The Quantified Self

A blast from the past.

366 Degree

Have you heard the terms “Quantified Self” or “Self-tracking” before? I have to admit that I have heard them for the first time last week. A radio talk show host was kind of against the idea of self-tracking. She saw this leading to others knowing about her personal data like when and how often she has gone to the toilet that day and what she ate for breakfast, etc. I find her stance on this topic absurd. After all self-tracking does not necessarily mean, you have to publish your personal data to the world but you can if you want to. It is like just because there is the functionality to upload photographs on Facebook you do not have to upload photos of you dancing on a table with a bottle of vodka in your hand but you can if you want to. I guess it depends on how extroverted…

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Love conquers all

This started out as a flash fiction for the Flash Fiction Faction prompt by Quil Shiv. But it ended up being longer than anticipated. I present to you, a love short story instead. As usual I welcome all feedback to help me improve my writing.

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Alan stroked the silky strand of hair; bundled together in a pink ribbon. It was a beautiful black, as dark as a cloudy and [added after edit] starless night in the outback. As he looked out of the aeroplane he imagined running his fingers through masses of soft, black tresses. Only this time they were still attached to their owner – Inthira. From the photographs she had sent him and their countless video chats via Skype, he knew that she had long straight hair. A quick glance at his watch told him that he would be seeing his love for the first time in less than an hour. After months of communicating over the internet, he was impatient to hold her in his arms; to touch her, to smell her, to taste her. If it had been up to him, he would have visited her earlier. However his only financial resource was his pay, plus tips, as a waiter at The Steakhouse. Nowadays, people were extremely stingy with their tips, which is why it has taken him months to save money for this trip.

Eyes scanning the crowd gathered in the waiting area after he cleared immigration, Alan felt a lump forming in his stomach. What if she did not come? What if it was all a lie? Before he could think another destructive thought, he caught sight of her waving enthusiastically at him. He was overjoyed to see her. She looked the same as she did in the photographs. There was no mistaking it. He walked over to her. Standing in front of her, he was unsure what to do next. He knew he was in a conservative country but a handshake felt inadequate to express his joy and love. Inthira smiled at him and stood on her toes to give him a big hug. It felt good. He would have loved to kiss her but a hug was definitely better than a handshake.

“Is that backpack all the luggage you have?”

“Yes.”

“Then follow me. I will drive you to the hostel.”

The ride to the hostel was pleasant. They talked about her plans to show him her country. They spoke about the weather, about the food in Thailand. She smiled at him a lot but he couldn’t help feeling disappointed. He had felt closer to her in their hour-long phone calls compared to the present; within the confines of a car, where a slight stretch of his arm could result in physical contact. He wondered if his expectations for the first meeting had been too high. Remarks made by his friends echoed in his mind.

You are practically strangers!

She only wants you for your money. To them all white people are rich.

You’ll see that long distance relationships cannot succeed.

It is not a relationship, as long as you don’t do what normal couples do.

“We’re there! This is your home for the next 2 weeks. Are you tired? If yes, we can call it a night and I’ll meet you for breakfast tomorrow.”

Alan snapped out of his brooding.

“I’m not tired.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

Alan checked into a single bedroom with shared bathroom. He couldn’t afford anything better but he hadn’t wanted to stay in a dorm either; not when he was there to visit his girlfriend. Maybe it had been a bad idea to come here. Maybe his friends were right. So stupid of him to be such a hopeless romantic.

Inthira walked him to his room, entered it after him and closed the door behind her. She let out an audible sigh, which caused him to turn to her.

“Finally! No more prying eyes. Now for a proper ‘Hello’.”

With that she embraced him in a hug and planted her inviting lips on his. Alan required no further encouragement to return the greeting in kind.

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The following days passed by in a blur, as if he was caught in a sensory whirlwind. One moment he was in a temple, where hundreds of tiny golden bells hung from every accessible corner. Even in his dreams he could hear their chiming sounds as they swung in the wind. The sound was comparable to the clinking of champagne glasses; the sound set to repeat mode as long as there was enough wind to provide the necessary push.

The next moment he was walking through a market selling multi-coloured produce. The mere thought of the salty, sour taste of a preserve caused the saliva to collect in his mouth and cringe his eyes. He did not believe Inthira that a plum could taste like that and it was one experience he was sure never to repeat.

Today they were watching the farmers harvest the rice fields. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the wonderful earthy smell of freshly cut grass. Inthira was standing next to him, holding his hand. He realised all of these experiences did not cause his senses to short circuit. But Inthira did. Being with Inthira in reality was better than in his dreams. He loved watching her mimic while she talked; the soft tones caressing him softly. He loved the jasmine smell of her hair and the way it slipped through his fingers. He loved the strawberry taste of her lips; enticing him to bite them. He loved her mind as much as he did her body. Inthira was clever, witty and humourous. She was kind and cared for others; especially those less fortunate. She had gotten under his skin and he wanted her to stay there. They needed to find a way to overcome the physical distance separating them and they needed to do it soon. He could not imagine a life deprived of these senses.

Alan felt Inthira stiffen slightly before withdrawing her hand from his. He opened his eyes and saw the worried look on her face. He turned around to identify the cause for her sudden change of behaviour. A man was approaching them with angry strides.

“So this is where your lecture is? I don’t believe you had the nerve to lie to me and meet him after I told you not to!” He looked at Alan wagging a finger at him.

“Stay away from my daughter. She is not a whore for you to play around with. If you see her again, I’d…”

Unfortunately Alan was not one for keeping a cool head.

“Did you just threaten me?”

“Yes, what are you going to do? Beat me up? You have a great taste in men, Inthira. I knew he was not good for you.”

Alan did not like where this conversation was heading. He looked at Inthira’s teary face and realised this was not the time for pride.

“I am sorry sir. I didn’t mean to be rude. I love your daughter a lot and I would never do anything to hurt her. My intentions are honest, I promise.”

“Inthira, you drive back home now.”

“But Pa, I love him!

By then a crowd of farmers had formed around them, curious to find out what was going on. Inthira’s dad cleared his throat.

“This is not the place to talk about family matters. Everyone is watching. Take him to our place. We will talk there. If you both are serious, then it is time he is introduced to the family.”

Alan swallowed in relieve. He would move mountains, just to be with Inthira. Meeting the family should be a much easier endeavour.

Racism has many faces

At several points in my life, I have been confronted with racism. These occurrences were not life threatening but they were hurtful nonetheless. When I started going out with Mr.M, I often heard that he was only with me to have fun on his holiday. You know white guy goes on holiday to South East Asia. He promises the innocent Asian girl that he loves her. But we all know what he is after, right? Wrong! I am glad that I trusted my instincts in this case because Mr. M turned out to be my soul-mate. But he had a hard time convincing others of his honest intentions. Once we were walking down a street and a man passing by on a scooter, shouted profanities at us. Since we were the only ones walking on the path, we assumed he was offended by the fact that we were a mixed couple. We could see his face; he was one from my race.

I live in Germany for more than eleven years now. I am often asked, if I have faced racism during that time. I can only say that wherever I have been, I have been welcomed in a friendly and accepting manner. In fact my physical difference seems to add a certain level of exoticness to my being. People often want to know where I come from and what it is like there. The Germans I have met so far are extremely open to other cultures and love travelling, which I think helps to expand one’s mental horizon. They love foreign cuisine too; evident in the number of döner, pizzeria, Chinese or Thai restaurants in most towns.

Having said that, after we moved to the village we are living in now, I heard from several sources that the area we moved to was a stronghold for neo-nazis. The first time I went to the post office, which is actually integrated into a small store run by an old lady, I was hurt by the abrupt way she treated me. She was grouchy and unfriendly. I assumed that the rumours were true and was in tears when I related my experience to Mr.M. I dreaded going there again but I had to post Christmas cards. This time she was extremely friendly to me and chatted with me for a long time. The next day when I came back to post the second batch of cards, she even told me that she had pasted Christmassy stickers on the cards. She was probably having a bad day when I first met her. However the “news” I had heard caused me to interpret her actions wrongly. Imagine how it would have been, if I had only gone there once? I would have unknowingly and falsely confirmed the racism claims.

However recently I had an upsetting conversation with a German teenager. The teenager was never interested in excelling academically. He has the minimum school education. He was complaining about the fact that he had difficulties finding an apprenticeship. He has been rejected with the explanation that he was not qualified for the position he applied for. I thought he was going to admit that it was a mistake that he did not take school seriously. Instead he said in an angry tone, “Instead of training me, a local citizen, they rather employ skilled workers from overseas. They support foreigners, who only come here for the money.” If you asked him, he would not say that his remark was racist. In fact he feels as if he is being discriminated against. Is this the beginnings of racism? How to make it clear to such people in similar situations that their anger is misdirected?

I watched a documentary on the Ku Klux Klan aka the Knights Party yesterday. The reporter followed members of this group for a certain period of time. One of the men interviewed admitted to being a Neo-Nazi as well. He said that his parents did not share his sentiments. However he has felt the hatred against Jews since he was a child. He hated Jews for being Jewish, not because he was taught at home to hate them or because he was hurt by them.

Where does racism start? Does racism sprout off stereotypes? Do clichés fertilise racist ideas? Like we all have the propensity to do evil; do we all have a racist part in us? Does ignorance and hatred cause this side of us to surface and take over our minds and guide our actions?

It cannot be said often enough, be our differences are only skin deep. Inside we are all the same. We have the same anatomy. The colour of our blood is the same. If you need a blood transfusion to save your life, only the blood type and not the race of the donor matters. The same things can hurt us physically. We go through the same cycle of birth, life and death. Ultimately we all want to live a happy life. Living itself is complicated and it is unnecessary to further complicate it with racism.

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

“Racism continues to cause suffering for millions of people around the world…. I look to all people to join the United Nations in our drive to eliminate racism. We must, individually and collectively, stamp out racism, stigma and prejudice.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Message for the International Day for the
Elimination of Racial Discrimination 2012

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Tolerance and acceptance of diversity starts with ourselves.

More information is here on the UN website.

The Hate Game

Amanda closed the cubicle door. She lowered the lid and sat down. Her pulse should have been racing, given but she felt extremely calm. She took a box of Panadol out of her school rucksack. She had bought one at the pharmacy last week to add to the package she had found at home. She popped one pill out of the blister package. Her fingertip traced the groove in the middle of the pill. Would breaking them in the middle quicken the effect? She held each end between a thumb and index finger and pressed. It was harder to split the pill in the middle than she had expected. She decided to leave the remaining pills whole. She couldn’t risk dropping any of the pills; she needed every single one.

Her heart skipped a beat at the shrill ring of the school bell. She prayed that no one would enter the toilet. She had chosen the one on the third floor because most of the rooms were only used for Extra-Curricular Activities. She had one more free period before her next lesson started. How fitting that it would a Math class; since she hated it and hopefully wouldn’t have to live through it. It would have been nice, if it were music instead because singing made her happy. Amanda wiped the tears on her right sleeve.

There was no other way out.

She needed to put an end to the pain. She threw the ham and cheese sandwich, her mom had made for her lunch, in the bin in the cubicle; the lunch menu has changed. She removed the remaining pills from the blister packages and put them in her lunch box. She concentrated on the monotonous action and managed not to think about the chain of events that had brought her there. She had 47 pills in all. She hoped it was enough for her plan to be successful. She stuffed the empty packages in her rucksack. She stood up, righted her uniform, swung her rucksack over her right shoulder and left the cubicle.

Amanda knew the perfect spot, where she could consume her special lunch in peace. There was a bench next to the canteen, overlooking the school garden. There was a rose bush right next to the bench. She loved sitting there because the roses smelled lovely. When she closed her eyes, she imagined being in a candy shop, surrounded by the sticky sweet smell of roses. She bought a can of Coke from the vending machine. She had read on the internet that carbonated drinks increased the effect of paracetemol. Even if it did not, it was much tastier than plain water.

She placed the first pill onto her tongue. She took a sip from her can and swallowed the mixture. The next 5 followed swiftly in the same manner. However she couldn’t hold back the tears for long. She wiped her tears with a tissue paper, folded it and blew her nose. She hoped no one noticed her crying, especially not a teacher. She was doing the right thing. She couldn’t live another day reading the lies her classmates spread about her on Facebook. The names they had for her went through her mind, virtually burning, hitting, spitting on and shaming her before hundreds of spectators. Some were strangers but most she knew personally. They encouraged her demons with their applauding and cheering! Why her? Some of her tormentors used to be her friends. She has looked for a reason many times before as to why they had turned on her. But she always came up blank. There was no sense to the madness that had overcome them.

Amanda had difficulties swallowing the remaining pills. Her throat felt constricted and she was sure that the slightest pressure could result in her puking into the rose bush. But she would see this through. She wanted her death to haunt her tormentors with guilt for the rest of their lives. She practically shoved the remaining pills one by one down her throat and washed each down with Coke.

The bell rang again. Amanda stuck the empty lunchbox in her rucksack and threw away the can. She was starting to feel ill, comparable to the time she had the flu. Her stomach was cramping as she slowly made her way to class.

“Amanda, you’re late!”

“Sorry! I don’t feel well.”

“What is wrong with you?”

“I don’t know.”

“You do look pretty pale. Cynthia, please escort Amanda to the sick bay.”

“Not Cynthia. I can go myself.”

“You look as if you would faint any moment. Now get to the sickbay quickly.”

Amanda and Cynthia walked to the sickbay in silence. Amanda wanted to tell her a lot of hurtful things but she couldn’t get a single one out. Instead as they stood in front of the sickbay she said, “Hope my death makes you feel happy.” The shock in Cynthia’s eyes was enough to make Amanda feel temporarily happy. At least Cynthia will suffer after her death.

“Here’s a pail my dear, in case you need to be sick again. Your mom is on her way here. She will bring you to the doctor. You have a slight fever. It is probably only a stomach-flu. Have had a couple of kids come down with it last week. You will be fine in a few days time.”

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“Amanda! You have visitors.”

“Mom! Who?… Oh! What do you all want here?”

Cynthia and five other classmates entered her bedroom. Cynthia held a bouquet of roses up and spoke.

“We want to apologise for being mean to you. We did not seriously mean the things we said. It was only fun. We have deleted all the posts about you. We hope you can forgive us.”

Project X – Party & Peer Pressure = Bad Decisions

Yesterday I came across a news article on the death of a boy in Houston. The boy was shot multiple times and died as a result of the injuries sustained. He was one of many hundred partygoers, who had gathered in a mansion to celebrate spring break in “Project X” style. What does celebrating “Project X” style mean? It means that first you are no longer a teenager and second it is the title of a Hollywood movie released this year.

Naturally I went to IMDB to watch trailers of the movie and read up on what it was about. It actually sounds like just another teen movie, where a kid throws a birthday party at his house when his parents are out for the evening. He and his 2 friends plan on becoming popular at school because of the party. As expected lots of people turn up and the party gets out of control; things go up in flames, a person of very small stature climbs out of the oven and starts punching them in the sensitive area between their legs. In one scene, a neighbour even gets tasered when he threatens to call the cops because of the noise. This plot is not something new. I am assuming the only difference to the movies before lies in the magnitude of destruction. Lots of things are destroyed for one night of carefree fun.

Is the movie to be blamed for these teenagers’ destructive actions? Ever since it has become possible to “invite” strangers to a party via Twitter or Facebook, such parties have taken place all over the world. The teenagers simply have a cool name for their parties now. You have to admit that “Project X” sounds catchy. Teenagers have always wanted to party through the night. Flirting with the other sex probably causes the adrenalin level in the body to sky rocket. If alcohol is available, I shudder at the damage teenagers under its influence could cause. Yes, the movie is to be blamed for giving an impressionable group of teenagers ideas for such parties. No, the movie is not to be blamed because it can also be seen as portraying the vulnerable nature of teenagers and their need to belong to the “cool” group. These teenagers would have partied just as wildly and carried weapons around, even if the movie was never made.

I read an interesting article which explores the connection between age and peer influence. This article talks about a test carried out on three age groups; teenagers, young adults and adults. The aim was to discover how peer pressure influences one’s willingness to take risks. The test takers played a race on a computer. The aim was to finish the race with the quickest time possible. They had the option to stop at yellow lights, which would cause a slight delay. However the probability of maintaining control of the vehicle is high. Alternatively they could pass yellow lights without stopping. As a result, they risk driving too fast and crashing the vehicle, which would result in a longer delay. They went through this test twice. During the second run, they were told that their (same-sex) friends were watching the test from the room next door.

The teenagers were the only ones, who altered their behaviours. Physically the part of the brain that has to do with rewards became active, when they thought their friends were watching them. It is seen as the reason for their reckless behaviour in the second round. Interestingly peer pressure doesn’t only occur, when friends are bodily present. Simply the thought of friends being aware of what one does is enough to influence a teenager’s action. The scientists believe that this could provide the reason why a child, who is mature in the presence of his parents, could still act irresponsibly when with his friends.

This reminds me of some incidents in Germany, where kids beat up complete strangers in the public. They acted in groups and not all regretted what they had done. This apparent callousness frightens me. Is it futile to hope that teenagers behave sensibly even in the company of their friends? But there are still some well-behaved teenagers in this world, right? What causes them to behave well? Well-behaved friends? Something else? Do you have teenage kids? What is your experience?

Related Articles

1.http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/03/teenagers-friends-and-bad-decisions/

2. http://abcnews.go.com/US/project-movie-inspires-teen-parties/story?id=15922034#.T2NbY_XLsw9

A simple idea led to free education for all

I watched another TED video by Adam Savage. You know the guy from Myth Buster; not the one in the beret, the other one. He was talking about how simple ideas have led to profound scientific discoveries. Do you know how Eratosthenes’ calculated the Earth’s circumference without the help of powerful computers? Do you know how Hippolyte Fizeau measured the speed of light using a toothed wheel, a light source and a mirror? This informative video is 7:32 minutes long and holds the answers to these questions. I would encourage you to watch it. Basically Adam’s message is that by only using our senses and minds we can come up with simple ideas to make the world a better place.

Do you believe in coincidences? Or do you believe somehow everything that happens is meant to happen that way. Either way on the same day I came across another interesting video of the CBS news show 60 Minutes. The title of the show was “Khan Academy: The future of education?” The video portrayed how a simple idea is revolutionising education and the role of teachers worldwide.

Who is behind Khan Academy?


Sal Kahn has 3 degrees from MIT and an MBA from Havard Business School. He started his career as a hedge fund analyst. He did not have a sudden vision to provide free education to all. In fact it started out as a simple idea to help his cousin, who was struggling with Mathematics in school. Since she did not live nearby, he decided to tutor her over the internet. Later when other relatives and friends approached him for his tutorials, he decided to post them on YouTube. This was when he discovered the real demand for the kind of tutorials he was producing. In 2009 he decided to quit his job and pursue a fulltime career producing tutorial videos for his YouTube channel.

In 2010 Bill Gates revealed in an interview that his children were learning using the tutorials on Khan Academy. Later with his financial support, Sal Kahn was able to make Khan Academy even bigger. There is a new platform to host the videos and he has employees, working on continually improving Khan Academy. It is still a non-profit organisation and is dependent on the goodwill of others to donate or volunteer to translate the videos into other languages.

To being with I am really impressed by the simplicity of his idea and how he has been able to help numerous students all over the world with it. I watched a couple of videos on algebra to judge for myself, why his tutorial style is widely appreciated. I have to say that had I seen these videos when I was in secondary school, I would not have failed my math exams. He explains the sense behind a topic, something I had missed in school.

How is Khan Academy revolutionising the world of education?
For starters, there are a couple of schools in America, which are testing out a new teaching model in collaboration with Khan Academy. Students are expected to go through the tutorials on a particular topic at home. The following day, students solve exercises on this topic in the classroom. The teacher can track real time how the students are progressing, how fast they complete a task and who is having problems. The teacher can then focus on helping those who require assistance. In other words, the learning takes place at home and the homework is done at school. The role of the teacher is more of mentor and coach.

Furthermore Khan Academy helps students from poor families, who can’t afford a private tutor, or families where the parents are not able to help with their homework. The child can learn at his or her own phase by repeatedly learning a lesson as often as required. If the child still does not understand the topic, the teacher is there to help the following day.

Even adults can benefit from Khan Academy. They can refresh their memories on a certain topic to help their children with schoolwork. It could help those, who dropped out of school, to possibly finish school and improve their academic qualifications. As a result, they could have better careers.

In conclusion, Khan Academy shows how it is possible to tremendously help others with little effort. I am sure that Khan Academy has the potential to help millions of children and even adults all over the world.

Related Articles

  1. http://cnettv.cnet.com/av/video/cbsnews/atlantis2/cbsnews_player_embed.swf
  2. http://www.khanacademy.org/