Thursday, March 22, 2012

Overworked Students and Food Food Food

So, my third week as a teacher is almost over and some things have happened.

First of all, I was sick all week thanks to one of the little munchkins, and I hope this doesn't become a pattern because teaching while sick is a major bummer.  It's hard to lead a class when you don't have a voice, and harder still when you have to duck out of the room every five minutes to blow your nose (I overheard my co-worker telling her class "Either Andy has a cold or there is an elephant outside!).  But as Friday rolls in, I'm finally feeling better, so I figure a blog post is necessary.

Today I'll finish working through the books that we were given when we first started, and so yesterday I went and asked my principal what book I should begin using next week.  "Oh, just look through the library, we have lots of books in there."  So three weeks in and I have complete flexibility on what I can teach my classes.  This is exciting, and daunting at the same time.  I have a really hard time judging where a lot of my students rank in their English speaking ability, and after looking through a ton of different books I'm still not sure which one to pick.  So I've decided to experiment with various ones, and hope I land on one that works and that students also enjoy.

Speaking of students' enjoyment- they don't enjoy much.  The poor kiddos come to me after a full day of school, and many of them go to other private schools or after school activities before I see them.  So by the time they plop down in their desks in my little classroom, they're all hungry, cranky and tired.  I played hangman with a class last week and one student chose as her clue "I hate Kim Yong Jin English Language School."  I had to commend her on her English ability, but I felt bad for her at the same time.  It's a big struggle to get a lot of my students engaged, and I can tell they don't want to be here at all.  It's hard to strike a balance between being a 'fun' teacher and actually teaching them worthwhile information, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to perfect it.  But as long as I can get my students smiling just a little bit while they use English, I feel a bit better about forcing them to learn.

On other fronts, living in South Korea is great.  The food continues to be shockingly cheap, unless its western food.  For example, we bought a huge bag of lettuce, 2 pounds or so of carrots and a large bushel of green onions for only 5,000 won (less than $5.00).  However, it costs the same amount to buy one small tub of cream cheese, so we're struggling to change our habits while still retaining some of the comforts of home.  So while we've had to cut down on our bagel intake, we've upped the amount of eggs we eat tenfold (we go through about 30 a week).  Bread is much more plentiful than we expected, but almost all of it is very sweet.  Lots of things that shouldn't be are sweet actually, as Ashley says "everything is sweet here except the desserts!"

The weather also plays a lot bigger role in our days than it did back home.  Because we don't have a car and walk 20 minutes to work each day, rainy days are much more frustrating and sunny days that much more welcome.  I was able to steal an adorable bright yellow umbrella that one of the students left behind, complete with plenty of "Konglish" (Korean-English) phrases and a lovely orange frill.

But enough about the weather, and more about the food.  Eating here is a daily adventure, as we can only read about 25% of any given menu.  Last night we found an orange shop with an English menu and we were in heaven.  We'll definitely be visiting that one again.  Orange shops are everywhere here- they specialize in a food called kimbap that looks like sushi but has no raw fish inside.  Instead, its typically made with spam, processed fish cake, pickled radish and carrots all wrapped in rice(bap) and seaweed(kim).  They have them with many other types of fillings, but the one I just described is always available and always super cheap (less than a dollar).  They also have plenty of other standard Korean fare, and its never over 4000 won (so less than 4 dollars for a dish).  It's a little like American diners in that they always have about the same menu, but they're much healthier (or so I like to imagine).  I've fallen in love with one dish called yache mandu ddeokbokki, basically the ddeokbokki I mentioned in an earlier post with dumplings and vegetables thrown in.  YUM.  Here's a link to a translated menu if you A: want to know what kind of food you can get for cheap when you come visit me or B: stumbled upon this blog while living in Korea and would like to navigate the complicated orange shops yourself.

That's enough babbling for now, more later!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

First Week of Teaching

So today's the last day of my first week of classes, and that means its time for an update.

On Monday, we were finally hooked up to the internet (this was the cable guy's third time at our apartment, and hopefully the last).  We have really high speed broadband, a home telephone, and cable TV-which we can barely understand and probably won't use much since it's in Korean.

As soon as the cable guy left, we went to our first day of school.  Now we're starting to learn that in Korea, you have to be ready to roll with the punches.  The schedule we got on Friday was very different from the one we were presented with on Monday, and the lessons we had planned to teach were all mixed up.  So after some hectic planning and photocopying, I was finally prepared to teach my first class... of one student.

My school is a hagwon, or a private tutoring academy.  Our hours are from 1:30-7:40pm, so students come see us after their normal school days are over.  And since the hagwon just opened on Monday, lots of classes are empty or near empty still, hence the fact that I have two classes with only one student.  Luckily, I worked as a tutor for 5-6 months right before I came to Korea, so the one-on-one was something I was very familiar with.  I actually really enjoyed my first student, a very bright boy in the second grade who was eager to learn and participated very well.

I had two more classes later in the day of older students that were met with varying success.  I've found that the older students are (we only teach elementary students, so about ages 7-13), the harder it is to get them participating.  You have to sort of force them to raise their hands, call them out directly to get them to answer questions, and mix up the classroom activities so nobody falls asleep on you.  But each day has been better than the last, and I've found that I really enjoy teaching.  It's fun to see what works and what doesn't, try new things, and try to keep students engaged and smiling.

Our school is also amazing.  We've heard a lot of horror stories about working at private schools, and we were pretty certain we weren't going to be one of them since we had spoken extensively with Beth and Jess prior to coming to Daegu.  Still, there was a bit of trepidation, but after seeing the school and experiencing a few days teaching all of our worries were put aside.  The facilities are excellent, the classrooms are brand spanking new and really pretty (see some pictures below), and our coworkers are wonderful.  On Wednesday, our boss even bought every teacher Starbucks- which is even more impressive when you remember how expensive it is in Korea (around 5-6 dollars for a drink!).

We've had no trouble making friends as well, there are lots of other teachers new to the city who are all fun to hang out with and come from all over the English speaking world.  Our new friends hail from Ireland, South Africa, the UK, Canada and New Zealand, as well as a healthy smattering of Americans.  And the food, as usual, is AMAZING.  We have yet to have a bad meal here, and that's pretty great considering most of our meals involve us going to a restaurant and pointing to an item that looks to be in our price range.  My favorites so far have been jajangmyeon, (basically "Korean" Chinese food), haejangguk (or "hangover soup" in English, complete with an entire ox tail) and the ever present samgyeopsal that you've probably tasted if you've ever tried Korean barbecue.  Everything is always served with a million side dishes, or banchan, which nearly always include kimchi as well as pickled radishes and some other vegetables prepared in the individual restaurants unique style.  It's a good thing we have to walk 20 minutes to work each day, because otherwise I'd have gained a few hundred pounds already.

So since I have to go back to lesson planning, that about wraps up this blogpost.  But I hope to continue updating, especially once we're able to start traveling.  This weekend, we are invited to our director's daughter's first birthday party, which should be a blast and a very interesting experience.

I'll leave you all with some pictures of our school, just so you can see how pretty it is yourself!
Ashley's classroom, and the front desk of our school

The view out the window of our 6th floor of the school.  The street on the right is full of hundreds of vendors every Monday for a weekly traditional market, very fun and lots of great produce and street food.

My classroom entrance

I caught Ashley while she was preparing her next lesson in her classroom, which is identical to mine

Friday, March 2, 2012

And the Rest of Week One

So our internet is still not connected, and to make a long story short it sounds like we won't get hooked up until Monday. Very frustrating, apparently this is the exception as everyone has told us that they were hooked up within 2 days after arriving with no problems. I guess we just have had bad luck.

On Tuesday afternoon, we went to see Beth and Jess teach. They were teaching 5th and 6th graders, which are elementary school students here. Some of their classes are being turned over to us on Monday, so it was a great opportunity to see how things were done. They're both pretty awesome teachers, and we learned a lot about what ability the students are at and how best to engage them. Really, the classes are geared towards engaging students in conversations, and getting them comfortable using English. After that was over, we were pretty exhausted (as usual here, we've been doing a ton of walking), and I was starving- so we went to one of the pizza places Jess and Beth recommended: Pizza Bingo! The pizza wasn't very good, was covered with some sort of sauce, and for some reason every single pizza here has corn on it- which nobody can really explain.

This was the exact "pizza" we ordered at Pizza Bingo. Sounds much better than it looks

The next day we had plans to go grocery shopping with Beth at Home Plus, which is like a target or wal-mart but much much larger. It was great going with someone who already knew the lay of the land, as she was able to tell us what most things were and what sort of things she had tried. The best part was getting there and back- we could have taken the metro but it's about a 15 minute walk from our place and costs 1100 won apiece (about $1), but instead we shared a taxi that only cost 2400! That's like a little over 2 dollars, which split between the three of us was definitely affordable, and it was a much easier way of getting all our groceries back to our apartment.

Wednesday night we went to Jess and Beth's apartment which was very nice. Nearly everyone here lives in high-rises very similar to ours, and they've had a lot of time to make their's really comfortable. I left Ashley there for a girls night of burritos and wine, while Jess and I went out for Korean barbecue near Kimyueng University on the West side of the city with a couple of his friends. I've never had Korean barbecue, but it was INCREDIBLE. Like bacon on steroids, and you wrap the charred and cooked meat in a lettuce leaf, slather it with this spicy bean paste and cover it with garlic and onions (cooked in pork fat of course) shove it into your mouth and wash it down with some crappy light beer. Best of all, the price for a TON of food and a lot of beer was only 40,000 won for four people, so less than 10 bucks apiece. Gotta love it. After that we went to an arcade down the street and hit up some batting cages, then finished the night at a foreigner bar called Sydney Street owned by Australians before heading home.

The next day Jess and Beth took us to downtown Daegu, and holy moly was it overwhelming. Lights and music everywhere, with more smells and sights and stimulation than I could handle. We had some awesome street food, including something called ddoekboggi which is now my new obsession- it's processed fish cake and some sort of rice cake cooked in this spicy/sweet red sauce that honest'y doesn't look or sound very good but ohmygoodness it tasted amazing.

Ddoek-boggi (pronounced dahk-bok-ee) in all its glory

Getting around here is a bit difficult since there are no street names, but thankfully Daegu isn't super gigantic so you can learn by experience. I think it'll take us a few more weeks to get comfortable downtown, but that's not a problem since there's so much to do we'll definitely be heading back there soon. We wrapped up the day with dinner at a place whose name I can't remember that served this chicken stew type thing that was also amazing. I can't get over how good the food is here, there's a ton of variety and I have yet to eat something I didn't like. Almost all the food is served family style too, which means you get to try a little of everything and it comes with unlimited banchan (sides) which are always really good- usually some pickled radish, always kimchi, super sweet pickles which Ashley hates (and I love), bean sprouts and lots of other delicious varieties of pickled vegetables.

Another thing that's wild here is how safe things are, especially in our part of town. We regularly see tiny adorable children walking around the city, even after dark (think like 5 and 6 year olds) with no supervision! It's definitely a shock, there are even steps in all the elevators so they can reach the buttons. Very refreshing compared to other parts of the world.

Today, we went to school to do... we weren't sure. Plans seem to change last minute here all the time, and Koreans seem to only feel the need to tell foreigners about half of what is going on. We thought we were going to go get medical checks in order to get our Alien registration card, followed by lunch out with our director and his family, but instead we were training for our new job (which we had thought we were doing later on in the day). It all worked out though, we were trained by Beth and Jess (they're the only other foreign teachers at our school). They explained our schedule for us, helped us learn how to plan lessons, taught us a lot of tricks to make our students feel more comfortable and to pronounce their names correctly, and gave us good advice on how to deal with our co-workers and bosses. Our direct supervisor is the Principal of the new school for younger students that will open on Monday, Ms. Lee, and she's really sweet. However, most of our coteachers get very... giggly around us, as if they're not very comfortable speaking English with native speakers.

Our work hours are from 1:30-7:40, but since the school for youngsters is just about to open there aren't many students enrolled. I only have one class of 1-4 graders, and that class only has one student in it, and Ashley has 3 classes each with a very small amount of students. However, we both have two later classes each day with 5-10 higher level students from grades 5 and 6. Apparently this will change very rapidly, as students will continue to be enrolled as the semester goes on, so we may find that when we come to work on Monday we have many more students than we thought, and that number can increase during the semester. Nevertheless, I have loaded up my kindle in preparation for several class periods in which I won't have any students to teach.

Anyways, there's a lot we still don't know, but Ashley and I are super excited to begin teaching! The school is incredibly nice, all the facilities are brand new and very modern. We got to pick out our own classrooms (well Ashley got to pick, and I got the other one :)). It seems pretty simple, and the students all seem very fun and bubbly.

This weekend we're planning to head downtown to try and do some used furniture shopping for our apartment- my Korean is improving a lot each day (I can read about half of what I see now) and so hopefully we'll be able to say gga-gga-chusayo (discount please) and get some good deals!

The First Day in Daegu

We're still without internet, so my access to the neighbor's wifi is spotty. The guy came to install it today, but for some reason or another he's going to have to come back tomorrow or Thursday, so we'll be getting hooked up by the end of the week. We got a great night's sleep last night (neither of us slept much on the flight), and woke up early today. Our apartment is really neat, its on the top floor of the building so we have a really great view of the mountains (see the photo above). It was pretty dirty when we moved in (apparently people don't clean up when they move out in South Korea) so this morning we wandered around until we found what looked like a convenience store and bought windex and paper towels so we could wipe down the bathroom, fridge and cabinets before we moved our stuff in. It's really well furnished, and Mr. Kim, our director and boss, was nice enough to supply us with cooking supplies and utensils (pots/pans, silverware, mugs) and he even had a loaf of white bread and some cream cheese in our fridge when we got here so we didn't have to venture out to eat this morning!

We knew the cable guy was supposed to come between 11 and 11:30, so we were surprised when we opened the door at 11 to find Beth and Jess! They're even nicer than we thought- they helped us negotiate with the cable guy and then took us out around town. We started with the Trash system which is very complicated, they sort it into like 5 different categories but we think we've got it mostly figured out. They showed us how to get to our school from our apartment, took us out to lunch at a kim-bap place (they're everywhere here- kim-bap is kinda like sushi but without the fish part, it had egg, fish cake, spam and stuff inside) and showed us how to order (and pay), and then took us to E-Mart (like a Target, the other big one here is called HomePlus, and then there is also Costco). We got some basic stuff like a shower rod/curtain, hangers, and more cleaning supplies.

Tonight we're going to sit in on Beth and Jess's classes at 5:00 pm, and then who knows what after that. We're both pretty exhausted already, but are really enjoying it here. On first impressions- its a lot more like the good ole USA than I thought, except everyone's korean!

Updates soon.

The South Korean Adventures Begin

So I've decided to dust off this space and re-purpose it. Why? Because I just moved to South Korea to teach English, and I'd like a simple way to share my experiences with my friends and family, as well as anyone else who may be interested.

A little background, I moved here (Daegu, South Korea) with my girlfriend Ashley Ozery just one week ago (check out the link for her own blog). We both had trouble getting jobs fresh out of college, and our backup plan became our main plan, and now we're here! We found the job through a friend of a friend, who hooked us up with a married couple whose names are Beth and Jess. They have been absolutely incredible in getting us the job, getting our apartment set up, and once we got here showing us around and helping us with every and any thing we could ask for. They teach at the same school that we do, and have already been teaching there for a year and a half. Next Monday, the school is expanding to include younger students, and that's who we'll be teaching.

So what will follow for now is just a few emails I wrote to my family about our first few days here in Daegu. It's a little haphazard, but hopefully understandable. In the future, I plan to update everyone through here, and I also hope to include lots more pictures and descriptions of life in South Korea.

Hope you enjoy!

Monday, May 9, 2011

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Remember when you were a little kid, and grown-ups all used to ask you that same question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The question itself has certain underlying expectations: that a person is defined by his profession, that true passion is something that is innate and not learned, and that children should all have some sort of goal.

Personally, I always dreaded that question. Mostly because I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Usually I would lie just to avoid any awkwardness. "I want to be an astronaut!" I would say, because it always made adults' faces light up, and let's face it, space is pretty cool. But even though all your teachers and your parents assure you that you can grow up to be anything, whatever you want, I wasn't naive enough to believe that I would actually be an astronaut one day, especially once I learned that being an astronaut was more about engineering and mathematics than zero-gravity sports and meeting extra-terrestrials. So every once in a while, I would respond truthfully with a simple "I don't know." Now most adults aren't sure how to handle this response. To be fair to them they were probably just trying to start a conversation to entertain me, and I wasn't providing much help. So they'd pause for a beat, then ask me what sort of things I was interested in, or give me some classical options: "How about a fireman! Or a doctor!" they'd say, as if the suggestion of a generic job title would give me a sudden epiphany for which I would credit them in my Nobel acceptance speech twenty or thirty years down the line. But I was stubborn in my ambivalence, because I really did have no idea, and eventually the interrogation would end with a smile and a pat on the head. "Well don't worry about it now, you've got plenty of time to figure that out!" seemed to be the standard reassurance, which always irked me a little. I wasn't worried about it before, but the constant suggestion that I should be always made me wonder if there was somehow something wrong with me.

As I grew older, people continued to ask: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And still I didn't know, nor did I usually care. But that nagging voice in the back of my head got louder as I got older, and I continued to wonder if I should get my act together and figure out what it was I wanted to do with my life. But people kept assuring me, "Don't worry about it now, you've got plenty of time!" When it came time to apply to colleges, I stuck to Liberal Arts programs, because even though I didn't know what I wanted to "be" when I grew up, I knew what kind of things I found interesting. And when I got to Lehigh, it took me all four of the allotted "take a lot of classes to figure out what you like" semesters before I finally studied on Global Studies as a major (in part because my adviser, Jack Lule, continued to reassure me that I didn't need to have my career trajectory mapped out quite yet).

So that's how I now find myself, only two weeks away from graduation, still with no halfway decent response to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I don't blame anybody but myself for the procrastination, but I'm still not sure if its as big of a problem that everyone has always hinted it to be. Don't get me wrong, I've always been insanely impressed by and secretly jealous of those who have known what they wanted to do since they were able to articulate it with words. But there's another part of me that doesn't understand it, the same part that always prevents me from giving a straight answer to the question. To be frank, I just don't understand how somebody could know, right this second, what they want to do for the rest of their time on earth. The idea terrifies me. What if you pick the wrong thing? What if you aren't as good at it as you thought you would be? What if you change your mind one day, and you've been lying to yourself and everyone else for as long as you've been declaring that you know what you want to do with your life?

I guess that's why Global Studies and all of its great professors like Jack Lule and John Jirik have always appealed to me. They push students to focus on information and learning instead of the endgame. When they tell me not to worry about the future, I listen, because... well they turned out alright, didn't they?

If I had to guess, I think that Clay Shirky would probably tell me not to worry either. After reading his latest book on social-media, "Cognitive Surplus," I couldn't help but think that he'd find himself in pleasant company among the global studies professors at Lehigh. "Cognitive Surplus" is mostly about how people are putting their free-time to better and better use these days. Whether it's in writing a Wikipedia article that will serve to educate the online masses, or a caption for a LOLCat that will simply amuse them, people are starting to use their free time to create rather than simply consume. The best part about Shirky's book though, is that Shirky sees both of these activities as valuable. Got an idea? Try it out! Shirky says. If it doesn't work, try something new. You don't have to devote your life to the original idea; if it succeeds that's great, but if it fails that's great too. And that's where I find the greatest solace: in the idea that failure is just as valuable as success. "As a general rule, it is more important to try something new, and work on the problems as they arise, then to figure out a way to do something new without having any problems," Shirky says.

I am really, really good at failure. I started tons of projects that never took off! I've had lots of ridiculous plans that crashed and burned spectacularly, like when I decided to create a website from scratch using notepad, or when I started a blog about international hip-hop, or when I decided to start a campaign to get Lehigh to get rid of that stupid rule that makes you change all your passwords every 6 months. And while I knew that every time I experienced one of these failures I also learned something, there was a small part of me that tried to convince myself not to try the next time, because I was sure to fail. But Clay Shirky has reassured me that it's not only okay to fail, its great! Before Facebook became the standard for social networking, there were hundreds of attempts at such like, Friendster and MySpace. And while Andrew Weinreich, the man who created, is probably not enthralled that it is Mark Zuckerberg and not him who is now the world's youngest billionaire, he would be remiss if he dismissed the SixDegrees project as worthless. After, Weinreich went on to found a slew of internet start-ups, most of which probably have some vestiges of the things that worked in, while he has probably avoided the things that didn't.

So thanks to Clay Shirky, to Jack Lule, and to all the great mentors I've had throughout my life, for reassuring me that I don't need to know what I want to be when I grow up- and that it's okay to fail.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Creativity, Rigidity and the LSATs

No one who has a sore throat need consult a doctor, because sore throats will recover without medical intervention. In recent years several cases of epiglottitis have occurred. Epiglottitis is a condition that begins with a sore throat and deteriorates rapidly in such a way that the throat becomes quite swollen, thus restricting breathing. Sometimes the only way to save a patient’s life in these circumstances is to insert a plastic tube into the throat below the blockage so that the patient can breathe. It is highly advisable in such cases that sufferers seek medical attention when the first symptoms occur, that is, before the condition deteriorates.

Which one of the following is the best statement of the flaw in the argument?

(A) The author draws a general conclusion on the basis of evidence of a particular instance.
(B) The author assumes that similar effects must have similar causes.
(C) The author uses a medical term, “epiglottitis,” and does not clarify its meaning.
(D) The author makes two claims that contradict each other.
(E) The author bases her conclusion at the end of the passage on inadequate evidence.

Above is a sample question for the Logical Reasoning section of the LSAT. Now unlike the vast majority of human beings, I like standardized tests. No really, I actually enjoy them. I mean I'll be the first to admit that there's a great deal of tediousness associated with standardized tests. And the gap between a standardized test's ability to realistically assess a person's intelligence and the importance of said test's score in determining an individual's future is far too wide. Everyone knows at least one person who scored horribly on their SATs in spite of their obvious intelligence, and I'd guess that you might know one or two people who scored extremely well even though they're less intelligent than a common squirrel.

But none of that has abated my love for a good, regimented standardized test. There's just something very... finite about them. Every question is familiar, because they have to follow a pattern. Similarly, every answer is familiar, because they follow patterns too. On the LSAT, you know that you're going to get five sections of 35 minutes each. Each section will have between 24 and 28 questions, and you're guaranteed a break after the fourth section of no less than 10 but no more than 15 minutes. Let's take a look at the question above for a minute (don't panic, I swear I'm not going to make you take any practice tests or anything, I'm just trying to prove my point). The question, "Which one of the following is the best statement of the flaw in the argument?" tells you a few things immediately. The phrase "statement of the flaw" indicates that this question falls into the category of Fallacy Questions, one of the 11 different categories of questions in the logical reasoning section of the test. Fallacy questions directly ask you to spot a flaw in an argument-i.e. to identify a "fallacy," or particular type of invalid logical reasoning. Now I've only been studying for the LSATs for a few weeks, but I know that with a fallacy question, the correct answer will do more than just describe the argument; it must describe an error in reasoning.

With just a little experience and prior knowledge, I've transformed my perception of this question. Unless you've been studying for the LSAT, or have taken it before, your initial reaction to this question was one of confusion, boredom, or if you actually tried to answer it, concentration. However, since I've seen a lot of fallacy questions before, and know a bit about how LSAT writers formulate questions, my reaction was a bit different. I first read the passage, taking careful note of absolute statements, definitions and qualifiers (e.g. "No one who has a sore throat...", "epiglottitis is..." and "It is highly advisable..."). Then I read the prompt, immediately realized it was a fallacy question, and started crossing out answers. Now I won't go through them one by one, but its fairly clear to me that A, B, C and E are all incorrect. They're clever tricks, meant to divert you away from the right answers, but since I know most of the playbook that the question writers use, I can spot these tricks easily. For example, answer A (The author draws a general conclusion on the basis of evidence of a particular instance) defines an actual logical fallacy, the generalization fallacy. However, a correct definition does not make a right answer, and its clear upon reading the passage that the author does not clearly draw "a general conclusion on the basis of evidence of a particular instance" of anything.

Odds are, if you tried answering this question yourself, you got it right. It's one of the easier practice questions I've come across, designed as a simple check against those who don't read carefully. It's clear the claims that "no one who has a sore throat need consult a doctor" and "it is highly advisable that sufferers [of epiglottitis, a condition that begins with sore throat,] seek medical attention when the first symptoms occur" are contradictory, and therefore D is the correct response. However, the odds are also good that if this is your first time looking at a sample LSAT question, you spent a good deal of time figuring out exactly what the question was asking, weeding out the wrong answers and mentally sorting through the importance of various phrases and factors in the question. Most people can, with sufficient time and a proficient grasp of English, reason their way through any of the questions on the LSAT. With sufficient time is the key phrase here, because when you take the test, time is anything but sufficient. You have 35 minutes to answer about 25 questions, which leaves with you with just over a minute per question. This is why experience and prior knowledge are so important with standardized tests. You have to know the types of questions you're going to see, the types of answers you're going to see, and be able to figure out why the right answer is right and the wrong ones are wrong. The key to doing really well on tests like the LSAT or the SAT isn't intelligence, it's practice. With enough experience and practice, complicated questions about logical fallacies begin to look more like a simple game than a part of some incomprehensible standardized test. The rules are rigid, they're set, all you have to do is play as well as you can. The best test takers will tell you that they don't have to concentrate very hard when taking a test, because at that point its mostly instinct.

I bring up standardized testing not just because I'm in the middle of preparing to take the June administration of the LSAT, but because it ties in perfectly to the book I read this week, "You Are Not A Gadget- A Manifesto" by Jaron Lanier. Lanier is a member of geek royalty- he's known as the father of virtual reality technology and has worked with figures like Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine and John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But with "I Am Not A Gadget," Lanier separates himself from his former colleagues. The open internet, he argues, is not nearly as open as we perceive it to be. Some of the most influential decisions in technological history have been made with little foresight as to how they could influence and limit the actions of the future, especially when it comes to the realm of creativity. Lanier, who has a strong background in classical music, uses the invention of MIDI to demonstrate his point:

One day in the early 1980s, a music synthesizer designer named Dave Smith casually made up a way to represent musical notes. It was called MIDI. His approach conceived of music from a keyboard player‟s point of view. MIDI was made of digital patterns that represented keyboard events like “key-down” and “key-up.”
That meant it could not describe the curvy, transient expressions a singer or a saxophone player can produce. It could only describe the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolor world of the violin. But there was no reason for MIDI to be concerned with the whole of musical expression, since Dave only wanted to connect some synthesizers together so that he could have a larger palette of sounds while playing a single keyboard.
In spite of its limitations, MIDI became the standard scheme to represent music in software. Music programs and synthesizers were designed to work with it, and it quickly proved impractical to change or dispose of all that software and hardware. MIDI became entrenched, and despite Herculean efforts to reform it on many occasions by a multi-decade-long parade of powerful international commercial, academic, and professional organizations, it remains so.
You've heard MIDI technology before, even if you aren't aware of it. Every song created on a computer utilizes it, the infamous auto-tune is built around it, and programs like iOS' Garage Band are utterly dependent on it. That means all of this music, all of this creative potential, must be funneled through the filters of MIDI. This is exactly what Lanier is warning against, and why his book is not just a book, but a manifesto.

One of the book's underlying themes has to do with this disconnect between the potential of the human mind and the technologies we interact with on a daily basis. When you sit down at a computer, you probably don't think about how your keyboard is limiting you to typing one letter at a time, or how your mouse restricts your ability to manipulate variables on screen to a single horizontal plane. These basic technologies, which we take for granted, have an enormous impact on our ability to create and innovate. Lanier isn't necessarily advocating that we abandon these restricting technologies immediately, he's simply asking us to pause periodically and consider the forest for the trees. In particular, he is criticizing "the promotion of the latest techno-political-cultural orthodoxy," in which the Singularity is considered inevitable and "Web 2.0" technologies are categorically heaped with praise (and rarely with criticism).

Facebook is yet another example that Lanier presents of an innovation that we rarely question, but which causes a form of "digital reductionism" that serves to disenfranchise our personalities. On Facebook, you are presented with standard prompts to fill out: relationship status, birthday, residence, profile picture. Your entire personal identity devolves into simple, personality-free entries in a database. Now compared with the other ways in which we represent our identities online, Facebook has been called an improvement. Unlike a webpage, where every bit of HTML is customizable (although HTML is also not without its limitations), Facebook is standardized. When you click through to somebody's Facebook profile, you don't have to read the banner at the top of the page that was formerly adorned with the silhouette of Mark Zuckerberg. You know that there will be a picture in the upper left corner which that person has chosen to represent themselves, you know that you can find their recent activity on their wall right in the center of the page, and if you want to know if they're in a relationship or not its as simple as clicking on the link titled "info" under their name. Before you even go to that person's Facebook page, you know exactly what to expect. Sure there may be minor variations here and there, some people choose to display less pictures and remove the wall, while others seem to have fully devoted their lives to Farmville. But all of these behaviors, pictures, and boxes of text which we use to represent who we are as people are standardized and taken for granted. Gone is the seemingly limitless potential of the individual webpage, which take serious commitment, creativity and know-how to make. In its place is the Facebook page. Stale, standardized, and predictable, Facebook is about as good at representing individual personality as a standardized test is at representing intelligence. Sure it makes things easier to sort through, but go look at your own Facebook page and tell me if it accurately represents who you are as a person. Just as the infamous "no child left behind" act forced millions of teachers to abandon their passion for inspiring young minds in favor of "teaching to the test," Facebook asks us to disregard our inner creative influence in favor of making ourselves easier to search for.

Now this isn't to say that you should go delete your Facebook and Twitter account, throw away your mouse and keyboard and completely revert back to man's natural state. But there are a lot of valuable warnings in Lanier's book, especially for technology enthusiasts like myself. I've read a lot of books about social media and technology this semester, and I have to admit that "You Are Not A Gadget" is my absolute favorite. That's because unlike the authors of Cluetrain, Clay Shirky, and Kos, Jaron Lanier refuses to accept the tools of social interaction as simple tools. Instead, he forces you to question the evolution of speech, its contexts, and its limitations. Instead of unabashedly praising new innovations, he wonders how they will limit us in the future, as well as how they can be improved. Instead of accepting the common belief that the abilities of the human brain are approaching those of a computer, he challenges computers to better adapt to the abilities of the human brain.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got an LSAT prep class to go to. Hey, just because I can see the forest for the trees doesn't mean I don't like to go hiking through the woods every now and then.