Monthly Archives: September 2012

Picture America: Bike Share

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Picture America: Open Campuses

Unlike universities in the Middle East and Malaysia, U.S. colleges and universities are not guarded by walls, gates or security. In Jordan for example, only students, staffs and faculties are allowed entrance to the university. Guests are allowed but they need permission.

I am not sure about campuses in South America or Europe. Does any reader know if campuses there have gates or not?

Randomness and Gambler’s Fallacy

If it is not for random numbers, video games and simulators would not exist. Writing code and algorithms to generate random numbers plays a major role in Computer Science. In our life, we sometimes expect a pattern associated with randomness. The comic below accurately depicts one trap we all fall into sometimes.

In the book “How We Decide”, the author talks about our false perception of randomness.

When Apple first introduced the shuffle feature on its iPods, the shuffle was truly random; each song was equally as likely to get picked as any other. However, the randomness didn’t appear random, since some songs were occasionally repeated, and customers concluded that the feature contained some secret patterns and preferences. As a result, Apple was forced to revise the algorithm. ‘We made it less random to make it feel more random,’ said Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple*.

Source: How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.

This Monte Carlo story could be what inspired the Monte Carlo Method inventors to come up with the name.

Happy Science!

Why Arabs are nosy?

The fact of the matter is that we should always judge individuals and not generalize or stereotype. The truth also is that a culture identifies itself from others by its distinctive culture’s customs and habits. There is no perfect culture, even though we believe our culture is better than others. Every culture has its good and its bad habits. One cultural difference between Arabs and Americans has to do with being “nosy” or “curious.”

Compared with Arabs, especially Jordanians, Americans have no curiosity to ask personal questions. And their curiosity rate reaches ZERO level in the first meeting. An American you meet for the first time will not ask you where are you from? How old are you? Why you are not married? Where are you going? Mind your own business mantra is as holy as one’s prayer in their culture and I LOVE IT. Okay, maybe sometimes but not all the times.

Now, let me explain what kind of questions you might be asked in Jordan, and I am not exaggerating if I said these questions might be asked by total strangers in the first meeting (e.g., between a taxi driver and his passenger). Are you married? Why you are not married? Why are you going to the court? How old are you? What do you do? Where do you work? How much is your salary? Yes, in Jordan we ask each others about salaries. If curiosity is close to zero in America it is close to 100% in Jordan.

Last week, I meet an Arab man who had just moved to the US with his family. I invited him to my apartment to drink tea. He is a nice person but he couldn’t hide his Arab intense desire to know gene. During our chat with other friends, he asked me “What is this, this, and this?” Pointing his finger with every “this” to one of the electronic devices I have beside the TV. I admit these devices are not the normal electronic devices you see near the TV but he felt the urge to investigate and ask questions. In his second visit, he saw on the coffee table a box with a picture of children in an inflatable swimming pool, knowing that I am single he couldn’t not ask “Why did you buy this?” Nosiness is in our gene! Luckily, my ten years in America taught me to tone it down to a very low level. Something I am very thankful for.

But to be fair let me explain why this extreme nosiness exists in the Arab culture. Two things we don’t value isolation and individualism. Being nosy is a manifestation for being social. The more we know about you the more we can chat and the more we can be friends. We take our socializing habit to extreme. That is why we don’t appreciate queues. In queues, people stand in line one after another. Queue is a system invented by people who value time and individualism. We value neither. When we are waiting for something we wait as a one big family so we can see and chat with everyone. And because time means nothing serving a person before another means that the person served earlier is better than the one served afterward. We like all of us to be served at the same time regardless of who came first. There is no difference between 7 am and 11 am in our culture.

So if you are ever to visit the Middle East be prepared to be asked personal questions. And please make sure that you never answer “it is not your business.” This is considered very rude and WILL offend the person asking questions. Asking questions is our way to socialize with others and refusing to answer means you don’t want to socialize with people. In Arabia, refusing to socialize with people is taken as you feel you are better than them. Therefore, in the Middle East you have to answer personal questions. Now, my first recommendation is NEVER say “it is not your business.” Second, to escape embarrassing yourself and others lie but never refuse to answer. No one really wants to know the truth they just need an answer, any reasonable answer will work. Sometimes answering wisely will keep you away from more nosy questions.

But it is not always that Americans mind their own business, they don’t when it is necessary. In the very popular American TV show “What Would You Do?“ some actors stage a problem inside a store or in the street to see how people will react. For example, would anyone stop a drunken man from driving? Or would someone tell the store manager that they saw a woman shoplifting? The show also stages controversial and hot issues like Islamophobia for example. The episode about a Muslim woman wearing hijab who was denied service by the store salesperson was by far a viral video among Muslims worldwide.

Something I found interesting while living in the U.S. is that American women are more confrontational than American men. This is of course my humble opinion and is not based on any research or statistics. I think it might also be the case in Arab countries. And in the cases were the man is confronting it is because his wife nagged him to do something about it. If you watch ABC’s show “What Would You Do?”, this happens a lot. The wife tells her husband we should do something and the husband usually says it is not our business. I think this is an interesting subject to read about. Why women are more confrontational than men?

Two days ago, I went to Starbucks early morning. I decided to sit outside. The tables were still not wiped since the day before. I got couple of napkins and started cleaning my table. Suddenly, I hear a 20 something young lady sitting on the other table saying “you don’t have to do that.” She went inside and asked someone to come and clean the tables. An Arab or an American man will not do that. Women always claim they are the weaker sex but I doubt that. They are way stronger than men but they are not taught how to make use of their potentials when they are young.

In short, if you are an Arab in America don’t think that Americans are uncaring or uninterested in you if they don’t ask you personal questions. They believe it is not their business if you don’t want to share your personal life. Also, if you are an American in Arabia don’t feel that Arabs are rude because they are asking you personal questions they just want to mingle and socialize. They are more interested in the time you spend together than the content of the chat.

Isn’t life more beautiful when we understand others’ culture?

Bonus culture difference trivia: If I would ever write a book in English about culture similarities and differences between Arabs and Americans I can name it “American and Arab Culture for Dummies” or “Complete Idiot’s Guide to American and Arab Culture.” If it is in Arabic, I can never ever write “for dummies” or “idiot’s” on the book’s cover. The Arabic version of the show “The biggest Loser” is translated to “The Biggest Winner.”

Serious Arab and Goofy American

This post is only about the culture of classroom in Jordan and USA.

The following story happened back in the days when I was an undergraduate in Jordan:
While our professor was busy lecturing, a colleague of him knocked on the door and asked to speak with him outside the classroom. While our professor was busy with the other professor I and someone sitting beside me had a little chat. I completely forgot what it was about but it made us smile. While we were smiling the professor entered the classroom and saw us chatting and smiling. He stood striaght and asked us what we were laughing at. We both answered “Nothing!” But he kept repeating the qustion and we both refused to share what we were chatting about. He didn’t like it and gave us “the look” to let us know that he didn’t like our behavior.

The following conversation happened in one of the classes during my first semester in the US:

Student: “How difficult is the exam?”
Professor: “It is not that difficult.”
Student: “This is like saying she is not that pregnant.”
The entire class including the professor laughed loudly.

These are two random stories. There are exceptions of course but in general the culture of the classroom in Jordan is that the instructor is serious while in the US it is a more relaxed and friendly environment. Before I was allowed to teach American students I had to attend three days workshop. The purpose of the workshop is to educate international TAs about the culture of teaching in America. We were told to be goofy, not to tell students they are wrong, not to embarrass students, and many do and don’t.

I found the relationship between students and their instructors here much more better than the one we have in Jordan. Although, instructors here are less serious in class their students respect them more than students in Jordan respect their instructors. I know a female professor who wears a purple wig or a magician hat on Halloween. In Jordan, she might be disciplined by the Dean.

Some American professors even tell their students to call them by their first name. This is more common in graduate level courses. Of course such thing is a no-no in Arabic countries.

A lesson about patience

This is really a very nice story I read today morning on Facebook.

A sweet lesson on patience: A NYC Taxi driver wrote:

I arrived at the address and honked the horn. After waiting a few minutes I honked again. Since this was going to be my last ride of my shift I thought about just driving away, but instead I put the car in park and walked up to the door and knocked.. ‘Just a minute’, answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor.

After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie.

By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets.

There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

‘Would you carry my bag out to the car?’ she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman.

She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb.

She kept thanking me for my kindness. ‘It’s nothing’, I told her.. ‘I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated.’

‘Oh, you’re such a good boy, she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address and then asked, ‘Could you drive through downtown?’

‘It’s not the shortest way,’ I answered quickly..

‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ she said. ‘I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.

I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. ‘I don’t have any family left,’ she continued in a soft voice..’The doctor says I don’t have very long.’ I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.

‘What route would you like me to take?’ I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator.

We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.

Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, ‘I’m tired.Let’s go now’.
We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico.

Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her.

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

‘How much do I owe you?’ She asked, reaching into her purse.

‘Nothing,’ I said

‘You have to make a living,’ she answered.

‘There are other passengers,’ I responded.

Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug.She held onto me tightly.

‘You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’

I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light.. Behind me, a door shut.It was the sound of the closing of a life..

I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day,I could hardly talk.What if that woman had gotten an angry driver,or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?

On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life.

We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.

But great moments often catch us unaware-beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.