Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ten years after - Dialogic Learning Objects/Embedded Assessment

I still design interactive homework in Excel and have already produced a couple this semester.  This tutorial, which should be accessible to anyone with a recent copy of Excel, whether they know how to use it or not, is training not on Excel per se, but rather on how to do my homework in a way so as not to get stuck on silly matters.  (Getting stuck on the economics is not silly.  That's how one learns.  Getting stuck on the technology is silly.)  It also provides some rationale for why it is good to have homework of this sort.  (If you plug in something in the NetID field and chose an alias from the pull down menu, and then proceed to answer all the questions in the tutorial correctly, you will get a Key for submitting online.  Please don't do that as the online submission of the key is meant only for students in the class.)

This next exercise on efficiency, which I made a couple of years ago, begins to look like real homework done this way.  It is review of what students should have learned in Intermediate microeconomics, though it turns out that the second worksheet is actually new content for a significant chunk of the class. 

And this last one on a strategic view of the Efficiency Principle (which says that parties in a bargain tend to arrive at efficient outcomes for the parties involved) I just finished writing yesterday.  If you go through it you will note that there is quite a bit of discourse in it.  The assessment that is within is in response to that discourse.  It measures understanding of that.  It is not assessment to test understanding of things presented elsewhere, where the student was expected to read that content first.

The idea that students learn new stuff while they do homework seems natural to me, but it is alien to much practice, which views homework as drill on content previously developed elsewhere.  My sense is that this is a the predominant view.  But it archaic and really should be replaced by something better.  If the students are learning, they are motivated.  If they are not learning but are made to go through hoops like circus animals do, that may satisfy somebody else in terms of providing evidence that the student has learned, but it does nothing whatsoever to light a fire under the student. 

This view, of new content mixed with assessment in a kind of back and forth, I called Dialogic Learning Objects 10 years ago. Others have referred to a similar idea, using the expression Embedded Assessment.  The assessment is embedded in the presentation. Yet whatever you call it most disciplines have not moved perceptibly in this direction.

It is my contention that the Publishers are primary force for stasis and that is because they make their money by selling textbooks, which are primarily presentation only - assessment done elsewhere as an add on.  Textbooks typically do have end of chapter problems and middle of chapter demonstrations that might be like the end of chapter problems.  But for giving student credit, they tend to rely on still something else.

A few years back, perhaps its now more than a decade, it became obvious that many students were not reading the textbooks, which suggests there should be less reliance on the textbook as part of the model for learning.  But it is still the way the publishers make their money.

It is my view therefore, that in this case sunk costs matter! (Contrary to the preaching of my discipline.)  Prior authored textbooks crowd out not yet authored dialogic learning objects, which are harder to produce and which name authors probably would be too impatient to develop.

Somebody should be asking - what can break this logjam?  That's the reason for this post.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Consequences from Finding Alternatives to Tax Revenues for Higher Ed Funding

A wise writer of detective fiction once remarked - follow the money.  The puzzle to be solved in this case is for public Higher Ed institutions that appear to be fiscally healthy.  First, how are they doing it, given the decline in state funding?  (Or, alternatively, given a rising cost environment with flat state funding?)  Second, are there strings attached to the new revenue sources and, if so, what sort of strings are they?  Of course, we should also include public sources, where there have always been strings.  For example, at Illinois there are lower bound constraints on how many students from in state would be admitted to the university.   There are also a host of state regulations that the university is subject to.  (The most recent one of these that I am aware of, instituted during my last year of of full-time employment 2009-10, is time reporting for full-time faculty and staff, an example of bureaucracy for bureaucracy's sake.)

At Illinois,where there has been a to do about the Salaita matter, we've been getting a real time lesson about strings attached to gift income for the university, particularly when that income comes from donors who give a lot individually.  If the university engages in an action that the donor doesn't like (here I'm not going to get into whether that donor belief is reasonable or not) then the donor can threaten to withhold future donations, which may have already been anticipated by the university in its budgeting.  Apparently, several large donors made just such threats over the Salaita appointment. Put a different way, in addition to the tax deduction the donor receives and the benefit that the gift the donor gives will provide (say to fund an endowed chair, in which case the benefit is to support the research of the chair holder), the donor expects to have some influence on future decisions the university will make.  Much of that influence is probably exerted outside of public view, by having private audience with top university administrators.  On the flip side of this, it is well known that much of the time that the campus top administrators put in goes to fund raising.  That often happens without much comment at all, as if the gifts are "free money."  One thing the Salaita case surely has done is to remind us that there are strings attached to these gifts. 

In this piece I'd actually like to focus on a different source of funding, using the above only as motivation to ask the question. The other source is the tuition revenue generated by international students.  (See line 3652.)  There has been a near doubling of international students on campus in the last 10 years.  The base rates for tuition of undergraduates can be found at the link. (Many colleges have a surcharge beyond the base rate.  LAS does not.)   Together these two tables create an interesting picture.

I'm old enough to remember back when US News & World Report would rate the U of I as a "best buy" for undergraduate education.  (In contrast, now even the in state tuition is pretty hefty.)   At the time the fraction of in state students exceeded 90% of the total undergraduate population.   And then, in my view, the students would have benefited from there being more out-of-state students, primarily because there tends to be a kind of provincialism of the kids, who are mainly from the northern and western suburbs of Chicago.  So having other students around who've grown up in different environments would have been a benefit unto itself.  Yet that doesn't explain what is going on with international students now.

Though there isn't published data on who pays full tuition and who is getting some discount, it is evident that the bulk of the international students are paying full fare.  And it is further evident that the vast majority are from Asia, mainly China.  The tuition these students pay is making up a good chunk of the shortfall in state funding.  Is this found money?  If it is not, what are the strings attached?

The above is factual.  Now I will venture into guesswork, but there is some economic basis for the guesswork.  The economics is that the "demand" for spots at the university by international students is far more elastic than the demand by in-state students, because once you're paying international student rates there are a host of institutions that might be attractive to such students, including universities outside the U.S. and private universities within the U.S.  So, purely on the economics, it appears to me that my campus has a not-well-diversified portfolio of international students (diversified in the sense of coming from many different countries around the globe) yet where, looking into the future, the demand of such students is fairly elastic.  This looks like trouble in the making.  In other words, the near future is likely to look unlike the recent past.  Let me explain why.

The university has a great reputation in Asia, particularly for Engineering.  That explains the current demand.  Also, the high rating of the Accounting department for undergraduate education, in particular, has spurred the international demand for seats in Business.  But the numbers of international students has gotten sufficiently great that many of them must enroll in other colleges, notably LAS.

This semester in my Economics of Organizations class, out of a total enrollment at present of 25 students, 9 have Asian sounding surnames.  Of these 7 are from China, 1 is from Korea, and 1 from New Jersey.  (When I was growing up in New York City, we used to think of New Jersey as a foreign country, but that is a different matter.)  All the other students are in state. If you compute the fractions, I have 32% international students and 36% from out of state, a bit higher than would be predicted from the campus averages.  Perhaps those Asian students in LAS find Economics an attractive major.  I don't know and the numbers are too small for my class to speculate further based on just that.

But if you look at a rating of undergraduate economics in the U.S., such as this one, you can see there are alternatives to Illinois that are rated higher, including four public universities from within the Big Ten. 

To my knowledge, the campus has not yet gone on a program to shore up offerings in departments outside of Engineering and Business that would appeal to students, particularly from China.  Doing so would require additional resources, which have already been allocated to other purposes.  Rather, it seems that the campus has followed a strategy of "cashing in" on the its reputation.  What will happen when there are a sufficient number of Chinese alums from Economics, and other departments that are now a haven for Chinese students, especially if in retrospect their views of their own education are not so glowing? 

A possible alternative approach in anticipation of a weakening in such demand would be further belt tightening now.  But belt tightening in Higher Ed is always done grudgingly or is resisted outright, with a prayer that the revenue shortfall is temporary and some bailout will be forthcoming soon.  Now, when there do seem to be adequate revenues, it is hard to imagine how such belt tightening will happen. 

Until now in this post, I have focused only on economic issues.  Let me briefly consider social/political issues.  This is not by any means to exhaust the possibilities.  It is merely to suggest that the scope of strings attached is quite broad and also to raise the possibility that many of these will be hard to anticipate ahead of time. 

One that is plain is that international students are here in part for reasons of acculturation.  What is it like to be American?  How do American students act in college?  Since there seems to be a clustering of students outside of class by national origin, this puts a premium on in class interactions.  In this view, the American students who speak up in class are providing a cultural benefit to the Chinese students.  Those American students who remain quiet are not.  In my class, where there is also online writing, something similar is afoot there.  But since all students must blog in the class, it is a course requirement, with the writing it is the lively bloggers who provide the cultural benefit for the other students.

Take the above and now consider kids from the Chicago suburbs versus kids from down state.  The latter are likely to have gone to a smaller high school, one less well funded, and with fewer options for enrichment.  Over the years, the campus has felt some imperative to admit such students because of their potential, coupled with the geography; their county is underrepresented on campus.  But, it should be recognized, these kids are more likely to feel like a fish out of water when attending the university and even if they overcome that feeling to some degree, they are more apt to be quiet in class.  That may not have been much of a liability in the past.  Will it increasingly become a liability as we move into the future, given this new economic model?

I don't see these sort of questions being asked elsewhere.  In my view, they are issues that need to be discussed and thought through.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Not drinking when in the presence of other people who do



Inspired by this Mark Bittman column (see above) I thought I'd relay my experience this past weekend when with the family I was in Texas (mostly Bulverde, a suburb of San Antonio) to visit my sister-in-law and to attend the memorial for her former husband.  There was a lot of hanging around and sharing stories about Randy, good for providing comfort for all and especially as a release for my sister-in-law.  In the late afternoon and evening most of the adults (sometimes including my kids) had a margarita or a beer or a glass of wine in their hands.  Friday, which was the day we arrived and everybody else who was at my sister-in-law's other than her niece was a sibling or a member of the sibling's family, I was the only non-drinker in the crowd.  Saturday after the memorial, there probably was well over a 100 people at my sister-in-law's, most of whom sat outside, under tents for blocking the sun.  There were a lot of young kids and their parents, mainly children and grandchildren of my sister-in-law.  That evening there were quite a few non-drinkers.  They had bottled water.  It was hot outside.

My abstemious behavior is temporary, I hope.  It is the anchor of a self-defined diet, which I've been on now nearing three months.  The point of not drinking is not to cut out the calories in the alcohol per se, but rather to deter binge eating.  After a couple of drinks I'm prone to overindulge food-wise.  Even without the alcohol, there has been the occasional binge of over eating.  But this way it is not quite so dramatic and is of shorter duration, so I can more readily return to the routine of the diet.

I've lost 25 pounds so far, a large enough chunk that it is noticeable to me.  My goal is to lose 38 more pounds, which would get me to my weight when I got married. Last week before going to Texas I became somewhat more optimistic that I will reach this goal.  I finally seemed to figure out how to do the elliptical, for long enough that my breathing and sweating reminded me of the feeling I had when I used to jog.  Walking, which had been my mainstay and which will remain as a good part of my exercise hereafter, never gave that aerobic feel.  Doing the elliptical is therefore a plus.  I have an intuition that if I can stay with it and the diet, the weight will keep coming off.  We'll see.

If that's true, at or near the time I reach my goal I will return to drinking, in moderation, perhaps in a different pattern than before, one where the social situation should dictate what's appropriate, and when I'm home drink little or not at all.  But thinking about that is getting ahead of myself, not a good thing to do.  For the time being, it is the straight and narrow for me.  This brings me back to the Texas trip and what I learned from it. 

When away from home there are many sorts of stress that you don't think of normally.  One of those for me was the type of food we were eating.  Much of it was very starchy.  At home I try to have a lot of fruit and vegetables.  That was harder to do in Texas.  Plus the food was out all the time - chips, cookies, cake, etc.  Snacking was there as part of providing comfort.  I understood that yet I found that now my resistance was being tested further.  That made it harder to not drink.  And it made me a bit irritable.

Then there is the more usual stress.  I am not a good traveler.  I typically don't sleep well in a hotel room and my digestion goes haywire as a result of the plane ride.  Plus, when I'm in Texas with family, I feel like the outsider even though each one of the extended family is very friendly to me and I'm comfortable with them.  The outsider feeling comes from something else; the state itself seems crazy to me.  One indicator of this is the massive amount of new housing under construction, while at the same time the place is in the midst of a drought, one that is beginning to seem like a permanent condition.  The craziness contributes to my sense of unease.  All of this weakens my resolve.

I wish I could report some silver bullet for dealing with it all.  I don't have one.  Instead, my message for others who are trying to not drink temporarily is to minimize such situations, if possible.  Even though I didn't break down on this trip, I might very well do so on the next one.  Best to not have too many experiences with this sort of temptation.

I suspect it is not the same when at home going out with some friends who drink.  That would only be for a few hours, at most, and so should be easier to manage.  My curiosity has me wanting to experience that, to see if my conjecture is correct.  But my desire to stick with the diet trumps that.  Playing a game of chicken with yourself to see how much you can tolerate is probably not healthful.  Losing the weight is.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Quick Review of Kindle Fire HD 7"/Traveling without a laptop

Introduction/Disclaimer

This device was somewhat dated when I purchased it, in July, which is one reason the price was so reasonable, $139.  In this review I will consider the device only from the point of view of my own use pattern.  Tablets to me are eReaders.  I don't care to watch video on them, so I will not evaluate that function.  I also don't care to write longish pieces on them, so will only consider the input function in passing.  It is the reading function that is primary to me and what I will focus on.  I do sometimes listen to music when reading. At home I've used Spotify on the device and that has worked well.  On my latest trip, however, I opted not to listen to music while reading.  That was, in part, because I was traveling with the family and wanted to more alert to what is going on.  It was also a little bit of an experiment to see whether the reading benefited or not without having the music.

For me this device was a replacement for the original iPad I had that reached end of life.  That is how the review will be framed.

Form Factor

I have come to like the Kindle Fire for its size and weight.  The screen is big enough for it to feel like reading a book and not like rapid page turning, as on a regular size phone. Initially I had some trouble with how to hold the thing.  I like it to be in landscape mode.  When you do that, on one side of the device in the back is the power on/off button.  On the other side is the volume control for the audio.  If you hold the device on the side, you're apt to push one of those buttons, which is the pain.

I've found that if you hold the device on the bottom in the middle, between your thumb and index finger, that works pretty well.  It also has the feel of reading a paper if, like me, you didn't worry about breaking the binding while reading the book.

I want to contrast this with how I read on the iPad, where the device typically would rest in my lap, because it was too heavy to hold up with my hands.  As a result my neck would be stressed as my head would be looking down toward my lap.  Given my arthritis, this really isn't a good thing to do for very long.  Holding the device closer to eye level is much better and that is easy to do with the Kindle Fire.

Other things I like about it

The navigation scheme to find the functionality you want is pretty easy to learn.  The tool for handling network connections works well.  The built in browser, called Silk, has nice function and there is a way for it to display just the article you are currently reading and not other stuff on the page, so it is not bad as a reader.  The email tool works fine.  Font size in all the applications is quite reasonable.

You buy this things, of course, because you read Kindle books.  The current book you are reading displays with the main applications.  That is nice, so you have quick access to it.

A few complaints

If you want to put the screen to sleep, you do that with a quick tap of the power button.  Fine.  Another quick tap brings up a screen that has ads on it, where you need to slide a bar to access to the home page.  The time and the amount of power left on the machine is on the page with the ads, not on the home page.  I didn't mind the ads per se, but one in a while I do want to know the time and how much juice the thing has left in it.  That functionality really should be on the home page.  That it is on the page with ads makes you feel like the did that so you'd see more ads.  That was irksome.

In the Kindle application itself, sometimes the word lookup function would launch itself when I didn't intend it.  My sense of this is that by holding the device at bottom center, I would put a fair amount of pressure there and sometimes must have made the device think I was putting pressure on the screen, though I wasn't doing that.  In contrast, however, when I did try to use the word lookup function and the word in question was somewhere near the middle of the screen, I couldn't activate the lookup function then.  Similarly, I had trouble with copy, particularly of a url, though I've also had that trouble on my phone and on the iPad.

Once in a while when trying to find the home screen, the device would seemingly take you to a different screen that had more limited options.  I never found a direct way back to the home screen.  Instead, I would launch an application and from there go to the home screen.

Traveling without a Laptop

For composing short email or writing a quick Facebook status update, the Kindle Fire is fine.  The built in keyboard is adequate and even with the smaller screen there is enough area displayed to make the writing task not too arduous.  If you want to longish blog posts, such as this one, that would be painful on the Kindle Fire.  On my most recent trip I didn't expect to do any longer writing.  The no laptop concept worked well that way and using a very small bag (to hold the power cords of both my iPhone and the Kindle Fire, the devices themselves when not in use, and my sunglasses) really is nice.  That sort of bag fits in the pocket under the tray table on the plane.  It is very convenient.  For short trips, this is the way to go. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

PowerPoint for First Class Session

The file for download.  (A preview is given, but for the actual file you must download it.)
A pdf version.    (Here the preview has pretty much all the functionality that the file itself has, so download may not be necessary.)

Why am I showing this?  PowerPoint is so ho-hum.  First, let me say that I plan to email currently registered students with these links before the session, then I'll only go over the latter part in class with the actual PowerPoint.  The first part we'll discuss but I will leave the projector muted and try to get class participation going throughout the discussion.  Second, since undoubtedly some students will add after the first session, this gives them something they can use to catch up with their classmates.  But third, the style of presentation is meant as a model for student created presentations (that they can do for extra credit).  It's this third bit that I want to briefly discuss.

The style is meant to mimic a white paper with an executive summary.  The full paper is seen in the notes, with the slide then acting as a header for that section.

The executive summary part can be seen by watching and listening to the presentation when in Slideshow mode.  It should play automatically and can be paused at any time by right clicking on the slide.  (Mac friends - I haven't tested this on a Mac and would be curious to know if it works.)  Most of the slides have images and are very spartan on the text (slide title and back link to where the image was obtained only).  The issue is whether that conveys the gist of the matter.

There is accompanying music.  It may seem gratuitous at first, because the song is not related to the displayed content.  But there are a few sensible reasons for having it.  First, if the song is already familiar to the viewer, then it gives an intuitive way of communicating to the viewer how long the entire show is (in this case 2:32).  Second, it means that if the viewer is watching the show then the viewer is not listening to other audio from the same device.  (In contrast if the slideshow were of much longer duration and there was voice over of the slides, a fairly typical approach for flipped classroom presentations, then it is my experience as a viewer to listen to the voice but view some other content while doing so.)  Entirely prohibiting the viewer from multi-processing is impossible, but maybe this encourages the viewer to pay attention only to this slideshow for the brief time it takes to go through it.

It takes much more time to make a PowerPoint in this manner.  The big deal is image selection.  The person making the presentation has to give some thought to what sort of image is desirable and then must match that ideal with the images that turn up in a search.  It is my contention that this activity produces very similar thinking to the type of thinking one should go through when writing an executive summary.  This is why the presentation style is attractive to me.

I'll close with a mention of Fair Use.  My sense of things is that on the images I'm pretty much okay. (Though on one slide I noticed a mark on the image of the instructor, after viewing it in Slideshow mode.  I hadn't noticed the mark beforehand.)  But on the music, I'm probably not.  I've used an entire song and it is still under copyright.  On the other hand, the music is from fifty years ago, so it should be in the public domain.  And there is a video of the song in YouTube.  So...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why are there bad teachers........with tenure?

This is going to be an unpopular post, perhaps not with my friends and colleagues, but with the mainstream, certainly.  I think the analysis of Secretary Duncan, Representative Johnston, and Frank Bruni who authored the piece linked below, is flawed in some serious ways which are not acknowledged here.  If those flaws were examined, perhaps we'd get to something sensible.

First, let me construct the mindset of this piece, written from the perspective of a new principal who has come to a school that is not functioning well.  There are some teachers who seem engaged, enthusiastic, and effective.  There are other teachers who appear uncaring, pessimistic, and who teach poorly.  The principal would like to get rid of this latter group and replace them with younger teachers who are in the former group.  That would both improve performance of the students and do better on the bottom line as well.  You see, the bad teachers tend to have a lot of seniority and are therefore paid more.  If one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel then it seems reasonable to get rid of them as they emerge.  What is wrong with that?

Now let us ask why are there bad teachers with seniority?  Below are three possible answers.

  • These teachers were bad from the get go. But they nevertheless got through the screening process that grants tenure.  
  • These teachers were good and enthusiastic when they started.  Over time, however, they got burned out on the job.  The burn out resulted because the system itself is not very supportive of teachers, or because they hadn't planned on making teaching a lifetime avocation and when they found other alternatives dry up they became disenchanted with the job, or because there was insufficient professional development for experienced teachers and they felt isolated from their peers.  
  • These are actually good teachers who are being labeled as bad.  These teachers reject the teach to the test mindset that has permeated the culture and continue to teach their students in a broad manner.  The students are, in fact, learning.  It is just that given the external measures that are in place those outside this classroom can't tell.  
Note that one can make each of these answers a good deal more complex.  So, for example, with the bad teacher from the get go, the teacher might do things to mask this.  Once tenure has been granted, however, the mask is then removed.  It has no purpose any longer.

I don't want to rule out the complexity, nor do I want to assert that there are only three possible explanations.   And among the three I don't know which is the most likely explanation.  For what I have to say next, it doesn't matter.

Each of these explanations has implicit in them that the system is failing.  It doesn't identify the good and bad teachers very well (the first and third explanations) or it seems to encourage those who are good teachers when they are more junior to become bad teachers as they gain seniority.  If that is true, why would a talented person want to become a teacher?

Just as much of the point, why blame individual bad teachers and not discuss the systemic issues with teaching (of which I'm sure there are a boatload)?  Until that happens, we'll continue to get this myopic and flawed discussion of what's at issue.

Representative Johnston was a principal.  But he didn't stick with that work.  Why not?  Teach for America, which on the one hand is noble and on the other hand wrong headed, encourages a Peace Corps like approach to education but once the teachers have gotten their fingers dirty they then move on to other careers.  What will it take to get talented and dedicated people to stay as teachers for their entire careers?   That question needs a serious answer.

I normally like Frank Bruni's columns, but he has got it wrong on this issue.  And that he quotes Whoopi Goldberg in the piece shows there is something amiss.  She is a funny lady and certainly has a lot of name recognition.  But does she have expertise on this matter?  If not, why does her name appear here?


Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Essence of Education

I agree with this piece.  If others did too we could get on with the important issues of what activities are the basis for a highly sympathetic and reciprocal relationship between students and their teacher.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Depression in Performing Artists as a Reflection on Ourselves

Judging by the very large number of status updates in Facebook about Robin Williams that I saw each of the last two nights, his death had a profound effect on many.  As my friend Rich pointed out, it was not so long ago that Philip Seymour Hoffman also passed away.  Drugs were part of the picture in both cases.  For the bulk of us who didn't know these artists personally, it is impossible to distinguish root cause from symptom as we learn what transpired.

But it may be a good time for us to reflect more broadly about depression, because it is a subject we tend to avoid entirely unless immediately confronted by it, yet if we were more aware about it we might very well be able to lessen its likelihood, in ourselves as we confront challenges that at first may seem overwhelming, and possibly in our friends and colleagues, the ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure the operative consideration, even if our impact on others is at best a tertiary effect.  Indeed, my friend Dave posted a link in Facebook aimed at educating readers about the difference between depression and sadness as well as on the connection between depression and suicide.  There is a similar such explanation about clinical depression at the WebMD site, especially valuable if you are looking for a reference not tied to the current events about Robin Williams.

These links are helpful.  Nonetheless, I found them less than fully satisfying.  They said not a whit about the antecedents to depression.  If there is to be prevention, that is where it needs to be situated.  In particular, ask the following question and do so about yourself, assuming you are mentally okay now.  How would you react if you then found yourself in circumstances where you felt the situation was quite harmful to you yet you also felt in over your head with no obvious way out?  Suppose, after that, that the situation persisted for some time.  Would you then get depressed?

Some people would not.  They'd fight it and they'd keep fighting it.  They might get angry.  They might turn bitter at others, particularly those they believed to be the source of the stress.  To bystanders, fighting it and getting depressed might look similar.  In both cases the person is unhappy.  Yet they are not the same.  Fighting it means you have a sense of agency about yourself.  Depression means you feel it is hopeless and you are impotent to do anything about it.

Personally, I don't like the "fighting it" metaphor.  Where possible, I much prefer reason to brute force.  I think of the issue as problem solving.  If you are working toward problem solution then there is no reason to be depressed, as you may very well come up with an answer.  Having the ability to solve problems and being aware of that ability definitely does give a personal sense of agency.  Depression then might be found in getting stuck on solving the problem, knowing it is imperative to find a solution, but not seeing any path toward that solution.  

My friend Chris posted a link to this piece in Slate, which refers to depression as mental illness.  I obviously don't know the author's circumstance.  In this piece she is writing mainly about Robin Williams and the issue of whether he knew others loved him.  She is right in asserting that even that knowledge is not sufficient to overcome depression.  Yet I was not happy with her insistence on using mental illness as a label.  Part of depression is the person's mindset, sure.  But the environment where the person finds himself matters too.  It matters a lot.  That is not captured in the expression mental illness.

Many people have shame about their self-perceived inabilities.   Shame is itself not a signpost of depression.  But it can serve to block potential preventatives to depression because often one won't find those by oneself.  One needs to solicit others for suggestions or have others present those suggestions like manna from heaven - no solicitation required.

I had depression when I was in tenth grade.  My life seemed to be getting out of control.  I also started to find the "good student" thing very artificial, but I had no alternative to take its place.  And my weight ballooned upward.  I was overeating like crazy.  It may have given some immediate comfort, but it was also part of the downward spiral.  I never told any of my friends and classmates, so they didn't know at the time.  But I believe one day my mother stormed into the school and yelled at some of the teachers.  How could they let this happen?  The irony is that at core my relationship with my mother was the reason for my depression.

I sensed the makings of another round of  depression in the fall semester of my second year of college.  It didn't get as far.  The prior experience in high school helped me understand the early warning signs.  I did find a way out.  I transferred from MIT to Cornell.  Sometimes we label people who give up as quitters and perhaps in some of those cases the label is apt.  But it is important to understand that what is fundamental is that the person not quit on himself.  Going down with the ship may be what the captain is duty bound to do.  Yet it is foolhardy to think that staying at a place is the responsible course of action, particularly if suicide will become a likelihood as a consequence. 

When I was at MIT it "led the country" in student suicides.  One consequence of that fact, there were no grades during the freshman year.  Instead, all courses were pass/no credit and students received written evaluations from their instructors about the quality of the work they produced and, in some cases, about their in class performance.  This is the most humane institutional response to the issue that I am aware of.  It clearly was meant as a preventative, one given in a high touch manner.  I wish I saw more such interventions.

During my years as a graduate student at Northwestern, there was a documentary produced by PBS called College Can Be Killing.  It contrasted student life at Northwestern (in some cases not healthy) with student life at Wisconsin (a more normal environment).  If I recall correctly, the film took to task the concept of a single room in a dorm.  The argument was made that interaction with roommates was crucial for the mental health of the student.  A loner by nature who becomes isolated socially has a much larger chance of going over the deep end.  This, in itself, means that introverts are more likely candidates for depression than extroverts.  But let us not confound this.  Introverts can be full of vitality and enthusiastic about their own prospects.  It takes other factors beyond the introversion for depression to manifest.

Eric Hoffer, the working man's philosopher, observed that past success by an individual offers no guarantee of success in future endeavors.  Where we may have displayed our brilliance before, we may be consigned to mediocrity henceforth.  We don't know.  And we won't know unless we give it a try and see what happens.  The issue can vex young people, who see expectations about their performance continue to rise, as that rise in performance had been the pattern, yet they themselves feel they've plateaued, unable to climb any higher, or are frightened by the prospect of transcending themselves.  The issue can also vex older people, who see evidence that their own capacities are diminishing and who come to expect that they will never again attain the heights of performance that they've previously achieved.

If one's sense of self worth is wrapped up in one's ability to perform, that coupled with Hoffer's observation can then be a potential source of depression.  This may catch others off guard, as they view the person as highly talented and quite capable.  But the individual himself may perceive he is in decline, with no way out of the hole.

I was in that trap in tenth grade.  It took between five and ten years beyond that to discover a personal philosophy that was more sustaining, even if the ingredients for that philosophy were already there the entire time.  I needed to give myself a break and get away from this focus on performance as the definer or self worth.  What I learned is to see that more as emerging from personal idiosyncrasy, goofiness, and lighthearted play.  I have found solace in that view since.

One's personal philosophy must match one's personality.  It therefore can't be ready made by others.  It must be discovered for oneself.  In some sense, then, depression is a consequence of not finding a suitable personal philosophy when the environmental stress is especially strong. 

Let me close with a disclaimer.  Much of my writing should be classified as intelligent speculation, steeped in my own experience and prior thought.  I am not a health care professional.  I don't know that those who are would agree with everything I've said.  Others in my position might err on the side of caution by not giving their opinions publicly.  I have chosen not to do so because I believe preventatives do exist, so having some sense of what causes depression is useful.  The operative mantra then - be kind to others and to yourself.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Fair use for the faculty creator - where are we now?

As a vestige of my old campus job I'm still on the listserv for OER-Community, where I lurk and from time to time read the messages.  OER stands for Open Educational Repository.  This particular list is moderated by Susan D'Antoni of UNESCO and is hosted by Athabasca University.  The big picture goal for list members is for developed countries to re-purpose educational materials they've already produce and then make those materials freely available for use in developing countries.  Those materials would reside in an OER.  This model takes after MIT's Open Courseware Initiative (OCW).  The goals that the OER movement advocates for are noble.  I embrace those goals.

However, I am less enamored with the OER mechanism for achieving the goals.  In other words, I am no fan of repositories.  Here are two reasons why.  One is technical.  The other is ethical.  On the technical side search, a la Google's search engine or the search engine of competitors, obviates the need by potential users of the educational materials to browse in a single location to find what is good and useful for them.  All that is required is for the materials to be readily available online and to be linked to on some Web page.  This is a very low threshold for participation by providers of open content.  The search engines would do the rest.

The repositories, such as OCW, receive the Institutional branding of the host.  MIT got a lot of publicity out of OCW.  The marketing value of such branding confounds the reasons for engaging with OER.  The noble goals get blended together with institutional advancement.  Some might argue that is a good thing because grass roots efforts at Open Education will invariably have little impact only.  One needs a more systematic approach to scale up Open Educaiton.  I have heard this argument on multiple occasions, but I don't buy it.  I believe the institutional branding is ultimately corrupting unless it serves as a first step towards a repository that aggregates across many institutions.  I note that on the research side of the equation, which has gotten a lot less publicity as of late say as compared to MOOCs, there has been this sort of aggregation.  So, for example, the Institutional Repository on my campus, IDEALS, has become a member of the Open Library project, which is such an aggregator.  To my knowledge, the same sort of thing is not happening in the Open Education space.

There is the further issue, which gets me closer to the theme of this piece, that the repository approach does nothing about influencing the campus culture, to make it more amenable to Open Education.  Why should there be the need to re-purpose educational materials at all?  What aren't these materials freely available from the get go?  One might envision some grand conspiracy as answer to this question.  The reality is much more humdrum, in my view.  Nobody gives the matter a lot of thought.  People just assume that educational materials belong inside a Learning Management System (LMS).  Such systems happen to be closed, not open.

Here is a recent bit of evidence to illustrate.  The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning on my campus is giving some training for new TAs next week.  I am doing a session for them on Socratic Dialog.  In an email that informed me of the classroom where my session would be held, there was a request for materials that I've produced for the session.  The number attending the training is in the thousands.  My particular session has a capacity of about 50.  Conceivably there are others who would have wanted to come but my session competed with something else they also wanted to see.  So the request for these materials is to help graduate students in this category.  Fine.

As part of the request, I was told the materials would reside within the campus LMS and only attendees of the training would have access.  Implicit in this message was an argument that I should be more willing to release my materials in this way because of their limited distribution.  It is this implicit argument that I'm referring to when talking about the campus culture.

In the old days (late 1990s through early 2000s) some faculty didn't want to release their materials broadly for a variety of reasons.  One reason that I'm mildly sympathetic to is that broad availability of the content would serve as a disincentive for students to come to class.  For a while there was a big deal made about students who would attend class, take notes, and then make those notes available to other students (for a fee).  However else you felt about this behavior, you'd have to agree that it gave evidence of demand for this sort of content.  Another reason for reluctance to make the content publicly available is that the instructor may have entertained thoughts of eventually producing a textbook and wanted to maintain control of their materials until then.  Perhaps these reasons are still with us.  I don't know.  My guess is that for the most part they no longer are, for the vast majority of instructors who do produce their own content.  What remains, instead, is a gut reaction to want to keep content under password protection for limited distribution, without much if any justification as to why.

If this is right, then moving the campus culture towards an embrace of Open Education would take substantial time and effort.  In turn, that would require leadership, championing by various faculty who would be motivated not by institutional glory but rather by the noble ideas that are behind OERs.  Yet I'm afraid such faculty would nonetheless meet resistance from the campus - for legal reasons.  And they might themselves become fearful as a result.  Here is the issue, which I can illustrate with the content I've produced for grad student training. 

An Inquiry into Socratic Dialog (pptx format)
An Inquiry into Socratic Dialog (pdf format)

Note that this is an ordinary PowerPoint presentation.  There is nothing special about it.  I've made it available to anyone with an Internet connection.  I'm using my campus account at Box.com for hosting the content.  Anyone on campus can get such an account.  So, technology-wise, there is no trouble whatsoever in making such content open.

Most of the text in this presentation was written by me.  Where I use the words of others, I cite the author.  There is very little of such content, so I don't believe there is any issue with plagiarism or copyright for the written stuff.  And if I had contained the presentation simply to text, there wouldn't be much of an issue at all.

But I didn't do that.  Most of the slides have images on them.  Those images are there to improve the presentation, to make the viewers better able to connect to the ideas.  This is why any author employs somebody else's work.  The mixture of stuff I've created with other stuff that I've found is better than what I could produce on my own, if I had to make everything from scratch.  This is not to say that what is there now is anything to write home about.  It is just to affirm that without the images, the quality would be worse.

These images were found via Google Image search.  The originals, from which I made copies, reside on open Web pages.  I chose images that seemed best to match my text content.  I omitted images that had an obvious watermark.  As it turned out these two criteria were sufficient to have each image come from a different source.  In the past when I've done this sort of thing for my own course, I've provided back links for the images to where I found them, this to show that I didn't plagiarize the images.  I didn't do that this time around because I needed to get the thing done.  (The reader should readily attribute the real cause - my sloth.) I mention this so as to not confound it with the real issue, which is copyright.  Providing back links in no way protects me from the charge that I've copied this content without getting permission from the content authors, who wouldn't have granted permission had they known about it.

Far greater protection against the charge of copyright violation comes from the observation that I'm a nobody and this content is far from extraordinary.  So it will get very limited viewing.  In other words, the probability that I will be detected violating copyright is nil.  Partly for this reason, I make all my educational content open.  A second reason for making open content is that in the little experience I've had with complaints about copyright, I simply took down the content and that proved sufficient redress.  The third reason is that I feel that I should be legally entitled to make my stuff publicly available - with the pictures included - because the Fair Use exception to copyright is meant to cover content such as my presentation.

(Sidebar:  This blog has a Creative Commons License.  Non-commercial users are free to copy the content and re-purpose for their own use, though I do ask for attribution when they do so.  However, the images that are in that PowerPoint can't possibly be covered by this license, since I don't own the copyright to the images.  That is likewise true for many other images found on the blog.)

If we are to get leadership that moves the culture on campus to an Open Education approach, those leaders will need visibility to achieve that end.  Some of the content they produce, then, should get substantial viewing and with that the content should produce benefit in an overt and obvious way.  Projecting my own preferences onto such leaders (what I would do if I had the ability to make highly viewed content) I would be quite willing to push on the Open Education button and endure the seemingly endless arguments from others on campus who would like to maintain the current approach where most stuff ends up in the LMS, with one proviso.  I would not want to expose myself to potential liability from copyright violation.  I would take steps to avoid that, if it otherwise seemed a likelihood.

In my years as a campus level administrator, I sought clarity on those sorts of things that were protected by Fair Use.  I was never able to obtain that from Campus Legal.  I can understand why lawyers don't want to overtly draw a line, but times have changed and Open Education has far more potential now than it did then.  The public is now focused on containing the cost of higher education.  Open content would not be a full solution to that, to be sure, but it is not hard to see that it could be an important piece of the puzzle. For that to come about, however, there needs to be a fairly aggressive view of Fair Use, embraced by those faculty leaders who will drive the change in culture.

Even idealists are cognizant of practical reality.  Such an aggressive interpretation of Fair Use must be based on some actual precedent.  So I ask, where are we now on Fair Use, particularly as it obtains to the type of content Faculty produce for instruction? 

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Having your health - what does that mean?

I've reached the age in life where each fact about personal health seems to be the start of a shaggy dog story.  Here's an example that provides no exception to the rule.

Let's begin with some good news.  A week ago I had some blood work done.  This was a little bit unusual, since I also had some blood work done two weeks before that.  In between I had a doctor visit.  That earlier blood test was because I had reduced my blood pressure meds to one pill a day, down from the previous two.  With my not drinking and trying to shed a few pounds, it didn't seem that I needed the two pills a day.  Indeed, I had asked whether I could go off the pills entirely.  The doctor suggested, instead, to go with that one pill and to monitor (and record) the blood pressure.  I did that for two weeks and the numbers were quite encouraging.  So that seemed to be working.  The blood test was done to see how everything else was doing.  The results sent out some red flags about my kidney function.  The doctor visit was scheduled to discuss possible responses.

We ended up deciding (really this was the doctor deciding and me providing enough background info to give some basis for the decision) to alter my regime of pain medication.  I had been taking over the counter stuff - the Walgreens generic alternative to Aleve, $19 and change for a massive bottle of 600 pills.  Mainly, I take pills twice a day, once in the morning with the first cup of coffee, and then again in the evening, usually near dinnertime.  I took pain pills at both times, three pills per.  This dosage was by my own design.  The goal was prophylactic treatment of the pain.  This way you couldn't distinguish between the treatment working or there really being no reason to take the pills in the first place.  But if there were more than incidental pain, then you knew the treatment wasn't working.  As far as pain goes, the regime seemed reasonably effective to me.

Yet the doctor thought this a bad approach because Naproxen, the active drug in Aleve, has a variety of pernicious side effects.  One of these is that it can cause an ulcer.  Another is that it can depress kidney function.  The doctor prescribed an alternative pain medication, Tramadol.  The dosage specified on the bottle is one or two pills every six hours.  The doc recommended to me at the office visit to stay on the low side of that, since Tramadol also has side effects, one of which is to make you drowsy.  So I followed the doc's advice, and then some.  The second blood test was to see how this new regime was working.  My results were normal in every category.  That certainly was good news. 

The thing is though, I didn't feel normal.  The Tramadol was making me quite constipated.  So I started to take less of it, to mute that particular consequence.  Then it occurred to me that I might have been a bit constipated even before starting with the Tramadol.  It's hard for me to tell.  I was eating substantially less than I had been before going on the diet.  I didn't know what the new normal felt like.  Fruits and vegetables had become a larger part of my overall diet, so I thought I was being sensible about things.  A couple of days after starting with the Tramadol, I added prunes to the mix, which may now have become a regular part of my diet, and I made a couple of other temporary adjustments that I would term, "treating the symptoms."  All of this made me a bit irritable.  Also, I was confused.  Was Tramadol really better than Naproxen for me?  I'm still trying to figure that out.

It's what happened next which really was the kicker.   Two or three weeks earlier I had surprised myself in a pleasant way.  My experience after walking for a while had been that there would be some pain in my lower back on the right side.  This was due to some combination of bone spurs and arthritis, which were first diagnosed back in fall 2009.  So I would take shorter walks only or do the walking on the treadmill, where I could use my arms on the handrail to help support my weight and thus put less stress on my lower back.  But because of our basement flooding, the exercise room became a temporary storage area and until that situation returned to where I could use the treadmill or the elliptical I'd have to get all my exercise by walking outside.  So I tried taking longer walks.  I was delighted to find that the the lower back didn't hurt at all.  (Other stuff, like my knees, still did but I could live with that.)  So I began taking longer walks as the regular routine, doing somewhere between an hour to 90 minutes.  My pace was certainly not earth shattering, 19 to 20 minutes per mile, and I would take a rest once or twice during the session, to adjust the Internet radio station I was listening to or to check email.  Even with these observations that the walking wasn't too strenuous, however, I felt good at the end of the session because I was tired from it.  Exercising to the point of fatigue is a good thing.  Doing less than that so as not too feel bad later may be prudent, but it is not very satisfying.  

The day after the second blood tests and after my long walk, my lower back started to hurt really badly.  After another day or so the pain migrated to the quadriceps in my right leg, but was equally intense.  I had taken a day off from walking.  That seemed to have no effect.  The pain was still there with a vengeance.  So was the constipation.

This was a time for a stiff upper lip.  I can do that if at the same time I see a way out.  But here I didn't sense a solution.  Instead, I had something like the opposite thought.  Both issues might end up  to be ongoing.  That prospect was sufficiently dismal that I started to feel sorry for myself.  After not drinking for more than five weeks, I asked my wife to buy me some Tanqueray on her way home from work (I knew she planned to get some wine for herself).  I had several stiff drinks that night.  I did likewise the following night, after which I went on a binge eating-wise.  I put on a couple of pounds just from that one episode.  The sole reason why I had stopped drinking was to prevent those binges from happening.  And the sole reason for the dieting was to lessen the arthritis pain.  Those reasons seemed to be losing force.

Yet even with the entire plan seemingly unraveling, I decided I didn't want to throw in the towel.  The pain had subsided some.  And it began to seem like my regime of prunes was bearing fruit (bad pun intended).  So on Friday I returned to the diet and no drinking.  On Saturday I took a moderate walk (about 40 minutes).  Yesterday I took a walk for an hour.  Perhaps the end goal is attainable, after all.  To mark that, yesterday morning I took 2 Tramadol pills, as there still was significant pain from the walk the day before.

* * * * *

I now want to change gears and move from talking about pain to talking about weight and what things I've learned since I started on the diet, about six weeks ago.

There are certain weights I hit at specific times in my life that I keep in my head, markers of where I've been that provide a record both of my sins and my accomplishments. These also speak to my self-image.

When I graduated from high school, spring 1972, I weighed 245 pounds.  In the winter during 10th grade I weighed approximately the same amount and was having some emotional issues at the time.  So, as part of my treatment, I went on a diet under doctor's supervision and aided by taking an appetite suppressant (amphetamine).  I lost about 40 pounds, which was terrific.  But it all came back in short order.

In between high school and college my sister and I made a western trip to see various National Parks.  I went on a diet then, unaided by drugs and without a doctor's care.  I lost about 15 pounds during those few weeks and after I returned home.  Again, the weight came back in short order.  Thereafter in college I put on about 20 more pounds.

I made a conscious decision to lose weight between undergrad and grad school, in the late spring and summer of 1976.  I averaged about a pound a day weight loss over almost two months.  I ended up around 210 pounds, what I'd be if I were at a normal weight for my height.  As extreme as that diet was, it worked in a way the previous diets did not.  The weight stayed off.  When I got married in June 1990, I was still at 210 pounds.  This is not to say the weight remained completely flat during the interim.  There were cycles with the weight typically higher in the winter than in the summer.  But there was no trend during those years.

Our first kid was born in August 1992.  Thereafter, the weight began to trend upward.  The initial reason was sleep deprivation.  A few years later I became an administrator and that encouraged a more sedentary lifestyle, because more of my work time was scheduled and it became harder to fit in time for exercise.  Then my knees started to go.  I had been a regular jogger.  It is amazing how regular exercise can offset sins from overeating.  But then it is no big surprise as to what happens once the regular exercise gets taken away from the daily routine.  I made a big mistake at the time by not finding something else to take its place, such as power walking, even if that weren't quite as vigorous.

The last big factor, and it was a doozy, was the work stress that accompanied being the Assistant CIO for Educational Technology.  This went well beyond being extremely busy.  From time to time I was getting beat up emotionally by the job.  I needed something to calm me down from all the stress.  Food and drink provided that comfort, though in retrospect it was merely a quick fix and not a healthy response to my situation.

The upshot is that the upward trend in my weight continued unabated for the next fourteen years.  Then I received a warning shot that things had to change.  I had a serious fall, ripping all the tendons above my left knee, leaving me unable to walk and requiring surgical repair.  At the time I weighed well over 300 pounds.  During my recovery I lost some weight to get me to around 285, which is where the weight plateaued for almost four years.  Then I had a colonoscopy, my birthday present for turning 55, and took off another 10 pounds after that.  My weight again plateaued in the mid 270s until the start of the current regime.  I began the current diet weighing 273.

Yesterday morning I was 255 at the daily weighing, which I take soon after getting up, immediately after getting my blood pressure.  So I have been averaging about three pounds lost peer week, but the time pattern has been more like a period of loss followed by another period of plateau, then another period of loss, etc.  I am not quite sure why it's been that way, but noting that outcome serves as a useful point to launch my other observations. 

During my doctor's visit the doctor strongly encouraged me to use this time of weight loss as a way to change lifetime patterns and habits toward a more healthy way of doing things.  In other words, the goal is not just to take the weight off.  It is just as important to keep it off afterwards.  No surprise there. And in theory everyone would agree with this goal.  So, as I understand, it is generally viewed as better to shed the pounds slowly but to keep at it until the desired end weight is attained.  What I did when I was 21 was too rapid, in this view.  The more amazing thing then is that the weight didn't bounce back up immediately thereafter.

There is no risk now of me losing at the rate of a pound a day.  I'm not sure whether the weight would come off that quickly even if I went on a diet of only water and nutritional supplements.  My metabolism is different now.  It has slowed down substantially as compared to when I was 21.  My capacity for exercise is much less, quite apart from the arthritis pain.  And now I can't maintain for extended periods where I feel very hungry and try to divert my attention from thinking about that, say by watching some junkie show on TV.  I could do that at 21.  Now  I need to be reasonably functional while this diet is going on, to prepare my class for the fall, to write other blog posts on topics unrelated to dieting, to do some household tasks, and to enjoy more demanding diversions, such as reading the biographical novel about Van Gogh that I'm currently engaged in.

There is a risk at the other extreme, say of losing at a rate of one or two pounds per week, or losing weight even more slowly, especially if there are periods of plateau as part of the process.  One significant motivator in sustaining while on the diet is seeing progress.  Then you know, "it's working." If it doesn't seem to be working you start to contemplate taking a more drastic approach.  So there is some tradeoff in going fast enough that it seems noticeable and going slow enough that the results can be sustained.  I've bounced a bit on this and haven't yet found the ideal point.  For the same reason, quite apart form the issue of immediate pain, there has been some bouncing on how much exercise I do.  The need to see results drives more extreme behavior.  The fear with doing this is that the extreme behavior soon becomes the new normal and after making progress with that for a while the plateau phase returns, ultimately demanding even more extreme behavior. 

Apart from noting that progress is being made, what other factors contribute to staying on the diet?  I did a bit of reading on this and was intrigued by this piece from WebMD on planning your diet and your exercise.  In particular, I was struck by this paragraph.

"It is very difficult to lose weight and keep it off - and people who succeed must have discipline," says James O. Hill, PhD, the Registry's co-founder and director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. "People who are most successful plan their day to ensure that they stick to their eating plan and get regular physical activity. It takes effort to be successful in long-term weight management."

The author of that quote is obviously extremely knowledgeable about nutrition and to the extent that his use of the world "discipline" refers to proper eating and getting sufficient exercise, then I'd agree with what he says.  But if he's talking about the psychology behind going on a diet, I'd say he has it all wrong.  Below are my views on the matter.  To the extent that these views make sense, they may constitute the most important part of this piece for others who are contemplating going on a diet to promote their own health.

1.  What is it that you want to eat?  Can you learn to want only those things that are healthful for you and to not want those things you shouldn't be eating? 

My wife keeps a lot of junk food in the house - ice cream, a variety of different sorts of chips, and sometimes other sweets (double stuffed Oreos, for example).  She views these things as a kind of reward after a long day's work.  She too has a stressful job and puts her all into it.  So she deserves her rewards, especially given that she is not overweight and the health issues for her are different than they are for me.

Should I be jealous of her and what she eats as reward?  If I am jealous, then resisting those foods, like resisting any temptation, requires willpower.  But if I'm not jealous and these are not the foods I would choose if I were free to have anything I want, then not eating them doesn't require discipline.  It requires noting that jealousy is not a good motive to drive what it is that you do want to eat. Indeed, having a mental picture of what foods you think you like may may also be wrong, because it is apt to confound childhood pleasures with what gives pleasure now.  There may be many foods that you viewed as treats as a child (think of marshmallows, for example) that wouldn't give any pleasure at all as an adult. Resisting eating such foods should not be hard at all.

On the flip side of this, there may be certain foods that you do really like but that are only available on a seasonal basis.  Earlier this summer I bought some nectarines for my breakfast as a healthier and less caloric alternative to the bananas that I had been having in my yogurt.  I really liked the nectarines.  They were extremely flavorful.  But I suspect they won't be around after the summer or that those nectarines which are available then will have far less taste.  What happens at that point?  Do I go back to the bananas?

2.  Do you plan for what happens next when you go off the diet or do you ignore that question and simply hope it never happens? 

If being on a diet requires discipline, then going off the diet means you've failed with your discipline.  The next step in the chain of thinking is then to administer some punishment for the failure.  But in the twisted way many of us think, particularly those of us with a diminished self-image from years and years of being overweight, the punishment might very well come in the form of going off the diet even more.  After all, if the goal is to lose weight, that sort of punishment takes you further from the goal, which is what any good punishment should do.  But with this sort of reasoning, before too long you are off the diet altogether which, sad to say, is the story with way too many diets.

It would be far better to forgive and forget and get on with the business of the diet as soon after the departure as possible.  How can you forgive yourself for such transgressions?  In my way of thinking, the only way to do that is to not make a big deal of them at the time.  Know they will happen occasionally.  With that expectation at hand, discipline may not be all that it is cracked up to be.  A gentle temperament that allows the person to forgive and forget would then be far more important than having the discipline to avoid ever making a transgression.

3.  What about "cheats" as alternatives to discipline.  Should those be encouraged or should they be avoided?

One sort of cheat that many people recommend, including the authors of the book Nudge, is to avoid having tempting food in the house.  In other words, amplify your personal resolve by increasing the economic cost (in time or money) of getting foods that you would otherwise find tempting.

I used to subscribe to this view wholeheartedly.  It was absolutely essential as a practice for me to not gain weight once I started graduate school.  But it has been less important during this most recent diet.  There is still some gin left in that Tanqueray bottle.  Yet I've not been tempted to drink it the last few nights.  It's been enough for me to say to myself that I didn't want a drink.  Likewise, I don't want the ice cream my wife bought, even though I used to be unable to resist once I knew that it was there.  It's not that my force of will is greater now.  It's just that the ice cream doesn't interest me at the moment.

Yet there is a different sort of cheat that I've practiced regularly.  I've used it to manage the time after dinner, to avoid going for seconds (or thirds), and to resist other sorts of snacking.  I've known for quite a while that this is the part of the day when I'm most vulnerable to temptation.  What I've done is to take medication I would take anyway and that causes me to be drowsy, now both Benadryl and Tramadol.  The only adjustment is to take it earlier than I would have done had I not been on the diet.  I then go to sleep earlier as a consequence.  This shortens the time when I'm most vulnerable to overindulging.  The approach has worked pretty well, to date, though I'm a pretty boring fellow in the evenings these days.

Now I want to buttress the point by arguing that this sort of cheating makes perfectly good sense as part of a long term strategy.  There are two further points to make.  One is that managing how you react to temptation is not simply throwing a switch - before you were indulgent, after you were disciplined.  Over time you can get better at being disciplined, particularly if you also get better at learning what sort of temptation is there for the right reason and those other sort of things that become easier to resist because as it turns out you really didn't want them.  If there is learning-by-doing of this sort, then early on it makes sense to provide an assist with a cheat.  The cheat will become less necessary over time.  The cheat allows early success to feed on itself.  The other point is that the cheat itself can become permanent.  In my case that would mean either having dinner later or going to sleep earlier.  That latter seems a likelihood, quite apart from the dieting.  If that's true, moving to it now isn't really a cheat, is it?

The next observation is about the fixation which I now have with the dieting.  I view such fixation as unhealthy.  Yet I think it is unavoidable, particularly early on, especially if you have the sort of history with weight that I've had.  So the question is whether you can wean yourself off of being so fixated before too long.  It is evident to me that as long as I've got the physical pain issue to deal with and the constipation too, both of which engender their own sort of fixation, then I'll be fixated with the dieting as well.  The fixation with the dieting is manifest by weighing myself multiple times a day, which is completely silly but which I've been doing right along.  It also comes into play when fishing for complements of the sort, "gee, you've lost weight" and then being disappointed when a friend doesn't seem to have noticed.

The question is how to get past this early, fixation stage.  In giving my proposed answer, let me assume that the pain and constipation issues get resolved, each on their own accord.  If I remain fixated with dieting beyond that point, it will be only the dieting itself which sustains the fixation. 

I do get fixated on things, as a matter of practice.  It is a personal strength, at least in some cases.  When my mind is grappling with some issue, I can't let go of it until I've done my complete analysis and then have gotten the word out about the analysis.  It is why I like to write blog posts.  I know enough about myself to not try to short circuit the process prematurely.  That will not work.  I won't be able to let go of the old issue.  And I won't be able to devote my full attention to the next one.  This is true even if some "objective voice" tells me the old issue isn't worth the effort.  Having gotten my hooks into thinking about the issue, I vote nay on the proposition put forward by the objective voice.   Instead, I trust my blogging habit to allow me to move onto something else in due course.

Indeed, that gives one real reason for writing the current post.  I'm trying to get the fixation out of my system as soon as I can.  Earlier, I had thought about writing a book to chronicle the dieting while giving an ongoing commentary in the process.  But I've decided quite recently to abandon this project, as sticking to it surely would extend the fixation beyond where it is necessary.  My health is more important than my creative efforts.  Beyond that, I surely will need other projects to grab my attention, so the time that would have been spent worrying about the dieting can be spent more profitably on something else. In the past there has been no shortage of such projects.  Something interesting usually emerges in short order.

Let me close this section with one more observation, this time I hope in the humorous/frivolous category.  As my weight trended upward I kept some of the clothes that I used to wear but that had become too small on me.  Over the years my wife has nagged me to throw these things out, but I've insisted on keeping them.  Now they serve a a kind of subliminal motivation to stick with the diet.  I have khakis and button down shirts.  For the pants, there are some with waistlines going as high as 52" and others as low as 40", with 2" increments between sizes (though across different vendors there is no consistency in how big a certain purported waistline actually is).  To these various clothes I have some mental model of the weight needed to cross the threshold to the next smaller size.  Last week I crossed such a threshold.  It is its own sort of reward.  Each time you can fit into smaller clothes, you feel as if you've accomplished something.

But there's been a surprise along with the accomplishment.  The weight at which the threshold was crossed was lower than I thought it would be.  Either my current scale is giving me the benefit of the doubt more than the previous scale did or more of my body mass is now clustered near the waistline, where it previously was distributed more elsewhere.  Assuming the latter is the true explanation, I wonder if it is a consequence generally as one ages.  For example, I definitely use my arms less than I used to, not playing any tennis now and swinging a golf club very little, plus since the rotator cuff repair I've stopped doing even the workout with light weights that I had been doing.   So it is not hard for me to envision that there is less mass in my arms than their used to be, relative to overall body mass.  (For those who are thinking about less mass in the head, stifle the urge.) 

* * * * *

There is a long way yet to go to reach my overall goal, which is to weigh the same as I did when I got married and then to sustain that weight thereafter.  It's probably not yet an even money bet that I'll get there, but I'm far enough along where that now seems possible.

In the meantime, one other thought keeps coming back to me about immediately after I lost all that weight at age 21.  Losing the weight proved to be the easy part.  The hard part, especially since everyone I met in grad school had no knowledge of me as an undergrad, is that nobody seemed to understand that while I was an ordinary looking guy all my prior college experience was based on being seen as an overweight guy.  The folks I met during graduate school couldn't see that past, but I was still living my past emotionally.  It took years and years after the weight came off to make the right sort of emotional adjustments.  At the time, I wished I could have done it much faster. 

Now it makes me aware that if I am successful reaching my weight goal, I likely will need to make other substantive adjustments, those of the emotional kind.  They tell you not to get ahead of yourself.  So I won't do that here.  Success may have spoiled Rock Hunter, but it will not spoil me.  Not this time. 

Friday, August 01, 2014

Meteorology for Dummies

The odd pattern of weather continues
A thunderstorm in the afternoon ensues.
We neither know when
Nor its force have we ken.
But we've paid more than our dues.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Spinning My Wheels

We've reached the point in the summer
That I really shouldn't find a bummer
Preparing for class
Should be a gas
Yet I now need a mental plumber.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Small eReader, Large Smart Phone, Both, or Neither?

Money is no object.  Money is a subject.  Okay, those lines are really bad, but I needed to say something about it up front.  In considering your optimal portfolio of gadgets, of course how much they cost matters.  I couldn't call myself an economist and assert otherwise. But in this brief review, I'm not going to consider how much things cost.  I will focus entirely on the convenience need and ignore the cost side of the equation.  Before getting to the review, let me note here quickly where the cost side will ultimately show up.  It will either impact the number of gadgets you use regularly or the average age of the gadgets you use.  And then it might also impact the quality of the gadget at the time you make a replacement purchase.  At the end of this piece I'll review the gadgets that I have, just to illustrate these points.

A little more than a week ago I got an older version of the Kindle Fire.  It's 7" screen fits within the small eReader category in my title.  I promised a review of that product.  I might still deliver something specifically on the Kindle Fire in the near future.  But I thought this post might be more useful.  The ultimate message is that what works for you will depend ultimately on your use patterns, which are likely to be fairly idiosyncratic. That will matter more than that some technology is simply better than its competitors.  So what follows are a few of my idiosyncratic uses.  Here's one quick technology point first.

There is a great deal of overlap now in function between eReaders and smart phones.  If you need to have the phone function itself for texting and the occasional voice call, you might wonder whether you can get by with just the smart phone and no eReader.  The Kindle app on my iPhone works reasonably well, but reading in the Safari browser does not (the font is just too small.)  It is also true that you have to scroll more or less constantly with the Kindle app on the phone, since the screen doesn't hold that much text (at the magnification where I can comfortable read it.)  So for me, the phone is not sufficient, at least a phone that is of regular size.

What about having a large size smart phone?  Here is my first idiosyncratic use.  I like to walk outside, then listen to music from the phone while I'm walking, with my earbuds plugged in and the phone in the left pocket on my shorts.  (The right pocket is for wallet and keys.)  I tried slipping the Kindle Fire into the left pocket.  It is possible, but it is clunky.  The bulk of thing would be too noticeable while I'm walking.  Conceivably one might have a large strap on the left arm that would mount the larger device.  Or perhaps it could be placed in a backpack.  I've not tried either of these alternatives.  My Kindle Fire does have wi-fi but doesn't have a data plan associated with it, and I don't intend to purchase such a data plan.  Yet much of the music I listen to while walking is from the Internet.  So I'm in no rush to perform the experiment with the backpack.  In the meantime, I'm pretty much convinced that for me I will stay with a regular size phone when I replace the current one, sometime this fall. 

I have tried the alternative (using a laptop instead) and for an eReader it is much more convenient to use a "slate" device, with no keyboard.  This is especially true if you are not sitting at a desk.  When I am at home I will read quite at bit at my computer, but then I will also bounce between several activities, a geezer's version of multiprocessing.  When I am not in my office and sit in a comfortable chair with the eReader, I'm more prone to read and bounce less that way.  (I wish I could say I don't bounce at all, but that is not true.  And sometimes the bouncing is directly caused by the reading; I want to check a reference that occurs to me based on something I just read.) 

If my eReader use were at home only, there would be no reason to have a small one; the larger the screen the greater the fraction of time spent reading, with less time spent for advancing pages or scrolling within a Web page.  The virtue of the smaller screen is for mobility.  The device weighs less.  This fall I will teach with my laptop, but also have my phone and my eReader with me, so after I'm done teaching I might simply hunker down someplace and read for a while.  For the laptop I also carry around power cord, external mouse, VGA adapter and HDMI cable. Adding the Kindle Fire in with the rest of the stuff shouldn't make the bag too heavy.

What if I weren't teaching?  Would I then need the laptop?  One of my other idiosyncratic needs is the writing of blog posts, as long or longer than this one.  I want to do that at a keyboard.  While I've tried email posting to the blog, it really screws up the formatting that way.  So I prefer to compose my blog posts in the browser and use the Blogger editor for that.  I did just verify that the Kindle Fire browser works for posting in Blogger.  (Safari on the original iPad did not.)  But with the on-screen keyboard, that leaves very limited screen real estate for what's already been written, and typing is slow with the on-screen keyboard.   So if I'm in town, then my preference is to compose my posts on my home computer.  In that case, I really wouldn't need the laptop away from home.  Nor would I need it on the road if there weren't going to be substantial downtime where I'm alone with my thoughts.  On a more lengthy trip, I'd use both the eReader and the Laptop, and I'd have the phone with me too.

Let me switch to a discussion of battery management.  Last spring when my house was being renovated, I came to campus on a daily basis just to avoid the construction noise.  I was on campus from something like 9 AM to 4 PM.  What I discovered is that my laptop didn't have enough juice for all that time.  So I would have to find a place where I could plug it in while using it to give it a recharge.  But my preferred spot was in the Business Instructional Facility, where it wouldn't be plugged in.  So I learned over time that If used the screen of the laptop for reading/writing but used the phone for listening to the music, then I could make things last longer.  For reasons I don't understand, listening to music on the phone, even when the music is streamed over the Internet, doesn't suck too much power.  The phone can otherwise go into sleep mode.  The music still plays then.  The phone uses a lot more juice if you make regular email/facebook/browser checks.  You would do all of this if the phone were your only device.  What I'm saying is that a multi-device approach with use in parallel is a good strategy for power management.  But you do need to have a bag with your to tote everything around.

I promised a list of all my devices.  Let me begin with the three that are long in the tooth but still functional in some respects, and are still somewhere in the house, though I no longer use them at all.

Defunct Devices

Original Kindle
iPod Nano
Original iPad

A nostalgic reader might find this mockumentary mildly amusing.  It is from spring of 2008 and explained how I then used the original Kindle in tandem with the iPod.  The iPad allowed for only one device and had other functionality as well.

Current Devices

iPhone (about 2 years old)
Sony Vaio Desktop (Windows 7 Home Edition, Office 2010, 20" screen, 4.5 years old)
Sony Vaio Ultrabook (Windows 8, 11" screen, not quite 1 year old)
Kindle Fire (7" screen, only a couple of weeks old, but last year's model)

Let me close with one final thought.  Should your devices all be from one vendor or should you deliberately opt for some Apple, some Microsoft, so Amazon, and let's not forget Google, though I don't have a Google device now?  The argument for staying with one vendor is plain enough - it's easier to have fewer operating systems to learn.  The argument against is that the vendors go in and out of vogue and if you want to to get seems like the best deal at the next time of purchase, you need some flexibility in your use.  I hate to be locked into a vendor.  But I've also turned into an old dog.  So it's a conundrum.

Friday, July 25, 2014

It's a game

This is a good read for parents and for us in the learning biz.  Indirectly, it's about the triumph of intrinsic motivation.  How does a learning situation get transformed into one where the kids are intrinsically motivated?  The answer - (the adult should) pose puzzles.  Finding the answers is then like the sleuthing of Sherlock Holmes.

But there is an additional message too.  That is, each kid will have passion for their favorite games.  If the learning situation can be made to seem more like the favorite games, that's a plus all around.

Who teaches this way?  For the rest of us, what's stopping us from trying this alternative?