Sunday, July 31, 2011

Three Sides to Every Story

On Friday, President Obama announced new fuel economy standards that will be worked towards over the next 15 years.

Shortly thereafter, the obviously politically neutral folks at posted about how these new fuel economy standards will result in death. Simply put, cars must be lighter in order to attain higher fuel economy, but people in light cars are more likely to die when they collide with heavy vehicles.

Just two days earlier, the even more politically neutral folks at posted a similar story, but unless they had some White House connections (which is possible) was unprovoked by Obama's announcement of higher standards. Their line is that heavier cars cause more deaths.

What's interesting is that the two stories are saying both the same thing yet opposite things at the same time. One claims that lighter cars result in more deaths, while the other claims that heavier cars result in more deaths. The difference is in which car they're talking about. If car A is heavier and collides with car B, car B's occupants are more likely to die. If car B is lighter and collides with car A, car B's occupants are more likely to die. What I take from this is that it's the difference between the two that counts. The relatively lighter car will always fare worse.

So if over the next couple decades, most cars get smaller, there would not likely be a large increase in deaths, because everything would get smaller at about the same rate. Some of the behemoths currently on the road will still be out there, true, but you're not going to last long driving a 20 year old SUV pulling in 12 mpg when everyone else is getting 50+ mpg.

So there's two sides to the same statistical story, but what's the third side? My side is the third side. I question whether we'll even be thinking in mpg in 15-20 years. Between CNG, electricity, Mr Fusion, methane, solar, hydrogen, etc. there are so many alternative energy sources poised to take the place of the archaic gasoline that you'd have to hope something else will have matured enough by then to take its place. At the very least, we'll see more hybrid or bi-fuel vehicles that either automatically or manually switch between gasoline and the alternative power source.

Then what if there's an alternative power source that is so cheap and powerful it allows for heavy vehicles? Add to that computers and sensors that detect imminent crashes and stop you before they happen, and it won't matter the size of your vehicle, since we won't crash into each other anyway. Perhaps cars will be driven by Google so we can just rest in our sleep pods while Google optimizes our travel for us.

Maybe 2025 is too soon to expect an accident-free, emissions-free future. After all, I'm pretty sure Back to the Future's vision of hovercars and home energy reactors won't be reality by 2015 even though they've had 30 years to work on them. But we can dream. Maybe we'll see Obama channel JFK's speech from almost 50 years ago about going to the moon and rally the country around a monumental transportation goal, ironically just after he dismantles NASA.

We'll see where the big dreams take us, but with all the fantastic possibilities my mind can dream up, 50 mpg doesn't seem like that big of a deal, even if it requires a little extra technology to keep us from crashing into each other so much.

Friday, July 29, 2011


I don't like to run.

I do like to do things to get/keep myself in shape. If I'm not doing something fun or working towards a goal, working out doesn't happen. Over the past couple years (although not the past few months) I've been playing racquetball regularly, because it's fun (oh and good exercise, too). Last year, my wife and I had been meeting with a personal trainer twice a week for several months, so since I had something scheduled and two other people depending on me to be there, I was on top of it. I've done a few fitness challenges with family and coworkers, where you eat well, exercise, etc. and get points for doing good stuff (and for one challenge, you got dinged for eating bad stuff); I've won something in every challenge I've done, because I'm motivated by the challenge.

This is where triathlons attract me. I can prepare for and do something hard that's only partly running. For a lot of triathletes, the swim is what scares them most, because many of them start out as runners and move into triathlons as a way to add some low-impact cross training, which both swimming and biking are. So I'm a little backwards where I like swimming a lot better than running. Little known fact is that many of those skin and bones runner-converts you see are wearing wetsuits not as much for the cold water as for the extra buoyancy so they don't sink like rocks. I don't have that problem. Yet.

My first triathlon was one I didn't even race in. About 6 years ago, I worked on the race staff, helping set up the transition area the night before and helping with whatever they needed on race day, including sweeping up a bunch of gravel out of the road that had just barely been chip sealed and was causing problems for the bikers in the middle of the race. I actually lost 5 pounds in about a 12 hour period. Being around the race piqued my interest but not enough to do anything about it until 2009 when some family members decided to do a race here in Logan.

I had been doing some things to get in shape but didn't decide to do the race until maybe 2 months before it, which wasn't a ton of time to prepare. The swim was in a pool and the bike and run both very flat, so it was a good one to start with. I was able to swim fairly regularly at the pool on campus at lunchtime, and in the evenings, I'd pull one or two of the kids in the bike trailer up the hills above my house. Then on race day, I had a tuned up road bike, instead of my heavy, rusted mountain bike, so that made a big difference.

The distances were 500m swim, 20k (12.5 mile) bike, and 5k (3.1 mile) run. My three goals were to finish, not finish last, and finish under 90 minutes in that order.

They started us off generally in order of estimated swim time, so you just kind of found your place in the line around people who swam about the same speed as you. They started a swimmer every 15 seconds. You go down and back the length of the pool and then under the rope to the next lane and repeat until the last lane. It was hard, but the water was warm and the lanes made it easy to know where to swim even if it was a bit crowded. Then it was off to the bike. It was pretty straight forward, out and back on a straight, flat road. Until you experience the bike to run rubber legs, though, it's difficult to imagine.

By the time I got to the run, it was just hot. It was middle of July, the race had started around 9 or 9:30, but with the line for the pool, I probably didn't start until around 10, which made it about 11 by the time I got to the run. I grabbed two cups of water at the aid station, one to drink and one to dump on my head. I planned on alternating running for a minute and walking for a minute. I ended up running for 30 seconds and walking for 30 seconds. My lungs were in good shape; it was pain in my calves that knocked me out.

They give you 5 split times, for the three legs of the race and the 2 transition periods: swim, T1, bike, T2, run. They were 12:48.1 03:58.4 42:07.2 01:23.4 34:30.9 for a total of 1:34:48.0. I finished 23/24 in my age group and 96/105 out of all the men. So I finished. I didn't finish last in any of the splits or my age group, although I was very close. Ignoring my transition times, I finished the three legs in under 90 minutes, but the transitions are part of the race that some people actually spend a bit of time practicing, so I pulled in just under 95 minutes, and I was happy with that.

Last year, I planned on doing a couple races and thought I'd be in great shape since I was working regularly with my personal trainer. Then the summer came, trainer left, I overate for a week at a family reunion, overate and didn't exercise at a big work conference my first week at a new job, and had a hard time picking which race to do so my schedule didn't really get set until kind of late. On top of that, this would be an open water race with slightly longer legs (750m swim, 13.4 mile bike, and 5k run), although still a sprint, and some hills to deal with.

With everything going on, not having seen the course before race day, and not having ever swum in a wetsuit, I didn't even set a time goal.

The water was cold, and I was glad to have my wetsuit, although it still took my breath away when I put my face in the water. Next time, I'll dunk my head under the water to get over the cold shock before the race starts. Not being able to breathe as I'd gotten used to in the warm pool, I flipped over and went backstroke for a bit. I had a hard time going straight whether doing backstroke or even when I switched back to freestyle without those lines painted on the floor. They make a big difference.

The bike was hard. I'd still been training on the hills above my house on my heavy, rusty mountain bike and again had a light road bike for the race. The hill was brutal, though. It was pretty much a couple percent grade uphill for the entire first half of the bike. Once you get to the top and start coming down, it's easier, except then you get to a very steep downhill section on the way back. I didn't bring my bike computer this time, so I didn't know how fast I got up to. I can say I was going as fast as I felt comfortable going and still had a few people zoom by me.

By the time I got to the run, I just had so little left. I didn't get on a good pace, where I'd alternate running and walking for certain set times, but rather would run and walk randomly, which means I'd probably run for not as long as I should have and then walk for too long before switching back. Of course I was walking when the photographer caught me; he should have had a whistle to blow so I'd know to make it look like I was running like the wind.

About the start of mile 2, I came up on a guy in my age group (you write your age on the back of your leg), and I ran with him for a bit. I didn't know where we were compared to anyone else in our age group, so I did figure that if I beat him, I for sure wouldn't be last. We ran up and down one hill, and then on the start of mile 3, we grabbed some water at the aid station and started up another hill. At that point, I started running, and I don't know what happened to the other guy except that I was 90% sure I was in front of him. I did a little better keeping it going that last mile, knowing I was almost done, knowing that other guy wasn't too far behind me, hoping to catch up to him on the 10% chance that he did pass me at the aid station, and having had my legs recover somewhat from the bike.

My split times ended up being 21:14.773 03:35.833 53:19.650 01:58.506 36:23.496 for a total of 1:56:32.2. I ended up coming in 29/32 in my age group and 138/158 out of all the men. It was a bigger race, and while I was slower than my first race, I did beat more people than the first one.

After just talking about who I beat, keeping in mind a lot more people beat me, an interesting cultural thing I noticed about the bike and the run in both races (not much talking going on during the swim) is that if someone passes you, they give you some words of encouragement. Keep it up. You're doing great. Then if you pass someone, they give you some words of congratulations. Keep it up. You're doing great. It really is uplifting.

Of course, I had to do some comparisons between my times on the two races. Here are the split times side by side for my 2009 and 2010 races:
  12:48.1   21:14.8 (14:09.9)
03:58.4 03:35.8
42:07.2 53:19.6 (45:09.2)
01:12.4 01:58.5
34:30.9 36:23.5
1:34:48.0 1:56:32.2 (1:41:16.9)

You can see I calculated an adjusted time in parentheses for the legs that were longer in the second race, as if they had been the same distance as the first one. If I'd have only gone 500m instead of 750m, I'd have still taken a little over 1 minute longer on the swim. I actually got through T1 faster the second time. The bike was quite a bit slower as well, but at that pace if I had one less mile to go, I was down to only 3 minutes slower. Given the massive hill, I thought I did well. The run was the same distance. Given my inconsistent running pattern and the hills, I was quite surprised to be less than 2 minutes slower than the first year's run. Did I mention the huge hill on the run?

While I actually finished over 20 minutes longer than the first race, adjusting for a shorter course, I'd have come in just over 6 minutes longer. It was night and day difference between the two courses in terms of difficulty, so it's hard to really compare them. The best way to compare would obviously be to run both those races again this summer. Which is why I'm naturally running a different race this year.

Who's in?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Undergraduate Research

Is anyone surprised by a study showing first year college students can't research?

They don't select good sources, don't engage with their sources, and largely copy and paste without showing real understanding of the content. Of course they don't. This really isn't a surprise, right? First year students are still unlearning high school habits. Any research they might be doing their freshman year is not going to be realistic, since they don't have deep content knowledge. Instruction in introductory writing courses is of the assembly line variety with large classes trying to meet general education requirements.

Is it a problem? I don't think so. If seniors and grad students are still writing papers like this, that's a problem. The real solution is to teach research and in-depth writing in the context of major courses. Introductory writing courses would be better off focusing on mechanics and grammar as a foundation for in-depth writing later. One step at a time.

Monday, July 18, 2011


IMing with a coworker recently, I mentioned the upcoming academic meetings, where twice a year faculty from all over the country fly in for a conference. Only instead of calling it the academic meetings, I called it the acacemic meetings. While I see the spelling and grammar missteaks I make in IM, I generally don't fix them or call attention to them based on the informal, conversational nature of IM, unless it made what I wrote illegible. This Freudian slip, however, was too much to leave on the table.

acacemic = cross between academic and glycemic

During the first such conference, I gained five pounds that week. With as much food as was floating around, I'm surprised I limited my increase to that. During the last one we did, I was able to break even by watching my eating closer and exercising more. The only soda I remember drinking was near the end of the week. I was having the hardest time staying awake so grabbed a Coke, only to find myself in the living-healthy-when-you-work-at-home-for-an-online-school session.

We went on to analyze various high-and-crash situations. Any time you get excited about some new idea, the reality of trying to implement it always seems to put you back into your place. This is all over in academia from starting a new class or degree program to graduating and trying to find a job. It doesn't slow down for professors either as they try to get tenure, wrangle for grant money, and work to save their departments from budget cuts.

Thinking about traditional schools, food (often high in sugar) is commonly used to keep the excitement going between the figurative highs and lows. What traditional college student (or assistant professor) isn't always on the lookout for free donuts, pizza, candy, coffee, soda, ice cream, etc.? Among stress, alcohol, buffet meal plans, abnormal sleeping habits, and simply lack of experience living on one's own, the Freshman 15 attacks many, holding on for a 6 year ride.

That is why WGU provides mentors for their online students, to make regular contact and ensure students can bounce out of the lows that life throws their way. I'm imagining now a deal with a nationwide pizza chain where online students can get a free pizza delivered to them, let's say 6 times per year, included in the cost of tuition. Feeling low? Click here for an instant pick-me-up.

I was exposed to yoga at the last academic meetings and have kept up with it semi-regularly. There's nothing like meeting people in person to improve the quality of virtual meetings. Setting regular goals and regularly checking them off your list is a great motivator for many.

So what are some other healthy ways of keeping the high going or at least leveling out the lows? I was going to offer a chocolate bar to the best answer, but Phillip ate it at the beginning of the post.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Benefits of Online Learning

Through the twitterverse came the question of how the list of ten benefits of online learning as presented by students at the Open High School of Utah is different.

Their list:

1. I can work ahead if I'm able to
2. I get nearly instant responses from my teachers
3. I get personalized support when I need it
4. My teachers are just as excited about online learning as I am
5. I can do all my math for the week on one day if I want to
6. I know how I'm doing, my grades are right on the screen
7. My parents can see my work and grades
8. My courses are more challenging
9. I can keep up with my work when my family travels
10. I can work around a busy schedule

Of course, being Twitter, there wasn't much more to the question, specifically how is this different from what? I have to assume it's asking how online schools are different from traditional schools, since good teachers would be doing the stuff in the list anyway. The difference comes in where at a student-centered school, the culture of the entire organization is focused on helping the individual students, where traditional schools are centered on the faculty member so whoever is teaching a class decides whether or not students can work ahead and how challenging the homework is.

There's a big difference between a single teacher running a student-centered classroom and having an entire school be student-centered.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dual Monitors

Are dual monitors the answer to increased office productivity? I don't know if they're such a thing as the answer, but they're certainly an answer.

They're one of those things that you don't realize how much you need dual monitors until you have tried it out. I'd tell anyone that once you go dual, you'll never go back. Some high resolution wide screen monitors where you can more easily put two windows next to each other on the same screen are close, but there's nothing like two full monitors to allow you to compare documents, using what's on one screen to write something on the other screen, or just good old multitasking (there's only so fast you can alt-tab among active windows).

I first made the jump about 7 or 8 years ago when I took an old CRT that was going to be sent to the surplus sale and hooked it up to my video card that happened to support dual monitors. It was a little awkward how the two monitors were different sizes and resolutions, but it was more productive nonetheless.

No one in the office at the time used the computers to their full ability. It was fun to watch people become interested and slowly the phenomenon spread throughout the office, until a couple years later the standard was that everyone would automatically get matching dual screens. Of course, I was in the IT department and encouraged people to order and use them. The IT department at my current job doesn't give people who work from home a second monitor and even for those in the office, according to the IT dude I talked to, IT has to approve whether or not you're worthy to receive one. It's those IT attitudes that ruin it for the IT professionals that actually care about providing technology that makes people more productive.

Maybe the answer is teaching the IT department to care. But you may have better luck just buying your own second monitor.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Facebook as an LMS

In a recent discussion on a friend's wall in Facebook, the debate was whether Facebook could be used as an LMS. The arguments from one particular professor didn't quite cut it for me. One issue he raised is that requiring students to use a particular platform, whether Facebook, Gmail, or any other social media service is problematic and naive.

Given that the state of Utah is adopting Instructure Canvas to replace Blackboard, and one of its features is the ability to coordinate information with outside services such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Docs, etc., it seems that supporting the use of these third party tools is the direction we're going, not one of continuing to lock up our courses.

Regarding requiring students to sign up for a service they may not have been using already, it begs the question what percent of college students are already on Facebook. My understanding is that it's up in the 80-90% range, if not higher. They're in there anyway. This is just bringing the class to where the students are. You can set up a private instance of elgg, but if students don't get in there, it's no better than Blackboard, Moodle, or any other LMS, even if it's slightly more social.

I talked to one class I was teaching about the idea. While the initial thought was that it might be creepy having their instructor be their friend on Facebook, they agreed it was not so creepy and they may in fact think about class more often since they're in Facebook all day, if we were in a group together and didn't necessarily have to be friends. That was a couple years ago, though, and now everyone's grandma is on Facebook, so students may be more used to authority figures in their lives connecting with them on Facebook.

The big related question that was brought up was one of security and FERPA. Supposedly this professor has seen threats to sue because the professor openly discussed a student's performance in a classroom, and the student understood the critique to be a breach of their privacy. He pointed out that misunderstandings of intent are more likely to happen in online environments where context and body language are lacking than they are in face to face classrooms.

Regarding lawyers getting involved, it seems that of anyone, a PR professor (who was the one doing the complaining) ought to be able to figure out how to take a misunderstanding and turn it into a learning experience. At least in an online environment, you have a more permanent record of discussions, so you don't have to rely on the "he said, she said" of face to face meetings. Of course, it is ironic that the example he gave of misunderstanding was in a face to face classroom, not an online environment. I tend to agree with Dave Merrill, who suggests that writing for public publishing of work on a blog or eportfolio that others can see will make the quality much better than if the student is just writing a paper that no one but the professor will ever see.

Given the content area, I would suggest that if you're taking a PR course and there's not a FB (or Twitter) component, you should consider dropping. Some other majors may be able to get away with not using these tools, but from what I understand of a field like PR, if a student is not given practice in using social media tools in a professional context, they will be at a disadvantage. Yes, they know how to use Facebook in a social context, but holding a class in Facebook gives them the invaluable experience of an organized, professional use of the platform. Yes, it is fast becoming a platform, not just a standalone site.

Campfire Cooking

I have other places I usually write about cooking and recipes, but these are too good to not spread the news.

Campfire cooking is great, whether on a stick, in a Dutch oven, foil dinners, or whatever. Following up the main course with s'mores over the dying embers is as much of a tradition as camping itself.

If you're willing to try a new tradition in campfire cooking, cook up a biscuit cup with a dough boy stick, and fill with either dinner or dessert (or both, although preferably not at the same time).

A nutella and raspberry filled dough boy topped with whipped cream will make you forget the last s'more you had. Or if you don't want to break tradition too much, insert the chocolate bar and roasted marshmallow into the dough boy shell instead of using a graham cracker.

For full disclosure, while I know the people behind the dough boy magic, I have not been given free products by them. I am very open to the possibility, though. Very deliciously open.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Play Games

Here's a couple similar articles on how parents playing video games with their daughters can have positive impacts on their daughters and that both boys and girls can learn life skills from their parents while gaming.

The second article more directly points out that kids directly benefit from the game playing, while in the first it's less clear whether there is causation or simply correlation. It's like the Freakonomics guys pointing out that kids who grow up in a home with a lot of books do better in school, but it's not the presence of books that necessarily causes them to do better as much as it is that having books around the home is a signal that the parents are the kind of people who care about what their kids are learning.

Part of why I like Scouting so much is that I like playing the games; it's a way of never having to grow up. On a recent trip, one person we visited talked about not knowing much about the games their kids were playing after asking the kids to pause or turn off their game to do some chores; I pointed out that there was only about 30 seconds left of that level, so maybe the kid should just finish. I knew it, because it's a game I play. With my kids. And my kids play it with each other. Even the ones who don't normally get along that well. Whether it's canoe races, Mario Kart, or Scrabble, it's spending time together to build memories and common bonds that is important.