Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Learning by Context

Education is not the simple direct process people think it is.

When you give a kid 10 encyclopaedias, he/she doesn't learn them all by heart. People, including children learn and remember by context. By memorable information. 

I had over a dozen encyclopaedias and general knowledge books reference books when I was younger. I simply used look at the pictures and read a little of the text if the pictures looked interesting enough. That's a lesson for learning designers. Focus on visual information and cues as much as possible. As little text as possible.

But that's not all. You still have 500 pages in your book full of information that the reader really has no reason to be interested in. Which is why that information has to be put in context that's interesting to the reader. My books were full of information about dinosaurs, but I had no reason to remember this information until I began playing Top Trumps card games about dinosaurs. It was the same with animals, cars, bikes and football. Playing these card games gave me a reference point for these topics. Browsing through my humongous books now became a slightly more productive exercise, as I'd stop to read and learn a little more about dinosaurs, animals cars or bikes when a picture caught my eye.

This is why children need to be exposed to as many specific stimuli as possible. Let them develop their own likes and ideas. Then back these up with a lot of easy reference material. Both of these are essential for building knowledge. Just one is not enough. A person is more apt to learn about Ancient Greek mythology when they have watched a film or cartoon about it and then a book or Wikipedia. Wikipedia itself would be next to useless. Because there's no motivating factor in studying a lot of information. The film provides context, and reference points that the book builds on.


Monday, 13 April 2015

Interesting Links


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Making Sense of the World

Imagine the following three possible frameworks or models used to make sense of the universe, this world, and all behaviour and actions.


This universe was created by a race of aliens from another universe or dimension. Perhaps they exist outside of space and time (whatever that means). They either created or monitor all activity on earth. Perhaps they have ways of understanding and following human desires, or perhaps they interfere in human activity, according to their whims and fancies, or maybe not.


This universe is a function of the Matrix. It is an artificial construct, a virtual reality built by citizens of the future, human or robot, as a giant experiment or project of value. As such, our existence is really just our consciousness responding to whatever 'they' want us to see. Our bodies are either plugged into machines somewhere in the future, or we only exist in digital form.


This universe was created by the Abrahamic God. He exists outside or space and time. He hears and sees everything. He chooses to answer or ignore prayer. He has a plan for everyone. His ways are mysterious.


These are your three frameworks. I made up two of them, with inspiration from the media. The third is a commonly espoused belief system. Here's my question - what makes the third model any less ridiculous than the first two?

Granted, my description of all three were brief. But you are free to build on all three. If your goal in choosing a belief system, framework or world view is 'does this make sense?' or 'does this prove useful?' or 'does this explain everything in this world?', then all three frameworks are equally useful.

Take any physical law or phenomenon like gravity or electromagnetism. Take any biochemical unit or process like cell or an organ system. Take any aspect of human or animal behaviour like jealousy or altruism. Any of the three frameworks could be used to explain these facets of our world. They can all be used to explain economic productivity, evolution, tsunamis and genocide. 

All the three models are somewhat vague, and that proves advantageous. Being vague means the model explains more variation. The more specific the model is, the easier it is to undermine. You could explain away any bizarre phenomenon into the variation that the model accommodates. And since it accommodates everything in its vagueness, the model is never wrong.

Do you see the problem here? All three models cannot be correct. And these are just three. The number of models you could invent to explain variation in what you observe is infinite. How do you tell right from wrong?

'All models are wrong, some are useful'. We use models that useful to us. We don't really care how right they are. We use a model because we find it useful. Because it makes sense to us in our specific context. But if all three models are equally useful, then why prefer one over the other? Is it because only one is the product of historical thought and cultural evolution, and the other two are more recent and more clearly 'fake'?

We think prayer works because it works for us, and that's enough. We don't seem to care that historical data shows us that affliction and death rates for polio, smallpox and cancer have no relationship with prayer. That irrespective of how holy you were or how hard you prayed, if you had cancer in 1900, you would likely die. That cancer survival rates have more to do with the invention of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy than anything else.

Perhaps it is best to go beyond retrospective usefulness in picking the right model, seeing as how any speculative thought can account for all variation in observable phenomena. Perhaps we should stop asking 'how much variation does this model explain?' and instead ask 'how much predictive validity does this model have?'

Any made up theory can explain what you see around you. It doesn't matter if the model involves God, aliens, AI, time travelling robots, space monkeys, or a new scientific theory. All these models or frameworks can seem equally 'valid' or 'right' in that they have an explanation for everything, answers to all your questions.

To decide which model is right, or to create a better model, it seem much more intuitive to base that model only on the evidence you have, incomplete as it is, and then test it and continually modify it by making predictions, admitting all along the way that your model will always be imperfect and a work in progress.


In 50 years, when we do develop a vaccine or cure for AIDS, the same people who call AIDS a punishment from God will be thanking God for answering their prayers and curing people. It's easy to validate any model using retrospective post-hoc rationalisation, especially if your model was vague to begin with, you never tested it by making specific predictions, and you're making it up as you go along, avoiding any attempt at testing your beliefs and instead picking and choosing facts that seem to fit into your pre-existing framework and ignoring everything else or considering it a test of your faith.


Thursday, 2 April 2015

On Poverty

A lot of us don't realise this but it is really difficult to get out of poverty, even if you really want to. 

There are a lot of economically disadvantaged people out there who are smart and hardworking and have the means to remove themselves from poverty. And they do so very slowly. Because it's not an easy process. Let's say you work a double shift for six months and save up a bit of money, and then suddenly a family member gets sick, and of course they don't have health insurance because you can't afford the monthly payments. So all your savings are blown away. Or imagine you've been saving for six months and then just when you're going to use that money to get to the next stage, start a business, invest in something that will grow your money for you, you meet with an accident, or you're robbed, or you need to buy a new fridge or washing machine. Your savings are gone along with your plans. You're back to square one.

Because something bad always happens. This is what it's like to be poor. It's always one step forward, one step back, and so on. The rest of us don't experience this because we're rich, relatively speaking. We have a cushion. We have money in the bank that we can use to buy a new AC, fridge or washing machine. We always have enough money for healthcare. We have relatives we can borrow money from, networks of friends and ex-colleagues we can use to find a new job. We have cushions. The poor don't. These cushions serve to keep us from stumbling, they keep our careers moving forward and not grinding to a halt every time something bad happens. This is why I don't get how people look down on the poor as if it's their fault, like they are lazy. They aren't. No one likes being poor. They're working to get out of it. You just can't see it because of your privilege.

So how do you get rid of poverty? You could increase wages. Imagine a janitor in Sweden. He gets a minimum wage that's enough to afford a home. He's not rich, but he makes ends meet. Same with the UK or US. Now imagine a janitor in Mumbai. His wage, even if above minimum, would be nowhere near enough to rent a flat. So he lives in a slum. He saves more that way. Could the government enforce a minimum wage that's high enough so everyone can afford proper housing and not live in a slum? Sure, but employers would pass that burden back to customers. We would eventually pay more for items, and would want higher pay ourselves to cover the difference. Which isn't a bad thing. We would all earn more, and pay more more some things. For people doing menial work, their savings would be low but their living conditions would be decent. The rest of us would have higher pay and higher expenditure and our savings would be proportional. More importantly, we would all be living in a country with a higher standard of living, and no slums.

Or we could just leave it all up to market forces. The problem with this is that in a country with fewer opportunities, and less competition, employers can pay as little as they want, if they know there aren't any alternatives for you. They can always claim that people are free not to work for them if they find the salaries too low. This might be fair to the employer, but not to workers, because they live in a country with few opportunities by default, so they really have no where else to go to, and they can't all start their own businesses overnight because they are mostly disadvantaged to begin with. So they settle with being exploited because some pay is better than no pay. 

That's how rich people like Donald Trump end up legally getting even richer by building large buildings in the Middle East using voluntary 'slave labour', people who are too poor to do anything else and who aren't even allowed to keep their passports. Is it their fault their country didn't give them enough opportunity? Is it their own fault they were not smart enough to get rich on their own?

If you want to live in a developed country you need to remove absolute poverty. Relative poverty will always exist in a capitalist system, and that's OK as long as inequalities don't create further absolute poverty or lead to monopolies that create status quo institutions that can lead to exploitation. You could remove poverty by raising the minimum wage, ensuring that everyone has a liveable income. This by itself will only do some good. In Indian cities like Mumbai, it will enable to people to live in better places, or let them grow their savings. 

The government could just subsidise education completely of course. It already does that to a large extent. But that won't cure poverty on its own. If you waved a magic want and gave every Indian a PhD tomorrow, they still wouldn't have the ecosystem to use their skills. There would still be massive unemployment. You can't stop at education. You also need an environment that demands new skills, that serves as a market for these skills, so people can exchange their skills for money. 

They would also need a market that enables them to finance themselves and create their products easily. You could reduce bureaucratic procedures and other red tape involved in growing businesses, and incentivise patents and loans, to encourage self-employment and innovation. In the long term, this would create more jobs, and in turn serve as a motivator for people to up skill themselves, which would get them higher salaries, and better lifestyles.