Friday, November 01, 2013

The Math Test That Changed My Life

When I was 7 years old, I started attending The Mirman School for Gifted Children.  It was pretty intimidating.  I had to take an IQ test just to get in, and when I arrived at Ms. Rubin's 3rd grade class, most of my classmates had already spent a couple of years together, rather than sitting around in public school feeling bored (as I had).

Early in the year, we took a math assessment test.  It was a timed test of basic math; I think we had 15 minutes to answer 100 questions.  It was quite a bit more strenuous than anything I had experienced at Franklin Elementary, and I ended up getting an 85 or so.

This was critical because because this particular test was being used to divide the class (of gifted children) into regular and advanced math.

When I showed my parents my test, I felt pretty down.  I had always thought of myself as smart, but I worried that I couldn't hack it at this higher level.  Maybe I was just a big fish in a small pond before.

My dad (who has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering) listened wisely, and then asked, "Do you get another chance to take the test?"

As it turns out, I did.  Mirman let students take the test twice, in case a student just happened to have a bad day.

My dad explained that math was simply a matter of practice.  I had done poorly because I wasn't used to answering so many questions in such a compressed period of time.  Since this was the early 1980s, he hand wrote some practice tests for me (no way to search the Internet for samples!), and used his watch to time me as I practiced.

Each time I practiced, my score improved.  When I took the assessment test at school for the second time, I got a 97 and my career as a "math star" was launched.  I stayed at the top of the advanced math class for the rest of my time at Mirman (though I wasn't a superstar like my classmate Masi Oka, who was doing calculus when we were still in the 6th grade), and competed in math contests throughout my high school career (I'm still bitter that a fever forced me out of the Mathcounts competition my sophomore year; it cost me a first-place trophy).

Even today, I still enjoy doing math in my head, and regularly race and beat folks who have to rely on their smartphone calculators.

This experience came to mind when I read this recent piece in the Atlantic:
"Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:
  1. Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
  2. On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
  3. The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
  4. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage."
I could easily have ended up deciding I wasn't a "math person" if not for the wisdom and support of my parents.  If you're a parent, make sure you understand this phenomenon, and give your child the boost he or she needs.  You never know when one math test might change the course of an entire life.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Will Success Ruin Silicon Valley?

Everywhere one looks, Silicon Valley seems ascendant.  Tech companies like Apple and Google are among the world's most valuable and admired, while tech titans like Larry and Sergey, and Mark and Sheryl are given the first-name-only treatment of offline celebrities.

Silicon Valley has even stuck its nose into broader society, helped by the fact that so many of its products are in the hands of the average consumer.  Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Lean In" became a national conversation point.  Efforts like Startup America, while fledgling, illustrate Silicon Valley and Washington DC's increasing efforts to court each other.

But along with these celebratory puff pieces, I've also read an increasing number of critical ones.  Longtime San Franciscans who are getting priced out of their own city are increasingly resentful of startup employees, many of whom seem to display the same sensitivity and modesty as the robber barons of the 19th century.  Sean Parker's over-the-top wedding, for example, wouldn't be out of place in Gilded Age America (or decadent Rome).

On one level, it's a matter of simple economics.  When the demand for housing exceeds the supply, and the supply is limited, prices will rise.  There's no easy way to wish away broad trends, and attempts to hold back the tide of progress are about as successful of King Cnut commanding the waves.  Efforts like rent control just cause worse problems.

But on the other hand, this isn't just a futile lament by the remnants of the counterculture, or the wistful musings of the privileged wealthy who don't want to give up the "ambience" of their city.

Silicon Valley's greatness comes from many factors, but there are several key factors that rising prices endanger.

1) Willingness to try new things.
It doesn't matter how cool you are, when you become rich, you prefer stability to change.  The great innovations in Silicon Valley have come from those who have nothing to lose.

2) Ability to live on nothing.
Bootstrapping a company requires the ability to survive on a shoestring.  Not easy when a 1-bedroom apartment rents for $3,000 per month.

3) Openness to outsiders.
The majority of companies in Silicon Valley are started by immigrants.  And even those who aren't immigrants to America are likely immigrants to the Valley (like me).  If people can't come here to pursue their dreams without first making a mint, we'll lose the hungry outsiders we need.

I don't hear many folks sounding the alarm about these issues.  Mostly, people seem content to treat the current issues as a temporary adjustment or the whining of a few.  Perhaps.  But if these issues have any chance of endangering the formula that drive's the Valley's success, I think it's worth sounding that alarm.