrace it, too.

As the story goes, a few years later, Apple and Samsung entered the market and took the lead from BlackBerry (formerly RIM).  Today, BlackBerry sales constitutes less than 1 percent of global smartphone market.

It was hard to imagine, but before Apple and Samsung, BlackBerry was the Apple and Samsung to vendors like Nokia and Motorola – conceived as innovative, reliable, and user friendly. Their phones brought consumers into the smartphone market.  While expanding at a furious pace, the company went through intellectual property fights that distracted its leaders, who over the years started to grow apart in the overall direction.  Apple then championed the conception of a smartphone being the most personal computer for the masses, a strategy that was profoundly different from BlackBerry's catering to a business professionals user base.  Steve Sinofsky wrote on the importance of re-evaluating underlying assumptions about its product when such new entrants emerge.  These were the major accents of the book.  Here’s an excerpt of the book.

Overall, the story was enlightening.  I'm sad as a Canadian who went to the university overlooking BlackBerry’s campus. However, the rise of BlackBerry was and has been a big boon to fostering the tech talent in the Kitchener-Waterloo region.  Their lessons and experiences are carried with its employees as they join other companies.  The two co-founders, Mike and Jim, continue to be active as mentors and investors in the KW area and in Canada at large, helping to build and enrich institutions such as the Perimeter Institute, the Quantum-Nano Centre at University of Waterloo, and the Centre for International Govenance Innovation.  While a chapter of the BlackBerry story has closed, I look forward to the next fruits of such sown seeds in Canada’s technology sector.