Sunday, May 25, 2014

New Release for Nutrition Tracker

New features in the release:
1. Add the lookup feature. You can now lookup nutrition facts for a specific food.
2. Missing nutrients are list at the top of the nutrition report in order of decreasing priority. It’s now easy to figure out which nutrients you’re missing.
3. At the report output, click on the nutrition name, you can see the list of food with high value for that particular nutrient.
4. Add DHA/EPA information in the report.

Check it out at:

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How to Teach Your Children to Hate Music

There's a very traditional "tiger parent" way to learn music, which is to use the ABRSM syllabus and exams as a structured approach to approaching music. Millions of Asian children have been tortured by these exams and syllabus. I have no idea how many were trained to hate music as a result, but as a first hand victim, I can assure you that the number is at least one.

The exams are structured the way adults would approach learning. For instance, in piano, the first thing the exam looks for is for you to play scales up and down automatically, without missing keys. The way you'd pass this exam would be to play scales over and over again. Trust me, if your little boy enjoys hitting keys randomly or playing tunes, this will train him to hate the piano quickly.

As you progress up the difficulty levels, you're then asked to play, in addition to scales, arpeggios, and chords, individual pieces. The pieces are selected from a list provided by the exam organization. You can be assured that the confluence of pieces your child loves and the pieces in the exam list will be exactly zero. No pop songs, classic rock pieces or anything fun is allowed in these recital pieces. Your child will get no satisfaction from mastering these pieces, and most likely would never play them again for fun.

The nice thing about motor skills and aural skills is that if you do pick them up as a child, you will never forget them. I can still pick out tunes on a piano keyboard. Hand me a recorder and I can play any tune I've heard a few times. But most of the time, I just wished I'd been allowed to fool around and have fun with an instrument rather than having to study one as though it was essential to learn how to play one. It's not, and even if it was, with the advantage of hindsight, I wish I'd learn almost any instrument other than the piano. The piano is non-portable, takes up huge amounts of space in any normal home, and is not an instrument where all it takes is knowing the melody to be able to produce a satisfying piece. For personal satisfaction, that last bit is essential, and is a property of flute, violin, recorder, and even guitar, but not the piano.

In any case, I'm not going to start Bowen on formal music lessons any time soon. And if and when he does, it will be because he wants them, and I'd much rather he goofs around than force him into any kind of structured program. That way lies madness and the dark side.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Introducing Nutrition Tracker

When it comes to nutrition, there are two main approaches: you can just eat a multi-vitamin every day, or you can try to get your vitamins through food. The problem with the former is that the supplement industry is unregulated, so you'd have to be careful who you buy it from (also, some vitamins can cause cancer in high doses). The problem with the latter is that you have to track your nutrition and it's a pain to track all that data.

Nutrition Tracker is a tool to help you do the latter. It effectively encapsulates the entire USDA National Nutrient database in an android App, eliminating foods that most adults won't consume, like baby foods. (Babies get most of their nutrients from mothers' milk anyway, so it wouldn't make sense to track a baby's food intake) It lets you enter each food you eat, and then report on your nutrient intake (and what you're lacking) on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. It even customizes what your intake should be based on your age, weight, and various health status.

Separately, it also allows you to track the nutrients as you buy food, essentially letting you evaluate the nutrient content of your shopping bag.

As a very rough first draft, the app is free on the Android store, and is ad supported but only shows one ad per session. You can run the app completely offline, since the entire database is stored on your phone. Hopefully, enough people use it and provide feedback that we'll be motivated to work on more versions and fix various issues in the current rough draft.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Knowing what to do

I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. Just as importantly, I landed in a public university, UC Berkeley, which was and still is a great school. Unlike the ivies and other private universities, the UCs really do succeed in their mission to allow students of all economic classes to get a quality education at an excellent price, while not perpetuating the advantages of the elite through legacy preferences, informal race-based quotas, and other such mechanisms.

The big disadvantage of the big public university, however, is the lack of an advisory structure for incoming undergraduates. This meant that I was disadvantage in one very subtle way: I was unaware of various institutional mechanisms and opportunities that could have made my life a lot easier. For instance, while I was busy working on my open source projects, some of my fellow students got into research projects with professors instead. This got them a leg up in graduate school, as well as getting to understand what research was about. I don't regret those open source projects one bit, since I became a much better programmer and was a self-directed person anyway, but I might have chosen to taken on more student debt instead.

Then when I arrived at graduate school, many of my peers already had NSF fellowships, enabling them to skip being TAs while making progress on their PhDs. I had no idea what NSF fellowships were, and didn't (still don't) know how to apply. The difference might have made me stick it out in graduate school longer, though in my case I think that might not have been a good thing.

In any case, as parents, we'll get to provide some of this "inside information" that we didn't have as first time college graduates, and so our children do benefit from our experience.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Experiments with the Camera

A few weeks ago I wrote about the experiment of giving Bowen a "real" camera. Surprisingly, he hasn't broken it yet. I looked through the photos he took and picked out a few that I thought were quite charming and indicative of a child's view of the world.
The first important thing to note is the perspective. Children are small, and everything from their point of view looks high and far away.

What I noticed also is that he sees my legs and feet far more than he sees my face, body or arms. It's also probably because when he's in my arms he tends not to play with the camera or shoot pictures (for now). I expect that to change, though if he drops a camera from my height he might well destroy it. The smudges in the photo are from his fingers covering the lens when he shoots.

 Finally, I saw what looks like his first selfie. It was probably accidental but it's a great view anyway.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Daycare or homecare?

I feel fortunate that I have spend enough time with my kid when he was little. 
This book,  Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: Core Concepts and Clinical Practiceexplains why the first child is more intelligent in general. It is very  important for the infant to get enough attention to develop the brain 

1. For the first three years, the brain will be 80% fully developed. It compares children who are raised with a lot of attention and care and children who are being neglected most of time. The former group have well developed brains, the latter one have shrunk the brains. The latter group can catch up 80% the brain development if in the following 2-3 years they get more attention and care. This is totally agrees the old Chinese saying, 三岁看大,七岁看老。

2. In the hunter age, the ratio of caregiver to the child is 4:1, at the modern daycare, the ratio is 1:4. The kid gets much less attention and care in modern world. 

More about the author:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

To Advance Education, We Must First Reimagine Society by John Abbott

RSA Animate

John Abbott, educator, the author of Overschooled but undereducated, the director of the 21st Century Learning Initiative

Why haven’t education reform efforts amounted to much? Because they start with the wrong problem, says John Abbott.

Because disaffection with the education system reflects a much deeper societal malaise, it’s imperative that we first figure out what kind of world we really want: a world populated by responsible adults who thrive on interdependence and community, or a world of “customers” who feel dependent on products, services, and authority figures, and don’t take full responsibility for their actions? The answer, he says, will point to the changes needed in all three pillars of education — schools, families, and communities.
This is one of Abbott’s primary takeaways from a career spanning more than two decades of teaching in England, followed by three decades at the helm of an international nonprofit (begun in the U.S. but now headquartered in England), whose mission is to promote fresh thinking based on the existing body of research about how children learn. Its findings have been synthesized into policy briefings, reports, and a book, “Overschooled but Undereducated: How the crisis in education is jeopardizing our adolescents.” It has also just published a distillation of its work, called “Battling for the Soul of Education.”
As Abbott sees it, the need for reflection has never been greater. Spurred by technological advances, “civilization is on the cusp of a metamorphosis,” he says, that will lead either to societal collapse and chaos, or to a resurgence of liberty, community, and ethics. Either way, schools are stuck in the past: The emphasis has been on feeding children static information and rewarding them for doing only what they’re told, instead of helping them develop the transferable, higher-order skills they need to become life-long learners and thrive in an uncertain future.
Overhauling the educational paradigm means replacing the metaphor — the concept of the world and its inhabitants as machine-like entities — that has shaped the education system, as well as many other aspects of our culture.
This approach — a product of the Industrial Age, which relied on compliant factory workers and mass consumption — promotes weakness rather than strength. It has become even more regimented (and thus more disempowering) in recent years due to a lack of trust. Adults who feel hard-pressed to predict or control their own destinies, and who feel confused about the “big issues of life,” Abbott notes, are less willing to give children the time and space they need to shape their own futures.
Unfortunately, he adds, this approach to education goes against the grain of how young people learn. Research has confirmed what most parents of young children can already see for themselves — that children are born to learn, rather than to be taught, as Abbott puts it. Driven by an inborn desire to make sense of the world and find purpose in life, they naturally observe, deconstruct, piece together and create their own knowledge. They learn best when this intrinsic motivation is harnessed in what he calls “highly challenging but low-threat environments.”

Re-Imagining Society First, Education Second

The bottom line, Abbott notes, is that the current system excels at preparing children to be dependent “customers,” so if we hope to instead create a world of responsible, community-minded adults, we need to overhaul the educational paradigm. That means replacing the metaphor — the concept of the world and its inhabitants as machine-like entities — that has shaped the education system, as well as many other aspects of our culture. Because humans are not machines, a reliance on this metaphor has created a large disconnect between people’s actual lives and their inherited expectations and predispositions, which lies at the root of many inter-related modern challenges, says Abbott.
overschooled-but-undereducatedHis recommendation: Start by re-examining our collective values and envision a society where individuals once again matter. Clues to a more suitable paradigm can be found in the metaphors that characterize the dynamic, networked Information Age. These share some key characteristics with the pre-industrial past, when people learned in the community, from a variety of adults with whom they built relationships. Learning continued over the course of a lifetime filled with meaningful work (in contrast to today’s high unemployment rates and low workplace engagement levels), and success was judged by whether a person carried out his or her fair share of responsibilities within the community.
All of these elements have a direct bearing on education. “Such a vision is as essential to motivate whole generations of young people to delight in the development of their intellectual powers, as it is to create an adult society that is able — and willing — to devote quite enormous amounts of its energy to the slow, fascinating, if sometimes frustrating but totally essential, task of inducting all its young people into adulthood,” Abbott has written on the Initiative’s web site.
“Children learn most from what they see going on around them,” he explains. “We become who we are based on things around us that we admire or not. Children don’t just turn their brains on when they go to school.”
Therefore a young child is dealt “a shattering blow to its sense of order and purpose when a parent it loves and admires is made redundant …. Too much of that, and the web of life is shattered, and life becomes a crap game where the lasting lesson is take all you can, and put nothing back.”

Creating “Collaborative Learning Communities”

“It is essential to view learning as a total community responsibility,” he says, and to expect no short cuts. Children need to be integrated, fully contributing members of the broader community, so they can feel useful and valued. (It is not just the children who need this, he adds; healthy communities also need children.)
On a practical level, the most powerful lever for change, Abbott says, is people coming together to “rethink the role of community in the learning process,” agreeing how to divide up responsibilities among professional teachers and other community members, and then launching small pilot projects that are true to their new vision. These efforts will build on each other, he says, and large-scale change will follow.
He cautions against simply copying a specific model that worked elsewhere — each community must figure out what’s best, given its unique circumstances. But he is convinced of one thing: The formal school system needs to be “turned upside down and inside out.” It should be based on the biological system of weaning — i.e., gradually reducing children’s dependence on teachers. Teacher-student ratios should be high in the early years, then decrease dramatically in adolescence, when “the whole community has to become a place of learning,” with mentorships, apprenticeships and other hands-on learning experiences complementing highly self-directed classroom learning.

Teachers as Guides

In general, schools should move away from “an overemphasis on teaching,” Abbott says, and instead view teachers as imaginative, knowledgeable guides. “Any kid can read a textbook — they don’t need a teacher standing over them telling them to do so,” he points out. “They need teachers to inspire them to think about things in a much bigger way than they’ve done before.”
John Abbott
John Abbott
He cites an example from his time as a substitute teacher, when he found himself assigned to teach history to a class of 15-year-olds one afternoon. Casting about for inspiration, he expressed an interest in a student’s book about prisoners of war. When the boy asked him why wars get started, Abbott used the question as a launching pad for a discussion on the topic. He urged the students to consider not only what they’d been taught in school, but also what they’d gleaned from relatives. “It went so well,” he recalls, “that no one heard the bell ring.”
Twenty years later, while waiting for a train during the time of the Falklands War, he was approached by a porter who said he recognized him as the teacher of that class. It had opened his eyes, the man added, to how wars can serve politicians’ careers, and he had referenced it in a discussion with friends the previous evening. “At the end of my history lesson, something had stuck,” Abbott notes, “so that 20 years later, he remembered how between us we had constructed an explanation for the Second World War.”
Simply following a lesson plan wouldn’t have had the same result. “I don’t think teachers should be over prepared for any particular lesson,” he says, “because if they are, they lack flexibility to adapt to where the children are in their understanding.”
Lastly, in this vision of the world, our expectations of children would also be recalibrated. Rather than being considered the age at which people start to become independent learners, 18 (and even younger in some cases) should be viewed as the age when young people “demonstrate that they have already perfected that art, and know how to exercise this responsibly,” says Abbott.