Friday, December 22, 2017

Success...sort of

Yesterday, we were going to do a robotics demo to a kindergarten class. For a variety of reasons, I ended up doing the demo myself. I had three kindergartners come up to the white board and draw a picture of a robot. They looked similar, boxy bodies, arms with claw hands, random buttons and lights, and maybe an antenna on the head. I asked them if they had ever seen a robot and if they thought robots were real or not. Some said they were not real, while others said they were real. Then I pulled out our team robot that currently looks mostly like a car with a small arm on the front. I told them that robots can be used to cook food, drive cars, get books at the library, vacuum the floor, or just about anything you could imagine.

I wrote two quick programs. The first just made it drive around in a figure 8. I asked what they thought, and they wanted it to do more, so I changed the program to make it have the arm go up and down while it was driving around. They thought that was pretty good, but wanted two arms to alternate up and down, which I told them I could do but would take more work than we had time for at the moment.

Then I showed them another program I wrote, called Feeding the Tiger. Basically it drives forward until they put the little box of food down in front of it, then it grabs the food, makes a growling sound, and then turns around and drives off with it. A few of them got to take turns holding the food out in front of the "tiger" although they had a hard time with it, since they didn't always line up the box very well with the arms.

It was fun, and I'm glad I had just me and the kindergartners. I think it would have been too much to have several of the team in there as well, since they can be out of control at times. Their teacher had to tell them several times to back off, since they would creep closer and closer trying to get a better look. They all want to do another robotics day in the future, so I'll have to think of something else cool to demonstrate for them, hopefully something they can interact with. Maybe I'll do something with colors and the light sensor.

After school, when it was official robotics club time, at the beginning of our sixth meeting, a few of the team asked about the kindergarten thing, but no one seemed very upset that they didn't get to actually do the demo. I told them we would split the group into two teams, and each team was to try to program the robot to follow a line. I used black electrical tape to draw a rectangle on one table and one that looked kind of like a digital sine wave. I let them split up however they wanted.

I should have attached the light sensor myself beforehand. I usually leave the parts box put away in the closet, because if it is out, they just want to build stuff with the Legos instead of working on what we are supposed to be working on. I figured I should let them attach the light sensor, so the parts were out, but as usual, about half the group just started playing with parts. About half of the team did work on getting the light sensor attached and went over to the table with the rectangular box to start working. I went over with the half that were working, and we started trying things out. The thing I'm most concerned with is that they are going to break or lose parts if they are just playing around.

A couple of the team that were paying attention were just lost. They were trying to program something but didn't really know where to start. One team member knew how to read in colors from the light sensor, so he worked on that and eventually was able to get it to start going if it was on the black line, although he didn't get very far with it turning at the corner.

I built a basic switch algorithm that was constantly checking the light level and would make it go straight forward if it registered black and stop if it registered anything else. Once I got that working, I had it turn a little to the left if it was on something other than black. Eventually I had it drift slightly to the right if it was on the black and turn sharply left if it was off the black. Tweaking slightly how much it was turning and driving and how fast, I was eventually able to get it to follow the rectangle. Every once in a while it would get off the tape and would drive in a circle until it found it again and then start following again. It wasn't driving totally smoothly, as it would wobble a bit right and left, but it followed the line pretty well. I think some more tweaks can get it moving better.

The bigger challenge is having it be able to follow the line that curves in both directions. I'm not sure yet how to tell it which way to turn, but I think the general idea is to actually follow the edge of the line instead of the middle of the line, so it will always turn right if it's on the line and left if it's off the line and go straight if it's on the edge of the line, which means it can turn in either direction. Of course, the boys should be coming up with their own algorithm or researching how to do it, but I'm trying to model a bit how to try things out and think through the problem logically. I may recommend they spend some time looking at videos others have uploaded for how to perform basic tasks but not too much that they're just copying what others have done. The problem solving mindset is what they need to develop, so they can start to think critically about designing something to work, rather than not knowing where to start.

Monday, December 18, 2017


This past week we had our fifth meeting. The challenge that I had given them the week before was met! Time to start working on the next one.

We had one of the more boisterous boys come back, who had been missing the week before, but he was much more mellow. He was much more on task himself, plus helped get some of the other boys focused when they were not. I don't know what happened exactly, but I'll take it. :)

At the end of last week, each boy had their own computer and were individually working on trying to solve the problem of picking up the pipe and driving it over and dropping it on the other notebook and they got close. This week we started that way, but about half of them just sort of naturally grouped together and were working on the problem together, which was great to see. They had a couple of computers but were mostly just working on the one program that was the closest and trying it repeatedly until they could get it to work consistently. Part of their problem was not having the spots marked on the floor where the robot and the notebooks were sitting, so they would get bumped around and not end up back exactly where they were previously.

The other half of the boys were just kind of over there messing around on the computers. I honestly don't really know what they were doing. I've gotten to where if they are running around too much, I just sit there and wait quietly for them to be ready, as I can't compete with that many of them if they want to be out of control. One of them will see it quickly and tell the others to calm down so we can get back to work. Since we had about half of them focused, I spent time with that half and let the other half do whatever they were doing.

This is really the norming phase moving in. There is still some storming. They will fight and yell and poke each other in the eye as they are 9 and 10 year old boys after all. But those who want to do something are actually trying and accomplishing what they want to do.

I think the next step is to work on loops and sensors. Right now they have to tell the robot to drive a certain distance, but by using a sensor in a loop, you can tell it to start driving and just keep on driving until a certain condition is met by the sensor, such as seeing a certain color or bumping the touch sensor. That way, we could put the notebooks a differing distance apart, and as long as it is going in a straight line between them, as soon as it sees a certain color, it knows it is on the notebook and can drop the piece and back away. Part of that is also navigating around the table. There are lines in certain parts of the table which can be followed to make sure it ends up in the right place. The basic algorithm is that as the robot drives forward, if it sees black it turns slightly one way or if it sees white it turns slightly the other way. By checking the line regularly and only moving a little at a time, it will end up driving pretty smoothly.

Making progress.

Friday, December 8, 2017

I'm Bored

Yesterday was our fourth meeting of the Robotic Dudes.

We jumped right into trying to perform a basic task. Part of the challenge is to pick up a piece with a ring-shaped handle and bring it back to the home base. In order to keep it simple but get them programming, I gave them a modified challenge using that Lego piece from the challenge kit. I put two notebooks on the ground about 4 feet apart. They had to make the robot pick up the piece off the one notebook, turn around, and drop it on the other one.

There are enough laptops in the STEM Lab, which which is the room where we meet, for everyone to work on their own. I just explained their task, pointed each one of them toward a computer, and I went over and sat in the corner to watch. Their first task was to modify our existing robot to give it something it could pick up the piece with. It already had an arm, but it was more for dragging something on the ground than for picking something up off the ground. They modified the arm to put a small hook on it. Then they had to start working on the programming. I had to kick them out of the box of Lego parts, as they kept wanting to mess around and build things that had nothing to do with the robot.

They eventually all started working on the computers, although a couple of them were just going through all the different built in sounds the robot can make instead of actually working on the task at hand. One of those included one of our robotic experts, who does have experience both in Legos and in other programming environments. His favorite line so far is, "I'm bored." The first couple weeks were painful for him, I think, as we were getting to know each other, setting up some rules, talking about what we would be doing, and learning how the programming environment works. He just wanted to get in and start programming. I don't know that we're looking at an Asperger's diagnosis, but he's definitely more interested in interacting with technology than with other people. Of course a lot of kids these days match that description. Part of First Lego League is teamwork, though, so we have to spend some time on it.

Most of the boys had a laptop to work with, although a few were working together on one or goofing around. They were fighting over who got to connect their Bluetooth to the robot and try out their program, which is a good thing. We had several who tried to drive way too far and just kept going after hitting the piece they were supposed to pick up. We had one who picked up the piece but ended up flinging it up in the air since they raised the arm too fast. One actually picked it up and drove off with it, but went off at a weird angle and didn't end up dropping it on the other notebook. They were getting closer each time as they took turns running their programs and then tweaking them. This might have been the first meeting where I wasn't ready to kick them all out when time was up. We could have stayed another hour to tweak programs and keep trying to accomplish the task.

Something that will make this easier in the future will be when we start using loops and sensors to move around instead of just trying to guess how far to make it drive. Plus, I think building a different kind of arm to pick up the piece will work better.

I really tried to stay mostly hands off and let them try things. I would give them some ideas or hints to help them figure out what they did wrong. At one point when some of the boys were messing around building things that had nothing to do with our robot, before I took away the box of extra parts, one of the boys asked if he could just watch a video (unrelated to robotics) since no one was doing anything. I took away the spare parts, but I also challenged him to step up and be a leader and get his team focused on the task at hand. The only way for me to stay sane and for them to really come together as a team is for me to give them something to do and then back off and let them organize and make it happen.

At one point, someone that looked like a college student came into the STEM Lab and sat down to watch. She took some notes for maybe 10 minutes and then left, without saying anything. There are a lot of college kids that work in the after school club, so I don't know if she was part of that (or if she thought we were part of that). When she was there, we were testing out our programs and learning some things together about how to fix the mistakes they had made in their programs, so much better than some times she could have shown up in previous sessions when they were jumping off tables (both literally and figuratively).

We have a ways to go, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


It has been a while since my last post on the Lego team. Thanksgiving preempted our normal Thursday session, which would have been our third meeting. I sent out an email with some basic information on the challenges we will be performing and some videos for the kids to review over the break.

Last week, we had our third meeting. I wanted to make sure we got the kids more hands on with the robots so they don't start losing interest, and they've been excited to get started. I split them into two groups. I had one group create a short plan for some movement they wanted the robot to make - drive in a circle or a square, zig zag along a path, etc. Then they would actually program whatever they decided they wanted it to do. In the meantime, I took the other group and showed them around the challenge kit, which had been assembled by one of the other teams. Then the first group told us what they planned and we had them show it off to see if it did what they wanted it to. (Spoiler Alert: It didn't.) Then the second group had a couple minutes to try to fix whatever was wrong with the first group's code. Then we switched, and I showed the challenge kit to the first group and had the second group plan something and program it. One of the groups had planned to have the robot drive in a straight line, turn around 180 degrees, drive back in a straight line to where it started, and repeat that several times. The first time, it ended up drawing more of a star shape, but eventually they were able to tweak it to go straight back and forth.

We also watched another of the STEMCentric videos where he showed some of the other basic blocks using the medium motor or the tank steering. The next video we need to watch is the one on loops, which are important when using sensors to control the motors. We'll get to that soon.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Robotic Dudes

This week we had our second robotics team meeting. There was still some running around on top of tables (literally and figuratively), but there was a slight shift of the wind. We have a ways to go, but we're making progress.

As I mentioned last time, we discussed some team rules, and I came up with a streamlined version of the rules, which I'm calling the 4 Cs:
  • Celebration - be positive, look for the good and say it
  • Cultivation - always be learning, sharing with others
  • Collaboration - work together, synergize
  • Concentration - stay on task, be respectful
I was having a hard time with a good word that started with C and ended in -tion for be positive. I had it down to celebration and conciliation. Of the two, celebration seemed more positive to me. As soon as the word was said, we spent the next few minutes waiting for the impromptu dance party to dissipate as about half the boys did their best Kool & The Gang impression.

I had to explain what cultivation meant. We discussed that working in a garden took work to cultivate or help the plants grow. Learning takes work, but the results can be awesome.

Collaboration was easy, since a big theme of the school is the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Kids. As soon as I said synergize, they recognized it as Habit 6 and were good on that one.

I think Concentration was pretty straight forward, too, although I was still getting the last of the Celebration calmed down, so I'm not totally sure.

Everyone put on the board what team names they came up with. They all put in two votes (although there may have been some ballot box stuffing), and then our top vote getters moved on to a final election. It ended up being a close call between Bot Rockers and Robotic Dudes. I was pulling for Bot Rockers, but Robotic Dudes won the day by one vote. After the vote was over, one of the boys said he hadn't voted and he wanted to vote for Bot Rockers, which would have put it back to a tie. We then had a short lesson in politics, "Do you know what happens when you don't vote? Nothing, because you chose not to participate when your vote would have made a difference." And we're the Robotic Dudes for now, although I left the door open for changing the name later if they want to.

They have been anxious to start building something. I wanted to get them in doing something to keep their interest up, so we actually went to programming the robot that I had built previously. Eventually they have to build their own robot, but for now we can learn some of the programming basics. I found an awesome EV3 Tutorial site, so we will be watching those videos during our meetings and practicing what we have learned. Hopefully about the time the other team is done assembling the Challenge Set, we will have some navigating skills.

The first video introduced the various motors and sensors, the computer module everything plugs into, and the programming environment. He then shows how to do some basic driving around - forward, backward, turning, different speeds, etc. We had each boy drop in a Move Steering block and pick what they wanted it to do - turn, drive backwards, etc. A couple of the boys wanted to be different and used a single motor block, which just made it turn in a big circle when that block executed since only one motor turned on at a time. We talked about making sure the programming blocks were activating the desired motor, based on the port they are plugged into on the computer module.

We ran their program a couple times, so they could watch what the robot was doing while each person's block was executing. And time was up.

Friday, November 10, 2017

First Meeting for the First Lego League

About two months ago, my kids' elementary school was holding a meeting for parents interested in help out with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) initiatives at the school. The principal's vision is to earn a STEM designation for the school, which opens up opportunities for a variety of grants and programs. I couldn't make it to the meeting but told them I was willing to help however I could.

About a month ago, I had a meeting with the principal, where we talked about some of the things they need help with, such as the science fair, Odyssey of the Mind, a STEM night for families and students at the school, and a STEM committee that would be in charge of paperwork regarding the STEM designation. Some of those things needed more help than others, but the one we ended up really chasing down was the idea of a First Lego League robotics team. The school also has some VEX robots from a robotics club that was running a couple years ago, but we decided to start with Lego.

This seemed like a great idea, so the principal sent out a request to see what students would be interested in participating, as well as if there were other parents who would be willing to help coach. There was enough interest to create three teams! Another dad and I are two of the coaches, plus they made a team of students in the After School Club (ASC), which is run by college students, so one of those students will be their coach.

We had a parents night last week, where we talked about the program, answered questions, and I did a quick demo of a robot I built to show the kinds of things they can do. The principal split up the team assignments, and we are ready to go.

So yesterday after school was our first session. I brought my robot that I built, which at some point will be disassembled, because the kids have to do all the work, plus I don't know what our robot will need to look like yet to perform the various tasks in the challenge. But it's good to have something basic to show off how it works. The ASC team is assembling the challenge kit, since they're there every day anyway. The other teams are only there once a week.

I figured we would start with a little Forming, so prepared a few activities designed to get to know everyone - start learning names and personalities. I brought the robot but didn't do much more than show the basic demo of it driving and moving a block around ... and put it away several times as every time I turned around, someone would get it out again. They're excited, which is good.

The first thing I had them do was write their names on the white board and draw a picture of something that represented them, then get up and explain to us what they drew and why. One kid would only write his name really small down in the corner and another wouldn't draw a picture for some reason, but overall that worked well. I drew a mountain bike for my picture.

Then we tried doing the human knot. Did I mention these are nine and ten year old boys? Let's just say it didn't work. There was pushing and pulling and trampling and crying. You know the drill. So we sat back at our conference table and started talking about rules. I had three that I had come up with and asked for their feedback on mine and if they had some they wanted to add:
  • Be positive
  • Everything is a learning experience
  • Everyone has something to offer
They came up with a variety of rules, such as no throwing people out the window and no creating a robot atomic bomb. I pointed out that those probably fit within the existing rules, since if someone was tossed out the window, they wouldn't be able to share what they had to offer, and an atomic bomb isn't positive. We talked a little about what we could learn from the failed human knot. The boys came up with an additional rule that seemed simple but will take some work:
  • Focus
 I'll try to refine those a little more so there's a short/catchy version of each rule with maybe an interesting acronym (better than BEEF), plus a more full, descriptive version of each. But I want to keep it simple.

The last thing we did was an activity to start thinking about programming logic. I put some chairs in one corner of the room, making a basket to try to drop a basketball into. One of the boys was the robot, blindfolded at the opposite corner of the room, with several table and chairs to work around. Three of the boys were designated as the programmers, who were to give instructions to the robot. Three of the boys were designated as programmer judges. Their job was to rate how good of a job the programmers did at giving clear directions. The other three were designated as robot judges. Their job was to rate how well the robot did at following directions.

There was a clear lane around the outside of the room, but the programmers decided to send him through the minefield in the middle of the room, including having him climb over a table at one point. When it was time to put the ball in the basket, rather than having him place or drop it in, they had him throw it. The robot missed.

We talked about some situations where they gave unclear or incorrect directions, like telling the robot to turn 15 degrees, without saying in which direction and which should have actually been 90 degrees. They told him to walk forward a certain number of steps instead of just saying to walk forward until he bumped into something. When the programmers told him to climb over the table, he was blindfolded so didn't know where the table was. It took three minutes, and the ball didn't go where it was supposed to. But we learned some things.

We wrapped up talking about how it was probably difficult to remember everything they observed while the activity was happening in order to talk about it later, so they needed notebooks to write down what was happening along the way. Their homework is to get a notebook to bring next time so they can keep notes on what they do and how well it works. The other assignment is to bring a couple of ideas for a team name. I told them that while they got to make the suggestions and vote on what they liked, I reserved the right to veto any name I didn't like, so it needed to be an awesome name. "Wait, so we can't name ourselves Team Underpants?" If you have to ask, it's probably not going to happen.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


This type of thing happens all too often. You're talking about something random, let's say your favorite pieces from a bag of Chex Mix. You don't type anything into a search engine about it. You're not using your desktop computer or mobile phone at the time. You haven't purchased any from the store or Amazon or looked up any Chex Mix recipes recently. You just briefly talk about it for a minute and then the conversation changes.

The next day, you open up Facebook, and the following ad appears:

That is an actual screenshot I took when this happened to me. The strangest thing about this is that I don't have the Facebook app on my phone. I access it through my web browser, which means Facebook can't be constantly listening in to me. My wife and daughter do have the Facebook app. So if it was listening on one of their phones, it made the connection to show the ad to me.

Genisys in the title above is a reference to Terminator Genisys, which I just watched so is fresh on my mind. It is interesting how the time travelers are blown away by everyone's obsession with their mobile devices. And [spoiler alert] the artificial intelligence network which was a missile defense system in the initial movies ended up being a social media cloud system in this movie reboot. It was honestly more of a MacGuffin than an important plot point, other maybe when the security guard was looking at his phone instead of the surveillance cameras. Of course 2 or 3 decades ago people were concerned with Soviet missiles, while now social media is the big thing.

Is it a big leap from your phone showing you ads for Chex Mix to robots controlled by social media and destroying mankind? Maybe. But next time you're out in public, look around at who's being controlled by their phones.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The R in SMART

I've posted a few times recently about SMART goals. Most of the time I've seen that it's the A for attainable (or achievable) that people tend to have a problem with. Measurable is easy if there's a number available. Time-based is pretty straight forward. Specific can be an issue as it's common to want to cram everything into one massive goal instead of splitting out into smaller, discrete goals.

My daughter has a teacher who had them set SMART goals but used realistic instead of relevant for the R. I actually had a former boss who made the same mistake. The teacher just found some random handout on the internet. My former boss just blew it off that everyone uses different words in the acronym, but it's all the same stuff. The problem is that attainable and realistic are the same thing. Why would you have two words of your acronym be the same? They should be different. Being able to achieve a goal doesn't make it relevant or vice versa. You want both.

I mentioned in my last goal-related post how it's important to have a big picture vision, but to make sure that vision doesn't take over as the actual goal itself. The goal should be related to your inputs, not the output that you don't have control over, thus making it attainable. In some meetings over the past week or two, I realized I totally missed something that was staring me in the face previously. As I said, the big picture vision is important to guide the rest of the goal, but that big picture vision is actually the relevance. I've always known the R was important but generally spend less time on that one than some of the other areas. But it's actually the R that most people should probably start with. The vision guiding the goal is the relevance. Thus, the item that most people set as their measurable but not attainable pie in the sky goal should actually be the relevance.

Let's say an athlete wants to win an Olympic medal. Most people would be happy just qualifying for the Olympics, but we're going all the way here. Honestly, that is a terrible goal. It is somewhat specific on the surface but honestly too broad, because there are a lot of things that need to be done to accomplish it. It's definitely measurable - you either win it or you don't. Attainable is the difficult part, since you can control what you do but not what others do (ask Tonya Harding).

The Utah Jazz in '97 and '98 could have been NBA champs had they been playing anyone other than the Chicago Bulls. They had done everything they needed to, but there was still something out of their control - Jordan and friends.

But you can still put that pie in the sky goal in there. Make that be the relevance. If the athlete's goal is to get up early every morning and work out for five hours, that is definitely measurable and attainable. Why would she do that, though? It's relevant, because it can help in her quest to win a medal at the Olympics.

So you can still set your crazy, out of your control goal. Just put it under the R. You can still look at it anytime you want. But spend your time on the measurable and attainable part that is in your control.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

That's So Meta

Meta-cognition is an important tool in the education world. Adding the prefix meta- to a term refers to additional information about that item.

Meta-data means data about data. If you have data stored in a spreadsheet or database, the meta-data could be things like what types of characters are allowed in each field, which items are required or optional, how many records are currently stored, and so on.

A meta-analysis is an analysis of other analyses. When a scientist writes a research paper, they collect data and do some type of analysis. The meta-analysis is then analyzing the data presented in many published research papers to see if they are consistent or measuring different things.

Cognition is understanding. So meta-cognition is understanding how to gain or measure understanding.

There are different types of meta-cognition discussed by Anderson & Krathwohl (2001), including strategic knowledge, application of cognitive tasks, and self-knowledge.

Strategic knowledge is simply being aware of various tools that can be used to learn - flash cards, mnemonics, mind maps, note taking, watching videos, physical practice, and so on.

The appropriate contextual application of the items listed above is the next one. If you're learning multiplication tables, flash cards serve as a useful tool to help learn those math facts to automaticity. If you're learning how to calculate an integral, a flash card would not be so helpful, since it's more about learning to apply the concepts to whatever numbers you are given. Don't use the wrong tool for the wrong type of learning. Usually the higher you go up Bloom's Taxonomy (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create), you need more advanced strategic tools, or you may even create your own new method of learning.

The last one is understanding one's own understanding. This can include a couple levels - what methods of learning tend to be most effective for that particular individual and what the individual knows or doesn't know. A learner who is bad at math and is aware of that fact will take a more structured approach to find and utilize the best available tools for learning math or may choose a program of study that avoids the need to learn math. Someone who is a bad singer but doesn't realize it, may not ever take voice lessons, because they don't realize they need it. It's one thing to know what each note on the keyboard is by name and know the corresponding notes on the staff. It's something else to be able to physically play the right notes on the keyboard when looking at the staff. A piano student who continues to practice with flash cards even though they are all memorized isn't self-aware to the point that they know they need to move on to a different type of practice.

Make sure you take some time in whatever instruction you are doing to build the learner's meta-cognition at all levels. They should know what tools are available to them to learn. They should understand what each tool is used for. They should be able to reflect on their own application of those tools and how they work with their existing understanding in order to be willing to use the right tool at the right time for them.

Anderson, L.W. & Krathwohl, D.R. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Working Out Goals

A good goal needs to be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-based
If they are too vaguely defined, not something useful, or out of your control, they are not a good goal.

Some people really like stretch goals, I guess figuring that if they set their sights way high, they know they won't come close, but they will supposedly come in higher than they would have if they had set their sights lower (if you aim for 50, you'll achieve 45-50, where if you aim for 100, you'll maybe achieve 70). The problem with those types of goals is that they are usually focused on the end result, not the process to get there. And generally the end result is something not completely in their control (not attainable). SMART goals should be focused on the steps you're taking, with some overarching ideal helping to make sure your goal is relevant. What most people set as their goal should probably be their ideal or vision.

I set a goal a year ago to get outside at least 5 times per month. Basically that's just a little more than once per week minimum. More specifically, I would use the MapMyHike app on my phone to record my outdoors exercising, so it would be measurable. It is very doable, and in fact most months I did it much more than that, although in December, let's just say I got outside a lot the last week of the month after not so much the first part of the month.

My first recorded hike was July 7, 2016 to Myrtle Falls in Mount Rainier National Park.

Today, July 8, 2017, I hit my 100th workout on a bike ride up Green Canyon.

Some stats from the last year, from the MapMyHike app:

Weekly average
  • 9.7 miles
  • 2 hr 45 min 55 sec
  • 2 workouts
  • 1,675 calories
Total for the year
  • 464.6 miles
  • 5 day 13 hr 32 min 31 sec
  • 100 workouts
  • 80,420 calories
That's about 27 pounds' worth of calories I kept off, and a lot of adventures.

A somewhat related goal I set at the beginning of the year, which I've kept up for six months so far, is to post an Instagram picture every day. This helps me with the goal to get outside and exercise, since there are always nice things to take pictures of when I'm out riding, hiking, snowshoeing, and so on. Not everything I post is outside in nature, although the vast majority of pics fit that category. It also helps me develop my eye for photography. Being color-blind (red/green color deficient, thank you) and only semi-reasonable at drawing, my best chance at being artistic is photography. Double relevant.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Facebook Update

A year ago, I posted about the problem with Facebook. I took a quick sample of the last 50 posts to my wall and coded them to see how many of each kind there were. I realize some social media gurus will figure out the optimal times to post based on time zones and when people are awake, at work, on break, and so on, but I didn't take any of that into account at the time. I've done an update and didn't try to match time of day or anything.

News is still up near the top. Advertisements and status updates from people I don't know jumped way up to the top. The number of unmotivational images dropped. Status update from someone I know dropped a little.

Of course, this isn't a scientific study, but I will say that things seem to be moving in the wrong direction. It was already problematic a year ago, but to have advertisements and status updates from people I don't know overtake the top spots, just above news, and to have status updates from someone I know drop, that heightens the irrelevance of Facebook as a social media platform. It's becoming even more about advertising and big media, while throwing in some random extra stuff from friends of friends to try to make it seem like it's still personal and social. But if people I know aren't using it to post things about themselves, what's the point?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Message is Clear

Kids-in-mind is a great site for reviewing movies for various types of objectionable content. They give a 1-10 rating in several categories, plus a description of the reasons for the ratings. They also include a paragraph or so description of the plot.

My favorite part is probably the message, which is the last item given for each movie. It's just a short sentence or so and easy to miss. Unfortunately, Sharknado was a Made for TV movie, so not included on the site, but Snakes on a Plane takes the top place for my favorite message. The other messages listed below are somewhat randomly chosen and in no particular order:

  • Snakes on a Plane: Snakes can really mess up a perfectly pleasant airplane trip.
  • Nacho Libre: Doing things for the right reasons is reward enough.
  • Gigli: Working past your fears holds the promise that good things will probably start to happen.
  • I Know What You Did Last Summer: You should take responsibility for your actions.
  • Mortal Kombat: You can't escape your destiny.
  • Monsters vs. Aliens: Be careful whom you call a monster; you may just need help from a "monster" someday.
  • Without a Paddle: Don't let anything stand in the way of doing what you want to do or you'll regret it.
  • White Chicks: Relationships take effort from both parties.
  • Face/Off: Keep your own identity.
  • Three to Tango: Don't cheat to get ahead, and be honest about who you are.
  • Napolean Dynamite: Being different is OK. We can find friendship and love in the most unlikely places.
  • Hannibal: A good brain is a terrible thing to waste. Cannibals are people too.
  • Deuce Bigalow: Even losers can find love if they will themselves to it.
  • Madagascar: Keep your life fresh by changing the routine. Don't be afraid of change.
  • Cabin Boy: Learn to respect others and they will in turn respect you.
  • The Green Mile: Sometimes love can kill us, but we can also save ourselves and others with love.

Sunday, April 30, 2017


When it comes to communicating with other groups of people, there are two general categories of understanding - language and culture. Now, with specific individuals, everyone has a little different way of doing things, but before you can get to that point, it's important to have the first two down.

In the U.S., we have a very individualist culture, for example. It's all about what can I do for myself and what can you do for me. Many other cultures are collectivist, where it's more about what I can do for others or what we can do together. Neither is better or worse than the other - they are just different. You could go from one country to the other and learn the language just fine but still have difficulty communicating if you don't have the culture figured out.

I was at Wal-Mart a while back and a Hispanic gentleman was checking out in front of me. No big deal, just rolling the cart through and paying for things. After he paid and was about to leave he realized he had put something on the little rack under the main cart. He pointed it out to the cashier. I can't remember exactly how he said it. It was in English, but either the accent or the words he chose made it a little unclear what had happened.

As the cashier was trying to figure out what was going on, she asked the gentleman, "Is that yours?" He responded, "No." This confused her a little more as I think she was maybe imagining that somehow the cart he had been pushing around had something left in it from a previous customer. Whether or not he could sense her rising confusion, he quickly followed up with, "I haven't paid for it yet."

At that point, I was set and knew exactly what was going on. The cashier was just not getting it. As they went back and forth a couple times, her trying to figure out if he did or didn't want the product that by now he had pulled out from under his cart and him somewhat indirectly answering her questions, I stepped in. I pointed out to the cashier that he wanted to purchase the item. He had put it in his cart. He just had forgotten to pull it out and put it on the conveyor belt so she could scan it. As such, it was not his yet. It would not be his until he paid for it. It was his in the sense that he had put it in his cart and was intending to pay for it. (If you want to test this one out, go grab something out of someone's cart, and chances are they will tell you, "That's mine.")

As he left, she thanked me and said something about how she wished she knew Spanish. The interaction they just had was in English, but she knew there was something missing in their understanding. Knowing Spanish probably would have helped, but maybe not as much as she thought.

I speak Spanish and at the time was trying to learn German. I mentioned the program I was using, Mango Languages, which is available free through the library. She seemed interested in it and even wrote down the name of the program. As I explained a little how it worked and how much I was learning from it, I could tell she was losing interest fast. No other customers were waiting, so it wasn't that. I could just see that it wasn't something that was going to be able to hold her attention very long.

Languages take some dedication to learn. The idea of knowing another language was interesting, but not so much the process to get there. Of course, from there, the cultural components are a whole different level, a difficult level to get through using software. Language is the first step, though.

Friday, March 31, 2017

How Long Have You Been Up Here?

There is a great mountain bike trail near my house. Actually there are quite a few nearby that really are great rides. Some run parallel to a river, some include several stream fords, and others are steep climbs that lead to awesome views. This one is a nice 3-5 mile ride, depending on where you start and stop, mostly a gradual uphill, which then leads back to a fun 3-5 mile downhill back to the car. There is a dirt road that is groomed in the winter as a cross country ski trail and which a lot of people drive up and camp along in the summer.

What makes the ride more fun than most dirt roads is that there is a single track that crisscrosses the road the whole way. Probably less than 10% of the time are you on the dirt road. The rest of the time is on twisty single track with rocks to jump off and branches to duck and banked turns. Lots of fun.

The thing is, as a multi-use canyon with dogs, bikers, horses, hikers, kids, cars, and all kinds of traffic on both the road and the single track, since it is so close to where so many people live, it's important to watch out to avoid accidents. Because I (and a former riding buddy) never cared too much about the uphill, thinking of it as the slog you have to go through to then enjoy the smooth ride down, I just ride up the dirt road, which helps avoid having to pass people going opposite directions on a tight single track. A lot of other people take the single track up and then back down again. It doesn't matter too much how you get up, but if you want to do some twists and turns up, that is great.

In the fall, the trail starts turning a bit muddy, with the upper sections in the last mile or two usually much wetter than the bottom section. Sometimes the last mile can be so muddy on the single track that you just have to stay on the road, and even the road will have huge puddles on it but they are usually more easily avoided. I was up there around deer hunting season in October, and that was the general condition of the trail. The road wasn't bad, but the upper sections of single track were a mess. I slogged up the road as usual and didn't pay attention to the single track until I got to the turnaround spot. I headed down the single track and found it pretty messy, but I go through okay. Upon descent, each section where it crosses the road is usually a little drier than the previous.

After crossing the road a couple times, I came to a crossing about halfway down the canyon where several bikers were stopped. I wondered what that section of the single track looked like since the upper sections were a bit of a mess, and I was considering just sticking to the road if the single track was a mess. Naturally, I asked the bikers who were headed up hill what the condition of the trail ahead of me and behind them down the canyon looked like. His surprised question in response to my question has stuck with me.

How long have you been up here?

It must have made no sense to him that if I was coming down the canyon that I wouldn't already have seen the condition of the single track probably within the last hour. The only possible explanation in his mind is that I must have been camping out or something to keep myself busy for a few days to not have been through recently and thus need a trail report. This was in spite of the fact that I had no significant gear, just a jacket and a small hydration pack. I told him that I had just come up the road, not the trail, and you could practically see the light bulb turn on. I had come up only within the past hour but on the road, not the single track.

Why was that not the obvious explanation that popped into his head? Because he always rides up the single track. That's just what you do if you're on a bike. Or that's what he does. And what a lot of other people do. But not what everyone does, especially those who don't want to be constantly pulling out of the way of other bikes on the trail headed in the opposite direction.

How often is that our first thought when someone says something or does something that is different than the way we say or do things? The cognitive dissonance can be blinding as we try to process some convoluted explanation for a strange event or behavior, when in fact the other person just chooses to do something that is simply different than how we do them.

How important Covey's recommendation that we seek first to understand, then to be understood. More often than not what we may blow out of proportion and make into something huge is really not what was intended. We would all be better off if there is a possible occasion for offense if we would stop and think about what the other person likely intended and if there isn't a simpler explanation than the knee-jerk story we made up in our mind. No one was offended on the mountain bike trails that day, but there was still a misunderstanding based on two people having different preferences.

By searching for the parsimonious explanation - the simplest explanation, with the least assumptions, that still gets a reasonable result - instead of doing mental gymnastics to make sense of the cognitive dissonance, one's own assumptions may be challenged. And not everyone is ready for that.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Simplified, but not too simple

In a couple of classes, we teach a basic project management concept - the Work Breakdown Structure. It's an outline of the tasks that need to be performed, with related tasks grouped into phases. It can get complicated, depending on how many levels deep you want to create your outline, but once you can go two levels deep, you can go further if you choose.

A student was for some reason offended that as part of the discussion of the WBS, my colleague used a simple example of making a peanut butter sandwich. For the case study the students complete as part of the course, it's much more complex than that, obviously. But before being able to apply the concept of the WBS to an advanced situation, you start with applying it to a basic situation. It's a common technique that many of us use. You take a very simple task that many of us do all the time, such as making a sandwich and break it down so that you can focus attention on what matters - in this case, the WBS. I will sometimes do an example with cooking a steak and making a salad. Nothing big and fancy, but people understand the basics of cooking and realize that you want to time things right so that both parts of the meal are ready at the same time. Even people who can't cook understand the annoyance when the waiter at a restaurant brings some people their food but some of the plates aren't ready yet. I usually let the students choose what example they want to use.

Instead of splitting their attention between two topics - the WBS and programming an ERP system (or doing construction on a skyscraper or whatever other more complex example you might want to come up with), you just focus on the WBS. If someone doesn't know what an ERP system is, you wouldn't want to spend a lot of time dealing with that when you should be focusing on the topic at hand.

The funny thing about making a sandwich is that it's simple on purpose, but when you're done with breaking it down, you realize it's not as simple as it seems (although maybe this student didn't catch this point). The idea is you take something everyone knows and you help them break it down to a level of detail that goes a little beyond what they normally would write in order to establish what assumptions they may be making without realizing it. This transfers to other more complex projects very well.

Get out a piece of bread, but what if you're out of bread? Are you baking your own bread, too? You have to start with a build vs. buy analysis first to compare the quality of and time to bake the homemade bread to your options to get to the store and buy some.

Is the bread already sliced? How thick?

Put the end of the knife in the jar of peanut butter, oh, but did you open the jar first?

Are the stakeholders expecting bananas, sprinkles, toasted bread, seedless jam? Anyone who has made a sandwich for a toddler knows the struggle.

If you have an example that is too complicated, then the students can get distracted by something that is too hard and they don't understand the example well enough to be able to challenge assumptions and pick out what might be missing. Using a simple example lets them focus on the concepts being taught and how to break down the work instead of on trying to figure out the example itself.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Career Day at the Middle School

My sixth grader, Landon, had a career day in one of his classes recently. He could either interview someone about their job and write up a report about it or a certain number of people could invite someone to discuss their career in the classroom. He opted for inviting me to talk instead of him having to write a report. Smart. The following are my notes that I prepared. The asterisks are where I was asking a question and would throw out a piece of candy to anyone who would answer. Two or three kids raised their hand for my first question. As soon as they saw the candy flying across the room, 90% of the kids raised their hand for every question.

How many of you know what you want to be doing 20 years from now? What? *

How many don't know?

That's okay. About 20 years ago, I remember a professor telling me that many of us would have jobs doing things in 20 years that didn't exist at that time. How awesome is that to know that some of you will be doing things that don't exist today?

20 years ago I did have an email address, but most people I knew who weren't university students didn't. At the time, only a few people had cell phones. If I needed my parents to come pick me up from somewhere, how do you think I let them know? * I'd use a payphone, and if you didn't have a few coins to put in to make the call you called collect which meant that the person you were calling would agree to pay a ridiculous amount of money to accept your call, and it would record your name, and then ask the person if they were willing to take the call. So if you were a fast talker you could just say something like comegetmefromschool, and then it would call and your mom would hear "Will you accept a collect call from 'comegetmefromschool'" and then she would hang up and come get you. That was the old school method of voice texting. You all think that's so new, but it's been around for a while.

So now I work for WGU. Anyone want to guess what that stands for? * Western Governors University. I teach college courses in business, technology, and project management. The school is completely online, and it did not exist 20 years ago. I have students all over the country and even in some other countries. I work from my office in my basement. Are you guys pretty busy outside of school? Do you ever have things that keep you from getting your homework done or that you'd rather be doing instead of coming to class? What? * WGU was designed to help adults who are working full time to get their bachelor's or master's degrees on their own schedule. So instead of having to come to a class at a certain time, you just slip in your studying wherever you can on your lunch break, on the train, waiting to pick their kids up from soccer practice, or late at night after the kids go to bed.

In order to teach in college, I earned three degrees. If any of you want to follow in those footsteps, you probably have another 15 or 16 years of school ahead of you. I know some people who just did degree after degree straight through, but I stopped and worked for a while in between each, which I liked because it gave me some more real world perspective instead of only knowing what we talked about in the classroom. I worked for a manufacturing company that was spread across three different states, did quality assurance testing at a company that made videoconferencing equipment, managed the database of alumni and donors at USU, and then moved into teaching. One of my favorite jobs was doing quality testing. Why do you think that is? * Because I got to be creative and try to find ways to break things and tell other people to fix what I broke.

What are your favorite classes? Why? * One of the things I like to talk about when I teach is how the things we discuss can be used in real life. A fun thing to do is ask your teacher how you would use what they are teaching you in real life. They really like it.

One of the things I teach is project management. Who knows what project management is? * One concept is the difference between operations and projects. Logan High is a good example - from an operations perspective, they have people who teach classes, play sports, clean the bathrooms, and that kind of thing. Every year, the same thing. But what's been going on at Logan High these past couple years? * Construction. That is a temporary situation, which means it's a project. It has a beginning and end with a transformation taking place in between.

Because projects have limited resources and need to achieve a specific result, a project manager helps define what they call the triple constraints - money, schedule, and scope. If you increase or decrease any of those three, it affects the others. If you try to do something faster, what happens? * It probably costs more money. What if you increase what you are trying to do during the project? * It will probably take more money and time. And if you are running out of money, how do you deal with that? * You have to reduce what you expect to accomplish.

With limited resources, it's important to use those resources efficiently. Landon and I were cooking dinner on Sunday. We made biscuits and gravy. You should have him make some for you sometime. One of the things we made sure to do was manage our critical path. It took about 15 minutes for the meat and gravy to cook. It took about 5 minutes to mix up the biscuits and 20 minutes for them to bake. Overall, how long is that? * 15+5+20 = 40 minutes. Well, instead of doing the gravy first and then having it sit there for 20 minutes and get cold or burn, we made the biscuits first. Why? * So we mixed up the biscuits for 5 minutes and put them in the oven for 20 minutes. During those 20 minutes, we made the meat and gravy. We did the same amount of work, but by managing the schedule efficiently, we got dinner done in 25 minutes instead of 40 and everything was hot at the same time. Now imagine a 3 year project to rebuild Logan High School taking 2 years or 4 years because of good or bad management of the schedule. That's where having a good plan and a good project manager comes in. The PM takes a large project and breaks it up into small pieces, schedules all those pieces at the best possible times, and then helps the team stick to the plan until the project is over.