Lock picking. On my kids' curriculum.
Tell any group of intelligent, motivated and creative people they can’t, shouldn’t or that “it’s impossible,” and they are going to do it. Even if it might get them in trouble”, begins a story in Wired Magazine on five hacks you can explore with your kids; before enticing parents and offspring alike into trying security cracking, lock picking and laughing out loud at copyright protection.
I read it with interest, as one of my young kids is attending a Korean kindergarten. South Korean education is not famed for favouring creativity; it does churn out some spectacularly good mathematicians, engineering and science graduates, but encouraging them to stick their heads above the parapet in any sense doesn’t seem to be the forte of the system here and a little rule-breaking, along with some really hands-on challenges are often just what children need to spark their intellectual curiosity and innate creativity.
Nassim Taleb, the financier, epistomologist and essayist has written recently that “universities are better at public relations and claiming credit than generating knowledge.” Knowledge and technology are generated by what he calls “stochastic tinkering”, (from the Greek for “random”, or, if I understand correctly, the presence of random variables in any conjecture), rarely by top-down directed research.
There are very few institutions that favour providing space for such stochastic tinkering, and the tradition of rote learning in East Asia renders the creation of such places even less likely. In the brief few months I spent volunteering with North Korean defectors at a school here one of the things I heard again and again was how horrendous the education system here seemed to them; it’s competitiveness, the sense that learning was a race to be won and other students competitors, the obsession with English etc.
It struck me that these kids (who have already displayed a fierce independence — or at least bravery — in fleeing the North) could be precisely the people who are best placed to push in some sense for reform of the education system here. For comparatively wealthy, technologically advanced South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OECD. Year after year plenty of students top themselves after failing exams. It borders on the surreal to suggest that a bunch of malnourished escapees from a totalitarian state may prove to be the critics this country needs, yet it may well prove to be the case…
When it comes to suicide, Andrew Lam of New American Media has written a fascinating piece about its prevalence among Asian Americans. Lam (who’s Vietnamese-American) writes that:
Long before America existed, something of the American dream already had taken root in East Asia through the scholarship and examination system of the Mandarins. Villages and towns pooled their resources and sent their best and brightest to compete in the imperial court, hoping that one of their own would make it to the center of power.
One friend literally went mad and had to be hospitalized because he broke under the pressure of failing grades. Another was an “anchor kid,” someone whose family sold practically everything they owned to buy him a passage on an escaping boat out of communist Vietnam. He barely had time to think.
Alone in the United States, he faced the burden of having to support his family back home while going to school full time. If he didn’t succeed, it could very well mean death for the family that relied on his income to survive back in impoverished Vietnam. Failure was not an option.
Back home in Vietnam, an army of hungry, ambitious and capable young men and women were dying to take his place, and for him, a boat person who barely survived his perilous journey across the South China Sea, “dying to” was no mere idiomatic expression.
Meanwhile, thanks to Wired, I’ve been poring over this guide to lockpicking and think it may indeed — perhaps counter-intuitively to some — be a good thing to teach my son when he’s a bit bigger. It’s a mini engineering puzzle with a clear built-in satisfactory reward of getting the thing to open; empowering and fun. It also teaches responsibility; much like those who know how to handle themselves rarely get into fights, those who can pick locks are unlikely, given the right guidance, to use it to nick stuff. The ability itself is the reward.
William and his Windmill
Such stochastic tinkering finds a perfect expression in Malawian kid William Kamkwamba, who was only 14 years old when he built a windmill to provide his family home in a remote village with enough electricity to read by and to listen to the radio with. After dropping out of school at 14 because his parents couldn’t afford the fees, he got his hands on an old school library book called “Using Energy” and set about building a windmill with materials that were to hand including an old bicycle, broken PVC pipes, a pair of worn out shoes, copper wire and a tractor fan. As the Institute of Science in Society reports:
William’s motivation for his invention was the health of his sisters. At night their home would be lit with paraffin candles that emit toxic fumes similar to those of burning diesel, which was making his sisters ill from the smoke. At first his neighbours mocked him saying that he was going mad, but William persevered with the design because the book told him that it worked.
In Malawi only 2 percent of the population enjoy household electricity, so Williams’ neighbours, who had no electricity at all, soon changed their minds when they heard the sound of Malawian music coming from his house. They were even happier when they realised that William’s windmill could re-charge their mobile phones too.
His first attempt at a windmill gave his family enough energy to light one room so William decided to adapt the design further by adding a fourth rotor blade to create more power. He asked a local tinsmith to cut more efficient steel blades from a recycled oil drum and added a second windmill below the original blades that had been fashioned from heated, flattened and shaped PVC pipes . He also replaced the bicycle chain that doubled as a pulley rotor with an old car fan belt that worked much better.
That’s the kind of stuff I want my kid doing; building windmills and picking locks; creative, a healthy disdain for authority and with the ability to build a new world should this one come crashing down.