Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"I See Dead People"

 A famous line from the movie "Sixth Sense."

Some people thrive on trusting their intuition. Despite what the behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists say, many believe they can predict the future, or at least bits of it. When good things (or bad things) happen, we remember our wanting them to be so, and say "I could see it coming." Of course, our mind doesn't bring up all the things we thought might happen, but didn't.

I think there is something to intuition, even if we can't predict the future. As Steven Johnson notes in his book "Where Good Ideas Come From," slow hunches play a big role in innovation. Ideas don't really happen as light bulbs. They emerge, as one's mind reassembles puzzle pieces and learns new things.

For innovators, having problems to wrestle with is important. It provides the soil from which the slow hunches can grow. [for my bleeps, we could say that most innovations are rooted in suckage]. That gnawing problem gives one a perspective from which one views the world. It is a lens of unique creativity. It is where our intuition lurks. As we assemble many combinations in our mind, are we tapping our sixth sense?

Today, I heard the story* behind CeaseFire, a program aimed at stopping gang violence that was started by an epidemiologist, Gary Slutkin. Dr. Slutkin had been working in Africa on the HIV epidemic. Upon returning to Chicago, he saw that violence was similar to an infectious disease in the way it was spread between people in a community. Millions of people have lived in Chicago without noticing that. It was Slutkin's experience that gave him a different way to see a gnawing problem. And come up with the idea that violence could be treated as a public health problem.

How are you applying your unique perspective? What problems need your experience thrown at them?  What can you prevent? Where can you see live people, that might have otherwise been dead?
*Thank you to Andrew Zolli for the story. To find out more about Ceasefire, look here, and here. It is not a new story, although it was new to me. There is also a documentary, The Interrupters.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

This is what disruption looks like

My wife says Sal Khan is one of the best teachers she has ever had. She went to Boulder High, Smith College, Colorado College and University of Colorado, and has taken classes at Front Range Community College. Until Sal, she thought she had had some wonderful teachers. She also likes that she can learn from Sal whenever she wants (try that with Mrs. Maple, or Professor Hudnut). And she can learn at her own pace.

Now, my wife has a wifi connection (at least most of the time... don't get me going on Comcast). And through such connections, Khan Academy can reach 1/3 of English speaking world (the connected). Several hundred million people.

But this is Khan on a stick.  Without a wifi connection. So you can learn on a plane, or in a jungle, or base camp... from a great teacher. Or in a school without internet, or great teachers. And a lot of people can learn from Sal at the same time, yet they all feel like they are getting one-on-one attention.

Next step... a low bandwidth mobile app? Downloading classes to a cellphone? To get away with those pretentious computers, and reach those rapidly growing smartphone users? And Khan is working on a translation project, so other languages will soon be available. And then there is streaming... Khan isn't on Spotify yet, but he does have a number of free lectures in iTunes.

Coming soon... School of (N)one? Cost approaching zero? Is human knowledge like media storage in the end? You see, beside the cost of the thumb drive, Khan on a Stick is free. Of course, there is opportunity cost, your time listening to it, but it is likely to be lower than actually attending a class.

In my 9 years of teaching, I have learned that teaching and learning are different, and that they are not always related (unfortunately). A recent NPR story covered the ineffectiveness of lectures for learning, despite their broad acceptance for teaching in schools around the world. They form the basis of the business (as usual) model for education. More and more, the learners of the world are saying they want something different, and Khan Academy and Classroom of One are beginning to deliver real options. Are the teachers, and the institutions that employ them, listening to the learners? Can we learn?
Mr. Disruptive Innovation himself, Clayton Christensen, wrote a book in 2008 on the ripeness of education for disruption- "Disrupting Class". Sir Kenneth Robinson has made the case that schooling kills creativity. And none other than Mark Twain observed that schooling can interfere with one's education. Bringing up the bottom of this class, I have blogged about Disruptive Education and Educational Arsonists. And a hack you can do if you are accepted at an Ivy League school.
I believe that one learns a lot by attending school- about others, about yourself, about how to light a match off your tooth. It isn't just about the 3 R's. But I think that for schools to stay relevant and useful, a lot more innovation is needed. And, not everyone gets to go to school. Yet everyone, even Sal Khan, has something to learn.
Question to ponder:
If you provide a service... can it be put on a stick? It's not just a problem for food anymore.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Charity 2011

For the past two years, I have shared our family's giving in a year end post. This year, while I made the year end deadline for giving, I did not make it for blogging.

As in past years, we have tried to spread our giving somewhat equally between 5 categories, and various members of the family have proposed organizations they would like to fund. We have also continued to use Peter Singer's pledge to set a target for our giving as a percentage of our income.

New from past years, we set up a family fund with the our local Community Foundation. We intend to do our giving from this fund each year, which will also allow us to make our contributions on a more regular basis. We also decided to institute a minimum gift, so we would stay more concentrated in our giving. And as with past year's, we increased our total giving.

The last big change is that this was the first year that I had worked (part time) as a "professional" philanthropist (in that someone paid me to help them with their philanthropy).  I don't think this changed what we did a great deal, but it did result in some pruning and in reinforcing a few of our decisions from prior years.

I continue to work on the idea that charity is putting your money where your hopes are. Checking results and following up are important. I am also aware that too often, charity is more about making the giver feel good, than achieving real benefit for those in need. There is nothing wrong with the former, as long as the latter is accomplished. I have to say that we feel very good about the accomplishments of some of the groups we have been supporting for several years.

We also dropped a few for various reasons. Until the situation becomes clearer, Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute is not receiving more money from us. For others, it was a matter of prioritizing, as we were giving larger amounts to fewer organizations. So, for example, we chose to support Akili Dada over Pratham in education, not because Pratham isn't doing great work, but because they are much larger, and we felt our money would have a bigger impact with Akili. This is not entirely rational, I understand, but it is a family decision (need I say more?)

I hope this is useful to others as they decide how they would like to help others. I believe their is a need for philanthropy, and hope that this remains an area where individual giving, by people of ordinary means, continues to be important. There is a lot of talk about how the big foundations are changing the face of philanthropy... but the local homeless shelter, youth group, food bank or radio station? They all still rely on donations from people like you. They can all do more if you chip in. And it isn't just money, many of these organizations could benefit from your time and expertise.

I think it is would be hard to overestimate how important charity is in building strong communities. Imagine what yours would be without it.

OK, enough about approach and philosophy. Here are the organizations we supported in 2011:

Environment: Nature Conservancy; IdeaWild*; Trust for Public Land*; Property & Environment Research Center

Health: Doctors Without Borders; VisionSpring

International Development: One Acre Fund; IDE; Nepal Youth Foundation

Education: National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship; Akili Dada; Engineers Without Borders*

Local: Colorado Combined Campaign; KUNC; Food Family Farm*; Growing Gardens*; SAME Cafe; Matthews House*; Larimer County Food Bank.
* denotes organizations we began supporting in 2011.