## Open-Mindedness

Recently I have been thinking a lot about why so many people seem inconvincible of certain things which I hold to be true. And while I could certainly make a list of some of these things, that is not the intention of this blog entry. Instead, I have been reflecting on open-mindedness and wanted to share.

Many people – myself included – often enter into discourse with someone of a differing opinion with the intention of convincing them to change their mind. For example, maybe your friend Paul thinks all trees in your neighborhood that are taller than 12 feet should be pruned to 12 feet or less, so as not to obstruct anyone’s view of the lakefront. You know that he’s clearly wrong! You get into a discussion. Only it’s not really a discussion – it’s an argument each of you is trying to win. Maybe out of frustration you start incorporating personal attacks. Maybe you get so angry at Paul’s refusal to capitulate, as well as the horrible things he is saying about you, that it ends your friendship. Maybe in the middle of the night, Paul prunes all of your tall trees. Maybe the next night you erect a 30 foot statue on your lawn directly in Paul’s line of sight to the lake … and so on.

It’s sad, and you don’t even like the statue, but what choice is there? Paul must be taught a lesson.

I wish this was hyperbole. Sadly, it is not. And the conclusion is clearly suboptimal.

Well … let me construct a basis for discussion with some (hopefully) fair assumptions. In doing so I’m going to have to use a little bit of math terminology, and it occurs to me that some people might not know precisely what I mean, or even be put-off by some of my more mathematical references. If you think this might be the case, I ask you to bear with me. The concepts and symbols I use are the best way for me to illustrate my point, and I’ve included here a bit of a math lesson, in case it is not something you’ve encountered in your life – it will clarify some of the words and concepts I use for the rest of this article. Of course, if you feel there’s no need for you to read this section, by all means scroll past it and keep reading (I won’t feel bad).

Some Math concepts

Sets
Mathematicians like to talk about collections of values that are somehow related, and when they do, they use the word set. We use curly brackets to list the objects (known as elements) of a set. So for example the set $F=\{apple, orange, banana, kiwi, peach, nectarine\}$ is a set I have named $F$, and just so you know, it is the set containing all the fruits I might bring to work with me in my lunch. A subset of a set $S$ is another set that only contains elements from $S$. So for example $M=\{apple, kiwi\}$ is the set of fruits I brought to work in my lunch on Monday, and is a subset of $F$. On the other hand, $A=\{apple, pineapple, banana\}$ is not a subset of $F$.

A Little Bit of Algebra (Apologies to the Arithmophobic)
Consider this simple algebra equation:
$\displaystyle 3x+4y=7$
The $x$ and $y$ are understood to be symbolic of numbers, but the use of symbols mean that they vary – which is to say, they are variable. The equation is a statement. In this particular statement,
$x = 1, y=1$
would be a valid solution (i.e., the equation becomes true), since
$3\times 1 + 4\times 1=7$.
So would
$x = 5, y=-2$,
since
$3\times 5 + 4\times (-2)=7$.
However
$x = 5, y=2$
would not be a solution (i.e., the equation becomes false), since
$3\times 5 + 4\times 2=23$,
which is not 7.

Statements
In math and philosophy, a statement is a sentence that must either be true or false (but not both, and not maybe). Very often the truth value (i.e., “true” or “false”) of the statement depends on values for variables contained in the statement. The algebra equation above is a statement. Another example is the statement “I like cheese”, which contains two variables: “I”, and “cheese”. If the “I” refers to “Rich Dlin” (i.e., it is me speaking and not you), and the “cheese” refers to “Havarti”, then the statement is true. If the “I” is “Rich Dlin”, and the “cheese” is “Cambozola”, the statement (I promise you) is false. Notice that if the “cheese” were to refer to “gingerbread cookie” the statement would be nonsense, since “gingerbread cookie” is not a cheese – even though it is true that I like gingerbread cookies, it is irrelevant in the context of this statement. A mathematician would say “gingerbread cookie” is not an element of the set of all cheeses. Going back to the algebra example, {(1,1),(3,-2)} is a subset of the set of solutions to the equation given. The actual set has an infinite number of solutions in it, but that’s more than I need to talk about here. What I will say is that the truth value of the statement “Three times John’s favorite number plus four times Gail’s favorite number will yield seven” is:

True if (“John’s favorite number“, “Gail’s favorite number“) belongs to the set of solutions of 3x + 4y = 7,

False if (“John’s favorite number“, “Gail’s favorite number“) does not belong to the set of solutions of 3x + 4y = 7, and

Nonsense if, for example, John claims his favorite number is “cinnamon“. Be on the lookout for nonsense – it is surprisingly common.

The Assumptions

Ok. Welcome back. Here are the assumptions I was talking about:

All questions have a right answer
… when the answer is justified properly with a well framed statement.
The truth value of the statement may be subject to variables that change which answer is correct, but with a fixed set of values for the variables, there is a right answer. For example, the question “Should all trees taller than 12 feet in our neighborhood be pruned?” could be answered “Yes”, justified with the statement “It is unacceptable for some trees in our neighborhood to block sight lines to the lakefront”. Note that here the answer to the question is “yes” if the statement is true, and “no” if the statement is false, and may reasonably depend on whether or not the tree is also so wide, or part of a grove, as to make it impossible for a resident to see the lakefront from a different angle standing on the same property. It may also depend on whether 12 feet is a reasonable height with respect to whether or not sight lines get blocked. In this case these variables need to be introduced into the statement, or else agreed upon as not being variable.

The right answer may well not be knowable
… even with the variable values fixed – which doesn’t mean there is no right answer!
As an example, consider the question “How many humans are alive on Earth right now?”

• The number changes many times in a short span of time. So the truth value of the answer depends on what time it is indexed to.
• The answer is subject to a definition of “alive”, and the answers to whether or not some organisms are living humans are in dispute.
• “On” Earth needs to be defined. If I am in an airplane, am I on Earth? What if I am in low orbit?
• However there is an answer, if we fix the variables.
• There is currently no way, even with the variables fixed, to know the answer.

Knowing the truth is inherently valuable.
This is a big one. Many people demonstrate by their behavior that they do not adhere to this assumption. A simple example is the person who refuses to go to the doctor about a problem because they are afraid of what they might find out. In some ways, not wanting to know the truth is a human quality, especially in situations where a false belief has spawned an entire tree of values and beliefs we have been living by. If the root belief is false, what happens to the tree?

When it Comes to Truth, What We Want Doesn’t Matter
So with these assumptions, my position is that for any belief I hold, I am either right or wrong, and that I may not be able to tell. So then what am I to make of someone who disagrees? Can I immediately conclude that they are wrong? Clearly not. However I freely admit I want them to be wrong, so that I don’t have to be. After all, being wrong has some negative implications. On a fairly benign end it means I have been somehow deluded, which injures my pride. On an extreme end it may mean I have to discard an entire tree of conclusions that were premised on my error, leaving behind a buzzing hive of uncomfortable questions and observations about my previous behavior. But if the root belief is actually wrong, what choice do I really have? Since it is rooted in falsehood, the whole tree is an illusion anyway.

Here is a hard truth: What we want has nothing to do with what is true. I want there to be peace in the Middle East. But there is not peace in the Middle East, and no amount of wishing on my part, no matter how fervent, can alter the truth value of this or any other statement. On the other hand, what is true can and should definitely impact what I want. What we all want.

Ok. Here is another statement that is tautologically true: In the set of things I hold to be true, some might be false. And from a probability perspective, I am also comfortable saying that in the set of things I hold to be true, some are true, and some are false. I want to say “most are true and some are false”, but I am honestly not sure I have a reasonable argument to claim that, so we’ll leave it there as a desire more than a fact.

Now I will focus on statements where the truth depends on fixing values for the variables in the statement., which to me is the core of the shades of gray argument: In cases where there is a continuum of possibilities between true and false, almost everything in the set of things I hold to be true lies somewhere within the boundaries of the continuum, rather than on one of the ends.

Here a philosopher or mathematician might (and should!) argue that there can be no continuum between true and false, since those are binary options. My response is that I am talking about a sphere of reasonable answers centered on the truth, where anything outside the sphere is easily demonstrated to be false (or worse, nonsense), but things get a little more touchy inside the sphere. This is a consequence of my point about the truth of a statement depending on fixing values for variables the statement depends upon. To elaborate on this, I am going to define something called an assumption set.

Assumption Set
Suppose a statement depends on a set of variables. For example, consider the statement “Running is good for you.” The truth of this is not absolute. It depends on some variables:

• How much running (the quantity of the running)?
• How intense (the quality of the running)?
• What preconditions do you have that running would exacerbate (e.g, bad knees, asthma, heart problems)?
• Where do you plan to do your running (road, track, beach)?
• and many more.

So before we could discuss whether the statement is true, we would have to fix values for these variables. I call these fixed values the assumption set. So for example an assumption set for this statement could be
$R=\{45 minutes per day, at 80\% of maximum heart rate, \{sensitive to sunlight, plantar fasciitis\}, track\}$.
Notice that one of the elements (the preconditions) in this assumption set is itself a set – that’s completely acceptable. On the whole, I would judge this assumption set to be a reasonable one – which is to say, the elements of the set have a probability associated with them that makes them not unexpected in the context of discussing the claim that “Running is good for you.”
Another assumption set could be
$S=\{15 hours per day, at 120\% of maximum heart rate, \{multiple hip replacements, torn Achilles tendon\}, Interstate Highways\}$.
On the whole, I would judge this assumption set to be very unreasonable – which is to say, it is highly improbable that this would be an assumption set on which the claim “Running is good for you” would be a relevant discussion.

A reasonable answer to a question can be defined as a statement that is true when evaluated with a plausible assumption set. That is to say, the assumption set is comprised of elements that have probabilities high enough that if we observed them we would not be surprised. In situations where the variables are in constant flux, the approximate truth value of a statement may be argued as the one that holds given the most likely assumption set. In cases like this, we may generalize a statement as true, while being willing to challenge it in the face of a game-changing assumption set. We maybe won’t talk about who gets to define “plausible”, even though there are times when that becomes the most relevant thing.

Arguing(?) With an Open Mind
Here I have chosen to use the word “arguing”, even though in truth I prefer the word “discussing”. That’s because most people seem to think that discussions between people in disagreement need to be arguments. I disagree. Remember the assumption that we are not right about everything? And remember the assumption that knowing the truth is inherently valuable? These two should premise every discussion we enter into. So when discussing the answers to questions, or the truth about statements, we need to do our best to remember that what we are trying to do is get as close to the center of the sphere as possible, because that is a good thing to do, and because we may not be there yet.

Of course, we all think we are closer than an opponent. If not, we wouldn’t be having the discussion in the first place. But keeping in mind that if two people are in disagreement, one of them must be wrong, a productive conversation is one where at the end of it the parties have converged on something they both hold to be as close to true as they can see getting. When this happens, the world gets a win. I’ll list some techniques for true open-mindedness.

Discussing With an Open Mind

1. Remember that you might be wrong.
Put another way, be willing to change your mind, or adjust the approximate truth of what you believe.
See, you believe that you are probably right. You may even believe that you are certainly right (although for the truly reflective, certainty is a pretty difficult thing to attain). But your opponent has the same thoughts. Both of you probably have many reasons for these. And they probably have a lot to do with assumption sets, and which one of you is applying the most plausible set. Sometimes the discussion is not about the truth of the statement but on the plausibility of the assumption set. Keep that in mind. Yours may be the less plausible. Or maybe both assumption sets are equally plausible, in which case the statement can be split into two (or more) more detailed statements that include some of the differing assumptions explicitly. But keep in mind that emotional attachment to an assumption set can and will blind you to the plausibility of an alternate set, and ultimately cause you to refute a statement with unreasonable (even fanatical) obstinacy.
2. Have higher expectations for yourself than you do for your opponent.
This means you need to challenge yourself to inspect the assumptions and claims of yourself and your opponent objectively, even if they are not doing the same thing. When you do this – and do it out loud – they hear that. Look at elements of the assumption sets and objectively evaluate their probability. Also evaluate whether they change the truth value of the statement or not. And be prepared to evaluate whether or not they render the statement as nonsense – this happens surprisingly often but it’s not obvious until it is isolated. Discussing things this way models a behavior that is necessary for the two of you to converge on a conclusion you both agree with. And if you are consistent with it, your opponent will often adopt the same style, if only because they think this is the way to convince you they are right.
3. Thank your opponent, regardless of the outcome.
I don’t mean this as a politeness. I mean this in the most sincere sense. Any opportunity we get to reflect on our set of beliefs is valuable. Sometimes your opponent and you will converge. Sometimes you will not, and they leave the exchange completely unmoved, perhaps even claiming “victory”. This is sad, since the only true victory would be a convergence of opinion, but ultimately it is not relevant to your own experience. Make it so that if you have moved on a topic, it is because you discovered something you were not considering, or were considering incorrectly, and now you are closer to the center of the sphere of truth. If you do not move, make it because you were not presented with any strong evidence that you needed to. In either case your beliefs will have been strengthened in some way, either because you changed to something as a result of new insight, or because you were challenged in some way, and it was unsuccessful. For this you have your opponent to thank.

How to Spot Real Open-Mindedness
Many people claim to be open-minded. It may be true, or it may be a trick (some people say it so that when you fail to convince them of something it will prove they were right). True open-mindedness doesn’t mean you are ready to believe anything. It means you are willing to change your mind when presented with evidence that objectively compels you to do so. If you know of (or are) someone who has changed their mind in the moment, during rational discourse, but who was fairly slow to do so, they are probably the type of person I am describing. This goes back to my point that we are probably not right about everything we believe. Which means mind-changing can occur. Which means if you’ve seen it occur, it occurred in someone with an open mind.

Rich

## Phone Addiction is NOT Okay

Hi. My name is Rich and I am an addict.

Ok. I know that’s been borrowed from AA protocol countless times. Often in jest when not in the context of an actual meeting. But I’m not joking – I am an addict. I have had a few addictions in my life, thankfully not any of the big nasty ones like alcohol or drugs, but some of the ones I’ve had have had negative impact, for certain. The two most prominent are food and smartphones.

I am going to talk a little about the food addiction later in this article. But I mainly want to talk about the subtle and not-so-subtle evils that my phone addiction has wrought. The first is an obvious one, and it has been discussed to death. Still, it needs addressing:

#### Phone Addiction Steals You From The World

There are way too many times I have belatedly realized that my son, daughter, wife or close friend made an attempt to communicate with me while I was using my phone. And after they realize it’s like talking to a projection, they give up. The worst part is they seem to just accept it – that they are not going to win my attention over whatever clever post I am reading or writing, or whatever video about people hurting themselves doing stupid things I am watching, or whatever likes I am counting. What’s worse is that so many of those times they were the ones who had my attention first, but during a brief lull in our interaction I pulled out my phone to investigate a notification and was subsequently checked out. Most heart-wrenching is that it is out of respect for me that they give up and don’t try to interrupt my phone time. Clearly I don’t need to go further on the evil of this aspect. The next few are a little more subtle, but insidious.

Humility aside, my concentration and focus used to be legendary. I could get lost in a process, with intense focus for hours on end. So much so that I would forget to eat or even go to the washroom, until the need for one or both of those became impossible to ignore and I would look at the clock and be shocked at the time. And the things I could do during that time were amazing. It’s how I got through my Masters degree with a GPA of 97%, for example (that and major support from my awesome wife and kids). Lately, my concentration sucks. I find myself looking for distraction only minutes after beginning something. At first, when I noticed this, I blamed my age. It’s no secret that aging can have an impact on brain function. But the truth is I am 48, and there are plenty of people older – even much older – than me who can concentrate on a task for a long period of time with no trouble. On a smartphone, nothing needs concentration, and everything is provided in quick bites. You flit from item to item like a politician moving through a political rally, shaking hands with everyone and meeting nobody. And you can tell yourself that this is behaviour limited to your phone time, but what you miss is that your brain is a learning machine, and it’s learning a behaviour. Your brain wires itself to adapt to your environment, even if that environment is the manufactured barrage of inanity you kill time with on your phone.

Possibly worse, is that we tell ourselves that the phone is a harmless distraction, and we use it at the weirdest times. I’ve used it while watching TV, thinking that surely the TV doesn’t care so no harm done. But while the TV doesn’t care, my brain does. Watching a television show requires focus. Not the same level as calculus mind you – but focus nonetheless. There’s a story unfolding and if you miss something the subsequent bits make less sense. So you are missing an opportunity to focus. To practice what I tell my students is the single most lacking skill in the computer generation: uni-tasking. I have heard many a person brag about their ability to multi-task, which is great, I guess. But smartphones have stolen our ability to focus on one thing for a long time. We can no longer effectively uni-task.

Yeah, this one took me a while to clue into. I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that I am making more mistakes at things that I should be able to do automatically. Frighteningly, I don’t even notice them when I make them – only once they are pointed out, or long after, do I notice. And when I do notice I have no memory of making the mistake.

Now I hear you say Wait! That’s just a symptom of aging!

Well, yes. It could be. But the thing is, there is a thought groove I find myself in when these things happen – like a road I know I’ve been on because the landmarks are familiar but I can’t quite place it. Then it hit me. Autocorrect. Autocorrect and predictive text. Both of these so-called innovations have made it so that we don’t even have to concentrate on the simple act of typing a text, email, or post. Just type close to what you want and autocorrect will fix it for you. Not always correctly, mind you, but often. So much so that when it gets it wrong we don’t even notice until later, making for some humorous/embarrassing messages getting sent. I actually hated this feature, and turned off autocorrect some time ago, but I kept the predictive text on. And it works so well that I often only have to type the first 1-3 letters of what I want and an entire phrase is suggested to me – correctly. So I select it and don’t check it. And sometimes, my iPhone does the old bait-and-switch on me so that the thing I think I’m selecting changes to something else just before I select it, and I don’t even notice and the wrong thing gets sent.

Like I said before, the brain is a learning machine. And my smartphone addiction has taught my brain that you only have to start a thought to have it completed automatically. And that is what has manifested into these increasingly frequent mistakes. It is NOT age. I can feel it when it happens. It is the same thought groove as typing on my phone.

#### At Least I Remember When It Wasn’t So

The scariest thought to me is that these things I describe are changes. As in, it wasn’t always so for me. I am actually frightened about the generations that don’t have a comparison to make to a different time. A generation that believes that being able to concentrate on one thing for a long time is an unusual, maybe even useless skill. Or that being able catch every joke in a sitcom is a freakish ability. Or that being able to spell a word correctly on purpose is a worthwhile ability. With respect to the issues I have outlined, I want to go back to the way I was. But for many younger people, this is the way they have always been. There is nothing to go back to.

#### Quitting May Not Be the Answer

So the fix would seem obvious, wouldn’t it? Just stop. But that’s not realistic, or even really desirable. Many good things come from my smartphone. I have made friends – good friends – who live in different countries from me, and I stay in touch with them using my phone. There are legitimately useful apps, like the medication reminder, the shared grocery list. Or the math puzzle game Euclidea that actually reverses some of the deleterious concentration effects I described above. I use GPS apps all the time and get lost much less often (though sadly, I still manage to get lost sometimes). I listen to so much more music variety than I did in the days when you had to buy records, tapes or CD’s, and it is so much more easy to discover new music now than then. I take a lot of photos with my phone, and some of those are real treasures that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I read some great articles, and have learned a ton of cool things. Chances are super-high you are reading this on a smartphone. I believe these are good things. So I don’t want to quit. And I don’t think anyone has to. We live in a pretty plugged in world, and more and more there are things that are designed to be done on our devices that are actually difficult if not impossible to do otherwise. So modified usage is the key.

#### Modification Requires Discipline

Or does it? I mean, yeah, it does. Almost always. If you want to modify a behaviour it means breaking a habit, and that is not trivial. You need to be disciplined. And you need to believe that you can do it. Which I think, for many people, is the main obstacle to success. That belief that you can do it. Which leads me to my food addiction:

#### How I Modified My Eating Behaviour

The first addiction in my life I had to acknowledge was food. Maybe I was genetically doomed to that, or maybe it was my upbringing, but my addiction to food is real either way. It resulted in a max weight of 250 lbs, and an adulthood of gaining-losing-gaining, until my heart attack 3 years ago. The heart attack was actually not caused by my eating, or so the cardiologist says, but rather genetics. My arteries are shaped in a more clog-worthy way than you’d set out to do if you were designing a human from scratch. However there’s no argument that my food addiction wasn’t helping. The heart attack added a new tool to my psyche though – something that’s simultaneously heard and easy to describe: a hard stop. Before the heart attack meals were a negotiation in my head. And I often didn’t come out the winner in the bargain. Now there is no negotiation. I eat clean, all the time. I don’t overeat. I actually can have just one french fry. Truly! French fries are a food I will not allow myself to order or prepare anymore, but on occasion I have had just one from someone else’s meal – even though they were finished and offered me the rest. Just one, for the taste, and I have no desire to eat another. Cardio is now a non-negotiable habit as well. I don’t negotiate whether or not I will do it. I just do.

I am as fit as I’ve ever been and certainly as healthy as I’ve ever been. People often ask me how I did it and I sadly tell them that I wish I could give them the secret, but the secret is I had a heart attack and I don’t want another one.

The picture on the left features my beautiful niece at her first birthday. You may be distracted by her cuteness – I understand. Take your time. But when you are ready, the place to look is my belly protruding under my forearm. The picture on the right is a fun shot I took after a workout a couple of weeks ago. Oh, and by the way – both those photos were taken with my phone.

So. I have managed to find a way to live a healthy life despite a food addiction, even if the way I found was not something I’d wish on anyone. But after all, isn’t it all in my head? This new tool I called the hard stop?

Of course it is. And because it is I believe I can apply that rationale to my phone addiction. I have started to, and will continue to do so.

#### What I Am Doing to Fix it

I turned off all the features of my phone that try to think for me. Any typos or wrong words I send now are all mine. And there are so much fewer of them now! It takes me longer to compose a message. But it’s worth it.

I will not look at my phone while watching TV. Not even during commercials. Because you can’t force yourself to stop the moment the commercial is over.

If I am in the middle of a legitimate text conversation with someone, I make sure the people in the room with me know it, so they know why I am checked out. And when it is done, I tell them explicitly that I am done and I put my phone away so that they can have my distraction-free attention.

When I sit down to do focus-heavy tasks, like work or drawing, I put my brain in do-not-disturb mode, meaning I don’t check notifications at all, and my phone becomes a music player exclusively. When I do this, I let anyone know who would normally feel like they have 24/7 access to me that I have gone dark. This way if they need to communicate with me they know they need to either do it in person or call. Because as we all know, nobody ever uses their smartphone as a telephone, so when there is an actual call I know I should check to see who it is and probably answer.

#### It Can Be Done

As they say, no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. You don’t have to quit if you can properly modify. And you can. I believe you don’t need a critical moment to be the catalyst. Just the knowledge that you can do it. And I really, really believe we need to.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on smartphone addiction, and how it can be addressed. Feel free to share in the comments section.

Rich

## Our Schooling System is Broken

It has been a while since my last blog – it was never my intention to go so long between posts but you know … sometimes life hands you other things. In any case I plan to start writing again more frequently, starting with a subject that has been on my mind for a while now: Education.

See, I am thinking our system might be broken. Scratch that – I know it’s broken, and in many ways. But I am talking about a fundamental issue, which is the assumption that performance in a school system with a standardized curriculum is a key measure of personal value. I will try to explain, starting with some background for context.

#### I Am a Teacher

It’s true. I am a teacher. A very happy one at that. I love my job. I teach high school math in Ontario, Canada, and have been doing that for about 15 years. Prior to that I worked as a software developer for about 10 years. When people ask me what I do for a living (something other adults seem to have a deep need to know upon meeting each other), the conversation always goes roughly the same way:

Other Adult: “So Rich, what do you do for a living?”
Rich: “I’m a teacher.”
OA: “Oh? Nice. What do you teach?”
(Rich’s note: There may or may not be a “joke” here by OA along the lines of “Oh yeah? You know what they say: ‘Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach’ hahahahaha”)
Rich (being honest, even though it’s not what they meant): “Kids.”
OA: “Oh, haha. But seriously, what subject?”
Rich (with an inward eye-roll – here it comes): “I teach high school math.”
OA: “Oh god. I hate math. I remember I used to be so good at it until grade 8 when I had Ms. Heffernan. She hated me! And she was so terrible to the kids. She made me hate math. I never understood anything in math after that. I am so bad at math! The other day I tried to help my 7 year-old with her homework and I couldn’t even understand what they were doing. Do you tutor? I think I may need to hire you to help little Kelly with her math. Math is so confusing. I keep telling her she doesn’t need it anyway. I mean, I run a multi-million dollar business and I never use any of the math they tried to teach me in high school. Why don’t you guys start teaching useful stuff like understanding financial statements and investing? I had to learn all that stuff on my own. I don’t see why math is so important. I am really successful and I was never any good at it thanks to Ms. Heffernan …..”
Rich: “I apologize on behalf of all my brethren. Please carry on with your successful math-free life. Yes, I’d be happy to help Kelly, but honestly she probably doesn’t need any help. She’s 7. She will conquer.”

You get the point. But as I said, I seriously love my job. For many reasons. But perhaps the main one is that it keeps me connected to the fluidity of humanity. I keep getting older, but my students do not. They are the same age every year. And because I spend a large number of hours each day immersed in their culture, it forces me to keep my thinking current, so that I can continue to effectively communicate. In this way I feel less like some sort of flotsam floating on the river of time and more like a beaver dam of sorts, constantly filtering new water on it’s way downstream, being shored up with new materials as each generation passes through. I am like a connection between the past and the future, and the older I get, the larger the gap I am privileged to span. And in any case, young people are perpetually awesome. It brings a faith in humanity I’m not sure I could get in other ways to see firsthand the caretakers of the future.

#### School Is Not Really About Education

Um, what? Isn’t school by definition about education?

Well, yeah. Granted it’s supposed to be. But it isn’t. All you have to do is talk to almost any adult existing in Western society today about it and they will tell you (often with great relish, as though they are solving world hunger), they never use a single thing they learned in school in their day-to-day lives. Which is of course false. But mostly true. If you went to school in Canada you probably at some point had to know things like what year Champlain landed in Quebec (1608, in case you’re stumped – I just Googled it). I can say with a fair amount of confidence that whether or not you have that tidbit of info available in your memory banks is not affecting your life in any measurable way. You probably also had to know the quadratic formula at some point. I don’t have to Google that one. It’s $x=\frac{-b\pm\sqrt{b^2-4ac}}{2a}$. Nifty, isn’t it? Sorry if I scared you.

Here. Check out these definitions of “education”. I Googled it.

Side note: Google is so cool. I’m 48. I have existed both with and without Google. I had to assimilate the use of Google as a verb into a lexicon that did not previously have it established that way. Your kids didn’t. They have to establish the word googol as a noun referring to the number $10^{100}$ into a lexicon that likely does not have it established that way.

See? The very first definition says I am wrong. School is about education, literally by definition. Oh, but check out definition number 2! Now that is a good one. Education is an enlightening experience! The thing is, in many cases, and for many people, school isn’t enlightening. In many cases, school is an exercise in conformity and alignment. It’s a system which simultaneously (and somewhat arbitrarily) defines success (um, I think I mean worth) and then provides measures for individuals to evaluate their success (yeah, I definitely mean worth).

#### Performance of Curriculum is a False Measure of Worth

Ok. So when you were a kid, around the age of 5, your parents sent you off to school. And almost immediately, you started to get report cards. They aren’t cards anymore. In many cases they aren’t even paper. But still called report cards. A figurative card summarizing your score on a number of predetermined criteria for success. And make no mistake – from that very first report card on, kids are sent the message that they must perform according to standards so that they get good report cards. I’m going to stay away from the early years, since that’s not my area of expertise, and fast forward to high school, which is. Let’s look at an example. This is based on a real person, whose name I’ve changed. Yes it’s anecdotal. It’s not meant as proof, only to demonstrate my point.

Sally is a young lady in grade 9 who has never particularly had an interest in math – at least in how it’s presented at school. She really doesn’t care about direct vs. partial variation, or the sum of the exterior angles of a polygon, or about how doubling the radius affects the volume of a sphere. But Sally goes to school, in a system which has not only determined that these things are important, they are also mandatory. So she has no choice but to engage in attempts to learn about these things, despite the fact that she is actually incapable of being interested in them. Sally is awesome, by the way. A genuinely caring human with deep empathy, intense loyalty, and a great sense of humour. Sally is also depressed, because she feels worthless. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t figure out how substituting $2r$ for $r$ into the formula $V=\frac{4}{3}\pi r^3$ causes the volume to increase by a factor of 8. In a test designed to determine if Sally can do these things, her performance was dismal. Her mark on that test was a 58%. The class average was 85%. When the teacher returned the test, she made comments like “Well, I know that I taught about exterior angles, but it is clear that some of you did not learn it.” When Sally brought the test home to show her parents (who, incidentally, knew that Sally had the test coming up, hired a tutor to help her prepare, and then asked if she had gotten it back each day after school starting the day after it had been written until the day a week later when it was returned), her parents were frustrated and disappointed. Sally has been conditioned to believe that her ability to understand direct and partial variation is critical. Because it is mandatory, her inability to care or comprehend is forcibly highlighted. And subsequently, her performance is recorded for posterity on her report card. Sally’s final grade in math ends up being 61%. Her parents are disappointed. Sally is devastated. She believes there is something fundamentally wrong with her, because she legitimately can not measure up to the standards set in a system she has no choice but to be engaged in.

#### Breaking Down the Process

Let’s have a look at this situation of Sally’s, and the number of places where the system went wrong.

First off, the concepts Sally has to learn have honestly been arbitrarily determined. See, someone, somewhere, decided that Calculus is an important prerequisite subject for many university and college programs. And to learn Calculus (a grade 12 subject in Ontario), you arguably have to start with concepts like direct and partial variation in earlier grades. And because grade 9 is truly too early to know if programs that require Calculus are in your future, this pre-calculus material is incorporated into the curriculum for pretty much everybody.

Second, math is mandatory. In Ontario high school is a 4-year program, and you must have a minimum of 3 math credits to earn a high school diploma. All of this has nothing – and everything – to do with Sally. Next comes the process. Sally’s teacher created quite possibly an amazing series of lessons on these topics. Sally just doesn’t have the wiring for them, so even though the teacher may be phenomenal, it will have a marginal impact on Sally’s ability to synthesize the material. Sally used to ask questions in class. Now she doesn’t, because she learned that even when she asked, it didn’t help. Sally is deeply empathic – she has seen firsthand the good intentions and effort of her teachers in the past. She can read facial expressions and body language. She has seen her teachers answer her questions and try to help her and seen how much they believe the answers and help are working, so she has pretended that it was, since that was easier than admitting that it wasn’t, because it meant burdening herself with her inadequacy instead of her teachers.

Third, Sally has been conditioned to believe that it is all being done so that she can get high grades. Because ultimately her success is defined by her report card. And because pretty much everyone is telling her that you don’t need this stuff in life anyway. You just need to learn it to get high grades so you can be successful. Which means the only purpose to learning this stuff is the test you will eventually write on it. This is exacerbated by the well-intentioned parents who put so much emphasis on the test – both before and after. You’ve heard the question “When am I ever going to use this?” Well the answer for most kids is “Next week, when you are tested on it.”

See? It’s all artificial. Sally is a high-worth kid, forced into a situation she isn’t wired for, and told that her worth is defined by her performance in that situation. It’s incredibly sad to watch.

#### The Present and the Future

So here’s where we are now. Many kids and parents these day believe that high marks are critical. The perception is that material presented in school is not inherently valuable, but instead the value is that it is a vehicle to high marks. This means that kids will often do anything it takes to get the high marks. This includes cheating, but that’s not really what I am driving at. What I mean is that they develop strategies that focus on getting high marks, as opposed to learning. Cramming for tests, paying for courses in small private schools that guarantee (implicitly or explicitly) very high grades, or negotiating with teachers (even to the extent of aggressively bullying) after the fact are all standard operating procedure. What is so terrible is that Sally may be able to get high grades using any of these tactics. But Sally will also always know that she didn’t earn them. She will always know that she is not good at something that she should be good at if she is to be valuable. And if and when she manages to gets the high grades anyway, that sense of fraudulence will haunt her. I’ve seen it. It’s tragic. Sally has a great future if she can discover her true worth. The worth she was born with and the worth that her friends probably value more than anything she can do in a math class. But she may or may not discover it.

#### What I Do About It

I love people. And that includes the kids I teach. And I teach high level math, which is honestly not for everyone. I get a lot of kids coming through my classroom doors who are not there because they want to be, and who will not be able to draw the joy from studying math that I really, really do. I have constraints. I have to teach the material as it’s laid out by governmental process. I have to assign grades that reflect students’ performance against some pretty specific criteria. But within this I make sure that each and every kid I teach knows that I value them as a person. That I care about their story. That I see them not as a 2-dimensional projection of my consciousness, but as a multi-dimensional consciousness of their own, with a narrative as rich and intricate as mine. I make sure that they understand that any evaluation I do of their abilities in math is a tiny, tiny cog in the complex machinery of their existence, and has zero impact on my impressions of them as people, or on my estimation of their worth. I show them that it is totally acceptable to love and be passionate about math, without tying that love and passion to an evaluation. It’s not about the math. It’s about giving them permission to take joy out of abstractions, and to pursue the things that they were wired to do. I’m not always successful. Some kids are too preconditioned. But I will never stop trying.

Rich

## Customer Service Goodness

These days any time I have an encounter where I don’t receive crappy customer service I celebrate. Anyone I talk to generally agrees with this. Before entering teaching I worked in a software company, often supporting clients with questions or issues with our product. They would sometimes call feeling angry, frustrated and looking for someone’s head to rip off. Even though the problem was generally something they did, I always made sure to treat them with respect, absorb the negativity, and channel it into a solution. I never engaged in arguments or accusations, and I always made sure that if I said I was going to get something done for them I did, and right away. After all it wasn’t my reputation on the line but that of the company I worked for. But this attitude in customer service seems to be almost extinct.

Take Rogers for example (if you’re not from Eastern Canada, that’s one of the big telecommunications companies we have little choice but to deal with in these parts). Any time there is any issue we have to call about, my wife and I end up putting it off because we know, from experience, that it will be at least an hour on the phone, after which whatever we thought we had settled on would be incorrectly implemented and billed, so that upon receiving the next statement we would have another minimum one hour phone call to make.

So in the face of this dearth of good customer service, I decided to write today about a few extremely positive experiences I have had. People should definitely know about these, and hopefully bring their business to these companies. I also encourage you to share your own examples of excellent customer service in the comments. I’d love to read about them and reward them with my business when possible.

Example 1: Ontario Gas BBQ (http://www.bbqs.com)

A few years ago I had a Weber gas barbecue that I used all year round and I never covered it in the winter (so I wouldn’t have to clean ice and snow off a cover to use it). Because of this, the burners had quite a bit of rust on them, something for which I blamed nobody but myself. It got to the point where the flame was so uneven I couldn’t use the barbecue properly. So I figured I needed to buy new burners. To make sure I got the right ones, I took out the existing burners and brought them to Ontario Gas BBQ to buy replacements. The owner happened to serve me. He took my burners, went to the back and got the replacements and brought them to the cash. I had my credit card out ready to pay – it was about $120. Then he looked at the burners I had brought in and asked me why I was replacing them. I told him they were blocked and unusable from rust. He said “Nonsense. They just need to be cleaned.” and then proceeded to clean them for me. Took him about 20 minutes. He charged me nothing. The man could have easily made a$120 sale and I would have been happy. He would not have lost my business because I love that place. I never would have known I’d wasted my money, but he would have. So that’s what he did. What I did was turn around and buy a $100 barbecue cover that I didn’t really intend to buy, because I wanted him to make some money from me that day. (Epilogue: I used that cover but one day it blew off in a windstorm and I never found it. I suspect it is now being used as a tent in some Costa Rican honeymoon resort) Example 2: Longo’s Longo’s is a chain of grocery stores in my area. I don’t know how far out of the Greater Toronto Area they have stores, but if you have one near you, shop there. Longo’s has one of those loyalty programs that everyone seems to have these days. At the beginning, you could redeem earned points for merchandise from their website. My wife and I needed a new cookware set and they had one on their site that we really liked. Lagostina set, retails for about$320.

So we were saving our points for that. Then one day when I was cashing out at Longo’s the cashier told me that they were phasing out their merchandise rewards in favour of cash rewards in the store. I was sad about that, because we were still about 3000 points short for the set and we really wanted it. To earn 3000 points we’d need to spend another $1500 in groceries in a few weeks, which was obviously not going to happen. I emailed Longo’s and asked if there was any way to pay the difference between the points we had earned thus far and what we needed for the cookware set. If they had given me a dollar amount I needed to pay I would have been very happy with the service. Instead they immediately credited my points account with the 3000 extra points I needed (at no charge), and I ordered the set (it’s awesome, by the way). This was far beyond anything I had expected them to do, even in the best case. Example 3: Mophie (http://www.mophie.com) I have an iPhone 5 that I use intensely. I find that the battery life for me is only good for about 2/3 of a day. I decided I wanted a battery case for the phone and Mophie cases are a great (but expensive) choice. I had a case that I liked, the juice pack helium, but it only added about 80% more battery life to the phone and after about a year I decided to upgrade to the case that adds 120%. It’s the juice pack plus. That case also comes in red (part of the (Red) campaign), but it’s a little extra. For my birthday my brother and some good friends chipped in and bought me that case. With tax that’s about$150, which was certainly very nice of them. After a couple of months I started to suspect that there was something wrong with the battery in the case. It’s hard to be sure, but it seemed to me that I was consistently getting less battery life with the new case than I was with the old one, which makes no sense. The old one would take me from 20% battery to full charge and then some. The new case would often only get me to around 95%. I contacted Mophie through their website and explained the potential problem. Their response came the next morning, asking me to submit the serial number of the case and a scanned receipt. I responded telling them I had no receipt because it was a gift, but of course I did have the serial number. The next morning their response to that was to confirm my shipping address and they shipped me a new case, indicating that it was not necessary for me to return the old one. Wow. I received the new case 3 days later. When I plugged it in to charge it charged, but when I connected it to my phone the phone did not charge immediately, though it eventually did. I emailed them to let them know about that and their response was once again immediate. They shipped me another new one – no need to return the old one. In both cases I would have fully expected to have to return the old case, and not seen that as a problem. I received the second new one 3 days later. I posted about this excellent service on Facebook but the story doesn’t end there. A few days after receiving the second case I got an invoice from FedEx for customs charges for the first case. The phone cases were shipped from Michigan and I guess when they go through customs FedEx covers any charges at the border then bills the recipient. I figured I’d get a second bill from FedEx for the second case, which I did. Once I had both bills I contacted Mophie and without any argument (in fact, with an apology!) they asked me to send they scanned copies of the invoices so that they could pay them.

There you have it. These are three examples of beyond excellent customer service I have received. The sad part is that it’s the only three examples I can think of, but I know you have more. Please share your good ones in the comments section, so that more people can know about them, and please give your business to the three I’ve listed!

Rich

## Grief vs. Misery

During a conversation with a friend today I had occasion to think about the grief and misery I felt when my mother passed away almost five years ago, and also when the very young son of a close friend of mine passed away about two years before that. Grief. Misery. Two highly emotional words. I never really thought about them separately before, but they are quite different.

In both experiences the grief of the loss was immediate and profound. And in both cases the misery was painfully intense. In my conversation today I realized how separate these two emotions are when it comes to loss. Grief is a natural emotion stemming from losing someone you love. It’s that feeling of having something critical to your existence removed, violently and without your permission. It’s a feeling that combines powerlessness, loss and anger. It’s natural and even essential for continued survival. It paves the way for acceptance and growth.

When I think of my mother these days, I think of her beautiful soul, her love, and all that she gave me that makes me who I am now, and who I am now is someone I like. I owe her that, and my grief over her loss provided an intensification of my understanding of that.

When I think of my friend’s son, I remember how happy he was, how much joy he brought with him into a room, and the way he played with my kids when he visited from out of town, as if they’d been friends forever. I remember the way his passing brought so many people together – people who unquestioningly put aside any issues they may have had with each other so that they could be there to support the family and show that in times of extreme despair there is a community whose arms you can fall into when tragedy buckles your knees. To him I owe my ability to see past the petty sheen of casual interaction through to the deeper beauty of humanity. My grief over his loss brought me there.

Both losses still make me sad. That does not make me angry. I accept the sadness as part of my understanding of myself and others around me. The sadness is completely intertwined with my gratitude for having known them. When it surfaces, I feel the gratitude and joy right there with the sadness and I smile. The emotions coexist, as they should.

So accept your grief and let it wash over you, but resist the temptation to fall into misery. Nobody can control whether an emotion surfaces or not, but you can use your rational brain to evaluate the source. Experience the grief, and it will pass into something more. Reject the misery.

Rich

Short blog today based on a conversation I had recently.

I was talking to a graduating student about how he is going to choose a university. He has been accepted into his two top choices and he doesn’t know how he will decide which one to attend. One university is more widely recognized but would mean moving far from home, where none of his friends will go, and has a more difficult program. The other university is closer to home and has a slightly easier program. Both offer the same degree. After discussing that this was a nice problem to have, I gave him the advice I always give myself. Choose your memories.

The simple truth is that all you are is your memories. The present is a fleeting instant, and the future is unknowable, so your whole life experience – and how you view yourself – is based on your memories of the past. In fact, there is an interesting perspective that points out that since it takes a small amount of time to process what your senses are perceiving, our “present” is in fact already past, which is pretty weird to think about. But that aside, too often people think about a choice like the one my student must make in terms of how the choice will affect their future. The truth is it’s much better to think about how it will affect your past. I asked him which memory he wants.

Which memory do you want?

He didn’t know what I meant by that. I said, picture yourself 10 years down the road. Right now I know that whichever university you attend you will finish the program. So 10 years from now, looking back at your decision, which one will you want to be glad you made? Who would you rather be? The dude with the memory of university A or the one with the memory of university B?

Choices are an opportunity to build the memory you want, which ultimately means to build the person you want. In this way they are very exciting. Every choice is your chance to be more awesome. Take control of your character and choose the memories you’ll be glad to have, so that you can be the person you want to be.

Rich

## Cell Phones and Independence

The other day my wife and I were doing some grocery shopping when her phone rang.

Side note: Before I continue with my post, I had to stop and read that first sentence over again. Read it again yourself. Now if you’re old enough, imagine it was 1988 and read it again. In 1988 language that sentence is pretty much a total non-sequitur. Today it is perfectly sensible. Funny how time-dependent the reasonableness of some assertions are.

Ok. So I was talking about my wife’s phone. She picked it up and saw that the call was coming from home. Conclusion – it’s one of the kids. She answered it of course. You don’t ignore calls from your kids who are home alone. Right? It was our 11-year old daughter on the phone. She was calling because our 15-year old son was on his computer Skyping (a verb that didn’t exist in 1988) with a friend and was unwilling to help her get something down from a tall shelf. He’s 6 feet tall, she’s 5’4 or so. In our house things on tall shelves are retrieved using my son or myself (I’m 5’11). In her mind, he was failing to uphold a sacred duty and as such, she was unable to continue with whatever plan she had that required the thing on the tall shelf. Crisis.

While my wife was dealing with the situation, I pulled out my phone to check Facebook. Naturally. I mean, you don’t just check Facebook while you’re on a grocery date with your wife but if she’s otherwise occupied go ahead, right? Of course. Everyone knows this. It’s smartphone etiquette 101 (try that one in 1988). So I pull out my phone and lo and behold, 2 missed calls from home. Guess I didn’t feel it vibrating over the hum of the freezer section while I was selecting a bag of frozen perogies (ok, that one works in 1988, but back up to 1903! Hmmm …). After my wife hung up, she noted 2 missed calls from home on her phone as well.

In case you’re wondering, the solution she offered was for my daughter to climb up on the counter and get the thing on the tall shelf, which is precisely what happened and everyone survived.

So my first instinct was to be mildly irritated that my daughter would need to bother us in the middle of a romantic stroll through the produce section with this issue. There was a simple solution and there’s really no reason why she should not have just done it without 5 phone calls. I had a plan to go home and have a chat with her about independence. She’s 11 and old enough to know better. I was laying the blame for this admittedly minor situation completely at my daughter’s feet. Then I realized what you may realize already. It’s not her fault. It’s ours. But maybe not in the way that you would think.

See, my kids have grown up with cell phones as a thing. When my wife and I go out we are always reachable. Now if we were home and some similar crisis were to arise, one of us would resolve it as parents tend to do. We resolve a million little things every day without really thinking about it: “I can’t find my shirt”, “There’s a spider on the wall in the bathroom”, “The dog threw up on the carpet”,  … the list goes on. It’s a natural knee-jerk reaction for a kid to notify/defer to a parent with these things. Then at some point we either realize the kid is old enough to handle it on their own and let them know, or preferably the kid realizes that on their own and we never even find out the crisis arose and was subsequently averted.

And you know what occurred to me? That as I was growing up, I most often realized it on my own. And you know what kind of situations made me realize it? Situations when there was no adult around. Situations that needed to be dealt with and my only option was to deal with them on my own. I didn’t always deal with them the same way my parents might have, and I didn’t always deal with them very well the first time around, but deal with them I did. Because if my parents were out of reach I had no other choice.

And that’s it right there. With cell phones we are a generation of parents that are never out of reach. Like never. So that same instinctive reaction to turn to a parent for help is easily satisfied even when the parent is not present. And as parents we don’t always think about it. It takes a second to say “climb up and get it yourself”. It seems like no crime has occurred. But it has. The child has been robbed of the opportunity to solve a problem independently. And those opportunities are critical. Critical.

I have lots of stories but I’ll tell you only one more. It happened a year ago during a parent-teacher interview. At the time the student was in the tenth grade. 15 years old. She was going downtown to meet someone to job shadow for the day since there was no school for her. During the interview with her parents she called twice. They took the call of course. How do you not take a call from your 15-year old daughter when you know she’s downtown alone? So what did she want? Well both times she wasn’t sure which direction to go. The first time was when she got off the subway and didn’t know which street exit to take. The second was when she got to the street and didn’t know which direction she wanted to go so she didn’t know which bus to wait for. She’s a very bright girl. I’ve taught her for two years in a row now. She could have figured it out. What’s more, if her dad had not answered the phone she would have figured it out. Because her only other choice would be to curl up in a fetal position on the subway platform and wait for doom. And I have to tell you, she would not have made that choice. The smart money is on her asking someone in the subway. Like someone who works there. Imagine such a thing.

So what am I saying? Throw away the cell phone? Stop taking calls from the kids? Buy a step-stool?

Actually, none of those things. Cell phones are good for a lot of things (and step-stools around my house just end up being something for me to bark my shin on). But like any tool they can be used for evil too. So here’s my proposition, and we’ve already told our kids about it. I don’t expect them (especially my daughter) to know right away which things they need to consult us on and which they don’t. Some are obvious. If a Mongolian horde is descending on the house then yeah, give us a call. If there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom then maybe that’s one they can field on their own. Somewhere between running to the laundry room (where we store the big Costco package of toilet paper) with your pants around your ankles and positioning soldiers on the parapets with cauldrons of hot oil lies a range of solutions, some of which need a consult and most of which do not. So I’ve told them to think before they call. If they’re not sure, call. But if my wife or I know they can handle it on their own our only response will be “Handle it on your own. Love you. See you later. The oil is under the sink.”

In this way I hope to speed up the independence-gaining process which really seems to have been delayed by years in the younger generations.