Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Rescuing Abducted Nigerian Girls and Defeating Boko Haram

A Silicon Valley “Bring Back Our Girls” vigil for the missing girls in Nigeria was recently held at the Lytton Plaza in Palo Alto, in the vicinity of Stanford University. Organized by Sally Lieber, former California State Assemblywoman, and by Nigerian and American activists, the vigil drew over 100 participants, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
In his opening remark, American-Nigerian Chike Nwoffiah, an educator and theater director who has lived in Silicon Valley for 25 years, condemned Boko Haram for abducting 276 school girls in Northern Nigeria. “We have to claim these girls who are our daughters, because indeed they are our daughters. This horrific event must serve as a community awakening for all of us.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson exhorted the gathering to work for the release of the girls but also pointed out that the issue had several dimensions. “The United States has to come up with an enlightened Africa policy,” he said. Because we lack a policy, “we missed Rwanda, Congo, Liberia, Egypt. One-eighth of the human race lives in Africa. They are not foreigners. They are our neighbors. Boko Haram has engaged in terrorism for years, resulting in the deaths of at least 8,000 Nigerians. Someone is supplying them with weapons and even uniforms. This has got to be stopped.” He urged his listeners not to underestimate their power. “I am big and I matter,” he repeated and the audience took up the refrain. “Boko Haram has perverted Islam,” said the Rev. “Muslim scholars have unconditionally condemned the group. The organization has no sanctity in Islam. The KKK claims that they are Christians. Are they Christians?”
Hon. LaDoris Cordell, Former Mayor of Palo Alto and Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge, reminded the rally that insecure, ignorant, sexist men of the world are afraid of educated girls. Boko Haram has a deep-seated fear of women with education. Forced and early marriage goes hand in hand with sex-trafficking. Worldwide, 27% of sex-traffic victims are children. There are over 1.2 million children trapped in sex-trafficking. There are 230 million children in the world without any birth certificates which makes them easy targets for sex enslavement.
She identified four steps to defeat Boko Haram:
  • Stick it to Boko Haram by contributing to the education of Nigerian girls. One website she singled out was http://www.camfed.org (campaign for female education).
  • Use social media to generate pressure on the United Nations to declare Boko Haram a terrorist organization.
  •  Encourage our Muslim friends and organizations to step up. (At this point I stood up and pointed out to the gathering that my wife and I, along with several Silicon valley Muslims, had left work early to join the rally, that we had voiced our condemnation of Boko Haram when the story broke, and that we were more outraged than most because Boko Haram was committing atrocities in the name of Islam when, in fact, they were nothing but criminals and murderers. After a few moments of silence, people broke into applause!)
  • Organize rallies in every city as we are doing in Palo Alto. This will embolden activists worldwide.

Boko Haram consists of criminals who are mortally afraid of the light of education, particularly female education, because it threatens to drive away the darkness of ignorance in which they thrive. The group misses the irony of its name, for it is not western education that is forbidden but the group itself that is haram. The crude language used by its murderous leader, Abubaker Shekau, in the recently-released video - “Girls must give their hands in marriage because they are our slaves. We would marry them out at the age of 9. We would marry them out at the age of 12” - only underscores the evil nature of Boko Haram.

The death knell for Boko Haram has sounded. It is only a matter of time. But its demise must not stop us from working to rid the world of sex trafficking, from the glittering cities of Europe and America to the seedy alleys of Asia and Africa. Misogyny and sex enslavement, and the people who profit from them, are everywhere. Some are brazen, some more subtle and insidious. We cannot rest until we have brought all our girls back.

Feynman, Community College Students and Probability

(Students frequently rise to the challenge when teachers raise the bar. Give them something to stretch their minds with and students will embrace it with vigor and purpose.
Elementary statistics is a transfer course at California’s community colleges for the CSU/UC systems. A major part of this course is probability, the workhorse of statistics. What if community college students were asked to read Richard Feynman’s lecture on probability? What would they make of it? Richard Feynman (1918-1988) won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965 for his seminal contributions to quantum electrodynamics. He is celebrated for his physical insights and for his ability to clarify complex concepts for the general audience. His fame grew when he gave a series of lectures on physics at the California Institute of Technology for undergraduates from 1961-1963 that became the three-volume “The Feynman Lectures on Physics.” More than four decades later, the “Red Books” are still being read and still continue to inspire. The lectures are now available online. His lecture on probability challenged several community college students who found it fascinating and engrossing.)

Josh found the discussion on the uncertainty principle most interesting, Nature is probabilistic rather than deterministic, reasons enough for Josh to focus on mastering probability. Feynman says that “the ideas of probability are certainly useful in describing the behavior of the 1022 or so molecules in a sample of a gas, for it is clearly impractical even to attempt to write down the position or velocity of each molecule.” Hence his conclusion: “We now believe that the ideas of probability are essential to a description of atomic happenings,” and “our most precise description of nature must be in terms of probabilities.” Most statistics texts introduce probability through flipping coins or rolling dice that leaves students cold. For Josh, a connection between probability and nature at its most fundamental level is a compelling argument for understanding and working with probability.

Reese found the lecture interesting but hard to follow. He gets it, though, when Feynman says that probability can be used to make better guesses. Hilda agrees but found the deterministic/probabilistic contrast confusing. The random walk idea went over her head but she was pleased when Feynman acknowledged his own uncertainty “when he states that his theory can change with future knowledge.”

For Yikal, Feynman’s simple questions invoking probability were the lecture’s most memorable features.  “What is the chance of rain for today? This is basically asking, what is the probability that it will rain today? This helps us see whether we should take an umbrella or not. If the probability is too low, then umbrella won’t be necessary. Feynman’s conclusion: almost every choice we make is based on probability.” Also, “we can never be 100% certain that something will happen. And sometimes we know that something will happen but we just don’t know when it will happen. Every choice we make is based on the probability of the benefits and the chances that something good could come out of that system. For instance we are not 100% sure that we will get a good job based on our career but we go to school to be educated because there is a good chance of getting the job if we have degree.”

Kerlyn found Feynman’s focus on the connection between chance, different types of probability and nature most fascinating. She had vaguely heard about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle before but explained in the context of probability made the principle real for her. “If we try to ‘pin down’ a particle to a specific place, it will go faster. But if it is forced to go slow, it will spread out. Our most precise description of nature is in terms of probabilities.”

Kyle summarizes his understanding of Feynman’s lecture by quoting from it: “There are many different types of probability, such as independent, mutually exclusive, non-mutually exclusive, conditional probability and inverse probability. The uncertainty principle describes an inherent fuzziness that must exist in any attempt to describe nature. Our most precise description of nature must be in terms of probabilities. In the early days of the development of quantum mechanics, Einstein was quite worried about this problem. He used to shake his head and say, ‘But surely God does not throw dice in determining how electrons should go!’ He worried about that problem for a long time and he probably never really reconciled himself to the fact that this is the best description of nature that one can give. There are still one or two physicists who are working on the problem who have an intuitive conviction that it is possible somehow to describe the world in a different way and that all of this uncertainty about the way things are can be removed. No one has yet been successful.” For both Kerlyn and Kyle, this means that the last word on the subject is perhaps yet to be written, which is what makes the quest for knowledge so profoundly satisfying.

Jennifer found the connection between probability and chemistry in Feynman’s lecture compelling. She also made connection with she learned in her statistics class, that “regarding probability density, the area under the curve, known as the bell-curve, is equal to 1. Standard deviation is the variation from the mean.” To visually imagine standard deviation, Feynman illustrates the motion of a molecule. He describes an occurrence when ‘an organic compound’ is released from a bottle in a room. This organic compound then evaporates in the air, and the particles spread throughout, thus resulting in standard deviation.

For Aisa, a clear, declarative sentence like, “There are good guesses and there are bad guesses. The theory of probability is a system for making better guesses,” is as powerful an introduction to probability as anyone can think of. She finds Feynman’s ability to place probability in a unique perspective the main draw of the lecture. “It makes readers think of probability not just as a sort of math problem but something that happens in the real world. Feynman puts thinking and logic into a different realm, and that applies to his lecture on probability as well. He shows how probability is subjective. The answer may not always be what you hope for or want. Still, it is better to be probabilistic and realize that probability is a game of chances. I think this type of mind frame will help people think of probability in a different way.”

Sabrina’s understanding of probability grew when she worked through Feynman’s explanation of the binomial probability by breaking down the outcomes of flipping a coin and identifying some of the rules of the binomial model, such as, the observations must be repeatable, and the repeated observations must be equivalent. “He makes it clear that the observations are estimates of what will occur. The same reasoning can be generalized to any situations where there are different, but equally likely possible results of an observation. This of course makes perfect sense especially keeping randomness in mind. Feynman includes a fascinating graph that represents the idea that with an increase of number of tosses, the closer ‘the tendency is for the fraction of heads to approach 0.5, as compared to a smaller number of tosses where the fluctuation of deviation might be greater.’ Feynman then connects the ideas of the coin toss to random walk and motions of atoms in a gas. This is what I found most fascinating: How Feynman can take a simple concept and connect it to something like the motions of atoms in a gas. We should see more connections in our studies, whether within disciplines or between disciplines. That will motivate students far more than treating subjects as if they were disconnected from each other.”

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Transforming San Jose Sharks into a Winning Team

If courage is indeed grace under pressure, as Hemingway said, the San Jose Sharks are probably the greatest bunch of cowards in the National Hockey League (NHL) history. They led the Los Angeles Kings 3-0 and then blew the following 4 games to exit the 2014 conference quarterfinals. The Sharks share this ignominy (blowing a 3-0 lead) with just 3 other teams in NHL’s 97-year playoff history: Toronto defeated Detroit in the Cup finals in 1942, N.Y. Islanders defeated Pittsburgh in the 1975 Quarterfinals, Philadelphia defeated Boston in the Conference semifinals in 2010.

Ever since the Sharks began playing in 1991, the team has brought nothing but heartbreak for its loyal fans. In regular season, the team comes across as a legitimate contender for the ice hockey crown but when the playoffs are underway, something goes awry and the team folds. Any bite they may have exhibited before the playoffs degenerates into the kind of submission that can put a weasel to shame.

The question now is: How to rescue the City of San Jose from the pitiful clutch of the current team?

Here are some suggestions from a long-suffering fan:

First, Coach Todd McLellan has to go. The mediocrity of this man is breathtaking. Bereft of any insight and creativity, Mr. Todd has been coasting from day one of his term that began in 2008. He cannot inspire and he cannot lead and his understanding of the game and of other teams is subpar at best. Doug Wilson, the General Manager, must also be shown the door. As long as this Todd-Doug un-dynamic duo hangs around, the Sharks will falter and fall.

Next, Sharks must say adieu to Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. The best days of these veterans are far, far behind. Sure, there are occasional flashes of the brilliance of their yesteryears but now, at 34, both players have become a monumental burden for the franchise. In January this year, both Thornton ($6.75 million per season) and Marleau ($6.66 million per season) signed three-year contract extensions. The Sharks must find a way to dissolve these contracts. Otherwise, the franchise may forget about any Stanley Cup hope in the next three years.

There is a reason why these aging players want to continue with the Sharks: The franchise has made it too easy for them! They are coddled and treated like superstars when they are no longer even stars. As long as they continue with the Sharks, no younger player can bloom and take charge. It has become almost a cliché to say that the Sharks lack the killer instinct that is the hallmark of a championship club.

Players like Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture are not the players, good as they are, who can lead the Sharks to a Stanley Cup winner. That player isn’t playing for the Sharks yet but he is out there, a young and fierce contender who can energize his team to dominance. Sharks need a Mario Lemieux, a player who can single-handedly turn a game around and carry the burden of the entire team on his broad shoulders, shoulders that never sag under pressure.

Until that happens, San Jose will have to live with the pretensions of the current team. But San Jose doesn’t deserve this! It is the 10th-largest city in the United States. Its population has just exceeded the 1-million mark, a milestone by any measure. It doesn’t live in the shadow of San Francisco. It is considered the heart of Silicon Valley. Why must this proud city put up with a second-rate hockey team when it has the resources to bring together the finest talents in the game?
The Sharks can with the Stanley Cup but only if the current team is dismantled and a younger and hungrier team is assembled with an eye toward the future. It may take 10 years but that’s the price people of San Jose must pay if they want the nucleus of a winning team to begin forming now. The alternative is too bleak and pitiful to imagine.