Every time I sit down to write…

… about the latest outrageous comment uttered by a Republican Presidential “front runner,” something even more ludicrous or dangerous appears in my news feed. I literally cannot keep up with it all.

I’m not going to spend my evening digging up hyperlinks and footnotes to all of the craziness; if you’ve been reading the news at all, you’ve read about the dangerously dark turn Donald Trump has been making toward outright Fascism. In spite of Goodwin’s Law, it is not unreasonable to compare Trump’s tactics to Hitler’s.

Then, just when I think I’ve got a handle on an idea, we have a shooting at the Colorado Planned Parenthood. After killing a police officer and wounding many others, somehow this white suspect was disarmed and captured alive. Contrast this with the released video of Laquan McDonald’s murder by police (there’s just no other word for it), where a Black suspect is gunned down while surrounded by police cars.

I can’t keep up with this madness.

The viciousness against Black citizens is nothing new, though; it’s only new to White people who now get to witness it thanks to cell phone cameras and police videos. It’s a mistake to think that the violence is escalating simply because White exposure to it has been intensifying; Black citizens have been telling stories like this for years. This helps explain why Trump continues to lead in the polls. It’s not as if a plurality of Republican voters only recently decided “heck, a racist White strong man is better than any of these other bozos” – that attitude has been brewing for a long time. It only took one (now several) candidates to cast aside the polite dog whistle language and say what they’re really thinking.

A few postings ago I wrote a bit about practicing empathy, in particular being present to another’s repulsive ideas. I also talked about the difference between accepting a situation and condoning it. Trump is a perfect case in point. We cannot ignore him or dismiss him as a clown any longer; in particular, we can’t shrug our shoulders and say “yeah, but he has no chance of winning anyway…”

The poisonous ideologies that led to Trump being a front-runner did not appear overnight, and they will take a long time to eradicate. For that to happen will take a social movement on par with the 1960’s. (BTW, Greta Christina has posted a good blog piece on Letting go of Sixties Envy. Basically, the 1960’s are happening all over again, and if you’ve ever wondered what you might have done during the Civil Rights movement, you now have a chance to find out.)

I’m too agitated at the moment to think clearly about what my next steps should be. At the very least, I can maintain vigilance and speak up against injustice. I can bear witness. Engage the young people in my life in age-appropriate discussions of these issues.  But as sociologists have noticed, we’re tending more and more to surround ourselves with people who think like we do; I’d have to work hard to think of anyone in my social circle who even remotely supports Trump, Carson, and the like.

Coincidentally, I start work on a university campus tomorrow. I’m curious what tone the coffee house conversations will take.

That wasn’t so bad

Just a quick update – the bending operation went far more smoothly than I expected. Once the iron was hot it took less than an hour to bend both sides. I’m happy with the outcome – the shape conforms to the template to a reasonable degree of tolerance. These sides are definitely a bit thinner than the last guitar; they bent far more easily. Whether that will lead to a structural weakness remains to be seen. Sadly, the GoPro was completely out of juice, so there is no video of the process.


Bent sides resting in a mold

I want to revisit a topic I wrote about last week, the madness of what passes for political rhetoric nowadays and the anti-empathic messages we’re hearing. But I’m just too frazzled at the moment – tomorrow is my last full time day at SRI and I just want to relax this evening.

My blogging buddy Kris reminded us that this “promise” to blog daily only matters to the degree that it serves a purpose. While I’m perfectly capable of pushing myself through a 30-day challenge, I don’t feel the need to force myself to write every day at the moment. I’m simply grateful for the reminder to write this month, and will see whether I can turn this into a more regular habit.

Bending things

My shop time has been spent prepping fixtures and forms; today I actually worked on the guitar sides a bit, thinning them to around 2mm in preparation for bending. The last time I did this, I used a power drum sander – think giant rolling pin covered with sandpaper. That tool ensured uniformity of thickness across length and width.

This time, not having a drum sander handy, I used the old fashioned method of hand planing. The thickness gauge in the photo reveals I’m off by +/- 10% in places – I don’t think that will cause a problem, but who knows? That’s part of the learning curve. The two problems I can imagine are 1) uneven bending when I apply heat, resulting in “lumpy” curves, and/or 2) structural weakness if the wood is much thinner than 2mm. Structural weakness may not show up for years, so this could be a very long term learning project.

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Sides thinned to 2mm, more or less

I plan on bending the sides tomorrow, and I may wear a GoPro to capture some of the process on video. I don’t know if it will translate to video very well; so much of the sensory feedback is in the hands, feeling the wood relax under heat.

In other learning news, I attended a concert tonight by Denis Azabagic, a rising star in the classical guitar world. He opened his concert by playing all five preludes of Villa-Lobos; coincidentally, I’m working on three of them in various stages of preparation. The first prelude is one of my favorite guitar pieces, so it was a treat to hear it played by a world-class performer. Also gratifying was that he played it fairly romantically, with lots of expression.

I came across a YouTube master class by Julian Bream (an English guitarist) from the 1970’s, and his advice to a student took the interpretation in a different direction. Even while acknowledging the piece should be played with expression, he encouraged the student to keep the rhythm of the accompaniment relatively strict. You can see Bream explaining this in the video below, and his example performance picks up at the 7:40 time mark. In my opinion, the piece is a bit lifeless in his hands.

Here’s Azabagic playing that same section for a student of his (I’m also grateful that Azabagic places lots of his lessons on YouTube for public consumption – talk about an open educational resource!). There are subtle differences that make it come alive; he plays with dynamics and tempo a lot more freely than Bream.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a professional guitar teacher; in many ways I’m learning about musical interpretation on my own. So what to do when two different authorities suggest very different approaches to the same piece? This isn’t merely an issue of “my opinion is as good as your opinion, so I’ll just go with mine” – both of these musicians have spent years – decades – mastering their craft, and I suspect that if pushed, both would be able to justify their interpretations in terms of music theory, local culture, and what we know of the composer’s intent (or performance, since Villa-Lobos was a guitarist himself).

My dissertation research focused on how adolescents make sense of conflicting claims by authority figures, and here I am doing the same thing. Unlike an adolescent, I know there are frameworks that justify aspects of musical performance (in addition to the personal predilections of the performer). My job as an adult is to work on learning those “rules” and when to bend them.

And yet… there’s a difference between, say, simply knowing the rules of logic, and framing a compelling written argument. The latter takes a degree of creativity and artistry. Same with interpretation of music – the point is to bring my own feeling and “take” on the piece into the performance, while at the same time respecting the overall structure and expectations surrounding it (playing it with a country swing rhythm would be a no-no.)

Tomorrow I bend the sides of my new instrument. The wood is not strictly thicknesses – that +/- 10% (or more) may or may not add “color” to the sound. It also might result in a catastrophic structural failure. As with the interpretation of a piece of music, a little variation adds color, but too much destroys the underlying structure. I’m hoping luck is on my side tomorrow.




The latest news reports cite over 120 dead in Paris after tonight’s attack. Julia and her daughter leave for Paris a week from tomorrow. Naturally we’re all thinking twice about this trip; the reports over the next few days will tip things one way or another. Like most of the world, I read about the carnage and think “how could they?” Sure, I know there are strong grievances and cultural conflicts blah blah blah… But taking the news from tonight and the past few weeks as a whole, I think we could use a lot more empathy.

Empathy. The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and really understand their experience.

How does one open fire on innocent civilians at a rock concert? What do you have to think of those “others” in order to gun them down like that? Or rather, what do you have to not feel? Put the shoe on the other foot – how do we hear about “civilian casualties” connected to a drone strike and not stop, horrified, in our tracks?

The University of Missouri has been in the news lately, as the hostile climate toward African Americans and other ethnic minorities has been hotly protested. Sure, I’ve heard the excuse “college students have said stupid things since the dawn of time,” but really, how do you excuse calling students – and professors – ni***rs? What this tells me is that the white students are believing their own myths about the Other, and not being open to experiencing them as actual people in all their complexity. Empathy is lacking.

Republican candidates are falling all over themselves to say something more outrageous than their competitors, scapegoating just about every group you can think of other than straight Christian white men. Sure, it gets them publicity, generates ratings for TV networks… but at what cost? As “leaders” of the party they’re teaching supporters to not empathize, to not think of the complexity of the Others’ situations, to not see them as fully human. This has got to stop.

Paris, Missouri, the GOP… Oh, and let’s not forget all of the police abuse that gave rise to Black Lives Matter.  Again, seeing your job as keeping Them in their place. They are to be contained, so that We can live comfortably.

I also reject the red herring of “but but but you can’t outlaw speech…. First Amendment!”  Right, calling for greater empathy does not mean silencing through force. But speech has consequences, as every child learns growing up. You can say idiotic and hurtful things, but don’t be shocked when you’re publicly shamed for it.

And we need to keep calling out this sort of hate speech whenever it arises. Nobody is disposable; innocents at a concert or at a wedding or at the beach are not targets. But after calling it out comes the much harder task of engaging with the despicable. Can I sit at a coffee shop and, rather than visibly reflect disgust at the conversation happening at the next table, invite them into a conversation, really try to empathize with their point of view as I hope they will empathize with mine?

And yeah, empathy and conversation has to flow both ways. “Let me tell you how your’e wrong” is rarely a productive opening move. “Really, so you think Black students at Stanford generally don’t deserve to be here? Tell me more…” is stomach-knotting but really has to be part of the conversation. I don’t have to agree with anything they’re saying but I have to listen – fully – if I’m going to have any hope of connecting. As Eckhart Tolle once said eloquently, there’s a profound difference between accepting a statement or act and condoning a statement or act. Acceptance means fully recognizing, listening, witnessing, and acknowledging. Acceptance is a vital and necessary first step for fully engaging with the situation.

I’m thinking about empathy, listening, and the like a lot nowadays, as I prepare to move back onto a university campus. In graduate school it was easy enough to focus on my own little world, and leave the undergraduates to their own devices. Not so this time around. While I’ll be focusing on intellectual and academic development, I can’t ignore the fact that these are twenty year olds on a campus where issues may run hot. And I’m well aware that as a white guy I will have easier access to conversations that would be hushed if my skin color were darker. I hope that I have the wisdom and courage to walk my talk if that chance arises.

Ebikes – a tipping point, or another Segway?

Being a bit of a bike geek, I’ve been researching the surprisingly varied models of electric-assist bikes on the market. These are basically pedal bicycles that have an electric motor and battery to provide extra power to the wheels. Some can be run purely off the battery (no pedaling required), while others are “pedal assist” systems – power is only applied to supplement pedal power. They’re still a bit pricey for my taste and budget (decent ones run close to $3,000), but there are also much less expensive DIY kits available that one can add onto an existing bike frame.

This has me wondering whether we’re on the cusp of another transportation revolution. The Bay Area had a high density of early adopters when the Toyota Prius first came out (I myself bought one in its 2nd year of production). Early Prius owners would give each other “the nod” if we pulled up next to one another; there were plenty of web-based discussion boards on topics such as optimal tire inflation, hyper-miling (squeezing every last MPG out of the car), and the like. Nowadays, the Prius is so commonplace nobody bats an eye. Today it’s the Tesla, Nissan Leaf, and other pure electric vehicles that get some notice, but even they are becoming more commonplace.

With the economy on the rebound, Bay Area traffic has gotten horrible. The relationship between cars on the road and traffic snarls is non-linear – it only takes a small increment of cars on the road to really foul up the traffic patterns. I’ve altered my current commute to take more surface streets this year, as the main freeway is simply no longer the fastest route (according to Google Maps transit times, which I’ve found to be accurate). And I’ve certainly noticed that in stop-and-go traffic, a bicycle commuter can more or less keep pace with me over several miles.

All of this has me wondering whether the time is right for a new segment of the population to discover bicycle commuting. I don’t know what the statistics are for bike commuters (in terms of average distance traveled, time used during commute, etc.)… Oh, wait, The Google know all. This page claims in 2014, the national average bike commute was just over 19 minutes, with most commutes falling in the 10-14 minute range. Assuming a fairly casual average speed of 10 mph (which might be reasonable if stop signs and traffic lights are factored in), that means the average bike commute is a bit over 3 miles.  Maybe 4 if the speed goes up a bit.

Ebikes have the potential to change that range dramatically. There are essentially two speed classes recognized by a recent CA law, those limited to 20mph top speed, and those limited to 28mph.  I’ve tried bikes in both categories and believe me, it’s pretty easy to get to the top speed by just exerting the effort I would expend going 8-10 mph on a normal bike.  This means that a 3 mile commute at 10mph (18 minutes) could become a 6 mile commute at 20mph, or nearly 9 miles at 28mph. Inside that ring from 3 to 9 miles out from home are a lot of potential commutes that could be done nearly as quickly by ebike.

That’s the hopeful view. A pessimistic view (spurred by an editorial I dug up – and lost the link to – while researching ebikes) wonders whether ebikes are the next Segway. In the author’s mind this is not a flattering comparison. The initial promise of the Segway was to revolutionize urban transportation. Instead they became associated with mall cops and airport security; the public perception of Segway riders is somewhere between a dork and an overweight couch potato. I have no data to corroborate the author’s claim of public perceptions, but the paucity of Segways on the sidewalks and bike lanes speaks for itself – I almost never see one in the wild, except for an occasional organized tour of a city.

Personally, I don’t see ebikes going the same route as the Segway. First, they come in a variety of styles, from cruisers to road bikes to real workhorse bike/trucks. Anybody interested in one can find one that fits their perception of what a “cool” bike should look like. Most importantly, the “e” part of the ebike can be made fairly unobtrusive – it would take a hard second look to realize a person’s bike was electrically assisted. Also, while the U.S. is not a bike commuting culture in the same way that, say, China is, bikes are common enough that one doesn’t call attention to oneself riding one. A Segway definitely catches people’s eye – a bicycle, not so much.

As for myself, I clocked my commute to Stanford at about 7 miles one way, and timed it at about 35 minutes on my carbon road bike riding at a moderate touring pace (around 12mph, including stop signs and lights). I’m a recreational/fitness cyclist, so that’s well within my range for an easy bike ride. For starters, I’m going to try commuting the old-fashioned way with pure pedal power. If I decide there is real value in cutting the time in half, maybe I’ll consider a plug-and-play e-motor kit, but for now I just don’t think I’m in the right demographic/commute range to justify that. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, here’s my new beast on its first ride out. (Specialized Sirrus Sport Disc)

New commuter on its first time out

New commuter on its first time out

Repotting myself

A number of people have asked me what the new job is all about. Most of my co-workers know the parts of the story, but my social circle extends far beyond Menlo Park. Here’s the scoop.

After finishing my PhD in Education in 2001, I went to work at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) doing contract research in education. This is a job that most people don’t know anything about. Every time you hear of a government study of a new reading program, changes to teacher evaluation practices, technology use in the home, etc., the social scientists who did the actual investigation probably work either at a university or a research institute. In fact, large-scale studies are generally only done by research institutes, as they have large, permanent professional staffers who can take on these multi-year efforts. University professors do their share of this work, but their grants tend to be smaller, and their graduate student research assistants tend to, well, graduate shortly after they’re trained up to the job.

This was actually not my first choice of career path. I was aiming squarely at an academic position – teaching courses and starting up a research program of my own, investigating how to infuse reasoning and argumentation into the K-12 curriculum. But life intervened; my dissertation schedule slipped, such that it was going to be very hard to both finish and get on the job market those last six months of school. I’d also started a promising relationship as I was finishing up, so it seemed like a good idea to stay put for another year or two, get some writing done, and then venture out into the academic world.

Relationship led to marriage, which led to me withdrawing from consideration for an academic job at the University of Hawaii (I was told I was their top candidate at the time). The pace of the contract research work left little time for writing or thinking about my own research agenda, and I didn’t have the desire or fortitude to publish my dissertation work after-hours. I did move to another institute (SRI International) after a few years at AIR, and that is where I’ve been employed for just over eleven years.

At some point I essentially timed out as a viable assistant professor candidate. Ironically, my marriage dissolved around this point, so I was finally “free” to move anywhere in the country.  But I wasn’t publishing enough peer-reviewed work, and my research projects did not add up to a coherent program (that’s the nature of contract research – it’s wonderfully diverse, which keeps life interesting, but it’s not an easy way to build the focal specialties preferred by universities). So I made peace with that change of course, and got involved with some pretty interesting work over the years. My colleagues are both smart and kind (a rare combination!), and I applaud the leadership at SRI for maintaining such high standards of research quality and professionalism.

It’s hard to put a finger on any one thing that made me itch for a change. There were some dissapointments – projects that seemed promising but fell apart internally, or evaluations of hopeful innovations that turned out to not have much of an impact. At one point I found myself telling a colleague “I’m getting really tired of documenting failures.” If there was a turning point, it was probably that – I felt that I was a passive bystander documenting well-intentioned but poorly thought out innovations.

My thoughts turned back to my original intent – to more directly educate students and conduct research on critical reasoning (it’s probably not a coincidence that my interest in reasoning seems to intensify every election season, when I’m continually appalled at what passes for political discourse). To make a potentially long story short, I found a way back into a university setting, this time as a staff researcher.

Stanford University is beginning a process of intensive self-examination, asking it can do better to foster student learning. Here’s a sampling of the questions being asked in this “year of learning“.

  • How do we define “good teaching” and “good learning”? What does current research tell us is most effective?
  • What are “good studying” habits and skills? Which extracurricular factors influence learning outcomes and what does current research tell us to pay attention to?
  • How can faculty and departments recognize effective teaching and encourage it?
  • How and why do teaching and learning vary between disciplines and what is common among them?
  • How can we learn about best practices and diversity of goals in teaching from one another, across different schools?
  • What should we do to improve teaching and learning at Stanford in the future?

Stanford needs thoughtful education researchers to help carry out this mission, and in particular they need someone who can also help faculty interpret the results from a newly overhauled course evaluation system. This list of research questions that span philosophy of education, learning sciences, and data analysis seemed almost tailor-made for what I value and enjoy. It also turns out that a former SRI colleague and good friend is already at Stanford helping to move this inquiry forward. We had a special synergy when working together in the past, and when she alerted me to this job posting it seemed too good to be true.

I’ll be joining the Stanford team in December, and meanwhile am wrapping up some loose ends with on-going projects at SRI. That’s the story of my transition.

There will be lots more to write about, I’m sure, as the (academic) year progresses. I also want to use this interim time to reflect on other mid-life transitions; I feel like I’m in a very different place than when I wrote for NaBloPoMo last November. But that’s for future postings.

Here, have a cat.

Manele tracking the sun

Manele tracking the sun


I’ve started cleaning out the office space I’ve occupied for eleven years. I found boxes that haven’t been opened since moving in from my previous job – clearly they aren’t holding anything important. Old posters from conferences long past and forgotten. Printed user manuals from software seven versions out of date (and from an era before PDF manuals). I even found a binder of notes and assignments from an undergraduate course, circa 1985; that binder was older than many of my colleagues.

The metaphor of molting fits well – shedding parts of me that served me well at the time, but are no longer needed. At one point these binders, notes, and journal articles felt like off-line storage for my brain; I might not be actively thinking about their contents, but I’ve been maintaining an internal pointer to them, should I ever need to call them up again. Over time, though, I’ve either moved on from those issues, or am assured that the Internet knows all and that I could call up newer, fresher treatments of these issues as needed. It’s time to molt.

Going through my book shelves will be an interesting exercise. The planks are roughly six feet long. One entire shelf is devoted to philosophy, psychology, and education trade books. A second shelf holds statistical and psychometric texts. The third holds relics from years past – the Numerical Recipes reference, a calculus textbook, Sedgewick’s Algorithms… I’ll end up pruning books from each of them, taking what is most likely to be needed in the next stage of life and discarding the rest.

Can I know what will be important to retain? Generally I’d use the “if I haven’t looked at it in ten years, discard it” rule, but part of the reason I haven’t cracked some of these books is that my current work doesn’t demand it. I’m moving back into a position where the deeper questions – what is important to teach, how should we think about what it means to learn something – are going to be actively discussed. Maybe I’ll get to re-read Plato’s dialogs again. :-)  Or rather, feel the urge to re-read Plato, to have an active question I’m pursuing in those pages. I’m looking forward to the metamorphosis.

Bin 1 of 2 (and counting) for recycling

Bin 1 of 2 (and counting) for recycling