Sunday, September 26, 2010

Week 37: The British Bulldog

There's not much I can add to the trove of biographical work done on the life of Winston Churchill. So why write about Sir Winston? Simple: it is unacceptable for me to know so little about such an important historic figure. He is one of the most respected and celebrated statesmen of the 20th century, and played a tremendously important role in saving the world from Nazi Germany.

I've often thought about the fact that my generation has not been called upon to sacrifice in the same way that prior generations have sacrificed. We have had the incredible priviledge of growing up without having to practice hiding under our desks in school or worrying about being drafted to fight in wars. I have tremendous respect for those from my generation who are willing to put themselves in harm's way to defend my freedom. But the calling today is different than the calling of soldiers in World War II, when literally a generation of young men were summoned to fight. Winston Churchill was in many ways the iconic figure in this struggle between good and evil.

Like most wars, World War II was a war between nations, but it was bigger than that. The victory shaped the course of humanity, and superseded any one nation. For his role in tirelessly fighting for freedom, Winston Churchill is arguably as loved outside of Britain as he is within the empire. Indeed, along with Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill is the only person to receive an honorary US citizenship while still alive.

While one of the highest profile awards received by Churchill, honorary US citizenship was just one on a very long list of honors. There is an entire wikipedia page devoted to this list. He has a mountain range named after him in the Canadian Rockies, countless roads and schools, two Royal Navy ships, honorary doctorates from a dozen schools... Oh yea, and then there is the Nobel Prize he won in Literature in 1953. Did I mention that he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II? Or that he was elected as a Member of Parliament at the age of 25 (my current age)? And with all of his free time, Churchill was an amateur painter (see his study of boats here.)

Of course, Churchill is also known for both his wit and his love for brandy. In addition to the obvious - and fantastic - "our finest hour" type of quotes, there are a number of others that I enjoy (e.g., "You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life."). Occassionally, his quotes and his drinking mixed together - when told he was drunk by Bessie Braddock, Churchill replied "And you, Madam, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning." Also famous was this comment to Saudi King Saud, whose kingdom forbade drinking: "I must point out that my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and the intervals between them." Suffice it to say that Winston Churchill was not afraid to say what was on his mind.

I could go on and on about Churchill - but the point is there are many reasons to study his life in more detail. Perhaps the best part of this blog is that I've been introduced to dozens of new topics. Next year I look forward to spending more in depth time learning about some of them. I can assure you that a biography of Winston Churchill will be at the top of my reading list.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Week 36: Self Defense 101

I just returned from an awesome trip to Spain - it began with seeing my brother in Barcleona (his semester abroad blog can be found here), followed by some time with friends in Ibiza and Formentera, culminating with a quiet four days in sunny, beautiful Mallorca.  For all the great stories and experiences from the trip, there was one that stuck out as decidedly un-fun.  

The not-so-abridged version is as follows: my girlfriend and I were walking home from a dinner in Ibiza Town on our way back to the hotel.  This involved walking both up and down several steep flights of stairs.  It was eerily silent as we went up the many steps - almost too quiet, I commented to my girlfriend.  A few flights from the top we noticed a ragged, shirtless man standing at the top, staring down at us.   As he walked away we continued walking, carefully.  Right before the top flight of stairs, where he had been standing, I sensed that someone was near us.  At the last few stairs I moved to the opposite side from which he had stumbled away, in order to be able to see him were he to be hiding around the corner.  Unfortunately for us, he was.  It is difficult to articulate what happened next, because it was so visceral. He stepped in front of us, preventing us from continuing to the stairs down the hill. I stared into his eyes to size him up, and can honestly say it was one of the most ghastly things I've ever seen. His face was covered in pus and blood, his teeth were bared and his eyes were red, wild and glazed over. Without overdramatizing the situation, I can honestly say I feared for our lives - this dude was so far gone he could kill and not even realize it.

I want to describe both what happened and how it felt, because today's topic is about self defense. The most striking feeling I had was first the sense of something being very wrong - almost a sense of dread - then, upon having my suspicions confirmed, I remember an intense adrenalin rush unlike any I've experienced in sports. The hair on my neck was up, my heart was pounding and my body felt numb. Surprisingly, I felt lucid and was able to neither freeze nor go into a frenzy. Instead I put myself between my girlfriend and him - while keeping eye contact - maneuvered around the guy, firmly saying "NO" to his growling demands for money. Many people to whom I've told this story ask why I didn't give him a few euros. The answer is simple: I felt that if I were to stop, reach in my pocket, or do anything to slow down, we would have been in a much more vulnerable spot. The guy was clearly explosive. Indeed, after saying no and walking by him (and telling my girlfriend to start running down the stairs), he started lumbering down after me angrily and sarcastically saying "MUCHAS. GRACIAS." repeatedly. I'm not trying to sound like some kind of hero - to be clear I was terrified. This guy had nothing to lose - by the blood on his mouth looked like he had just devoured some animal - and was now following us down the stairs. We had just arrived and knew nothing about the town or the area, and there was literally nobody else around. I turned back and stood my ground and from a distance of 10 meters or so we stared at each other, and eventually he backed off. I ran to catch up with Rebecca and that was that.

But I was shaken. While ready to fight, I began to question what would have happened in that scenario. I don't have military or martial arts training, and at 165 pounds, I will not typically have a size advantage (and didn't, in this case). So in the spirit of the blog I decided to see what the internet's free resources could teach me - and you - about self defense. I learned a lot, but most important (and perhaps obvious) is that there is no "solution"... Each scenario is different, and all you can do is think about and plan for specific types of scenarios. The general themes were helpful, and from my experience in Ibiza turned out to be true. The first was that a confrontation happens much faster than you expect. This was definitely the case in my encounter. The time from that initial sensation of danger to us facing off took no more than a few seconds. Overwhelmingly, the advice I read emphasized getting away as the primary goal, and fighting as the last resort. However, it was also fairly consistent that if your gut tells you you're about to be attacked, you should strike first. This only makes sense to me now, after the experience. Everything I felt at the time was instinctive and animalistic - I came very close to striking preemptively, because my gut feeling was telling me we were about to be physically assaulted. Fortunately nothing more serious happened.

But the real meat and potatoes of all these videos was focused on the following - if you have to strike, how? Where? With what? The first point was that in these situations, you do what you must to survive. That said, the goal is to debilitate the adversary and run, not stick around and beat the person to death. Somewhat surprisingly, punching was almost never mentioned as the best option. Knees to the groin, eye poking, elbows to the head, head butts, kicks to the shin and open palm hits to the nose were all mentioned prominently. Another theme was the importance of the element of surprise. Whether throwing your glasses in the person's face or spitting out your last sip into their eyes, anything to give you one second to take your first blow of choice was described as crucial. Another move I hadn't thought of was the double hand clap around your opponent's ears. Apparently this is very disorienting and will give you the opportunity to strike or run. The use of tools around you was also mentioned - in my case it was a barren street, so a rock or a stick would work, but generally a bottle or chair also do the trick. The problem with any weapon, of course, is that it can be used against you.

In terms of where to strike, it was advised not to hit hard tissues of the body. Vulnerable areas include the knees, groin, eyes, bridge of the nose, kidney, heart, neck, throat, and the solar plexus. As I understand it, these are the places where you can expect the most "bang for your buck." I would encourage anyone who wants to learn more to do a simple YouTube search for "self defense techniques", as a video is worth more than a thousand words in terms of the execution of these ideas.

Most important is proper training and practice, which I fully plan to pursue following this encounter. I am sure none of you will take self defense tips from this blog, so I won't go on ad nauseum. But the quick summary of my introductory learning is: keep your wits, always look for a way out, understand your relative strengths and weaknesses, and if you strike, strike decisively and then get out. My story may not sound terrible, but it is the kind of thing that shakes you to your core, because that situation can happen anytime, anywhere. Unfortunately we do not live in a perfect world, and cannot entirely prevent these types of events (although not walking in an unknown city at night is a good start).

We can, however, be prepared for when it does.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Week 35: Case in Point, Khan Academy

I created The 52 Week Project in part to prove my evolving thesis that anyone with an internet connection and the desire could learn for free about almost anything. In conversations with family and friends, I pointed out that the revolutionary part of this idea was already complete - tons of free, web-based educational content was online. From content providers like MIT, Stanford and Cornell to the various content delivery platforms like iTunesU and YouTube, an almost unimaginable amount of facts and lessons can be accessed. In fact, there is almost TOO much out there. How could too much free education be a bad thing, you might wonder? Thirty five weeks into this project, I can tell you that at some point those looking for learning (me, in this case) are so inundated with non-standardized content - often without context - it can become almost not worth the time to learn. For instance, I have never thought of a weekly topic for which no free online content exists, but I most certainly HAVE abandoned topics because finding and accessing this content has been too tedious. One post-52 Week Project idea of mine is to create an e-guide of all these education sites just to help people make sense of what's out there. In the interim, my problem - the problem - is that nobody has pulled together a focused curriculum for those wanting access to free online education - a simple, but crucial, step.

Well, I am extremely happy to say that Salman Khan has taken the time and immense effort to begin solving this problem. The Khan Academy is a non-profit site with the stated goal of "providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere." The site has over 1,600 videos, all done by Mr. Khan, and all covering some lesson ranging from the most basic arithmetic to liner algebra, chemistry, finance and world history. The lessons are grouped together in a way that allows users to either click to a certain lesson (e.g., Calculus 1), or follow a progression of lessons (e.g., from geometry to trigonometry). Mr. Khan started the online academy a few years ago, developing his site while simultaneously working full-time as a hedge fund analyst (sound familiar?). The tremendous positive feedback he received from students and parents around the globe convinced him to quit his job and work exclusively on the project. The success to date has been incredible - aside from millions of millions of clicks and tens of thousands of Facebook and YouTube followers - Mr. Khan got a personal endorsement from Bill Gates, whose children now use the site.

The lessons began with Mr. Khan's strong suit, math, but have branched out at a rapid pace and will ultimately cover the basics and much more. Before endorsing the quality of the lessons, I decided to try a few on a topic that I know something about: banking. I was planning to watch Banking 1 and perhaps 2, but somehow I found myself all the way down to "Banking 6: Bank Notes and Checks", before realizing how much time had passed by! The lessons were excellent - it turns out you never actually see Mr. Khan - the video consists of his voice walking you through his scribbling on an e-blackboard. He distills complicated concepts to their simplest building blocks, repeats often, and helps give the viewer an intuitive feel for the content at hand.

I cannot overstate the importance of his ability to do this for the core concepts of economics, finance and banking. In my opinion financial illiteracy is a major problem in the United States - it was in many ways at the core of events leading to the 2008 financial crisis. While I have always thought the problem emminently solvable, Mr. Khan has actually provided the solution. I am not remotely kidding - here is a way, in under two hours, to learn the basics. I urge you to look through some of these lessons and send them to your children and friends. What is a bank? How does it work and why? What is an interest rate? These are crucial, elementary concepts that unfortunately even people of power simply have not mastered. Now, instead of having to ask the embarrassing question at a cocktail party or read a dull text book or pay thousands of dollars for a course, you can view a free twelve minute video on each of these concepts.

Mr. Khan is on to something huge here. Any jealousy I might have about the fact that I never followed up on that tutoring website idea of mine is overwhelmed by the excitement I have for what he is doing. Once a database of all the basics are put together, using what is by now a tested teaching methodology, the scale and breadth that can be achieved are breathtaking. This is quite literally the type of thing that can help eliminate future poverty, folks. Give people the opportunity to help themselves and you will start a positive feedback loop that nobody could have imagined. You have heard a similar riff from me on Kiva and Apple. Khan Academy is a another example of brilliance that should both inspire us and give us hope that in spite of all the current gloom, the future is indeed bright.