Saturday, March 22, 2014



An Open Letter to Bill Gates: Why you are wrong and how Candy Crush Will Save the World

Like many, I have woken up and made sure that there were no rats in my Farmville crop before I thought about taking out the garbage in my own house.  I own a hostel and recently caught the handyman sitting in a dark shack where we keep our garbage, his face lit up by glowing virtual candy when he too, should have been taking out the garbage.  This can’t be a good thing.  Or can it?  In fact, candy crush can save the world.  Oh and Bill Gates, you are totally wrong.

I live in Panama, and although I have adapted well and generally do not overestimate potential dangers, I recently had a scare.  I’ve been gaining a couple of pounds but vow to lose it so I promised I will not buy clothes a size larger.  There was some irritation just below my navel and thought it was a mole irritated by my belt and bulging waistline.  A few days passed but the irritation did not so I decided to contemplate my spot.  It’s an ingrown hair I thought because of the little hair protruding from below the spot.  Wait, no, those aren’t hairs.  Those are legs.  Fricken legs!



Turns out this little critter attached to me and I panicked and ripped it out.  I had been warned as a kid about fatal diseases ticks can carry and thought they must be worse in the tropics.  I had a problem.  Perhaps that problem was paranoia but it was a problem nonetheless.

I went to the two local private hospitals in the small Panamanian city that has become home and I spoke with the doctors.  (In Spanish.  There’s an app for that, thank you Duolingo.com)  I tried to find a dermatologist but there were none. Thought about the university to find a biologist.  That wouldn’t work

So I took out my smart phone and took a photo.  I became a photographer.  Then I did a reverse image search on Google and came up with a shortlist of potential species and searched again with Google images.  I became an entomologist. Found the species and then got on WebMD.  I became a doctor.  I discovered the tick was a female Cayenne tick and they can carry the fatal Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  So then I searched Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Panama.  I became a researcher.  A doctor had published a rare case of the disease ten years ago and remarked on how it was rare because there had not been a reported case since the 60’s.  The disease was rare here.  I ceased to be a hypochondriac. 

(To write this article I typed bug specialist into Google to learn to spell entomologist.)
None of these tools, my smart phone camera, WebMD, Google were around years ago.  I can now problem solve on my own.  Cramming information into our brains is useless.  All the doctors I talked to in the hospital couldn’t tell me anything except that the dermatologist is on vacation.  My ex girlfriend, now a doctor, did her homework on WebMD.

What a waste of time it is to memorize something now at the tip of our fingers.  We need to become problem solvers not trivia experts.  

Experiments in Education

In the United States The Minerva Project is experimenting with this at the university level.  It’s a new university being set up by former Snapfish founder Ben Nelson. “Students who need introductory classes such as Economics 101 will be encouraged to find free online lectures. Anything that can be delivered in a lecture, we don't think it's particularly moral of us to charge money for," he said.
In developing countries some educators are catching on that student-led learning and collaboration problem solving yield better results.  In a violent poverty stricken village in Mexico, Sergio Ju├írez Correa introduced “the logic of the digital age to the classroom.  Access to a world of infinite information has changed how we communicate, process information, and think. Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy.”  Schools are now forming in the virtual cloud and the physical classroom nothing more than one room with a caretaker.  On the computer a problem is presented and the students self organize around it and take charge of solving it.  I dare you to read how Sergio led one of the most underprivileged girls in Mexico rise to the top of the math ranks in Mexico without shedding a tear. Read the Wired article HERE.

Bill You Are Wrong and Google is Right

Two thirds of the planet’s population have limited access to the internet and Google plans to change that with the crazy idea of WiFi balloons.  Bill, you said, “When you're dying of malaria, I suppose you'll look up and see that balloon, and I'm not sure how it'll help you.”  I’ll tell you Bill.  The lure of the internet will… what’s the word?  Squish?  No, crush, crush malaria.  Candy Crush will crush malaria.  

The French canal workers in my adopted country of Panama failed at problem solving.  They tried to build a sea level canal before the Americans succeeded.  Part of the reason the Americans triumphed was they solved the problem of malaria with knowledge.  They discovered that malaria was contracted by mosquito bites and refitted all their camps with screens.  Knowledge is power.
And to tell you the truth Bill, with all due respect, kids without malaria would much rather play Candy Crush than eradicate malaria.  What use are all these balloons in villages without electricity?  You do not know the power and allure those little virtual candies hold and the lengths people will go to charge their phones to get at them.  Maybe they will use the smokeless stoves being developed by THIS COMPANY raising money on Kickstarter, that charge cell phones.  Maybe they will download plans to build a windmill or they’ll burn calories on stationary bike that charges their phone.  I don’t know how but they will find a way to get at those little candies.

A great man (his name slips my memory) once said, “I believe if you show people the problems, and you show them the solutions, they will act.” I believe if you show people the problems, and you show them the tools to solve the problems, they will solve them on their own.  And in the process they will educate themselves.  Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world and now it is hiding just beneath a game of Candy Crush. (And more people will read this letter to you because it will climb high in Google rankings because of the number of times it contains the words candy and crush.)

The handyman I caught playing Candy Crush has now dropped it.  Sometimes I catch him on Duolingo, a colorful free app with a cute bird that masquerades as a game but is also a tool to learn any language in the world.  He gets a $25 bonus with each level he achieves.  The handyman is now a manager and runs tours at my hostel.  The more English he learns, the better his tours are and the more I charge.  I don’t mind that he is playing on his cell phone.

In one day, trying to solve my tick bite paranoia I was a Spanish student, photographer, entomologist doctor and researcher.  But the proudest thing I have become is a teacher.  One third of the world covered by the internet is not enough.  Candy Crush and Google will change that.  So Bill, take that and stick it in your Windows 8.  (Seriously dude, put a cool game there, maybe people will think about using it.)