The Potential Issues Social Media May Have on Children

If my wife and I have children someday, one of my roles as a father will be a social media watchdog. I use the term “social media” to refer to any kind of technology that enables communication and interaction with others, be it Internet, web or mobile.

Right now, there isn’t a whole lot of research or literature on the psychological impact of the Internet and mobile technologies on children. We are already seeing some of the effects though. I’ve seen nieces touch a TV screen, expecting it to be a touch screen. I’ve seen nephews expect instant gratification as quickly as an instant message. I’ve seen friends’ children using a web search to replace their memory of basic facts.

And, I can’t lie – to some extent, I’ve done some of this too. But at least I’m aware of this and try not to let this become a handicap. For young children, however, they don’t have this awareness yet. Such behaviors will shape their entire futures.

Since I haven’t found a single source of the potential issues a child may face when using social media, I decided to amass this list. I’m planning on using this list as a guide for what I may have to teach my children one day. They probably won’t encounter all of these, hopefully, but as a parent, I’d rather be prepared than not.

Over-sharing
The act of publishing too much information about oneself online. There’s a fine line between appropriate sharing and over-sharing. Where that line lies will be a judgement call for each family. At a minimum, I would think child safety is a great line not to cross. There is software for parents that monitors their children’s social media usage as a way of watching out for this too.
Privacy issues
Unintentional leaks of your private information to the public. This is in contrast to over-sharing, which is the intentional sharing of your private information. Some organizations may alter their privacy policies, or have weak ones to begin with, putting your private data at risk. The best way to avoid this is to assume that whatever you put on the web will be public one day.
Cyber bullying
An extension of bullying, except done online, where taunts and insults can be anonymous, multiplied, amplified, and remain around for a long time, if not forever. When talking about bullying, it may be a good idea to discuss how to deal with both real-life and online bullying, both as a potential bully and the target of a bully.
Child predators
Malicious adults who prey on unsuspecting young children. Fortunately, cyber-crime departments of the law enforcement are getting better at nailing these people, but it’s still a concern. Since these predators don’t just operate online, talks about stranger safety should encompass both real-life and Internet interactions.
Computer security
Malicious software that can be accidentally downloaded and installed, like viruses and worms. Some teens may be more tech-savvy than their parents and will know all about this already, but young children may not. Anti-virus software isn’t enough; education on how to keep a clean system is also necessary. This includes Internet security issues, such as phishing and insecure public wifi hotspots.
Social engineering
Malicious attempts at tricking someone through some kind of social interaction (email, IM chat, text message, face-to-face interaction, etc) to gain access to his/her information. Think of it like a con job, only with social media technology. A healthy level of skepticism and common sense may help, for both children and parents.
Internet addiction
An intense desire to be on the Internet, even at the detriment of the other aspects of one’s life: health, relationships, social maturity, etc. There is still much debate over whether or not this is clinically a real addiction, but overusing anything is never a good thing. This can include the social media, the web, video games, and even mobile devices.
Erroneous information
Data that is intentionally misleading or unintentionally incorrect. Don’t trust everything you see on the web. To be safe, always go to verified sources or double-check the information. Some older school-aged children seem to be aware of this, but younger children – and parents – may not be.
Adult activities
Any kind of media portraying adults in sexual acts. It is surprisingly easy to find porn on the web. Unless you have a parental filter, your children will inevitably encounter it one day, whether it be intentionally on a porn site or unintentionally in a random video chat. Perhaps the best a parent can hope for is that their children will have a healthy & appropriate sexual education.
Illegal activities
Actions that break the law. The Internet makes many things surprisingly easy to do, like ordering illegal weapons, hacking into a federal computer system, or unknowingly breaking a foreign law. Children may assume that because something is easy and possible, it’s also acceptable and legal. It may not be.
Hate groups
Organizations that exist primarily to evangelize their intense dislike for a particular group of people. Such groups often thrive online. Children may need to be educated about the existence of such groups, especially if they may be influenced by one, or are the target of one.
Proper grammar and spelling
Forgetting or not learning proper grammatical constructs and word spellings. It’s quicker to type in shorthand than full sentences. Some technologies, like SMS and Twitter, even have character restrictions, further encouraging the use of shorthand. I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man who’s arguing that grammar & spelling is going downhill, but parents may want to keep an eye on this nonetheless.
Profanity
Words that are generally considered to be impolite and unacceptable for children. Though there are many child-safe sites out there, lots of blogs – including mine, I should say – contain profanity. Parental Internet filters will block sites with profanity in them.
Mean behavior
Words from people designed to create ill will. This, of course, is something children will face in real-life also, though misunderstandings and miscommunications are more common on the Internet. What is curt to one person is rude to another. Tempers can also run high and inhibitions low. This may be an issue for children who may be overly sensitive or insensitive.
International interactions
Encounters with people of cultures foreign to those of your family. Since the Internet is international, children may come across languages, behaviors and mannerisms from people of other cultures. This is a good thing and may provide an opportunity for a parent to teach their children about geography and other cultures, though misunderstandings and miscommunications may occur.
Dimished social connectedness
A decrease in the ability to relate to people due to heavy Internet usage. As a potential consequence of Internet addiction, some studies have reported children saying they feel alone and secluded when not using social media. Being without an Internet connection led to withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety. Others have reported a decrease in stranger empathy. Much research still needs to be done on this topic, however.

Again, this is only a swag at a list of potential issues a child may face when using social media technologies. I don’t think technology is inherently harmful. Nor do I intend to frighten parents and make it sound like the Internet is rife with problems. There are a lot of amazing advances coming from technology that will help children, such as education technologies, information access, international awareness, etc.

This list is an attempt to prepare myself for how I may need to educate my children. As with everything in life, there is always the potential to misuse social media technologies in harmful ways. By understanding what those may be, I hope to become a better-educated parent.

What do you think of this list? Did I miss anything? Is an item here really not a big deal? I would love to know what you think; all suggestions welcome. Thanks!

On Being a Social Media Watchdog

When my wife and I have kids, we decided that one of my tasks as a father will be a social media watchdog. That means monitoring our children’s social media usage and staying up on the latest & greatest Internet, web and mobile technologies that may cross their paths.

I love social media. You’ll find me on practically all of the popular services, and many of the newer ones still in “beta.” I publish frequently and share generously. But I do so with a careful eye. At least, I do now.

Way back when the word “blog” was still “web log,” I had this site. I called these writings my “Rambles.” Although most topics were personal essays that covered events in my life, many were works of fiction and some were opinion pieces & rants. It was through one of these opinion pieces that I stupidly discussed a personal issue of a friend of mine.

The friend read the piece, sent me a painful email, and I lost that friendship.

It was a hard lesson in sharing over the web. One that I will never forget; one that I will definitely teach my children someday.

Nowadays, sharing over the web is a lot more complex. Back when I started, there were no such things as privacy filters. If you published it, anyone could eventually find it (unless it was password-protected, which few did).

With the rise of social networking sites, the minutiae of who-sees-what has gotten a lot more complicated. Settings may be hard to find. You may forget to actively manage your privacy settings. Companies can change the options on you, accidentally or intentionally. Hackers could break into your account. And companies could shut down, taking all of your posts and shared items with them.

In other words, there is a thinly veiled belief of privacy that lulls some users into a false sense of security. The truth is, if you don’t want to share something with strangers, don’t post it on the web. Don’t share your password, don’t share your home address, don’t share geo-tagged photos your children or house. Abstinence is the best form of safety.

That isn’t to say sharing over the web is a bad thing. Far from it. Part of the grandeur of the web is all the fantastic things others have shared. Online communities can support, shelter and heal. News from across the world can reach you in mere seconds. Internet messaging can maintain relationships with acquaintances, people you might not otherwise talk to on a regular basis.

If you’re of the baby boomer generation, you probably remember the concept of a pen pal. For you youngun’s, that was someone your own age who lived far away, usually in another country. You and this person, this pal, would write letters to each other with a pen and paper. Hence, pen pal.

I had a pen pal once. Well, he was more like an email pal. We both were into heavy metal, so we’d exchange emails about the new bands and albums we discovered. He lived in Europe and told me all about the huge metal scene over there, while I filled him in on the American scene.

What I’ve learned over my years of Internet usage (and that encompasses the web, email, newsgroups, chat, etc) is the nuanced set of acceptable and safe behaviors. At least, I like to think so.

There’s really a range of acceptable behaviors, and it varies from online community to online community. What is acceptable in one is not in another. And even then, each individual has his/her own particular sensitivities. What offends one person may not offend another.

If that all sounds like quite a quagmire, consider all of the real-life social groups in which you belong. Your family, your classmates, your coworkers, etc. You probably have many circles of friends, each with its own set of acceptable behaviors and sensitivities. Same goes for the online world.

The big difference is you grow into each real-life social group slowly. You start with your family. Then grade school friends. Then high school friends. And so on.

Each of those groups grows with you. Each member goes through the same awkward lessons you do, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time. Each painful lesson teaches you and shapes your social maturity. You learn to understand social cues, vocal inflections, body language, slang, pop culture, etiquette, boundaries, etc.

For young children, this is especially important. The first social group – the family – provides them with a safe, nurturing environment in which to learn how to interact appropriately.

But what if you’re thrown into a world before you’re ready to deal with it?

In the online world, the members vary in social and emotional maturity. They aren’t necessarily in the same range as you. There are some social networks that restrict by age and geography, but the majority do not because they want more users through inclusiveness rather than tighter but smaller communities through exclusiveness.

Along those same lines, a child may interact with his/her family, relatives, family friends, and neighborhood friends in real life. As parents, you can control this. Again, there are some emerging social networks that offer this kind of control, but the majority do not. The general fear – and it’s a real fear – is of predators. Individuals who seek to do harm. There’s a range of this too, from bullying to abduction. All of it scary and all of it harmful.

Also, social feedback exists online, but immature outbursts and reactions are more permanent. Amongst a group of friends, poor behavior can be excusable. It may even stay within the group, if you’re lucky. On the Internet, such behavior could live forever and be found by future employers.

One last point. The lessons on the Internet come much faster. Real life interactions are limited by geography. Children can only interact with the people around them. One of the great things about the Internet is its expansive nature. But for a child who hasn’t yet gained a sense of emotional and social maturity, the volume of interactions – not to mention information – can be staggering.

This is just off the top of my head, of course. I’m not a child psychologist, digital sociologist, or even a “social media specialist.” I’m just a concerned guy who’s trying to anticipate the potential lessons I’ll have to teach about the emerging world of social media. My views may change as I educate myself, find actual research papers on these topics, talk to people way smarter than I, and, you know, have children.

I should also add that I love the possibilities that technology offers to future generations. My children will learn, know, and do things I cannot even begin to fathom. And I don’t want to hold them back at all; the last thing I want to do is shelter them. Life is not fair nor perfect; there are bad people out there, as well as good. A dad can only tell his kids so much before they stop listening to him.

The crux of it all is really emotional and social maturity. Having a healthy sense of self, empathy for others, and understanding of society is, in my opinion, the key for navigating the online world. Since the Internet can be a firehose, my role as a social media watchdog will be to tighten the nozzle and gently release it as my children become ready for more.

Conversations with a Barber: On Doing What You Have To Do

“I was refugee in Hong Kong for one year,” said Hiep the barber. “I no speak any Cantonese. Some Mandarin, but no Cantonese.”

“Are there many Vietnamese in Hong Kong?” I asked.

“No.”

I waited until he removed his shears before shaking my head. “That sounds rough.”

“And you know, I get job. With no Cantonese, I still get job.”

I looked up at him. “How?”

He smiled. “I walk into office and ask for it. I speak some Mandarin and I…” He waved his hands around, trying to find the right words.

“Ad libbed?” I asked.

He continued waving his hands around. “I point, I move hands…”

“Ah okay. So you communicated with your hands and with a little Mandarin.”

“Yes!” he smiled again. “That is how I get job.”

He crossed behind me with an electric razor. The buzzer mumbled his next few words.

“…job in factory. I make motors for blenders. Little motors. Engineering work.”

“Pretty impressive for having no Cantonese,” I said.

“Yes. I have no experience to make motors. But I learn. Just like I have no experience with Cantonese. But I learn. I do what I have to do.”

I nodded. “That is pretty amazing. A lot of people would have a hard time doing that.”

“I have no. I need job.”

He circled around me again and started buzzing my sides. I watched him carve the wild hairs down.

“I get job for my brother too,” he continued. “All brothers. I bring them to factory. They get job too.”

“That company must have loved you then.”

“Yes. But then – I leave!” He grinned and straightened his back proudly.

“You what?”

“I leave factory! I get another job. I get another job make more money and do something else.”

I chuckled. “That’s pretty cool. Did the factory mind?”

“No, they no mad. Brothers no mad too. I get bored, want to learn something new. I saw another job, ask them to teach me, then get job.”

“Did your brothers go with you?”

He laughed and shook his head. “No, they like factory to make motors. They stay.”

The shears came back and sliced away a few errant hairs. One fell on my nose and I blew it away.

“What did you do at your new job?” I asked.

He looked around his barber shop, then pointed at the chrome handle of a chair. “You see shiny? This shiny?”

I paused. “Shiny. You mean the chrome handle?”

“Yes. This.” He tapped the handle. “I take this, dip into chemical. Make shiny.”

“Ah, so you put chrome on these materials.”

“Yes. Dip into many chemical. Not just one. Need many to make shiny. I have no experience to do this. I have to learn on job.”

I nodded. “That’s pretty impressive. Sounds like had to learn a lot there. Cantonese, a new country, new jobs…”

“Yes. Because I have to. Sometimes, you have to do what you have to do. If you have to learn, you will learn. Me, you, anyone can.”

Conversations with a Barber: On Fatherhood

“Raising children need lots of patience,” said Hiep the barber. “Must have patience.”

“Oh, I’ll bet,” I answered without nodding my head. The buzzer grazed the sides of my head, vibrating my ears.

“I tell you example. When my children say, ‘I don’t know,’ I hate it. I hate it.” He shook his head vigorously as he spoke. “I hate those words the most. ‘I don’t know.'”

“Instead,” he continued. “I tell them, ‘You know. You go find out. Then you know.'”

“Ah, so you want them to learn how to find the answer themselves, instead of giving them the answer yourself.”

He nodded and smiled. “Yes. They know. They need to learn. That is what I must do as father, you understand?”

“Yea, totally makes sense.”

He switched to the other side of my head and starting buzzing again. I struggled to hear every word he was saying through the noise of the buzzer.

“But I don’t tell them what to do because I am their father. They must know what to do themselves. Not because I tell them. Understand?”

I wrinkled my brow. “Hmm. Not sure. What do you mean?”

“Okay,” he paused and stopped buzzing for a moment. He stood at the mirror. I could see his eyes darting back and forth as pondered. “I don’t want children to do as I say only because I am their father. I want them to do because they want to do. If they don’t know it themselves, they will not learn. So they must know it themselves, not because I tell.”

“Ah,” I nodded. “You’re saying you don’t want your kids to blindly listen to you. You want them to understand what you’re saying.”

“Yes. They do because they know it is right, not because I tell them to. This is how I teach.”

Hiep cleared his throat. His eyes locked onto mine.

“In Vietnam, there is saying. If you don’t teach children, life will teach them worse. You understand?”

I nodded.

“Because life is tough. If I don’t teach them, they not ready for life.” He smiled to himself, then turned the buzzer back on again. “Then life will teach them much worse. Much harder.”

“Those are wise words,” I said.

He smiled. “You will see. One day, you have children, you will do same.”

The Adventures of Mike & Mia: Testing Ourselves in Cinque Terre

“How do you two like Italy so far?” asked the friendly American at the next table.

“We love it!” we replied, and rattled off all the sights we’ve seen so far.

“Ah, that’s great,” he nodded. “You know, they say a good test of a relationship is traveling together. The way you deal with all the heartache and troubles of getting lost, deciding where to go, dealing with each other’s pickiness and all that. It’s a true test.”

Mia and I glanced at each other. We knew exactly what he was talking about.

(Cue wavy image that signals the intro to a memory sequence.)

We started out from our hotel in Monterosso al Mare around 11:00 AM, after a late breakfast. It was brisk yet sunny. We were psyched. The hikes between each of the five towns of Cinque Terre only an hour or two. More if you take your time or the trail is crowded. We were experienced hikers and aimed to go through all five towns in a day. Ambitious, sure, but sometimes you gotta aim high, right?

As soon as we set off to the Sentiero Azzurro (“Light Blue Trail”), we passed a couple headed in the opposite direction.

“The trail is closed,” they said solemnly.

“What?!”

“They blocked off the trail right back there. No one can go through this way.”

We exchanged glances, then followed them back to town. In the town center, the tourist information office confirmed that the Blue Trail – as it’s commonly called in English – was indeed closed.

“For how long??” another tourist shouted.

“At least until end of the season,” said the representative.

“That’s absurd! We flew all this way to do this trail! It can’t be closed!”

“I’m very sorry ma’am. There have been landslides on the trail. It is not safe. It will be opened again once it is safe to hike. You can come back then.”

“We’re not going to come back! This is absurd!”

Can you guess the nationality of that tourist? If you guessed American, sadly, you are correct.

Mia stepped up to the representative. “Excuse me. Is the High Trail still open?”

“Yes.”

“Great! How can we get there?” The Sentiero Rosso (“High Trail”) is an alternate way to get to each town. It is higher up the mountain, a more strenuous hike, and unlike the Blue Trail, free. Travelers can also get to each town by train, ferry, and car, though the Blue Trail is by far the most scenic and famous route.

The representative kindly pointed out the trailhead on a map. We thanked her and left. The angry American was still huffing and puffing, having seemingly not heard a thing we said.

We left for the High Trail and found the trailhead easily. It was an uphill dirt path. And quite a climb. The trail meandered and swayed. Then broke into switchbacks. Our quads were burning.

“Burning fat, burning calories,” Mia chanted. I love that exercise chant of hers. Funny and motivational, just what a burning quad needs to hear.

“Burning fat, burning calories,” I joined in. “Burning fat, burning calories, burning fat, burning calories…”

There’s a lot of trail between Monterosso and the next town, Vernazza. Especially up in the High Trail. Eventually, the trail forked. One led to a sanctuary higher up the hill. The other appeared to head to Vernazza. “Appeared to” are the operative words in that sentence. Following that fork led us to a paved street and over several bridges, before dropping us off at a dead end. Crap.

I’ll spare you the rest of the agonizing details. In a nutshell: we got lost. We wandered back and forth, trying to find the High Trail, or just some kind of trail to Vernazza. It wasn’t until we realized we were almost doubling-back to Monterosso that we finally remembered – ah ha, the little white and red trail markers! A guidebook had advised us to follow these not-always-visible trail markers. Doing so led us up to the sanctuary, and from there we found our way. Four and a half hours later.

To say we were a little frustrated, tired, and bummed out that a two-hour hike turned into a four-and-a-half-hour hike would be very British, as they say. (Read: understated.)

We were damn frustrated, tired, and bummed. Some harsh words were exchanged. Blame was cast. Trying times were these.

Every couple goes through arguments. It’s natural. Add sweat, burning quads, fatigue, and getting lost for four-and-a-half hours, and you’ve got a melting pot of irritation.

Then we happened upon a clearing on the side of a hill. There was a couple lying on a blanket. The view was magnificent. The Mediterranean Sea graced us with her gleaming beauty.

There was an old man with a helmet and a parachute standing there too.

A family of American tourists showed up at that point. One of them motioned to the old man. “Are you going to jump?” she asked.

He looked at her, not quite understanding. “You jump-ay?” she asked again. “Jump-ay?” she repeated, louder this time.

He seemed to get the gist of her words and nodded.

“Wow.”

We all sat back as he geared up, prepared his chute, waited for the right wind, and took off. He ran towards the edge of the cliff and jumped. The parachute caught air and bellowed behind him. He floated in slow, graceful circles over the shoreline. I took a deep breath and tried to imagine how amazing the old man must be feeling.

“Wow, imagine how amazing he must be feeling,” Mia echoed. I looked at her and smiled. I took a picture of her at that moment, because she had that cute grin that I love so much.

I held her from behind. “Who would have guessed we’d see an old man jump off a cliff with a parachute here in Cinque Terre, huh?”

She nodded. I could feel her smile. “Ah. The adventures of Mike & Mia…” she said.

We’ve used that line before. Many times before. During trying times and amazing times, but especially during trying times. After we got lost and found our way to that sanctuary back there? We said it.

And after we left the clearing and finally made it to Vernazza? We said it. Then, when we realized it was too late in the afternoon to hike to Corniglia, so we took the train instead, despite telling ourselves we wouldn’t wuss out and do that? We said it. Then, when we finally made it to the last two towns, Manarola and Riomaggiore, before nightfall? We said it. And when we had a delicious dinner at Riomaggiore, then missed the train by a few seconds, only to realize the next train was three hours later and we had to wait in the freezing darkness of the night in our sweaty, dirty clothes? You can bet we said it.

(Cue wavy image that signals the end of a memory sequence.)

The friendly American at the next table was absolutely right. Traveling can be a great test of a relationship. Our trek through Cinque Terre was a perfect test. It was difficult, frustrating, and required a lot of compromise, brainstorming, patience, creative thinking, and trust on both our parts.

It was during our conversation with the friendly American that I realized how powerful those simple words were. “The adventures of Mike & Mia.” It was a way to defuse painful situations – as well as to remind us that we were in it together. I think we first said those words while we were dating. Perhaps it was on a hike where we got lost somewhere. And somehow, it stuck.

We held our glasses up and cheered the friendly American. “To Italy!”

I turned to Mia and added, “And to the adventures of Mike & Mia!”

The Adventures of Mike & Mia: Serendipitous Glass

The tour guides did not look like what we were expecting at all.

There were two of them by the dock, waiting for our taxi acquei (water taxi) to arrive. Once we stopped, they helped us up from the boat. I didn’t say they weren’t nice, just not what we expected.

They wore fancy brand-name suits. Had shiny Italian leather wingtips. Slicked-back hair. Neatly-trimmed goatees. Rings and jewelry. And piercing eyes behind smiles that could probably put a bullet in your head as easily as a handshake.

“Mafioso,” I thought as quickly as I felt guilty of the prejudiced thought. But I would totally understand if you saw the same look on a Chinese guy and thought, “Triad.”

“Welcome to Signoretti,” one of the guides said. “I will be the guide for the English-speaking group.” I heard the other guide speaking in French to another group of passengers. “We are one of the oldest glass artisans on Murano. Today, I will be giving you a tour of our glass-making facilities. Please, right this way.”

Mia and I, along with a British family of three, followed him into the impressive Signoretti building.

Inside were several hot furnaces. Half a dozen artisans danced around with poles that were shoved into said furnaces. The tips of the poles were bright orange molten glass.

The guide described the glass making process. It was one that involved design, production, finishing, polishing, and even packaging & shipping. He made a
point to say there were six artisans involved with just one piece of glass art. “Remember, the price you pay, while at a discount because you are purchasing right here in the factory, is to provide for the salaries of six artisans.”

“Now, they will make a Ferrari horse to show you how a sculpture is made.” He motioned to one of the artisans with a hot pole of molten glass. “Get your cameras ready.”

The artist carefully extruded the head, then the legs of the horse from the molten core. He made it seem so easy. We clapped and cheered.

“Now, I will take you to our showroom. Come.”

We walked up a flight of stairs as another tour group entered the factory. The showroom was an impressive display of glass art. Beautiful chandeliers, elegant vases, magnificent wine glasses. Intertwined with colors and curved in seductive shapes, each was a delicate work of art.

And, expensive. Other tours were in the showroom too. I heard some of them asking about prices. “That one is only 100,000 euros,” one tour guide said. “It took several days to make. Very difficult. Very unique. You will not find anything like it anywhere else in Murano.”

That’s when it hit me. “I don’t think they’re tour guides,” I whispered to Mia. “I think they’re salespeople giving tours. It’s like a timeshare sales session. Our hotel probably has an arrangement with these guys. They give us a free tour, pay for our water taxis, and try to sell us on their glassware. They’ll probably try to sell us hard by the end of the tour.”

However, I was wrong. Our slick salesman probably realized we weren’t going to unload a few grand on their merchandise. “Would you like to see any more, or are you interested in smaller pieces?” he asked us.

“Let’s see the smaller pieces,” I said.

He whisked us into a room not unlike a typical Murano glass souvenir shop in Venice. Then he shut the door and was gone. Perhaps to give another tour/sales session.

We wandered out of the complex and into a residential-looking part of Murano. After a few dead-ends, we began following a group of tourists.

“You know what would be a better sales technique?” Mia said. “If he didn’t just throw us out once he realized we weren’t going to buy anything. What if we were to tell our friends about them, and our friends buy something? Or what if we returned someday, after we could afford it, and brought something?”

I nodded. “Totally agree. Sometimes your customers make your best salespeople.”

“I know, right?” she huffed. Then something caught Mia’s eye. “Oh, can we look at that?”

It was a tall glass sculpture in a small enclosed garden. Above the doorway was the sign, “Simone Cenedese Gallery.” She took a picture of the beautiful sculpture, then peeked inside the gallery.

“Should we go in?” she asked. The tourists we were following were disappearing around a bend.

I looked into the gallery. “Sure, why not.” We walked in.

The glass art was exquisite. Contemporary. Grand.

A salesperson came over. “Buongiorno,” he greeted. “Are you looking for chandeliers or souvenirs?”

“Uh…” came my quick-witted reply.

“Our house specializes in chandeliers. We don’t make much else that is smaller.”

“Oh, I see. We are just looking for souvenirs.”

“You will find many beautiful souvenirs here in Murano. But while you are here, please enjoy and take a look at our art as well.” With a smile, he took a step backwards and left us to browse.

We slowly walked down a hallway adorned with majestic works of art. Mia stopped at one and her mouth opened. “This is so beautiful. Wow. I wonder how they did this.” It was a curved slab of clear glass with what looked like organic leaves or shells inside of it.

“That,” said the salesperson who seemed to materialize right behind us, “is a compound of minerals sealed inside the glass. It is our master’s own formula, so you won’t see this anywhere else in Murano.”

“It’s beautiful,” Mia said.

“Would you like to see more of our master’s work? Come, let me show you our gallery. Come.”

I hesitated, not wanting to face another sales session. But something about his manner was more inviting than the last guy. Also, at the very least, all we had to say was, “No thanks,” and walk away.

The gallery was as contemporary as the art. Lighted glass floors. White walls. It wasn’t overwhelming like the first place. Fewer pieces were on display. More like an art gallery than a showroom.

“Here,” the salesperson said to Mia. He brought out a piece similar to what she was admiring in the hallway and placed it on a lighted table. “Walk around it and see how the curves of the glass change the view of the shapes inside. It is a very fluid piece.”

She ooo’ed and ahh’ed. On another table was a book with the name Simone Cenedese. “Is this the master?” I asked.

“Ah, yes!” he said with energy. “Simone Cenedese. He is one of the youngest artists in Murano, born in 1973. His work is very modern. His youthful eye brings a new style to this ancient practice.”

He flipped through the book. “One of his sculptures is outside at the end of the canal. You should go take a look later. It is very beautiful.”

He stopped at a page with a photo of the master himself. “Wow, he looks very young,” Mia exclaimed.

“Would you like to see the master at work?”

Mia and I looked at each other. “Sure!” we said together.

“Come.” The salesperson led us through another hallway and down some stairs. We were greeted with several furnaces and artisans with poles of molten glass. It was similar to what we saw earlier, except there was no tourist barrier between us and the artisans. We were allowed much closer. Almost too close. The heat was pretty intense. I could almost feel the suffocating heat on my cheeks.

The salesperson explained the glassmaking process. The sand goes into the furnace. Each furnace is a different color. An artisan dips the pole into the a furnace to get another color onto his piece. All follow a prepared design. It was more information than the last tour had offered.

“Ah, here is the master himself,” the salesperson said. We turned around and saw Cenedese cooling off a pole with molten glass. He looked up for a second, then returned to his work. There was a fierce look of determination on his face. We held our breath as he carved and molded the glass.

After a few moments, the salesperson said, “Come, come.” He whisked us into another room. “Making glass art is a lot of work. What you saw is just the beginning. The glass also needs to be sanded, polished, and finished.” He motioned to tables and tables of glass, all of it dusty. Artisans were sanding down the glass pieces, leaving behind a film of dust everywhere.

It was so dirty and messy that we got the feeling this wasn’t a common place for gawking tourists.

I peered closely at a pile of glass tubes with circles drawn on them. “Those are the imperfections in those glasses,” said the salesperson. “I can’t see them, but they, they can tell. To the trained eye, there are dozens of imperfections at this stage. The artists will continue to polish the glass into each piece is perfect.”

The next room was the packaging & shipping room. Boxes and boxes filled with styrofoam peanuts were scattered about. Workers were wrapping pieces of glass carefully in paper. I pointed at a complex-looking chandelier. “Are instructions included?”

“Oh yes. Instructions are included with each piece. They are not hard to put together. Very easy.” He walked over to another chandelier. “See, each piece is simply screwed in,” he said as he unscrewed a glass tube off, just like an ordinary lightbulb.

After that, we exited the workshop. “I am glad you got to see the master at work. If you would like to make a purchase, I will be happy to help. If not, please enjoy Murano island. Look around at the other glass sculptures. You will see that Simone’s art is unique. It is unlike any other art on this island. He has a very distinctive style. Please, enjoy.”

He smiled warmly. We replied with lots of “grazie’s” and “thank you’s.”

As walked out of the gallery, we turned to each other. “Wow, what a cool experience,” Mia declared. “How nice of him too. He probably knew we weren’t going to buy anything, yet he gave us a full personal tour and even showed us the master at work. And all without the pressure of purchasing. Now that is a fantastic sales technique! We totally can’t afford anything in there, but as soon as we can, I want to come back and buy something from them.”

“And tell all our friends about them,” I added. She nodded.

We smiled to each other. I took her hand and we started down a row of souvenir shops, noting how none were quite as beautiful as the art we saw in the Simone Cenedese Gallery.

The Adventures of Mike & Mia: When in Rome

Out of the major tourist cities of Italy, Rome is perhaps my least favorite. (Friends tell me Milan is worse; I haven’t been there yet, and perhaps shouldn’t.) It has the most well-known sights and attractions, and indeed contains a lot of glorious Italian and Roman history. But for me, cities like Florence and Venice have a lot more old-world charm.

Despite that sentiment, we had on a pair of great big goofy grins as we left the train at Roma Termini and started walking to our hotel.

We dropped off our stuff and planned our first goal of the day: food. It was 11:00am and we were famished. Our hotel concierge suggested a nice little trattoria a few blocks away. We started off immediately.

Unfortunately, our American sense of immediate convenience has some learning to do. Tip: most restaurants don’t open up for lunch until 12:30pm.

With grumbling stomachs, we wandered to a nearby caffe and dined on paninis. I don’t know if it was our starvation or what, but those paninis were damn good. We later learned that this caffe was a popular night spot.

Satiated, we marched towards Colosseo (the Colosseum). By midday, the tourists were out enforce. Our guidebook warned that the line into the Colosseum might be long. And long it was.

“Um, let’s try the Foro Romano (Roman Forum) first,” I suggested. Mia nodded. And lo and behold, no lines. The ticket we purchased there also allowed entrance to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and (Palatino) Palatine Hill. Happy day! Tip: buy a ticket at the Roman Forum instead of the Colosseum.

The sights of ancient Rome are vast. There’s a grand beauty in these relics of a once-great nation. There’s also lots of walking. Lots of it. Tip: wear comfortable shoes.

One of the Roman’s most significant contributions to the world are their aqueducts. These aqueducts bring drinkable spring water into the city, even today. You’ll find fontanelle (little fountains) throughout the city, which are great for thirsty tourists on long walks. There are a few of these in the ruins of ancient Rome too. Tip: bring a reusable travel water bottle.

The afternoon ended with the Pantheon. Then hunger returned. All this walking was shifting our metabolisms into high gear. Around 6:00pm, we decided to return to the trattoria that our hotel had recommended earlier. And, oh, look, they’re closed again. Tip: most restaurants don’t open until 7:00pm or 8:00pm.

This time, we decided to wait. And the trattoria was worth it. I’m sometimes suspicious of recommendations from hotels, because I can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of commercial arrangement between the two – as I’ve seen fairly often in the States. But all of the recommendations we’ve gotten have been fantastic. Bravissimo to these hotels.

Italy is known for lots of things, least of all, their delicious wines. Every trattoria presented us with daunting wine lists. From what I’ve read, their house wines are generally great, or at least a big step above the house wines we get in the States. Plus, they are much cheaper than those on wine lists. This won’t apply to all trattoria’s, but will for most. Tip: ask for the trattoria’s house wine.

Being the light-weights that we are, the wine always knocked us out for the night. We had wine every night, so hopefully we’ll return with a high alcohol tolerance.

The next morning was the regal Vatican City. We woke up a bit late – due to said wine & alcohol tolerance – so we decided to see it late in the afternoon. During midday, the lines at Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) are atrociously long. Like a hour or two, especially on nice days. Tip: visit Vatican City early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid long lines.

The Basilica is a glorious wonder. But not everyone got to go inside and see it. A pair of Asian American girls were rejected because they were not appropriately dressed – the strict dress code includes no shorts or skirts above the knees, and no bare shoulders and arms. Tip: dress conservatively when visiting Vatican City.

After the Basilica, we toured the tombs and walked up the narrow, winding, slanted staircases up to the cupola. If you’re up for the nearly 500-step climb, you’ll be greeted with a grandiose view of the dome interior and a panoramic view of Vatican city.

Unfortunately, we forgot to visit the Musei Vatican (Vatican Museum) & Capella Sistina (the Sistine Chapel). We headed back the next day, but it was closed. Tip: take note of when the destinations are open or closed.

That last lesson concluded our trip in Rome. Soon, we were back at Termini Roma and off to our next city. Grazie for the grandeur, Rome. And for all the lessons learned.

The Future of Education

I have three broad hopes for the future of education. And I specifically mean the education of children, as opposed to adults (which has a different set of requirements & traits).

Personalized

In the future, education should be personalized to each student. Every child learns at a different pace, and through different means. Some are visual learners. Some are auditory learners. Some are experiential learners. Most are some combination of various types. It is important to understand each child and teach them appropriately. I’ve found that most experienced teachers pick up on such individual preferences already, so it’s not a matter of doing some psych profile on each new student. General interactions throughout the school year naturally offer these insights.

Personalized education doesn’t mean the learning process should be slow, however. Proper education must be challenging and push students forward with high, yet realistic expectations. But the right amount of push should be tailored to each child. Push too lightly with some, and they’ll get bored. Push too hard with others, and they’ll get get lost and perform poorly.

Emotional & Social

In the future, education should incorporate emotional intelligence and social intelligence, in addition to academic intelligence. Children should be taught to interact with one another for a common goal, like group projects. They should learn how to compromise, how to listen, how to lead, and how to fail. These projects should encompass a range of lessons, from straight-forward problems with definite answers, to complex problems that require creative solutions.

Admittedly, there are logistical challenges here. Personalizing a child’s educational pace and teaching them group interaction means, at some point, pooling students at similar paces together. That’s helpful for individual exercises, but shouldn’t be the model throughout the school year. Grouping students together can inadvertently form groups like “the stupid kids” and “the smart kids.” Students will pick up on separations like this. They key, I suspect, is to keep the groups mixed up. Pair some of the fast learners with the slow learners. Have the students mentor and teach each other.

The personalized education can come outside of group activities, where teachers provide more attention or support for slow learners.

Parental Involvement

Education doesn’t begin in a school, and it can’t end in a school. Children are learning as soon as they are born. A majority of their lives is spent not in school, but at home with their families. That is where they are learning some of the most important lessons of their lives.

Although there are socio-economic barriers for some families, it must be a priority. I don’t know how a single mother with two jobs can do this realistically, but this should be a goal. Without a supporting environment, children can easily pick up bad habits, unproductive behaviors, and other mental pathologies that can and will erase all the education they get at school.

I would love to see a program aimed not just at children, but at parents as well. Some parents, whether they admit it or not, simply don’t know how to be a supporting parent. Others have no one to turn to. Yet others have differing opinions on how to be a good parent (which is always a touchy subject). Yet, there are some fundamental truths that can be taught to all parents.

Self-Kaizen

Kaizen is the Japanese word for “improvement.”

After World War II, consultants such as William Edwards Deming introduced production methods such as continuous improvement to Japan. In the 80’s, author Masaaki Imai wrote a book that coined the term “kaizen” as a management philosophy in the worldwide lexicon. Toyota is perhaps the most famous practitioner of kaizen, spurring many others, including their competitors Ford and General Motors, to adopt this philosophy.

There are five core principles to kaizen:

  • Teamwork. Everyone should be an effective and contributing member of their team.
  • Discipline. Everyone should uphold discipline in their work and themselves.
  • Morale. Everyone should strive to maintain a positive environment.
  • Suggestions. Everyone’s opinions and suggestions are considered and valued.
  • Quality circles. Everyone meets together in small groups to solve problems and promote innovative ideas.

This philosophy has worked well for Japan’s business community. Although Japan’s economic gains were erased with their asset price bubble collapse in the 90’s, and this philosophy has faded in popularity, at its core, it still remains an effective framework of product and service quality and efficiency.

I’ve long used the term “self-kaizen” to describe one of my life’s main tenants. As long as I can remember, I’ve always had the mindset of self-improvement through trial & error and the advice of others. I don’t know if this urge came from my parents, a teacher, or from within, but it’s always been there.

There are five core principles to self-kaizen:

  • Teamwork. In one’s growth, there are three stages: dependence, independence, and interdependence. The last involves knowing how to work well with others, since 1 plus 1 can equal 3 in effective teams and relationships.
  • Discipline. Personal discipline is the bedrock of any self-improvement regime. Changing oneself can be extremely hard work. Without discipline, there is no improvement.
  • Morale. The lens through which you view your life tints how you feel about it. No one is more responsible for your morale than you, so learning to control your expectations and viewpoint can go a great way in influencing your daily morale.
  • Suggestions. Everyone can teach you something, whether it is what to do, or what not to do. Always be open to the advice of others. Consider it all with an open mind, even though not all advice is relevant.
  • Quality circles. Your quality circles are your closest friends. They can give you unfettered, yet constructive feedback, if you’ve structured your friendships that way.

This philosophy has served me well. Mistakes are lessons learned. The people I meet are teachers. Life is my floor mat, absorbing my falls and giving me a chance to rebound and try again.

And that is self-kaizen. At least, until I experience an asset price bubble collapse or something.

This Blog Sucks

It’s true. This blog sucks. And I’m okay with that.

It sucks because it’s not a true blog, in the strict definition of a blog. Wikipedia describes a blog as a website with reverse-chronological entries that “provide commentary or news on a particular subject,” or “function as… personal online diaries.”

This site is neither. It’s more a random series of essays. Some are true, some are fiction, some are the result of a writing exercise, some are mere rants and theories. There’s no time continuity to any of these entries, except for their publication date.

I don’t even write them in chronological order. Sometimes I’ll write multiple essays at once, then schedule them to appear in the coming weeks based on my fancies. The result is quite random. Some months, I’ve got lots of entries in the queue. Other times, I’m too busy and miss a week or two.

Also, there’s no predictability in topics. I’m not necessarily writing about what’s on my mind at that time. It might have been on my mind last month, but not necessarily this week.

There’s an exception though. I sometimes try to match holidays with essays about that holiday. Christmas posts during December, Valentine’s posts during February, that sort of thing.

That’s not enough though. At least, not according to professional blogs like ProBlogger or CopyBlogger. They’ve amassed audiences in the hundreds of thousands, or more. According to them, a good blog is one with a single topic.

A single topic means the audience knows roughly what to expect. Predictability allows new users to decide whether they should bookmark the blog, or forget about it. Eventually, niche audiences can form around topical blogs, turning them into repeat readers and, eventually, a virtual community.

That’s another thing this blog is not.

Instead, I take another route. I write for myself. For exercising my creative muscle, for disciplining myself in the craft of writing, for the therapeutic release, and, well, for fun.

I cringe when I read some of my old essays though. “My God, I wrote THAT?!” But hey, you can’t make a Writer’s Omelet without breaking a few Bad Essay Eggs, right?

Ahem. See? That last line is exactly why I need more practice. That is the real reason why this blog sucks. Not because it doesn’t fit someone’s definition or follow some someone’s guidelines.

It sucks because I still think it does. My writing skill isn’t where I want it to be. (I can’t believe I just ended a sentence with a proposition! Gasp.) I’m a perfectionist, I admit. I hold myself to high standards. Great writers can weave beautiful panoramas with clarity.

Me, I’m a hack. I pilfer, I assimilate, I adopt. I practice, practice, stumble, fall, and practice some more. Nothing good comes easy, right? (Yuck, a cliché.)

And I’m okay with that. All I’m aiming for is, in a few more decades, this blog will suck less.