Mark it Zero

Lesson of the Month: Sometimes, it's just better to quit when you're behind:

Now, here's some well-dispensed karmic justice.

Nothing New byslag at 9:53 PM 0 dispense karmic justice! (or just comment here)

A Bicycle Built for Two

A year ago (has it been a whole year?!?), I wrote about my bicycle supremacist tendencies in spite of my issues with cycling technology and subculture:

It will never happen, but it would be kind of cool to see the bicycle become a primary mode of transportation in the US. The air would be cleaner, roads would be cheaper to maintain and there would be fewer of them, and our energy problems would be minimal. Plus, fewer people would own cars, so we wouldn't need all that space for garages and giant parking lots. And on rare occasions, for fun and adventure, people would borrow or rent a car just to "go driving". At that point, I think I'd start to enjoy riding the bicycle again. Because it would be just a thing people did to get around--not having to compete so much with cars or eXtreme bicycle heroes. Helmet and spandex-free.
And on that occasion, I pointed to Amsterdam as the commonly perceived model of a bike-friendly town. Well, it turns out that, for the first time, bike usage has surpassed car usage in Amsterdam:
"The bicycle is the means of transport used most often in Amsterdam," reports Bike Europe. "Between 2005 and 2007 people in the city used their bikes on average 0.87 times a day, compared to 0.84 for their cars. This is the first time that bicycle use exceeds car use."
If you check out the video at that link, you'll see Amsterdamians (or whatever they call themselves) of all shapes and sizes just going about their daily business a velo. As the second comment in the thread alludes to, there's nothing at all special going on there other than they've observed that bicycle technology serves a useful function, and they've successfully, unselfconsciously integrated it into their culture and transportation infrastructure. Just as we, throughout the majority of the US, did (and continue to do) with the car. Nonetheless, I'm still fairly envious. I want to import Amsterdam's transit sensibilities.

Almost unconsciously, MFP and I do seem to have inched toward the Amsterdam transportation mindset in our own small way. We purchased a new used tandem. After having rented one for a day a couple of months ago, we were surprised at how well we liked riding together. So, when we happened upon a consignment tandem (which just happened to fit us quite nicely) in a local bike shop, MFP decided it was coming home with us. It will come as no surprise to anyone who read my post a year ago that I was more than a little skeptical: Was I ready to become someone who "goes biking"? How naive I was.

Turns out, the bicycle is our new car (kind of). At the time we got it, I was mostly concerned that the bicycle would replace our urban hikes, which I love more than anything. But what I didn't expect is that, in reality, it has replaced much of our discretionary driving. We've ridden to grocery stores, to baseball games, to shopping malls--all of which were farther than we could walk to within our available timeframe. When we wanted to go on a quick getaway for the weekend, we rode--not drove--to our destination about 40 miles away. And while MFP still drives the car to work most days (we're working on it!), the tandem has become the equivalent of our own little minivan.

The benefits of the tandem over our solo bikes when we're going out together are numerous. It feels safer on the road to have two of us watching for cars. We don't have to do as much route planning ahead of time (the corollary of this is that we can be more spontaneous along the way). Pedaling uphill is easier when we work together (for the most part). And we can chat it up along the way without having to negotiate trying to ride side-by-side. A simple comparison would be the difference between going in two cars vs. one. All in all, the tandem makes for much more enjoyable trips.

The challenges of the tandem, on the other hand, are fairly unusual. From a logistical perspective, it's not as easy to get on the bike rack when we need to take it to the shop. And the dynamic between driving and "stoking" (as the rear pedlar does) is interesting in that the perspective is a bit different for each position. For instance, by virtue of being in the front, the driver (MFP, in this case) sees a hill and thinks "I need to get up that hill", while the stoker (me, in this case) thinks "I need to help him get up that hill." Before I understood this dynamic it was easy for me to be blissfully unaware that MFP was doing most of the heavy pedaling. And after I understood this dynamic and started compensating for it, MFP would mention, "You're getting ahead of me on the pedals", which helped me to figure out where the fine line between cooperation and competition was in this endeavor. Also, it would appear that I have a tendency to literally "drive from the back", which sounds impossible but, I have no doubt, isn't. Still working on that one. Nonetheless, once we worked out some minor communication issues surrounding gear shifting and starting and stopping, we were pretty much good to go.

Which brings me back to Amsterdam. For us, the tandem was a new technology that has, in a small way, moved us more toward bicycle-oriented lifestyle. We've spent more time in bike shops than we had in the past; we've talked about where our next cycling getaway will be; we've paid much more attention to our city bike route map (yay infrastructure!) and have reassessed our neighborhood streets in terms of hill grade. One thing we haven't done, however, is gone out and bought any spandex. Because, while spandex is, I'm sure, a useful technology, it's not part of our bicycle-oriented lifestyle. Too self-conscious.

Nothing New byslag at 2:59 PM 8 dispense karmic justice! (or just comment here)

The Tao of Work?

The Sunday before last, MFP and I skipped out on Church of Pugilism to play baseball. The Sunday before that we spent biking about 40 miles up to a weekend getaway spot. Both activities could reasonably be considered exercise. In fact, I was more sore after playing baseball than I had been after going to church in quite some time. But, for some reason, neither activity seemed like work to me. Rather, they felt more like play. I was trying to understand why while I was laboring away at church this most recent Sunday. That is, I was working on my punches while considering the distinctions between work and play.

Conventional wisdom (an oxymoron?) says that work is something you have to do while play is something you want to do. Well, I wanted to go to church on Sunday, but it still felt like work to me. And one sure way for me to determine I was working rather than playing is by noticing the muscle groups that are sore from it even now. My calves are still painful from all the jumping and my neck and arms continue to hurt from the pushups and punching. Over the years, I've come to see these specific muscle groups as the "where the rubber meets the road" muscles. That is, I use them the most when I'm focused on intellectually controlling my behaviors during an exercise, whereas I use the core muscles (abs and thighs) more when I'm just having fun with it. I can't really explain it in more detail other than to say that the neck, arm, and calf muscles are closest to where the majority of the activity is happening, so they're easier to direct into delivering the best outcome for the effort. And, for me, being focused on an outcome instead of just appreciating the process is probably the most straightforward way to distinguish work from play. In this case, I guess it's like the difference between "delivering a punch" and "hitting things"--delivering a punch=work; hitting things=play.

To complicate the issue further, this distinction between work and play has been particularly relevant to some problems I've been having with my 12-year-old disciple since summer began. Now that she's graduated from 6th grade, she seems to think it should all be fun in the sun until autumn. And part of me wants to not harsh her groove. But another part of me knows that, if she doesn't keep learning over the break, she'll be just another achievement gap statistic. So, I've been trying to make it playful--discussing with her the books that she's chosen to read (as part of her positive reinforcement reward) and working with her on a summertime community service activity of her choice. The key words here having to do with "choice". All based on conventional wisdom that says helping her with things she wants to do should make it seem more like play rather than work. Three weeks in--outlook not good.

Not only has my disciple not read a single page of her book, she's lied to me on multiple occasions about having read the book (how she thought I wouldn't easily figure her out makes me wonder who she's used to dealing with). And as for the community service project she wanted to do? Well, once we started getting to the parts that she wasn't that interested in (the planning, the research, the thinking), suddenly the whole project seemed like work to her. So, after a failed attempt at interjecting some learning into week three by discussing centripetal/centrifugal force with her while spinning her on the carousel at a neighborhood park, I realized that both of us had been simply going in circles since the summer began. Achievement gap, here we come!

But then, after thinking back over some of the improvements we've made in the last six or so months, I'm not so sure we're ready to embrace the achievement gap just yet. First, she got moved up from the second easiest math group in her class to the absolute hardest. A move up of four math groups is not necessarily insignificant. And the last paper we worked on together was deemed "best in the class" by her teacher. Those five revision sessions we did paid off (I got away with making her do this by telling her that the New Yorker article I had her read aloud probably required at least eleven revisions and that's just the way it's done). Nonetheless, in all this, I had the structure of her school work to support the entire process as well as her implicit understanding that she needed to improve her grades. Which, of course, means that the last six months was outcome-focused and that we worked only on her "where the rubber meets the road" scholastic problems and not the core issue of her lack of appreciation for the learning process itself. In other words, she spent the last six months delivering punches instead of hitting things (I bet her neck and calves are tired). Working instead of playing. Which is fairly unsustainable and undesirable for a kid starting to find her singular path in life.

So, how do we move away from focusing on achieving the best outcome to just appreciating the process? How do we turn work into play? I have never been great at this particular undertaking--even on things I want to do, let alone have to do. And if I'm still not good at this after so many years, maybe my disciple needs a better tutor. Someone who already succeeds at appreciating the process and knows that the outcomes will follow. Or maybe we should work on learning to play together? But then, should play become an outcome in and of itself? Should it be something we have to "work" on? Aaargh! Just thinking about this damn problem makes me want to hit things. Or maybe deliver punches. What the hell do I know?

PS: These people may know something about turning work into play. Looks like good times.

PPS: For more context on the larger work-play issue (esp as it pertains to education), I'm reposting this Alan Watts video:

Nothing New byslag at 9:15 AM 3 dispense karmic justice! (or just comment here)

Ceci N'est Pas Une Mouse

Kid (coming up behind me while I'm working at the computer): "Do you like mice?"

Me (quickly glancing back at her): "Uh....I don't know...It depends on the mouse, I guess."

Kid (holding up the picture she drew): "Do you want one?"

Me: "That's a very nice drawing. Thank you."

(Kid disappears as swiftly as she appeared, and I turn back to rushing to complete my website updates.)


Nothing New byslag at 2:05 PM 2 dispense karmic justice! (or just comment here)

Adventures in Tutoring Cont'd: Diva Disciple Gets Schooled

My 12-year-old disciple and I have had our ups and downs lately. In the service of education, here's the gist:

  • My disciple and I are continuing our positive reinforcement strategy to ensure all assignments are turned in on time, but we've made a slight modification. Rather than getting little toys, stickers, and such at the start of our meetings, my disciple is getting a word puzzle. At first, this alteration in our plan was (unsurprisingly) unwelcome news to her. But now that we're a couple of letters into the puzzle, I think she's enjoying it.

    I picked up some letter stickers at a drug store, and each time we meet after she has turned all of her assignments in on time, she gets the next letter of a roughly 20-letter phrase that I made up. And the beauty for her is, if she guesses the phrase early, she gets her big reward early. So, now, instead of spending the first few minutes of each meeting playing with little things, she spends it trying to guess the phrase that I made up. I'm pleased with this alteration for two reasons: 1. I like to maximize use of resources and don't like buying silly little things of minimal value just so I have something to positively reinforce her behavior with; 2. Her endeavor to prematurely solve the puzzle inches her away from the external reward system toward the self-satisfaction she gets from the problem-solving process itself.

  • We're working on her reading comprehension and ability to concentrate by having her read out loud to me this New Yorker article about the importance of self-control. Luckily, it seems that the New Yorker is written at about a 6th grade level (take that, elitists!) and, except for a few times when we stopped to discuss word definitions, she's able to read it aloud and summarize the vignettes and concepts detailed in the article quite nicely.

  • We also recently watched A Class Divided, a Frontline documentary about an experiment a teacher performed on her class in order to illustrate some of the problems associated with discrimination. What I liked about the documentary is that it was multi-layered. Rather than just polemicizing about how discrimination is wrong, it depicts it as a self-reinforcing cycle that not only diminishes a person's sense of self but also her academic performance. The experiment aspect of the lesson also gave us a chance to discuss scientific practices, such as defining variables and methods. One thing my disciple and I didn't do that I think we should is compare social science methodology (as was used in the documentary) to natural science methodology (as she used in her recent science project).

  • Finally, my disciple and I have not been without our differences. Truth be told, I have an infinite amount patience for trying to find new ways to explain challenging concepts, but I have an infinitesimal amount of patience for trying to find new ways to say, "Sit up and shut up for a second while I try to explain this challenging concept". Spending half my time reminding my disciple that she's not stupid and the other half reminding her that she doesn't know everything has, at times, made me cranky. So much so that, recently, her mother and I had a lengthy conversation about whether or not this arrangement was worth the effort for all parties involved. The main reason that I was there, it seems, was that her mother was having similar problems in trying to help her focus on her homework, and luckily, mom was firmly on my side of the issues. Without this familial support, I would probably consider the endeavor wholly pointless, a realization which makes me sympathize with real teachers everywhere (poor saps!).
Nonetheless, in spite of all of our ups and downs and my frustrations, a free Mexican dinner in return for just 4-5 hours of my time twice a week (not including prep time) keeps me coming back; I'm a sucker for a good tostada. *

*=Not entirely true.

Nothing New byslag at 10:30 AM 2 dispense karmic justice! (or just comment here)

Of Dogs and Disciples: trials and tribulations in resolving a 12-year-old's academic achievement problems

I am not an educator by trade. So when, in early March, I was trying to find a solution for my 12-year-old disciple's missing assignments problem, I resorted to the obvious step of consulting some of the many people I know who are educators by trade. My first choice: a friend of mine who is...a dog trainer (and an academic, but that's actually a secondary attribute in this context).

My friend practices a type of dog training that employs only positive reinforcement (treats!) for promoting good behavior and distractions--rather than punishments--for correcting bad behavior. (And since the Obamas are using this very type of training approach on their dog Bo, I can only assume that it's all the rage right now). When our conversation began, I told my friend about the plan to have my 12-year-old disciple sign a contract agreeing to turn all of her assignments in on time. But then I confessed to her that I was seriously lacking leverage for when my disciple inevitably failed to meet the contractual terms. And while I was benefitting from the fact that my disciple was a basically decent kid who had a reasonable amount of respect for others, I knew that if I offered any false threats (No tutoring for a week!) in this area, I would only be hurting my own credibility with her in the long run. So, what to do?

My dog-training friend's suggestion: Very small rewards consistently doled out for each time my disciple turned her assignments in on time leading to a more substantial reward for when she turned in a certain number of assignments in a row. In retrospect, this seems like a simple and obvious strategy, but at the time, I was skeptical. I expressed my concern about the need for discipline and my desire to avoid conditioning my disciple to expect an external reward for every little thing she did right. My friend quickly dispatched these concerns by reminding me that my disciple was, in fact, only 12 years old and that the behaviors for which she was initially earning this external reward may eventually become their own reward, thereby obviating the need for an external reward system for this behavior in the future. Another persuasive point my friend made was that, given the choice between positive and negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement was less likely than negative reinforcement to do long-term harm to my disciple's unpredictable 12-year-old psyche. After analyzing the relative costs and benefits of the approach, I went forth with a plan.

My disciple and I signed a contract stating that she would turn in all of her assignments on time and, in return, get a small assignment-completion reward each time she and I met for tutoring and a larger reward (possibly a Twilight book--arrgh!) after 20 consecutive days of turning her assignments in on time. The result: after a month and a half, she finally got her book reward. A week or so into the contract, one assignment turned in a few minutes late (yes, I'm still a hard-ass) compelled us to start over. Obviously, given where we began, I'm fairly pleased with this outcome. Not only has my disciple set up a pattern of turning her assignments in on time, she has begun to take pleasure in the grades she's getting as a result. When she showed me her latest progress report, not only did she rejoice (doing a little dance, even) in the lack of zeroes on the page, she went so far as to gleefully circle all of the A+s she got and then to calculate the percentage of A+s on her report (60%). While, clearly, my disciple is still attached to external rewards systems--now, including grades--I'm hoping that we're inching closer to the point where the learning process becomes its own reward.

To be continued...

Nothing New byslag at 10:12 AM 3 dispense karmic justice! (or just comment here)

Designing My Fair City

This is a list I've been building in my mind for a very long time. Basically, every time I engage in urban wanderlust, I end up ruminating on all the things I want to see improved on in my city. If I ever got the big idea to hold my city hostage, this would be my list of demands (barring any assumption that my city can defy the laws of physics)*. But it's important to preface my list by explaining that my city is already quite lovely. We have many walkable neighborhoods, a lot of green space, and a considerable amount of public art and character. Still, there's always room for improvement.

  1. I want all of my city's waterways to be fishable and swimmable. Water being necessary to sustain human life, I've always considered this to be a top priority and find it fairly unconscionable that we can't even meet this very low standard.
  2. I want all of my city's green spaces to be connected. I want to be able to wander through our entire park system without ever having to cross a street.
  3. For every foot of roadway, I want to see triple the space devoted to pedestrian paths, bike paths, and urban railway.
  4. Whenever road construction interferes with pedestrian/cyclist paths, I want to see a clear, short, and safe detour for pedestrians and cyclists.
  5. Also, I want more safe ways to cross roads for pedestrians/cyclists, in general.
  6. I want native plant barriers between roadways and pedestrian/cyclist paths.
  7. I want commuting by train/bus to be more convenient than commuting by car for everyone.
  8. I want more public waterfront space. A lot more.
  9. I want smoking to be eliminated from all public (indoor and outdoor) spaces. Air being necessary to sustain human life, this one seems like a gimme.
  10. I want roads to be designed for their speed limits and speed limits to reflect the design of the road.
  11. I want tighter boundaries around my city--an even stronger focus on density as opposed to suburban sprawl.
  12. I want more and better signage directing me to community/cultural spaces.
  13. I want a bus schedule at every stop.
  14. I want an easy-to-find and navigate comprehensive resource enumerating all of the public spaces and events available to me at all times.
  15. I want more community/cultural spaces open at all different times of the day and night. And holidays too. Presidents' Day should offer me more than the ability to buy a cheap mattress. Public space should be available when the public has time to use it, which often includes after-hours.
  16. I'd prefer more public amenities: restrooms, public phones, etc.
  17. And I would love to see wireless publicly available all throughout the city. And actually have it work.
That's all I can think of for now, but I'm sure I'll be adding more later. Sadly, I'm guessing that I represent the very last stakeholder group my city actually considers when planning urban improvements, so this list will likely be around for a while. Developers, large business owners, and even soccer moms probably all take precedence over my childless, youngish, pragmatic, low-consuming demo. Nonetheless, a girl can dream.

*=The Tick reference:

UPDATE: Interesting commentary on how writing things down can simplify them. After writing this list, it became clear that accomplishing a few of the bigger changes I want would directly obviate many of the smaller changes. I guess that's what planning is all about.

Nothing New byslag at 9:13 AM 3 dispense karmic justice! (or just comment here)

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