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?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Almost Palindrome

I asked myself this morning an odd question.  Where did Orwell's vision in 1984 get things wrong, as a forecast of how things are today?  I want to note first that his purpose wasn't to forecast but to warn people where things were headed at the time that he did write, which was 1948.  Then the specter of  totalitarianism was visible, embodied in the Soviet Union.  The Cold War was fought, in some sense, to drive that spirit away.  Alas, though the Soviets lost the Cold War, the specter may have triumphed after all.  Here is how things look to me now.

  1. There is not one Big Brother.  There are many of them.  They seem to be multiplying at alarming speed.
  2. The entry requirements to become Big Brother are having some power and some economic means. 
  3. It matters not the form of government.  There can and are Big Brothers in democratic governments. 
  4. Government itself is not necessary to be Big Brother.  A cabal of plutocrats can become Big Brother.  A military strong man can become Big Brother.
  5. The critical features of Big Brother are these:
    1. Staying on message irrespective of the facts on the ground or dissenting voices from below.
    2. Heavy handed attempts to control the narrative.
    3. Total disdain for contrary opinion.
The communication channels over the Internet that enable Big Brother feature something else that wasn't in Orwell - an enormous amount of blather, a combination of Tabloid and People's Magazine on steroids.  Big Brother's message is delivered within the blather, not distinct from it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What Is Success?

I fear the popular notion of success stands in direct opposition in all points to the real and wholesome success. One adores public opinion, the other, private opinion; one, fame, the other, desert; one, feats, the other, humility; one, lucre, the other, love; one, monopoly, and the other, hospitality of mind.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Going through my high school yearbook not long ago, I was struck by how many of the salutations written by my classmates were about my future success - whether that was a must or not given my talents, or in Kraftella's salutation probable but not certain (not very good math humor). Not all the salutations were about success, to be sure. The most prescient of these others, written by Steve M., predicted another championship for the Knicks in 1973, with Willis Reed back in the lineup.  Then there was one from David E., who referred to me as a Monster Computer and that was it, short and sweet.  And there was one from Cliff L., who said he had to write something nice or I'd sit on him, as preface to some teasing in what came after.  (I never did sit on him for what he said, though I should have.)  Yet there were comparatively few of these idiosyncratic salutations.  A much greater number were of a type, the type that focused on success.

Looking back at this 42 years later, I'm struck by the importance of success in my classmates thinking, yet with no accompanying mention of happiness.  It got me very interested to know what I wrote in their yearbooks.  Was I also of this same mind?   It also got me wondering what recent high school grads write.  Does success weigh as heavy on them?  And I was also puzzled as to whether it was the kids' parents who really were the ones speaking in those salutations, with the kids merely serving as mirrors of the prevailing culture already embodied in their parents.  We lived in a middle class community, at a time when the conventional wisdom nationally was that the children would fare better financially than the parents or, at a minimum, stay on par with them.

I doubt I can improve on the Emerson quote that leads off this piece.  So, instead, I will try to leverage it.  Were my classmates writing about the popular kind of success?  Sometime later in their own lives did they find the real and wholesome success?  Can the two coexist with one another?  Or must one forgo at least one in an attempt to attain the other? 

It may be easier to argue for coexistence of the two notions for folks in academia, particularly those who already have tenure, so some material success is more or less assured.  I know that there are no ironclad guarantees.  Academic departments can be closed and along with that tenure might be rescinded.  Further, entire institutions may go belly up.  But, surely, someone with tenure in higher education has more security than most others who are working now.  Such a person then has the freedom to concentrate on the other kinds of success, in teaching and with interactions between colleagues.  Even then, however, not all academics choose that path.  Many become (or already were) abrasive and brazen.  Economists have that reputation, as a rule.  Mathematicians may be more so.

This, too, creates a puzzle.  Might Emerson have been too demanding in his notion of real and wholesome success, with favoring private opinion, on the one hand, and with humility and love, on the other, themselves not compatible, or requiring such high character that perhaps an Emerson can achieve it but the rest of us can not?  I've been in academia for upwards of thirty years and I still don't know the answer to that one.  Individual generosity of the spirit still seems possible where the culture favors a more atavistic and predatory approach.  I've experienced this from colleagues, so I know it isn't a complete pipe dream.  But it doesn't seem the norm, which is harsher and less welcoming.

I had one student last fall, she graduated this past spring, who is now in the midst of training to do Teach for America in Houston, Texas this coming fall.  When she and I discussed this briefly she indicated that after a couple of years of Teach for America she would like to go to law school.  This is reminiscent of the older pattern - do a stint of Peace Corps and follow it with a quest for material success thereafter.  This sequencing is interesting, noble in some ways, perhaps too convenient in others.  It conveys the need to pay your dues first, but ultimately taking care of number one becomes the primary goal. 

Peter Drucker has a different idea.  Each of us should have two jobs, one for pay, the other as a volunteer, to do good works.  If this is done on an ongoing basis maybe it is a way for those outside of academia to best achieve both sorts of success.  Yet Drucker puts further stipulations on the volunteer work, to wit that the volunteers must feel they are learning on the job.  It is not sufficient, in Drucker's view, that others who are less fortunate benefit from the volunteer effort.  I can see Drucker's point as I tend to lose interest in things once my own learning has plateaued.  But it is far less clear to me whether Drucker and Emerson are on the same page or not.

Let me close with the following question.  Imagine a reunion with my classmates where we all brought along our yearbooks, in large part so we could see what we had written.  Would those who wrote about success still think that was spot on?  And would they know what they meant by term?  I wonder.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

slow slow Quick-Quick

Yesterday in the late afternoon I started to play the piano.  We purchased a piano when the kids were little.  I used to play with some regularity back then, maybe once a week or perhaps once or month.  This time its probably been about a year since the last time.  Now our piano is woefully out of tune.  It turns out there is some virtue even in deterioration.  With the tuning so off, sometimes I couldn't tell whether the clunker was because I hit a wrong note or not.

Even with this low level of performance there is something of a marvel that this activity is still possible at all.  I took weekly piano lessons from ages 8 to 13.  Thanks to Mr. Anson for the lessons and to my parents for gently encouraging this activity.  Much of it, particularly the Sonatinas by Clementi, has been long forgotten.  But the ability to use a "fake book" and pick out a show tune with the accompanying chords has been largely retained.  Now I only do the slow tunes - Till There Was You, Try To Remember, etc. - so I can accommodate my mistakes and make adjustments to them in near real time.  And there are some things I recall imperfectly at best - all the notes in a diminished seventh, which are the flat keys in e flat minor, etc.  But these failings notwithstanding, something that is good enough emerges so my wife will hum along.  The real trouble is the font that the music is written in.  It is now too small for me.  So it is a bit of a strain to do this and sooner rather than later I tired from it.

Afterward, it served as food for thought, not just about what other lessons learned as a kid have stayed learned as an adult, riding a bicycle serves as the emblem for that notion.  There was still more on what what potential lessons might have been learned in the same way but weren't for lack of exposure.  Dancing for me is in that category, ballroom dancing in particular.

During the spring semester 1990, my wife and I got married in mid June of that year, we took an evening class at the "Y" in ballroom dancing.  The impetus was fairly immediate.  We knew we'd have to do a dance at the wedding before other couples got up to do likewise.  All eyes would be on us for this first dance.  We didn't want to feel embarrassed.  The dance class was our way to take some necessary precaution.

Our teacher was Miss Villacorta.  (See the picture below and the piece linked back.)  She has been a mainstay on campus for many years.  And I believe the students who have had her class speak of it with fondness. The following spring I taught a class where some of the students were also taking ballroom dancing.  They preferred it to the economics.  Let me get back to that point.

My wife and I learned to waltz tolerably, which is what we did at our wedding.  I believe that much has still been retained in me, though I know we eventually learned how to waltz all around a room and now I might have to stick with staying in a square pattern, at least at first.  But we learned other dances as well.  The Jitterbug is one I remember in concept.  Slow slow quick-quick are the memorable part of the instructions for dancing the Jitterbug.  If you see the charming movie, Shall We Dance?, those words are uttered during the dance training. My wife and I never quite mastered the Jitterbug, but at the time we were enthusiastic learners.  At my brother-in-law's wedding in Kansas City, which was the April before our wedding, my wife and I lurked in the corners trying to do the Jitterbug to the music.  My mother-in-law saw us and was able to tell it was the Jitterbug that we were attempting. Alas, after our own wedding those lessons with Miss Villa Shorta (what we affectionately called her as we were getting ready to head over to the "Y") were largely forgotten.  If I were to do the Jitterbug today, I'd have to be taught it from scratch.

During the fall of my senior year in high school I wrote an opinion piece for the school newspaper.  It argued that gym should be an elective instead of a required course, as it was then.  The school was overcrowded and gym was pretty horrible as a consequence.  I recall that my English teacher took note of that piece at the time, perhaps because it had a kind of sensibility that was absent from other such student writing, which was prone toward the idealistic end of the spectrum.

One aspect of gym that I was first exposed to around that time said it should be preparing kids for recreational athletic pursuits later in life.  Doing the parallel bars and tumbling on the mats, both of which I dreaded, don't fit in this category.  I can't remember the last time I did a forward roll.  Running does seem to fit.  But even basketball might not for many adults.

At the time the big three recreational activities were bowling, golf, and tennis.  The school was really not capable of educating students in these activities.   It was too crowded and the facilities for these activities were not at the school. There were clubs and/or teams for those with the inclination and who were proficient enough in these activities.  But for the rest of us these were things to learn entirely outside of school.  I did take some private tennis lessons, though nothing near the regime I had with the piano.  With bowling I was entirely self-taught, as were my friends.  It was on TV so we may have gotten a tip or two from that.  Mostly, though, it was just applying the main lesson from any ball sport.  Following through with the swing was the key.  Golf I didn't pick up for real till my second year as an Assistant Professor. Then the impetus was doing some activity with my peers as well as to find a way to benignly express some of the frustration over departmental politics.  (Swinging as hard as you can at a golf ball, irrespective of where it would end afterward, was remarkably satisfying that way.  It took years of play before I had any cognition about trying to control the flight of the ball.)

Alas, since my rotator cuff repair these activities are largely off the table.  I went to the driving range ten days ago and hit a small bucket of balls, only a nine iron and a seven iron.  I'm still feeling the after effects of that.  I'm hopeful that the recovery period won't be as long in the future, but I wouldn't put money on that proposition.  In the meantime, walking has been my mainstay.  It is a good thing to do and I'm on a daily regime.  Yet some variety from that would be nice.

This brings us back to ballroom dancing, but with a twist (no pun intended).  Why not have it taught in high school, so it becomes accepted that many people know how to dance tolerably well?  In college, gym classes are purely optional.  If we were serious about using high school to prepare for adult life, ballroom dancing classes, as an elective alternative to the normal gym class, would have a certain logic.

Gym was the only class I had in high school that was not co-edI can't imagine an all boys dancing class nor that it would attract anyone who'd be willing to take it and admit to doing so. A co-ed version makes more sense.  Does this idea otherwise pass muster?

For the more precocious among the students in boy-girl interactions, such a class might prove a boon that the school actually would not want to promote, and perhaps would want to deter (at least when manifest on school grounds).  But for kids like me who were largely clueless in this area, this sort of risk would be nil.  I really don't know how you'd select kids who'd benefit long term from a high school ballroom dancing class yet who also wouldn't take advantage of the setting near term.  That's something to puzzle on.

That may be the big deal issue.  There's also the matter of cloning Miss Villacorta.  But with her having had so many students who are fond of her, that one should be a piece of cake.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Plagiarism Redux

I had lunch this week with an old friend who teaches physics.  We have a common interest in learning.  While methodologically there are limits to the overlap between physics and economics, that in no way inhibited our conversation, which I found fun and interesting.   I hope my friend found it the same way.  As I am apt to try to tie current developments to first principles, I brought up what I knew about physics education that was facilitated by learning technology from years ago.  The first bit was on studio physics that came out of Jack Wilson's class at RPI.  I had read about it in preparing for writing the paper on the SCALE Efficiency Projects.  It was part of the Educom Library and was the only real example they had where the approach seemed to both lower the cost of instruction and improve the quality.  But it is an approach that simply doesn't scale well and hence couldn't be implemented at a place like Illinois, which has one or two orders of magnitude greater number of students than does RPI.  A more transferable approach was given by Just In Time Teaching, which originally came out of IUPUI.  That was implemented here in Physics, and then other disciplines took it up as well.  I knew about these things ahead of time and my friend, perhaps to accommodate me, tied everything they are currently doing to these earlier developments.

On my side of the fence I discussed what I believe to be THE SKILL we're trying to develop in the students.  That is to produce a coherent narrative, one that takes the theory and allows it to be applied in a context.  If the student has this skill and it is well honed, then that same narrative can be tweaked and applied to another context where the theory remains relevant.  So even though economics is about models and data and the connecting of those, and as a theorist I've often viewed it as about the models only, there is still the need to produce narrative just with that, to understand what is in the model and what the model abstracts from entirely.  This sort of understanding emphasizes the limits of scope as much as it takes pride in what the model explains.

Getting beyond the economics, I've always thought that an educated person is one who produces his own opinion, by building a narrative, so what I said about the skill for social science is to me really the skill to be an educated person.  And the way to develop the skill is by ongoing practice.  Writing posts such as this one is a way to encourage such practice.  My approach is to make it up as I go along, not to have it all well rehearsed ahead of time.  In that sense it is a bit like improvisation on the stage.  Where it differs from improvisation is that if I choose a wrong word, or write an erroneous sentence, then I will go back and change it.  In the sentence that starts, Writing posts such as this one..., I originally had chosen the word "garner" where I now have the word "encourage."  I have an online dictionary in my bookmarks toolbar and check it fairly regularly when I write.  Garner didn't fit my meaning.  I also try to make larger checks between the ideas that emerge from the narrative production and what I think I know from elsewhere, reading or prior experience. Editing a piece will sometimes induce a rewrite of a paragraph or an entire section, for similar reasons.

The making it up as I go along is itself not an idea original to me.  It falls in the category called Writing to Learn, the father of which is Donald Murray.  Blogging like this is informal writing.  Do I need to call it to the reader's attention that making it up as you go along can be a good thing to do because you discover things along the way?  And then, do I need to give it the formal name attributed to the process and mention Murray as well?  Is not doing that plagiarism?  Some years ago I wrote a post, Do We Plagiarize Inadvertently?  It aimed to get at these sort of questions. 

Actually though, informal as this piece is, I've made some effort to cite many of the ideas, though I admit that in several cases the links above are not where I found those ideas the first time I became aware of them.  Further, my earlier blog post was really more concerned with a different sort of issue.  That is illustrated by my contention that producing a coherent narrative is the skill.  How did I come to believe that to be the case?  Did I reason it through on my own based on my prior experiences or did I read about it somewhere and then embrace it fully?  The latter seems more likely to me.  But the truth is that I don't remember.  I have no recall of the piece or set of readings that convinced me on this point nor do I have any sense of when I first came to take this as true.  My memory selectively recalls some things very well.  Other things definitely happened but never seem to have gotten written into memory.  What then should be done about it? 

I've found from time to time something of the opposite happening.  I produce an analysis in a blog post and then, sometime later, I read a similar analysis as a New York Times Op-Ed or in some other periodical.  Sometimes the author seems to have missed some points that I felt were critical when writing my piece.  Other times the two pieces are pretty much in sync on the substance, differing mainly in style and when they first appeared.  My blog has quite a limited readership so I doubt there ever was an incident where one of my posts was plagiarized.  As they say in the vernacular, the two authors came to results independently.  That's the likely truth and I'm not at all irked that somebody has produced something I've already said.  Indeed, I find it somewhat reassuring about my own thinking to occasionally see it mirrored elsewhere.  It's an indication that I'm not completely off base.

Now plagiarism seems back in the news, witness this column from today's Inside Higher Ed about  Slavoj Žižek.  I thought I had something to contribute on this score, an expansion on the themes from my earlier post.  That's the impetus for the current post.

The issue is this.  How different is producing your own coherent narrative from reading a challenging book or watching a movie with a sophisticated story line?  Is making sense in the reading or film watching essentially the same as producing a coherent narrative or are they fundamentally different activities?  I am not sure and I'm also not sure whether what I do is similar to what other people do in this regard.  But what seems clear is that I often end up writing a post about the book or movie.  Given that, the reading or the viewing seems indistinct to me from what I do in pre-writing (Murray's term) when the post theme has been triggered by something else.  Indeed, I've found recently that I no longer read as I used to and simply immerse myself into the story, and likewise for the movies.  Instead, I read a chapter or two or watch on the DVR for a while, but then pause.  In that pause I am reflecting about what just occurred.  Earlier in my life, I believe I was able to do both simultaneously, with the refection part more tacit.  Now I feel a need to make the reflection activity more obvious to me.  Prior to 2005 when I started to write this blog, the need was less in that the reflection didn't translate into something tangible.  So while the evidence is lacking I suspect I was doing the parallel processing right along.

Given that, at the level of thinking the notion of plagiarism may be quite artificial.  What difference does it make whether our thoughts are triggered by some experience or from reading what somebody else has written?  And if we don't have our own writing activity immediately in mind, but instead process those thoughts and take the distillate for our own, are we able to discern this difference later, when we are engaged in some writing activity? 

I don't know the circumstances with Slavoj Žižek.  I'm not arguing here that he is innocent.  What I am saying is that it is quite different to deliberately engage in deception from inadvertently not acknowledging a source.  But this difference may be difficult if not impossible for somebody else to discern.  And it may not even be easy for the alleged perpetrator to know, which was also one of the points in my earlier post.

Understanding where our own contribution begins and where the ideas of others should be given credit instead seems to me more art than science.   Jury trials demand a verdict.  Art, in contrast, allows for shading, of gray and other colors too, and from that flows differences in interpretation.  Maybe we should try to consider plagiarism that way as well.  Citing a source when you haven't actually read what's in it may be equally reprehensible.  Of that non-crime, I'm definitely guilty on occasion.  I wonder how often that is true of others, whether they fess up to it or not.

Tolerance is perhaps best found in our own indiscretions. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Work: Our Place For Self-expression And Our Prison

Yesterday began the fourth week of not a drop to drink for me.  The theory behind the regime is that to shed some pounds I need to be alcohol free and to better manage my arthritis I need to shed some pounds.  After a blood test and a visit to the doc this past week what I've learned in addition is to consider other dimensions of health as well, aside from my weight.  At present, the main other dimensions relevant to my situation are blood pressure and kidney function.  More importantly than the specific dimensions is the knowledge that they are all tied together.  Doing better on one helps to do better on the others.  And apart from diet, exercise is the other key piece of the puzzle. That lever must be pushed as well, with regularity.  After a rather long period of mainly neglect on the personal health front, I'm now quite conscious of it and am making a concerted effort to improve mine.

The end of this month marks another milestone for me, four years of retirement.  Focusing on one's health in retirement seems like a good and sensible thing to do.  But it also has me wondering how much of my health issues were caused, directly or indirectly, by work. Many of my friends and former colleagues are still working.  And though I don't see them as much as I'd like to, when we do get together many show overt signs of poor health, not the same symptoms that I had to be sure, but unmistakable indicators that work stress is getting the better of them. Though I will only write about my own experiences in what follows, to remain on terra firma and to avoid embarrassing anyone else, I'm really writing on behalf of my friends and colleagues and the organizations in which they work.  The issue of excessive work stress overwhelming our best and brightest does get consideration from time to time.  But it doesn't get the consistent attention it deserves.  Perhaps this post can nudge things in that direction.

In what follows I will make no attempt to separate symptom from cause.  I really don't think it is that simple.  What seems symptom of some problem may then prove cause of something else that is different but interrelated.  There may also be causes outside of work.  Further, some symptoms may be entirely benign in the context they emerge but then become troublesome when transferred to the work arena.  Finally, we all take our bumps now and then and nothing particular should be made of that.  All the folks I know are quite resilient and we take incidental stresses in stride.  The issue is more of degree than of kind and further whether there is time enough for recovery from the last bump before the next one appears.  It's the compounding effect from too frequent and severe stress that should concern us.

The Benchmark

I weighed 210 when I was married, in June 1990.  This is approximately the same weight I was when I started graduate school back in fall 1976.  Though there would be some variation over the year - 5 or 10 pounds higher in the winter at the peak and the trough of similar amplitude in the summer - the weight was pretty constant during that time and remained so for a couple of years thereafter. The upward trend began not because of work but because of having kids.  Likewise, I was a pretty good sleeper before we had kids but less good thereafter.  The modest drift up in weight and the lack of sleep were happening at what I consider the best time of my life, when the kids were very young.  Having a family was a wonderful thing. At the time my professional life was as an economist only.  The kids were still young when I gradually moved to learning technology as a career change.

It is impossible to know for sure what would have happened along the road not taken, but I have no problem imagining that had I stayed a full time academic my weight would have plateaued in the 225-230 range,  a little more pudgy than before but still reasonably healthy.  What happened instead, however, was a more or less constant upward drift with the absolute increments also increasing over time till summer of 2006.  In that period I had gained in excess of 100 pounds.  I then had a leg accident, unrelated to work, and took off about 25 pounds afterward, better but far from healthy.   One big reason for the upward drift until summer 2006 was not having sufficient self-regulatory behaviors to maintain stasis in weight.

The time commitment as an academic is large, but much of that is time for introspection and deep thought.  It therefore doesn't have to map into the 9 to 5 day much if at all.  (Teaching does have to map that way as does service work on committees and attendance at seminars.)  Thus I had little difficulty carving out a couple hours during the day to go jogging (a few minutes for changing clothes, about 50 minutes for the run, then a bit of walking and cool down exercise, time for the sauna and shower, and getting to and from the gym).  I was still able to do this when the kids came.   But it became harder and harder to do as I became an administrator, where I was heavily scheduled from 9 to 5. 

The other main point with the benchmark is intellectual.  The Economic Theory group used to give (sell?) sweatshirts to the graduate students that said on the front: Do you live in your model?  In other words, doing theory requires total immersion into what you are working on.  You are so immersed much of the waking day - as much while in the shower or doing household tasks as in the office.  But there are interruptions that allow some relaxation.  And there are fallow periods, typically after a draft of a paper has been completed and sent out for review but before the next model emerges for a repeat of the process.  In other words, there are buffers for mental recovery built in. The administrative work didn't allow for this sort of down time.

Then there is a circumstantial thing that should be noted too.  While the parent roles were never perfectly symmetric between my wife and me, they were closer to that ideal in the very early years with the kids. But after a couple of years with me being an administrator, my wife opted to become a stay-home mom for a time.  There is something like an ideal gas law about administrative work.  It expands to fill the time allocated to it.  I put in major hours in the office on most days, and then did a lot of stuff online at home that was also work related.  I know I would have done less than this had my wife kept working at the time.  So that particular breaker toward ensuring a more balanced existence was removed.

Healthy and Unhealthy Stress

Almost immediately when I started in with SCALE I learned that one piece of the work was fielding complaints from faculty who used SCALE services, which some found unsatisfactory.  When you yourself are a faculty user and things seem to work pretty well for you it is natural to assume they work that way for other faculty as well.  What you can't tell, however, until you get onto the provider side is how democratic service provision actually is.  It may be, in fact, that service provision shares some elements with how teachers treat their best students versus how they treat the rest.  If you are a star user of the service and don't have provider experience, you might not understand this.  So it was something of a revelation to hear those early complaints.  However, there is a substantial difference between getting the occasional idiosyncratic complaint, which needs to be addressed but otherwise need not upset one's personal equilibrium, from getting a large volume of complaints on the same thing, such as when a new service is performing under par or when an old and popular service is being shut down.  These sorts of complaints do get to you.  I will return to the issue in a bit.

Here I want to focus on a different sort of stress that I confronted soon after I started with SCALE.  The Alfred P Sloan Foundation, our grantor, wasn't entirely happy with us because we had promised that ALN would lower the cost of instruction, with that happening en passant, yet our evaluation wasn't producing that as a finding.  I was tasked with getting us to deliver on our promise.  I felt a good deal of pressure as a result and felt very much out on a limb.  Yet I would term this a healthy stress for the following reasons.  First, given my economics background and that my own SCALE project was delivering on the cost objectives, I was uniquely suited to be the one to address the Sloan concerns.  So while this issue chose me, not vice versa, I did feel appointed to the task.  Second, because the imperative was clear to the SCALE advisory committee, I was given broad leeway to structure projects to address these concerns.  In other words, the seeds for the resolution of the stress could be found in the stress itself.  Last, there was no internal conflict whatsoever about the need to do this.  So everyone I interacted with about the SCALE Efficiency Projects (the ultimate resolutions of Sloan's concerns) was on the same page.  Those projects set the table for us to successfully renew our grant.

Now I want to give an example of unhealthy stress.  Indeed I would call it PURE CR__. Too much of this sort of thing just tears at your innards.  After the SCALE grant was renewed and after the SCALE office was relocated from Everitt Lab to the Armory, there were entirely different personnel working in the unit, apart from me.  This included the secretary.  Because the renewal was only for two years and because I had already experienced being end-gamed with staff turnover on the original three-year grant, I opted to go for a temp as secretary, with the hope that our unit would eventually become hard-money (that happened the following year) and then I'd hire a permanent secretary.  You don't interview temps.  They are assigned.  The person I got assigned was unusual.  He had a couple of advanced degrees yet was looking for temp work as a secretary.

Almost immediately there was a personality clash between this secretary and one of the regular staff, who himself was not very easy going.  It got to the point where this personality clash was negatively impacting office work in an overt way so I had to do something about it.  If I could have passed the buck on this one I would have.  But we were too small a unit for anyone but me to do this.  So I let the secretary go.  It was extraordinarily unpleasant to do this and I dreaded it.  It would have also been entirely unnecessary had each of the people simply opted for professional decorum, even if they didn't like one another.  It was might first experience with real personnel issues in the office where I had direct responsibility to address the concerns.  I had subsequent personnel issues, and on at least a couple of occasions I was one of those involved in the conflict.  This first experience in no way prepared me for the later ones.  There were no lessons learned other than I became aware that I dread when stuff like this happens.  Ongoing personnel issues of this sort are one type of excessive work stress.

Budgeting and Mission

The following year SCALE became part of a hard money Center for Educational Technologies, except that only a fraction of CET's funding was hard money.  The rest came from the SCALE grant.  Since that was due to evaporate the following year, CET started without a firm plan for how to fill that eventual void.  Further, one focus for CET during its first two years was to support faculty who had been through a week long workshop, had received small grants for attending the workshop, and who were supposed to do good an interesting things with the technology in teaching as a result.  These faculty were selected because they were mainstream and not early adopters.  The small grant funding was outside the CET budget, controlled by the campus Ed Tech Board.

Even with the funds that SCALE provided, I thought we were underfunded from day one and if usage were to grow, as it seemed it would and as we were encouraging it to do, then we'd need more staff and more back end support.  When the permanent CIO came, in CET's second year, he used his own funds to supplant the SCALE funds that were no longer there.  But to handle the growth need he cannibalized the small grants and with that the week long workshops went away as well.  Thus began the inexorable march of CET, later CITES EdTech, and now CITES Academic Technologies, from the original mission of encouraging mainstream faculty to use the technology in interesting ways, to simply support faculty users of the technology.  To many an outsider, particularly those outsiders in the campus IT organization, CITES,  this is a difference without a real meaning.  To me, this was akin to suicide.  I believed then as I believe now, that interesting use of the technology is the key and dull use is worth nada.  Yet if for no other reason, CET seemed to be on an inexorable march toward promoting the latter.  The scaling issues in support of the technology may have forced this a few years later anyway.  But we got there sooner than we should have.  If your personal raison d'être is tied to the mission and the mission changes out from under you in a way you don't approve, it makes your soul weary (to borrow from a Melody Gardot line).  

Taking One Too Many for the Team

Service closings are never pleasant, but some are handled better than others and in some cases the reasons for ending the service are more obvious to users than in others.  I was the public face on several different service closings. The easiest one was when we terminated support of FirstClass, which had been SCALE's mainstay offering at the outset.  At the time we ended support of FirstClass, we had already been supporting WebBoard for a few years and it was a close substitute.  Further, there were no longer too many FirstClass users.  Most had already migrated to something else.  The ones who were still using FirstClass weren't happy about it going away.  But I don't recall any of them raising too much of a stink about it. 

Service closings are more unpleasant when the move to some alternative is coerced from above, when the time window for the move is brief, and when the alternative is perceived as an inferior substitute to the original by the users of the original service.  This should be obvious.  Let me give one other reason that makes some service closings more unpleasant for the provider that may be less obvious to the reader.  This happens when the provider was not part of the original commissioning of the service but has inherited the service instead somewhere along the way.  Those who originally commissioned the service may have done so with very limited real commitment of resource. Yet users may have perceived a much stronger commitment.  So in this case the provider has to manage fairly high user expectations with quite limited resources already in place to support those expectations.  This is a game most of us wouldn't want to play if we had the choice.

I was involved with this sort of thing twice.  The first time was when CET first started.  The campus was ending the homegrown service called the Virtual Classroom Interface.  Users were supposed to migrate to CourseInfo, the original LMS from the company Blackboard.  The power users were especially unhappy with having to do this as they had customized the VCI to their own needs.  I knew most of these power users from other interactions outside of CET and while I maintained collegial relationships with them I also got quite a bit of complaining.  The necessity of the move was not in question.  What was at issue was the timing and that, at the time of the end of service announcement for VCI, CourseInfo was entirely unproven to the users.  One might attribute this lack of planning to the fact that CET was brand new.

The second of these really was worse, however.  It was the closing of the Campus Gradebook service in favor of having users migrate to the then new Enterprise Learning Management System offering, which was called Illinois Compass and which was based on the WebCT enterprise offering.  There was plenty of lead time to plan for this, so that excuse was off the table this time around.  But it turned out that functionality-wise Campus Gradebook was just better than the Illinois Compass grade book and in addition the Campus Gradebook had gotten daily updates to roster information, especially important during the beginning of the semester when there are a lot of adds and drops.  Illinois Compass could only manage weekly updates at the time. So that too was perceived as a degradation of service.  I got roasted by Campus Gradebook users on both counts.

The reality, under the hood, is that the Campus Gradebook service needed to end.  Part of that was it being supported by only one programmer who knew its code.  If he got sick or moved elsewhere, while the service was still ongoing, that would have been a disaster.  The other part was that the university was moving to Banner for its student information system.  Campus Gradebook  had a special way of getting its data from the old SIS, but all of that would have to be redone for it to survive the move to Banner.  That didn't make sense.  But both of these reasons were outside what users cared about and they didn't understand why the campus commitment to the service wasn't greater.

At the same time this was happening we were migrating all users off campus LMS services to Illinois Compass.  Some had previously been users of WebCT Campus Edition.  Others had been users of Blackboard (what CourseInfo ultimately became).  Anyone who has been through such migrations know they are no fun and at the time the IMS standards were fairly primitive.  It really was better to have courses rebuilt from scratch than to migrate them and we ended up doing that for the more complex course sites.  But we used the migration tools for the remainder of the courses.  Also, the new service had stability issues at the outset that were quite serious.  These issues were probably avoidable, but would have taken a greater commitment to "doing it right" up front.  The consequence was that most instructors were aggravated by the change.  Given that some of this was unavoidable, while the rest might very well have been prevented, it was very hard not to feel anything but frustration about the part that was avoidable.

When there is a massive source of stress of this sort, the staff is likely to feel under assault and one of the key things management needs to do is to give demonstration to the staff that the issues are being attended to as best as possible.  So we brought in the WebCT company for consulting and we had very public meetings with the users to communicate frankly with them about the issues, with key staff and representatives of the company present.  Given the conditions on the ground, these steps were necessary and eventually the service stabilized and even developed quite a few loyal adherents.  But while it was happening I felt like I was walking around with a kick me sticker on my back.

Being A High Achiever And Not Living Up to One's Own Expectations

Until now in this piece, I've treated the source of stress as purely external.  It is a mistake, however, to come away with that impression.  The larger issue is how we punish ourselves because we expect to be able to successfully navigate these waters and when we don't we blame ourselves for the failure. The punishing of oneself is what I mean by use of the word prison in my title. 

This is where early success can be a mixed blessing.  Of course it is good in the moment to succeed.  But it may also convey the false impression to oneself that success can be assured in the future simply via intellect and force of will.  It therefore may leave you emotionally unprepared for failure and create the feeling that some penance must be paid once failure happens.

I will add to this that I've always second guessed my choices when the outcomes have not been to my liking.  I find it impossible simply to move on to what's next.  I have no doubt that I am my own harshest critic.  Let me illustrate the main criticisms so the reader can judge whether the self-criticism is fair or not.

In retrospect, much too much of the decision making got driven purely for IT reasons, which were outside of my control.  For example, in opting for the WebCT product we would not give consideration to enterprise offerings that had a Windows back end.  This meant the only other competitor was Blackboard.  Two other popular offerings at the time, Angel and Desire2Learn, were Windows only and therefor off the table before we even started.  If many users had seen those products and expressed preference for one of them, there might very well have been more support among the community at the outset for the enterprise LMS than there actually was.

Then there was the issue of the timing of doing this.  While we weren't the earliest campus we were still an early adopter.  Having been an early adopter with my own use of technology in teaching, I wanted the campus to be likewise positioned with its implementation of the enterprise LMS and thereby have leverage with the vendor about its future development.  But we are a large and complex place and enterprise adoption is nothing like individual adoption of a service.  So it might have been prudent for us to have gone much slower here, as many of our peers did.

Then I fell into the trap of empire building, even though once the empire was formed it gave me no enjoyment whatsoever.  Very early on, around the time when CET started, my then on campus mentor indicated to me one measure of importance - how many people reported to me, directly or indirectly, and how big was the budget under my control.  The enterprise LMS enabled growth in these metrics.  So for ego reasons I should want such growth, irrespective of what it meant for accomplishing our mission.

Each of these was a kind of conceptual blunder.  I should have known better, but I didn't act that way.  It's for these sort of things that we punish ourselves.

Knowing About The Health Issues But Not Attending To Them

In spring 2002 I got a promotion to Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies following a national search (but where I was told, off the record, that I was the only candidate).  This coincided, more or less, with my little CET merging with the big campus IT organization to become CITES.  As a result of this promotion I was invited to an orientation held at Allerton aimed at new administrators, mainly new unit executive officers (chairs or heads of academic departments).

There was one session led by an experienced unit executive officer whom I recognized from the gym.  While I would jog on the the indoor track above, he would be playing basketball below.  I inferred that he was at the gym a lot because I didn't always go there at the same time, yet I saw him there with great frequency.

The session had a simple message.  It's important to take care of yourself when you're an administrator.  He had gained something like fifty pounds doing the job.  I gathered he had stopped going to the gym.  I had also stopped, mainly because my knees got shot so jogging became too painful.  But I didn't search then for alternatives, such as using the rowing machine more or walking instead of jogging.  I simply became more sedentary.  His message was that this was wrong.  I heard the message and acknowledged it.  But I did nothing immediate about it.

Some years later we purchased a stationary bike for home and a treadmill as well.  Then a few years later we replaced those with a more sturdy treadmill and an elliptical.  I use this home equipment.  But I had several years of no regular exercise after the jogging stopped and those years coincided with a ramp up in my administrative responsibilities.

Near term, this is completely understandable.  There was always too much to do at work and to carve out time for exercise seemed borderline irresponsible about avoiding the work.  Long term this is utter nonsense.  A routine of regular exercise is absolutely necessary.  The work can wait.

There is another aspect to this - finding comfort from eating and drinking as compensation for work stress.  Perhaps some of this is necessary for all of us.  I don't know.  But the possibility of a vicious cycle forming is very great.  When the stress ramps up then the comfort must too to match the added stress.  Further, the added stress contributes to fixating on work, which in turn leads to poor sleeping, and poor sleeping itself generates a need for comfort.  This doesn't stop on its own.  In fact, it gets worse over time.  The session at the orientation was a warning about all of it.

My experience is that a warning, even quite a sensible one such as the one I got at this orientation for new administrators, is insufficient to deter the subsequent poor behavior.  What is needed is an ongoing regime to promote good health.  If that is already in place at the start of the administrative job, perhaps that will suffice.  If it is not, it may be unrealistic to expect the person to develop it as the administrative responsibilities ramp up.

Wrap Up

Not everyone responds to excessive work-related stress by finding comfort buffers, especially eating and drinking, and then overdoing on that score.  Some may respond differently.  Perhaps they become more discouraged about work.  Alternatively, they may show stress signs differently, such as changes in their hair color (President Obama?) or in having their hair fall out.  They may also seem excessively on edge even when in a non-threatening environment.  Then they may show outward manifestations, such as a pumping of the knee while in conversation, and they may find a good night's sleep harder and harder to come by.  As a one-off activity that happens up to a very important deadline and subsides thereafter, this may all be tolerable.  As a recurrent activity that is intensifying over time, it is frightening.  Then something significant should be done to reverse the behavior and return the individual to a more healthy state.

At present, it seems to me that too much of the responsibility for this resides with the individual.  Perhaps there is little alternative for the institution to absorb this responsibility, especially in the tough budget environment that everyone seems to be operating under.  But every organization leader knows that their human resource is the most important.  If I'm correct that for so many their health is at risk due to excessive work related stress, how can that not be an institutional responsibility?

This piece is aimed at getting others to ask the same question.  If enough people pose the question, maybe some sensible answers can be found.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Another Old Man in a Boat

A sailor went to sea sea sea
To see what he could see see see
But all that he could see see see
Was the bottom of the deep blue sea sea sea.

Among the odd things about All Is Lost is that it has made it to TV already.  It was on the Epix Channel last week and I recorded it with the DVR.  Since watching The Old Man and the Sea recently and blogging about it I had wanted to see this Robert Redford movie.  Yet I was surprised to find it on TV so soon after it appeared in theaters.  Something like this happened to Lincoln as well. 

The economics of second degree price discrimination, which explains why flying coach is a worse experience than it would be if there weren't first class, suggests a longer lag between when a good film appears in theaters and when it shows up on TV, lest there be more viewers like me who opt out of the theater showing entirely and wait to watch it at home (now on a reasonably big flat screen with a pretty good sound system).  What I gather from this outcome is that while the film had some critical acclaim it didn't do that well in the box office and can't compete that way with the latest Batman or Transformers or whatever comic book as movie that will bring in a mass audience, for diversion if not edification. 

Given that, one wonders if Hollywood will continue to make old guy movies.  (Crazy Heart is another one of those.)  Around the time I wrote my review, I was the under the impression that Hollywood was appealing to aging baby boomers about their own mortality, as the secondary theme of many movies, because it's an issue that's crept from the subconscious and made its way into our everyday thinking.  Maybe these themes are better suited for TV series than they are for feature length films, especially if most of the potential viewers are like me cheapskates and won't go to the theater for ordinary entertainment.  But if Breaking Bad is any indicator, the need to attract a general audience ultimately trumps a focus on personal mortality.  The protagonist's cancer, which coupled with the hospital bills served as his original motivation for taking the path that he did, conveniently went into remission and subsequently stopped serving as motivation.  While the schoolteacher as godfather has some visceral appeal, especially for anyone who has taught and been frustrated by the bureaucracy that "supports" teaching, ultimately I found that more absurd than sustaining and as a result never watched the last season.

Much of this I'm thinking before I watch even a minute of All Is Lost.  It makes me, perhaps, less predisposed to the film.  I'm not really sure on that.  I mention it here because somebody who reads my review, below, will ask whether I'm being fair.  In the interest of fairness, it's a good idea to get one's biases out ahead of time.

* * * * *

Sailing has a romantic lure, for some, not for me.  I've never felt that itch, but I do know several people who have.  The Robert Redford character in All Is Lost clearly had the itch.  But unlike in The Old Man and the Sea, it did not come as means to make one's livelihood.  Rather it is a rich man's diversion.  Redford is in a modern, very well equipped sailboat doing what a wealthy recluse would do.  This is the setup at the start of the movie.  I found it plausible.  While I'm not wealthy, I find an increasing desire to be off on my own with my own thoughts.  I'm unsure whether this is a consequence of aging, or rather a consequence of being male while aging, or still if my introversion has become more prominent as I've gotten older.  In any event, that much of the film made sense.

The boat is in the middle of the Indian Ocean and that part of the story I was unable to gauge for plausibility.  Why be so far away from land?  Why be so far away from the U.S.?  The viewer never gets answers to these questions.  At a practical level these answers are irrelevant.  They matter only insofar as they speak to the character and motivation of the person Robert Redford is playing.  We're not given any insight into that at the beginning.  It made some of the struggle that follows very odd to me.  Did the character fundamentally need the struggle to give him purpose?  Or was the struggle entirely outside the game plan?

After watching the film I went to the Internet looking for reviews, as I often do after watching a movie.  I found this piece from Slate, which focuses on the film's ending.  (I will get to that at the conclusion to my essay.)  Near the end of the piece there is something on Redford's own motivation.

But just because you don’t know for sure whether it’s the lady or the tiger or whether the cat is dead or not does not mean the ending has no meaning. Robert Redford was, I think, getting at the meaning of the ending—or at least what it means to him—in his recent interview with The New York Times. In the interview, he says that he lives by his favorite T.S. Eliot line, from Four Quartets: “There is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” In another part of the interview, he echoes that idea: “To me, it was always to climb up the hill,” he says, “Not standing at the top.”

Reading this I felt cheated by the start of the movie, not the end.  Would there have been any hill to climb had the boat not collided with the shipping container?  One would suppose not.  There would have been solitude but no fight for one's life.  Redford may have been speaking more about why he made the movie than his character's role in it.  Yet there is a puzzle in how things play out after the collision.  Had we in the audience been in the shoes of the character, would we have done likewise?  Again, the plausibility issue emerges.

Now I will show my ignorance about sailing.  Would one be in no particular radio contact with other sailing vessels?  This is a necessary piece of the story.  Otherwise, once the accident had occurred the character would have called for help and help would have arrived in time.  Ultimately this is attempted but it is not the first priority, which is to do something about water leaking into the boat.  The character may have been rational in taking self-preservation steps but may not have been wise in the choice of sequencing of those steps.  After taking on much water the radio ultimately works only intermittently or not at all.  If the character could have foreseen this outcome then radioing for help would have happened before trying to fix the hole in the boat.

The story makes the most sense if storms on the Indian Ocean at that time of year are a rare thing.  The patchwork fix job the character does would hold under mild weather but surely not while a storm rages.  A terrible storm does come and ultimately the boat sinks, with the character escaping to a life raft. 

The essence of the film is not about this sort of decision making but rather about the character's struggles, both in the boat and then in the life raft.  For the most part the character is composed and fully engaged in these activities.  There is no sense of desperation while in the boat.  There is only taking the next necessary step or sleeping for a while because the strain from the effort is exhausting.  This is the best part of the movie.

Then, soon before the boat sinks and after the character has made various preparations, he engages in some personal grooming and shaves.  I found this an odd act in itself and it bothered me for much of the part on the lifeboat.  It is perfectly understandable that the character would opt for some means to refresh himself.  Yet he didn't or couldn't change clothes.  Given that, why shave?  Further, and while the rest of Redford's appearance credibly showed he was a weathered old man, even after a day and more on the lifeboat his face featured no stubble.  I was keyed to look for it by the shaving scene, but it never materialized.  If this was a deliberate act of film making, then I didn't get it.  It created discord in me. On the one hand he was fighting for his life.  On the other hand he seemed still in his comfortable rich man's existence.

I marvel at how they film scenes with a person under water.  I can't hold my breath for very long and know I'd get panicky if submerged for longer than is my comfort zone.  Redford is under water a lot during the film.  He gets tossed off the boat and later off the life raft, yet seems calm and self-possessed while this happens.  Near the end of the film he starts a fire in the life raft in an effort to signal to another boat that is nearby and that shines a light.  He is unsure whether the fire is big enough to be seen from afar so he keeps feeding it until the life raft itself catches fire.  Given that he knows he is near the end, this desperate act itself is rational.  It is the last card in his hand to play.

Thereafter what happens in the film is necessary to give it closure.  Yet I didn't have a satisfied feeling when the movie ended, not because The Lady or the Tiger issue that is raised in the Slate piece, but because of all that came before, which was far less than satisfying.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Large Font

I have a few different routes I take when going for a walk.  Which one I choose is determined by how I'm feeling.  Yesterday I took the middle one - a loop around my local community, Robeson West.  I thought I wasn't up to the long one - down Duncan Road to Kirby and over to the McDonalds - sit on an outside bench for a few minutes to fiddle with my Web radio and do a bit of recovery, then return home.  When I start out, it is no big deal.  But once I get tired the arthritis seems to return with a vengeance.  I've really labored the last couple of times on the longer route for the last half mile or so.  That made me wary of a repeat performance. 

But yesterday I was feeling really good when I reached about the 4/5ths mark - the most southwest part of the development.  The weather was moderate, in the high 70s at the time.  A few days earlier I had read something about barefoot running  - landing on the ball of your foot instead of the heel. So I was practicing that coupled with short steps and trying to keep form that way.  Then there is what my physical therapist had been repeatedly telling me in the spring.  Stand up straight, shoulders back.  This is still not yet habit.  I need to work on it.  The good posture is easier to maintain while walking than while sitting.  So that too became part of the form.  It seemed to be working, in the sense of not overly taxing me while I was walking.  I'm ecstatic because there is no pain at all in my lower back on the right side, where it normally manifests. 

Not that I was ever very macho, but I certainly have the male gene (don't ask for directions when lost) and aging doesn't seem to have suppressed it much if at all. So I let valor get the better part of discretion.  Instead of completing my loop and being delighted that doing so was well within me, I decide to backtrack and return the way I came, making it a longer walk.  This seems perfectly sensible while I'm going along the path in the grassy area west of the development.  Everything is fine and remains that way as I continue up the mild grade walking along Windsor.  Then nearing the shops in the Village at the Crossing, I start to labor and opt to shorten my path, cutting across the parking lot rather than going around it.

When I'm in front of Mineccis the music radio conks out.  Spotify said it was unable to play that particular track.  My sunglasses are bifocals, but the prescription is a bit old and the reading part is non-functional for navigating the screen on my phone.  So I lean against a post for balance, take my glasses off and bring the phone very close to my face, and then find another track I can listen to.  Music is very important while I'm walking.  Its rhythm keeps me going.  When I get home I turn the music off, then a few minutes for cool off and a drink, followed by a shower and then lying down for 15 minutes or so to recover.  I had overdone it.

* * * * *

While the rest of the world seems to have embraced mobile computing as the main form, for me its still a sidebar.  I prefer to sit in front of my desktop machine in my office, with the 20" screen that I can set with large font magnification and especially when using the browser, as I currently am writing this piece, where I can use Ctrl + a couple of times to get the font even larger.  Sometimes the ideas don't flow when I write.  Then I need to pace around the house to collect my thoughts.  Other impedance should be avoided.  For that reason I much prefer to type at a regular sized keyboard, especially when doing longish writing. 

I'm really more interested in impedance of the intellectual kind and what should be done about it.  Large font is my metaphor for the various remedies one might encounter.  But before going further let me take a slight detour as it better explains this interest in large font.

Some years back people interested in learning, such as me, became fascinated with the Philip Ross piece in Scientific American, The Expert Mind.  It got us readers acquainted with the work of Anders Ericsson and his colleagues and the notion of a regime of deliberate practice (Ross calls it effortful study) on an ongoing basis as the primary means for developing expertise.  Deliberate practice means trying things that are just out of reach at present.  That is the way to get better.  That's the easy part.  The hard part is sticking to the regime, which requires the right sort of motivation.

From time to time I've written about this, because I find this relationship between motivation and practice extraordinarily interesting.  A fairly recent example is this post on Untutored Big Hitters, where the practice comes out of the individuals own experimentation rather than via coaching from an expert.  This idea of practice as experiment matches my personality.  I find it much easier to stick to the program that way than if I were working through a formal regime.  For example, I'm still writing this blog, nine years after I started and four years since I retired.  The focus has moved away some from learning technology, but not from learning.  I find this sort of writing is instrumental to my own learning, even if I do return to favorite themes quite often.

But I also find I'm making more intellectual errors now, the type I attribute to aging.  Some of this is slowness at getting to a conclusion where I used to be quite quick.  I may try to move onto something else but the previous thing then might intrude in a way where I confound the two.  This seems to be happening with increased frequency.  I'm looking for a large font way to minimize this issue.

Now one more thing.  There are certain areas where it seems clear that deliberate practice won't work.  One of those is reading small print, particularly on the screen.  My experience with that is you don't get better with practice.  What you do instead is squint, to compensate for the deficiency in seeing the print clearly.  Too much squinting is harmful.  It might give you a headache.  Your optometrist might suggest higher power in your glasses as alternative.  But visits to the optometrist are few and far between.  Why not make the font bigger, instead, and get past the delusion that you'll ever be able to read small font well?

All of this seems sensible as means to accommodate aging with minimal disruption.  But abstract from aging entirely and then ask these questions.  Are there areas that are immune from the benefits of deliberate practice and thus require large font accommodation instead?  Might it be that the answer to this question is yes, but that the area depends on the individual involved?  When should one go for a deliberate practice approach and when should one opt for a large font solution instead?  I don't know the answer to these questions, but I would like to obtain those answers if possible.  I will give one example to illustrate the sort of things that are at stake.

I was raised that it was important to stay informed and read the newspaper.  So I developed the habit with the New York Times when I was younger - the Front Page, the Op-Ed, one or two pieces from the Business Section, maybe a Book Review or two, and Sports, the last of which required no encouragement at the time.  Recently, however, I'm finding less of a compulsion to do that.  So much of the news that I do read boggles my mind by the stupidity of the participants or angers me with the violence and negativity.  The world seems to be falling apart, at home and abroad.  Given my personal limits to do anything about it, must I stay informed about this unraveling of sensibility.

Here is one instance from today.  I go into Facebook early in the morning and on the right sidebar there's an item about Sarah Palin demanding that President Obama be impeached because of the current child immigration morass on the Texas border.  So I go to the New York Times to read the their story about addressing the issue.  The Conservatives seem to have a "gated community" view of immigration and so care about sealing the border and returning children who have gotten through to their country of origin.  They care not a whit about why this immigration is happening and what might stop it voluntarily or enable it in a more manageable way.  So now I know about this.  But do I feel enlightened?  Hardly.

Even when reading Roger Cohen, an emblem of sensibility and reason, I get depressed for the topics he writes about demand a nihilistic response.  I don't want to be a nihilist.  So I ask, is dissociating oneself from the news a large font response?  If it is, what else should it be that we cling to?

Monday, July 07, 2014

Research on Motivation and the University's Modus Operandi

Over the weekend the NY Times featured an Op-Ed with yet more research to trumpet the benefits of intrinsic motivation.  (An excerpt is below as is a backlink to the full piece.)  It is no longer surprising, at least to me, to find otherwise similar people with intrinsic motivation outperform those who are purely externally motivated.  This piece provides no exception to that rule.  Its novelty is on how a middle group performs - those who are both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated.  One might conjecture that their performance would also be middling.  It turns out, however, that such people do even worse than those with pure extrinsic motive.  Perhaps it would be a fun activity to puzzle about why that is.

This research notwithstanding, extrinsic motivation is not going anywhere.  This morning, after my first cup of coffee but before I started to craft this piece, I went to Carle to have some lab work done.  It's routine.  My doctor ordered it as part of normal checkup process.  Then, once this post is completed, I have to renew my car registration, do the dishes in the sink, and deposit a check that is a refund of the deposit on my son's dorm.  All of this is humdrum and that's the point.  Anyone who has a To Do List confronts extrinsic motivation.  Real life places demands on us.  For the routine stuff, ours is not to question why.  Ours is to do lest some adverse consequence result. 

Yet we who operate in a university culture, who should want to lead in this area, might reasonably ask: do we rely on extrinsic motivation methods too much?  Might performance be better if we let go of some of the fiats and instead tried to engage people more without use of compulsion?  These questions apply equally well to teaching and learning, on the one hand, and to employee relations, on the other.

Let me illustrate the concern as it pertains to the classroom.  When I was Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies we had data from the Campus Learning Management system that said the area of the system students accessed most was MyGrades.  I doubt that things have changed much if at all in this regard during the eight years since I left that job.  If that is right, it is evidence that students are compelled by their grades more so or to the exclusion of interest in the subjects they are studying.  (I'm definitely not the first person to make this point.  I'm only reiterating it here in light of considering the research on motivation.)

Our methods of assessment of student performance are highly skewed toward favoring exams, as distinct from writing papers, delivering presentations in class, or producing other sorts of objects that might engage the student with the subject matter and thereby reveal some of its depth.  There is an official final exam week that is part of the scheduling process.  The institution has placed its imprimatur on testing.  The other methods appear to be consigned to students when they engage in undergraduate research.  Alas, many students get no such experience and many others do undergraduate research for only a semester or two.

In turn, I now test my students in this tradition because I was told to do so by the Economics Department Head.  One semester I had only eight students in my class, so adjusted to those low numbers by teaching the course as a seminar, where we did have the in class presentations and the paper writing.  I was told not to repeat that approach in the future, irrespective of the enrollments.  In effect, my discretion was replaced by university rules, with the implication being that if I didn't give exams then I was shirking as a teacher.  Think of what that messages does to my motivation. 

The psychology research is less good, in my opinion, on the following question.  Can people who have heretofore been purely extrinsically motivated in the important parts of their lives - school, work, and obligations to family are the ones that come to mind - be transformed so that internal motives predominate and drive them?  In my mind the question is as much ethical as it is behavioral.  Intrinsically motivated people do not cheat.

If the answer to that question is yes, at least in some cases, then a further additional question emerges.  Can people be encouraged to undergo such transformation, via empathetic feedback and coaching and suitable changes in the environment?

Trying to answer these questions is what I mean by taking leadership.  And if some promising evidence is found then taking leadership also requires implementing programs that aim to reproduce such evidence.   That would seem to be the main agenda. 

The only thing that appears to be stopping us is our own indifference to posing these questions.  I wish there were many others who were asking them.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Pawnbroker - A Review

My mother had a childhood friend who survived being in a concentration camp, Lilly Kramer.  The first syllable of the last name was pronounced the same as the first syllable of Cromwell, so the name wasn't given an Americanized pronunciation.  Lilly did have the requisite numbers tattooed onto her forearm.  But there were other things about her that were more revealing regarding whom she was.

My mother, herself a survivor of the Shoah, had many friends whose first language was German.   Lilly was quite different from the rest of them.  Her voice was husky, not gentle.  She was a chain smoker.  Few of my parents friends smoked, and I don't recall any other woman who did.  She lived alone.  She was long and lean, not demur and petit.  Her demeanor was quite harsh.

My strongest memory of her was after a visit to her place in Manhattan.  After we left, I was crying.  I'm not sure of the cause, whether it was something she did or something she said.  But there is no doubt that I was crying painfully and that it took me a while to calm down.  By rights her personal history demanded empathy from those who were in contact with her.  I was unable to provide that.  I could not get beyond her harsh manner.  I was only a child then, perhaps 7 or 8 years old.  My reaction to Lilly was childlike.  Yet I was old enough to know that I shouldn't have behaved that way. 

Last night I finished up watching The Pawnbroker, having started it the evening before.  With my evening Benadryl I often don't get through an entire film, even one I had seen before like The Pawnbroker.  Odd as this may sound, there might be some benefit from watching a film in bits and pieces rather than all in one showing.  It triggered these memories of Lilly and some of that had to simmer for quite a while.  I had no such emotional response that first time I saw the film.  The last few years I've noticed on occasion getting much stronger emotional reactions to films I've seen before, particularly movies from the 1960s.

I wonder if my contemporaries would have a similar reaction to The Pawnbroker because of personal knowledge of someone like Lilly.  That would be a way to insert oneself into the story.  Many people know of Elie Wiesel, of course, but it is not the same thing.  He is a public figure and his persona conveys strong compassion for the human condition.  His is not the right image to hold as one watches The Pawnbroker.  How many knew a survivor of the concentration camps who was never in the limelight, one who was permanently damaged by the experience?

If I'm typical of my contemporaries who have had such encounters, these memories are buried deep in the subconscious and not readily revived.   Lilly's voice came first, then my crying.  It took much longer, not till this morning, before I was able to retrieve her name.  Now I wonder if the memories should have stayed buried.  I have no way to meaningfully connect them to the present and I'm not going to try to do so here, because I think it would come off as quite artificial.  How much of the rest of our childhood that was unpleasant do we remember as adults?

The film, too, has at its center the issue whether memories should be repressed.  In the Pawnbroker these are memories of the atrocities in the concentration camp.  Presumably, repression of the memories allows the witness to get on with the rest of his life.  Yet holding the memories close, so the person is always in touch with what was near and dear to him, may be the only way for the person to preserve his own humanity.  Sol Nazerman, the character in the title role, has opted for repression of the memories.  He has placed himself in a personal purgatory for his two great sins, as he explains during the film.  The first is that he did nothing to stop the atrocities he witnessed, because there was nothing that he could have done.  His Nazi captors prevented that.  The second, and worst than the first, is that he did not die in the concentration camp.  He can't seem to forgive himself for that.  Rod Steiger, who plays Nazerman, does an excellent job of conveying the harshness as nihilism that is a consequence of these repressed memories.  The harshness comes out not as a little boy would see him but as other adults who encounter Nazerman do. 

This nihilism allows Nazerman to be non-caring about his customers at the pawn shop and about other people he interacts with, and allows him to not question the unethical business relationship he is in - serving to launder money from prostitution and the rackets.  Near the end of the film he has a realization, I hesitate to call it an awakening, where the memories return in force and he has become a witness to the atrocities.  He is then able to transfer those memories to his then present circumstance.  He starts to realize that the callous way he has treated his customers at the pawn shop is somewhat akin to how the guards treated him at the concentration camp.  He starts to make amends.

But it is too late.  The film is a tragedy and ends with Nazerman literally having blood on his hands.  A robbery, orchestrated by his employee at the pawn shop, goes badly and the employee is fatally shot.  The employee arranged the robbery out of a grudge against Nazerman, who told him to his face that he was nothing.  That message was devastating.  It demanded vengeance.  It was a message Nazerman sent before the memories began to haunt him.

This telling of the story abstracts from much of the film.  A more complete and more traditional review should be read to get a fuller sense of the story and its setting.  Pawn shops don't exist in nice middle class neighborhoods.  They're signposts of poverty.  In this case the setting was East Harlem in the 1960s.  Pawn shops are exemplars of old style predatory lending.  And in this case the borrowers were for the most part people of color while the lender was Jewish.

That puts into motion its own dynamic and other viewers might elevate that part of the film as an equal part of the story.  Perhaps that's they way I thought of the film when I saw it the first time around.  But this time it was simply backdrop, contributing to the irony of Nazerman's predicament.

It is a compelling, if haunting, story.