Tuesday, May 31, 2011


As a society, we have created many complex systems. Think medicine, education, and finance as prime examples. In parallel to these collectives, we also create perhaps a false belief that each individual in these systems should focus on their selfish selves and, by doing just that, these collectives will prosper and make progress.

Atul Gawande talked about these issues eloquently using an example in medicine.

He said "The truth is that the volume and complexity of the knowledge that we need to master has grown exponentially beyond our capacity as individuals. Worse, the fear is that the knowledge has grown beyond our capacity as a society. When we talk about the uncontrollable explosion in the costs of health care in America, for instance—about the reality that we in medicine are gradually bankrupting the country—we’re not talking about a problem rooted in economics. We’re talking about a problem rooted in scientific complexity."

He further added "That’s why we as doctors and scientists have become ever more finely specialized. If I can’t handle 13,600 diagnoses, well, maybe there are fifty that I can handle—or just one that I might focus on in my research. The result, however, is that we find ourselves to be specialists, worried almost exclusively about our particular niche, and not the larger question of whether we as a group are making the whole system of care better for people."

Overall, Gawande raised very fundamental questions for society to seriously consider and take some actions NOW before it is too late. Also, how do we make sure that the new generations are raised to ask important questions about collectives and their roles in them?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sensemaking through comparison

There was an OpEd article in the New York Times a while ago. It portrays the contrasts in decision making, attitudes, and actions between the treatment of military and schools in the U.S. Here is the link to the article.

I found the comparison to be a powerful reminder for all of us especially why we blame teachers on school failures.

Here is an interesting quote from the story:

WHEN we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!” No, if the results aren’t there, we blame the planners. We blame the generals, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one contemplates blaming the men and women fighting every day in the trenches for little pay and scant recognition.

And yet in education we do just that. When we don’t like the way our students score on international standardized tests, we blame the teachers. When we don’t like the way particular schools perform, we blame the teachers and restrict their resources.

Compare this with our approach to our military: when results on the ground are not what we hoped, we think of ways to better support soldiers. We try to give them better tools, better weapons, better protection, better training. And when recruiting is down, we offer incentives.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Who am I?

One of the highlights from Kung Fu Panda 2 is the pondering from Po, the panda, on the question "Who am I?"

I think all of us, at one point or another, may have a similar question popped up in our head. We often let some past experiences define who we are.

According to Kung Fu Panda 2, we cannot go back and change the past regardless of how much we may want to. Of course, the past may leave scars. But scars do fade.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Responsibility and character: Active sculpting of reckless mindset

Here is a quote from Gretchen Morgenson, a New York Times reporter on her recent NPR interview regarding the reckless behaviors of Fannie Mae that provide a template for reckless behaviors later on Wall Street.

"If you had had regulators doing their job, and if you had had a tough overseer of Fannie Mae who made it increase its capital, who made the company take greater care with some of its loans that it - that it guaranteed or bought, then you wouldn't have had this problem. So you can't lay it simply at the feet of Fannie Mae, but you have to throw in all of these other characters that were acting in their own interests.

It wasn't about the homeowner. It wasn't about expanding home ownership so that immigrants could, you know, build a nest egg for their children, because the kinds of loans these immigrants were given had absolutely no ability to build a nest egg. They were so punishing in their terms, that there was no way the immigrant could possibly pay them off.

So it was an idea, but the execution - the idea was OK. The execution was disastrous. And it was because there were so many self-interested people at the trough."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Imagining university

Here is one perspective to understand universities in today's world. Imagine a spatial unit that stands on three legs. The three legs are financial viability, student learning, and knowledge boundary.

Lately, research universities have increasingly focused on the first leg (financial viability) and, to some extent, the third leg on a push for new knowledge through funded research. This is because funded research serve both purposes. However, this leads universities to become unbalanced and perhaps unsustainable in the long run. The fact that many universities do not offer "meaningful learning experiences" is very disturbing.

So, the daunting question is how to maintain all these three goals in a more balanced way in order to obtain sustainable progress? Not easy indeed.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Increasing concerns about the consequences of excessive technology use

In recent years, some people have become skeptical about the role of technology like Facebook orTwitter and in some cases, the role of private companies and their influence on our lives and our digital identity.

  • Here is a TEDtalk on the concern of "overcustomization" of information that we see, not under our control though, but from the decisions of some companies (e.g., Google, Facebook) to select only the information that they think we like to see. For example, people who have affinity for travel are more likely to receive results related to resorts, travel destinations when type in a country name in Google. On the other hand, people whseems o are more politically inclined may see results related to a recent unrest in that country. Essentially, the overcustomization makes us become narrower and narrower to just a bubble that is full of ourselves. This does not sound like a good thing and to defeat the original purpose of the Internet.

  • Here is an article in the New York Times on the concern of an overuse of social media like Facebook and Twitter. The obvious drawback is "distractions". However, there are more grave concerns when it comes to young adults' over-reliance of Tweets (140 characters) for news. The concern is "We may raise a generation that has information but no context ... Craving but no longing." Indeed, this is a very serious concern.

Just imagine ...

I found the analogy that Atul Gawande uses in this illustration of the consequences of errors made in medicine with errors made in the game of baseball to be intriguing and may worth reflecting. Here how it goes:

"Imagine, though, that if every time Mike Lowell threw and missed, the error cost or damaged the life of someone you cared about. One error leaves an old man with a tracheostomy; another puts a young woman in a wheelchair; another leaves a child brain-damaged for the rest of her days. ... Someone would want to rush to the field howling for Lowell's blood. Others would see all the saves he's made and forgive him his failures. Nobody, though, would see him in quite the same light again. And nobody would be happy to have the game go on as if nothing had happened. We'd want him to show sorrow, to take responsibility. We'd want the people he injured to be helped in a meaningful way." From Better by Atul Gawande.

I want to add a few sentences to this story. Yet, in the end, nothing happens. The world goes on as if none of these happened. The bottom line is, sometimes, we don't use these failures to be better.

Puttiing things in contexts

I often wonder why people may change their decisions when questions are put in different contexts. Here is an example. I read Peter Franklin's story from the book "Better" by Atul Gawande. One day, Peter became sick so he called his father who is a doctor. He went through a chest X-Ray and they found a very large tumor in his chest. However, his dad also discovered that Peter had a chest X-ray four years ago. He went back to look at the diagnosis and found that the radiologist discovered his tumor then but it was never mentioned to Peter. Eventually, the Franklins sue the doctors and they won the case and was awarded $600,000 in damages. Peter eventually survived the aggressive treatments.

Here is when things become interesting to me. After completing medical school, Peter decided to move into radiology. However, he was rejected by his top-choice residency programs. His dean at Boston University called the chairman of the radiology department and they told him that he did not get in because "This guy's a maverick! He's suing doctors!". Then, the dean told Peter's story and asked "If this was your son, what would you do?" And, Peter got accepted after that.

So, what is the moral of this story? Why our decisions are shaped by the contexts? Why do we need others to rephrase the question for us to develop compassion towards other human beings? Why can't we use our own imagination and put things into perspectives ourselves?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Experience and actions

"We should draw from our direct experience (good or bad), reflect on it, and finally use it to help us become a better person."


Sunday, May 15, 2011


What do men with power want?

Answer: More power

From the Oracle, The Matrix Movie

Collective failure: University Experiences and Progress

The two authors of the book "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" who found that college students do not learn much from their 4-year college experiences. In other words, there was little improvement in students' critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills.

Here is their challenge to university faculty and administrators in their recent New York Times OpEd:

"Most of all, we hope that during this commencement season, our faculty colleagues will pause to consider the state of undergraduate learning and our collective responsibility to increase academic rigor on our campuses."

Very critical question indeed.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Experience, competency, decision

I found the answer from the Dalai Lama when he was asked to open a discussion on peace in the family to be profound and should be deeply reflected and applied in the context of everyday individual and collective lives.

His answer was "I have no experience".

That is an important point to show that we may not be able to offer well founded opinions when we do not have direct experience on the subject matters.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Can a person be good at several roles that s/he is doing in his or her life?

  • Can one be a good boss and a good person?
  • Can one be a good colleague and a good person?
  • Can one be a good mentor and a good person?
  • Can one be a good parent and a good person?

Two-level human

Prompted by the celebration of bin Laden's death, an article in the New York Times talks about the two qualities underlying the natural selection:

  • Lower-level (selfish self): Humans are selfish and will compete aggressively with others in the group. This concept promotes the selfish nature of humans.

  • Higher-level (collective self): Humans as collectives compete with other collectives for the survival of the group, not individuals. In other words, each one of us focuses on something that is bigger than each one of us.
The question is how can we apply this understanding to workplace or community that promotes the higher-level thinking rather than the lower-level thinking of selves.

Flower gardens

I would like to use flower gardens as metaphors for the development of collective scholarship.

  • Should we create gardens that allow a million flowers to bloom?
  • Will this be a sustainable model to develop collective scholarship?
  • Alternatively, should we focus more on "conformity" (i.e., gardens with one kind of flowers)?