I want to pick up on an aspect of the master’s path I wrote about last week, and that’s the role of memory. Or rather, how difficult it is to form certain types of memory, particularly muscle memory and that automaticity that can go along with being in “flow.”

Tonight I was again getting back on the path of reviving my musical interests (somewhere between the paths of hacking and mastery) while my partner was playing on the computer. As I was winding down she joked “how about some Stairway to Heaven?”  The funny thing is, I could immediately play a jazzy improv version of StH, followed by a bluegrassy version, followed by the straight version. It was probably the cleanest piece I played all night. I swear I haven’t played any of those in years, and even then just once in a blue moon while goofing around. Stairway to Heaven was one of the first “real” guitar pieces I learned when I picked up the instrument in high school (and who in my generation didn’t learn that as part of their repertoire?), and I remember drilling away at it all summer, hours on end.

Most of us have probably heard the “10,000 hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, based on research by Anders Ericsson. Without picking apart the details, Ericsson claims that one needs about 10,000 hours of focused practice to acquire a skill to the point the rest of us would recognize as “master level.”  I should go back and read Ericsson’s original writings on expertise rather than popular interpretations of his ideas – I’d like to understand more about the, well, recalcitrance (if that’s the right word) of the human brain/nervous system to ingrain new patterns.

Huh. I realize my memory of some basic educational psychology has faded over the years since graduate school (somehow, I can’t recall classic readings on demand the way I can pop up with Stairway to Heaven).  But I remember a more-or-less evolutionary argument for why our systems are biased toward a certain conservatism.  With notable exceptions (e.g., the single trial learning that occurs the first time one encounters a hungry tiger), humans are creatures of habit.  A major section of Alva Noe’s book Out of Our Heads: Why you are not your brain and other lessons from the biology of consciousness dealt with habit, and how we probably couldn’t get through the day without most of our activities being automated, a function of subconscious habit. We simply can’t handle that much complexity in real time without “off-loading” the processing to other, more automatic parts of our brain/bodies. Imagine, to use a really dumb example, what would happen if you had to consciously remember to draw each breath!  Then coordinate – as a toddler – swinging one leg forward, transferring your weight, swinging the next leg forward… and don’t forget to breathe!  Oh, and look ahead!

Hmmm… it’s late and I don’t have a lot of mojo for writing (still on the once-a-week kick, though!), so perhaps I’ll come back to this mid-week.  Mainly, though, I’m seeing that the path of mastery (lots of persistence and focused practice) is rooted deeply in our physiology. Cursing and wishing it wasn’t so… well, that expresses some frustration, and then it’s back to practice.

I do want to hang out with this idea of practice.  There’s an idea from Aristotle that goes roughly “we become that which we practice being.”  I’m particularly interested in the non-school activities of kids nowadays, and what they “practice” throughout the day, both in semi-formal settings (sports teams, after-school clubs, street gangs) and in less well-structured settings. More on that later.


Mastery and other paths

Once again, the commitment to write – something! – at least weekly is turning out to be an interesting challenge. Some weeks are rather “ordinary,” where there are no grand epiphanies to be written about. What to write on these ordinary weeks? I suppose look back on the ordinary moments and see what themes emerge.

Last Tuesday I went for a trail run (first one of the season). Near the trailhead is a site where the city tree trimmers drop off the logs and limbs from major trees they’ve taken down. Local scavengers (the 2-legged variety) come by to take home some free firewood, while others (like myself) look for wood to squirrel away in our shops.  On Tuesday there were a couple of folks there with a portable saw mill slicing up some nice redwood slabs.  I was limited to what I could physically lift and carry over to the trunk of my car (as well as what I could store in my garage/shop), so I walked away with a couple of pieces of oak, what looked like crotches and other gnarly pieces with severed limbs and knots sticking every which way out of it.  These can often hold beautiful gems of wood grain on the inside.

I split one piece in half, chucked it onto the lathe (without even rough-cutting it into a circle), and started turning away the outer bark. There were some inclusions (bark that had grown inward between the limbs that met in the crotch) that promised an interesting pattern. Of course, they were also structural weaknesses – would the bowl hold once I started hollowing and thinning the walls?  Well, as the pictures below show, it stayed together.

That was a good exercise over the course of a couple of evenings. Having free wood to play with allows me to experiment and take chances with design choices – I have nothing to lose but my time, and even that is in service of learning and improving. As it turns out I might have tweaked the profile of the final bowl just a little, but overall (so far) it looks like a serviceable bowl for serving nuts or snacks at a party.  Whether it survives the drying process (which could take several months) is another question. “Green” bowls distort upon drying, and the structural weaknesses in the wood could decide to give way.  That’s part of the delayed learning process.

So this project was a small learning segment on a much longer journey of mastery. In fact, that’s what most of the week was like: I learned a little bit more about some technical aspects of my day job, had some minor breakthroughs in my relationship, continued practicing music… just staying open and aware and letting the learning happen.

The late George Leonard wrote a book on “Mastery.”  A PDF copy can be found here at scribd. It’s a fun, easy read, and very insightful. A keen observer of human learning (his own and his Aikido students), he’s characterized some typical “paths” that we take as learners. His characterizations have what we in the biz call “face validity” – we recognize the truth in them intuitively.

First up, the path of mastery:

If you think of the vertical dimension as “progress” in a general sense, and the horizontal dimension as time, this is Leonard’s take on the master’s path. It involves lots of time spent on plateaus, simply practicing our practice. Then (although the detail isn’t apparent in this diagram, but I’ve heard him describe it this way), things start to fall apart – there’s a small dip before the growth spurt. Growth tends to happen in spurts, and then there’s a settling back down into another plateau. As they say on the bottle: lather, rinse, repeat. This is mastery.

There are a couple of critical components to this path. The first is that most time is spent making very little discernible progress. That can be very discouraging to people who like instant gratification or quick fixes. The second is the somewhat chaotic nature of the growth spurts. In particular, that sense of things actually getting worse before they start to really improve is paradoxical, but I believe it signifies the beginning of some significant cognitive/neurological/whatever reorganizations. A time of “things falling apart” is emphatically not the time to give up in the pursuit, but to hang in there just a little while longer – great learnings are just around the corner.

Leonard’s three other paths are pathological cases (no pun intended) of how we fall off the path of mastery.

The Dabler

The dabler’s path is to start something with enthusiasm, experience that first rapid growth spurt, but when the inevitable plateau comes around say to oneself “this is it? I’m bored… time to move on”.  Variations on this theme include “I guess I wasn’t cut out for this” or “I guess I have no talent.”  So we move onto different activities or fields, and experience the same dynamic…

The Obsessive

The obsessive dives in 110% to a new activity. S/he attempts to prolong that initial growth spurt through increasing effort, refusing to accept any form of the plateau. “If you’re not growing you’re dying” is the motto.  Ultimately this simply isn’t sustainable – nobody can keep improving at a constant pace forever (I claim that as if it’s a fact, but it’s just a generalization from personal observation. If anybody knows of a counter-example, please fill me in!).  In athletics we see the injury-prone athlete who doesn’t know how to recover or taper effort.

The Hacker

This one is my personal nemesis.  The hacker starts off looking a lot like the path of mastery. Growth spurts, plateaus, more growth spurts. But then there’s that plateau that never seems to end. What’s happening here is the appearance of steady practice, but not masterful practice. And although I cite this as my personal bugaboo, we all probably do all of these in various areas of our lives. I enjoy bicycling, but my mountain biking skills haven’t noticeably improved over the past decade. When I was training for a century I was on a good mastery path, but then ramped down the effort during the fall and winter. My history with music is one of very long plateaus, dropped interest, and then a long time spent regaining the facility I had when I last stopped.

(Well, I guess I found something to write about, even if it’s just reflecting on someone else’s writing)

I’d like to – obviously – stay on the path of mastery in as much of my life as possible. I’m doing it in my primary relationship – I’ve experienced more steady, genuine growth here than in any other time of my life, and have also never worked as diligently at it. I’m trying to stay attentive to my growth in woodworking and woodturning. The challenge for me at the moment (as has been the case in the past) is musical – staying at it when sometimes what I’m playing doesn’t flow very well.

Flow. Leonard cites Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow as being a characteristic state of one on the master’s path. In my day job as a researcher I experience flow frequently, getting lost in my work, not knowing where the time has gone.  That’s one place I don’t worry about falling off the master’s path. Similarly in the woodshop – I can stay at a task all day, plodding along at a relaxed pace, engrossed with what I’m doing.  I think the trick for me in music is to find the style and level that lets me flow. I’ve played mostly classical guitar, which is technically demanding and not always the most soul-satisfying genre of music. I’m been branching out more this past year, taking classes in celtic and folk music, trying to find that style that makes it effortless to pick up an instrument and practice on a daily basis.

So there – I found something to write after all.  I do recommend Leonard’s book (available on Amazon and probably still in print at brick-and-mortar stores) as a fun read, particularly for my friends in education. And of course, I’d love to hear your own stories of mastery (and/or other paths) in the comments section below.

Metaphors of effort

We have a small meditation group at work that meets Monday and Friday over lunch, and somebody usually sends around a quote to ponder as we sit.  This week the quote (attributed to Buddha) was

Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.

*nods head* Seems simple enough. Discovering my world – both inner and outer – that’s what meditation/therapy/research/exploration is all about, so I get that, I think.  Then there’s the call to action:  “with all your heart give yourself to it.”  That one stopped me in my tracks, when I realized that I had no idea how to do that.

During the post-meditation discussion I brought this point up.  I know how to apply myself to some goals.  Improve my time riding up Old La Honda? A combination of good preparation (training) and knowing when to “kick it” and when to back off cruising up the hills. I know what it feels like to “pour on the effort.”  But how does one “pour it on” when giving oneself to the world?

A colleague reminded me that perhaps the metaphor of “leaning in” or “pouring on” wasn’t quite right. What if we adopted the practice of “opening up the heart?”  Ah!  That brought back memories. I’d started practicing Aikido when I first moved to California, and trained regularly for 4 or 5 years until I started graduate school. One of the basic principles – and one that has to be internalized to the core – is this dual idea of being grounded/centered and being open/receptive. Grounding/centering while being open/receptive allows immense energy (or “ki”) to flow – it’s a feeling of intense aliveness or vitality when one is “in the zone.”

I found this video on YouTube – someone testing for a 4th degree black belt going through the “randori” exercise (defending against a multiple person grappling attack, sort of like being pursued by zombies on speed).

As one can imagine, the energy gets intense when multiple people are coming at you. The examinee has to keep moving, using one attacker to block another, inserting himself decisively when there’s an opening, giving ground when needing to dissipate energy. But if you watch carefully, even on his knees he’s firmly centered, both allowing and controlling the action around him. This is an extreme example of “giving one’s heart to it” without “leaning into it”  (in fact, “leaning into it” is really bad form in Aikido, and is usually an aspect of an attack that’s most readily exploited).

So perhaps “giving one’s heart” isn’t about trying harder or applying oneself more diligently in the classic sense of putting one’s shoulder to the boulder. As I mentioned in the end of my last blog entry, Ecclesiastes suggests that most of the efforts of man are “vanity and chasing after wind.” I’m grateful to be reminded of an alternative way of being fully present and alive – to be centered, grounded, and open-hearted.  That too takes effort, but it’s a very different flavor of effort. For one, it’s non-directional, and non goal oriented.  As I continue to practice and observe perhaps I’ll find better ways to write about it. Personally, the memories of Aikido practice are the touchstone, but other people will have different experiences that resonate.

As for the “discover your world” part of the mission… I’m not sure that’s as obvious as I’d made it out to be, either. I’ll have to keep sitting with that one (which I think is part of the point).


Vanity and chasing after wind

Although I’ve committed to writing a blog entry every week, I usually have no idea what I want to write about until I sit down on Sunday evening. Tonight I ask myself “what have I learned this week?” – and several nuggets come to mind.

  • I was reminded – again – that I have to regulate my media diet. As I posted in an earlier blog about “right involvement,” there’s paying attention to bear witness, then there’s being consumed by the hysteria and hyperbole that passes for political discourse. I’m getting better at closing the browser window when I feel my blood pressure rise.
  • I was reminded that it’s possible to improve by being aware of one’s shortcomings, focusing on how to overcome them, and putting that learning into practice. There’s a bowl turning story here I’ll get to shortly.
  • After a week of not-very-inspiring work I learned that there are limits on how long I can go without some “juice” or passion in my work day.
  • I learned/remembered that the race is not always to the swift, not the battle to the strong.  The American Educational Research Association annual meeting is coming around, and so is ample opportunity to compare my professional life to those of friends and colleagues. I’m getting tired of my inner narratives that say I “fizzled,” or “didn’t live up to my potential” professionally. When I stop comparing, I’m happy with where I am and where I’m headed, and am resolved to use this year’s conference as an opportunity to reconnect with my interests and passions.

I worked on two projects this week that followed different trajectories. First, the bowl project. As I alluded to in my last blog post, I started over with a solid block of wood to keep my design constraints relatively free. Overall, this was a very successful strategy. I turned the outside profile of the bowl, actually finish sanded and oiled it, and turned my attention to hollowing out the inside.  Wham! the bowl (now a solid piece of wood) goes flying off the lathe, into the wall, and onto the concrete floor.  Bruised, but otherwise fine.  Re-mount it, start to hollow… and wham! off it goes again, this time splitting the spigot I was using to chuck it to the lathe.  Uh oh.  Clearly I’m doing something wrong.  So I re-glue the spigot and hit the books.

It turns out that, yes, my approach to hollowing was off in a couple of ways. First, I should have been making steep cuts starting near the center and pushing directly in toward the bottom. That is, I should have been taking shavings “down” the bowl.  Instead, I was cutting “across” the top, which made dangerous “catches” more likely.  Also, I was using way too much force.  So I sharpened up the gouges, re-chucked the bowl, and started making gentle cuts down the center.  No catches!  I needed a lot of patience – it took 2 or 3 hours to get most of the bowl hollowed out – and lots of tool re-grinding (it turns out rosewood is both one of the hardest woods to turn and one that dulls tools most quickly). But I made it through the entire rough hollowing, finish hollowing, and finish shaping without losing it once. I’d actually learned something, and reinforced it through practice.  (Normally I’d post a picture of the bowl, but it’s a gift for a friend, and I don’t want to spoil the surprise. It will make an appearance some week soon)

I still ran into problems – I nearly turned the bottom too thin, and as the walls thinned “chatter” set in and caused some scoring on the inner walls.  It took lots of sanding to get those marks out – I couldn’t manage to do it with a gouge, and had pretty much run out of extra wood to play with (not to self – when I think a bowl wall is a little too thick, it’s probably going to be just right by the time I’m done with finish cuts). But in the end, it’s one of the prettiest bowls I’ve made to date. I took great satisfaction both in conquering my learning challenge and in producing a nice piece.

Now for the second project. A paper for the upcoming conference, that I only reluctantly submitted a conference proposal for in the first place. (Because so many of my projects are collaborative – as opposed to most university work where there’s a single principal investigator and a team of graduate students – I ended up submitting this “for the team”). So from the get go, my heart was not in this paper. I won’t go into a lot of reasons why – it’s enough to say there’s no “juice” in it for me.  But it pays for my ticket to New Orleans next month.

Both projects were struggles this week. The bowl was frustrating and even a bit scary – I just didn’t now how I was going to keep the bowl from detaching itself and launching into whatever happened to be in the way. But taking a break for reflection and re-reading an expert’s writings helped take the mystery out of the problem. I’d probably read this particular book chapter 3 or 4 times, but now (having a specific problem in mind) I paid attention to particular details (the angle of the gouge in particular, and the direction of force) and had an “aha!” moment.

The paper is a struggle in another sense. The only challenge is organizing a very complicated process with lots of moving parts into a coherent narrative. Basically, we’re trying to describe something that on paper appears to be a neat and orderly engineering design/prototyping process, but in reality had lots of fits and starts, a bit of “hacking around” to get us moving, and significant revisions to the original ideas that launched the project.  How to tell this story coherently is a challenge.  It too has some “aha” moments (such as when my colleague helps me remember why we made some decisions that weren’t making sense to me), but it’s not been satisfying to write.

I think it comes down to two qualities, and those are lessons I’ve learned and apparently have to keep re-learning until they become habituated: personal expression and making a difference for somebody.  I get engaged when I’m writing/building/crafting something that has some of “me” in it. The bowl – as simple as the shape was – followed my own aesthetic judgments. The paper feels like a regurgitation of a historical process.  Yes, I had input into that process, and directed portions of it, but it feels like a pretty indirect expression of my ideas.

The bowl is a gift for a couple.  If I’m lucky, they’ll both appreciate it, actually use it, and keeping it as a decorative object will enhance the beauty of their home. The impact won’t really reach beyond them (and their occasional dinner guests). The paper will be read by at least one person (the discussant at the conference panel), and might be downloaded by one or two dozen curious individuals. Will it have an impact on anybody’s (professional) life?  Personally, I doubt it. And if it does, it could easily lead down a path I don’t support (basically, it’s about designing tests for college students, and the last thing we need to do is impose more external testing on institutions).

So tomorrow I’m back to work at my day job, wrapping up this paper and sending it off into the ether. I’ll be in “satisfaction deficit” by the end of this week, and really need to turn my attention to more meaningful work (which, thankfully, I’ll have opportunities to do). I hope to be able to deliver my bowl this week too, and am keeping my fingers crossed that my friends like it. Not for egotistical reasons (although I enjoy a good compliment as much as anyone), but because I genuinely want them to be happy with it. That personal connection means a lot to me, perhaps more than the larger academic audience that might read my “day job” productions.

I’ll close with a favorite line from Ecclesiastes(12:12):

Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.


I’m not a biblical scholar or reader by any stretch, but an old employer/mentor/former book publisher and theologian turned me onto Ecclesiastes.  “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”   Basically, my reading of it cautions against “chasing after wind” – acquiring material riches for their own sake, or spouting off to gain in reputation. Overall, it’s a constant reminder that all turns to dust.  Perhaps this isn’t the intended meaning, but I also take from it the reminder that relationships and love – in the here and now – are precious things. While they too eventually turn to dust, they give our lives meaning and depth that mere “production” for the sake of production cannot.

Freedom, constraint, and design

Mike Darlow, in his book Woodturning Design, writes:

Perhaps a major reason for the popularity of bowl turning is the belief that you can produce a good bowl without having to do any formal design in advance. The wood is supposed to “speak” to you and thus empower you to free the wondrous bowl hidden within the unpromising blank – I may be deficient in the necessary spirituality, but wood doesn’t speak to me all that often or all that clearly.

Darlow is not exaggerating about the mythos of wood “speaking” to the turner. Many “artists statements” accompanying gallery turnings contain similar language – so-and-so follows the natural properties of the wood and is never sure what is going to emerge in advance. The remainder of Darlow’s book argues that 1) good design is critical to avoid a lot of wasted time (and wood), and 2) the only way to become expert enough to “listen” to wood is to have spent a lot of labor turning out well-designed turnings.

I start with Darlow’s quote because I turned out a very unsatisfying bowl earlier in the week. The sides were too steep, and took a sharp curve into a non-footed bottom.  The shape was, frankly, dumpy.  Too deep for its width, too.  Sadly, I used a really pretty block of rosewood and some uniformly black ebony in the construction – good material gone to a “learning opportunity.”

The shape that I turned out was not the one I intended to make.  I actually did lay out a design and thought I’d dimensioned the critical rings of the bowl blank to fit. It turns out (no pun intended) I made some technical errors in constructing the rings that limited the amount of material I had to work with. Once I knocked the corners off of the wood, I didn’t have a lot of extra thickness left with which to slope the sides. That, and I probably just wasn’t paying close enough attention overall.

So today I decided to start over, and rather than construct a segmented bowl, I’m starting the “old fashioned” way with a solid block of wood (well, actually 3 layers face-glued together – two thick slabs of rosewood topped by a 1/2 inch of curly maple for the rim).  Even for designs where segmentation isn’t used as a decorative feature, I’ve been trying to use a segmented (stacked concentric ring) design in order to save precious wood. The “traditional” method entails using a solid block (or just half a log, sometimes from a freshly fallen tree) and hollowing out the interior on the lathe (as opposed to “designing in” the hollow by building the rough bowl up from concentric rings). This generates an impressive volume of shavings, and when turning large bowls, there’s often enough wood in the interior to create a whole new smaller bowl, if it could be salvaged.

But at this point I’m tired of taking a week to cut and glue the rings (with several overnight drying steps in the middle). I’m going to start with a solid block.  This way I can shape the outer contour to exactly what I’m looking for, and then hollow out the middle to match. I’m not exactly going to let the wood “speak” to me (I know what shape I’m roughly after), but there is going to be some fine-tuning as I look at what I’ve wrought and tinker with the proportions.  It’s also true, as an artist/educator once told me, that one never approaches the canvas with a completely worked out idea of what the painting will be. The partially finished painting “talks back” to the painter, and through this dialog the artist discovers what s/he really meant to be putting down on canvas.

This experience has led me to think through these concepts of design, constraints, and freedom.  By starting with a single block of wood, I’m imposing minimal constraints: the overall diameter and height of the bowl. Wide rim, narrow rim, S-curve, concave, out-flowing… there are a gazillion design choices available with that block. When I sketch an outline and plan the rings of a segmented bowl, I’m pretty much freezing in place the profile I’ve sketched. This is fine, as long as 1) I’m sure the profile I sketched on paper will look good in 3 dimensions, and 2) I don’t make any technical mistakes that result in an altered profile.

Another way to think about this is to ask “when do critical choices get made?”  If I sketch up front and construct rings to match, all of my design choices are locked in before I’ve started to actually see the 3-d product.  If I start with a solid block of wood, I’m making a series of micro-decisions every time I shave a little more wood off the bowl.  Like sculpting marble, this is a “subtractive” process – we can’t add wood back on once we’ve shaved it off. In fact, if I’m puzzling over a particularly important cut, I can stop the lathe, stare at it, or even go take a break and come back.

The price I pay for leaving lots of options open is to waste extra material.  In a sense, I have the wood available to make an infinite variety of bowls, and with each cut, I cut away some of those possibilities until what’s left is my final product. This, then, seems to be the trade-off:  leave my options open, but possibly waste a lot of resources.  Or, plan for efficient use of material, but constrain my choices down the road.

Somehow I feel like this touches a life lesson.  I’ve seen similar issues come up in software design – when do you lock down design choices?  In the early 1990’s Apple and IBM combined forces to create a new operating system by co-founding the Taligent corporation. Taligent eventually folded without ever producing a product, and some of my friends at the time suggested a big part of the problem was that nobody was willing to constrain design decisions. All of the code was to be “object oriented” and fully extensible, to a fault. By leaving lots of room for flexibility in the design, they never actually produced anything (of course, that’s not the whole story, but a relevant part).

In my current work as an education researcher I often see a tension between pre-specifying research questions and a design on the one hand, and desiring fully open-ended exploration on the other. Sometimes when we lay out questions, instrumentation, and samples well in advance, we only discover mid-way through that we should have been asking a different question, or talking to a different population, and by then it’s too late to change course. On the other hand, were we to keep all of our options open, we could potentially waste a lot of money chasing down dead ends, talking to the wrong people, and ultimately never publishing any findings.

So – my thought for the week. Awareness of design choices, constraints, and trade-offs. I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about this – just that I’ve experienced it in art, engineering, and research.  It’s feeling like one of those “universal truths” that needs to be condensed into a pithy nugget (which means somebody has probably already done so).

Virtual worlds and messy reality

My “hobby” life and professional life recently crossed paths in an interesting way. It started when the federal government announced a grant competition with one of the possible research topics involving robotics competitions.  (For those not familiar with how research is funded, this isn’t at whacky as it sounds. There are lots of programs in the federal government that hold annual competitions in a broad variety of areas. The specification of focal areas is how the government – and we the taxpayers – have some assurance that research conducted with federal dollars will be important and/or useful. As I recall, the robotics topic was part of a larger program that covers innovative uses of technology in education. Robotics competitions are gaining in popularity, and there is considerable interest in their impact on future science and technology interests of the flesh-and-blood participants).

During a meeting with colleagues we brainstormed some possibly interesting areas of research that would respond to the spirit of the grant. Two ideas in particular were notable for their contrast. One was (broadly) the question of what is gained from having a lot of practical, hands-on experience with mechanical systems. Real robots break and have problem with tolerances; builders need to respect the limits of materials, fasteners, and the laws of physics. Whereas in the 1950’s teenagers tinkered with cars after school, nowadays robots are the equivalent pastime for many students.

The second idea had to do with programming and simulation. Robotics also involves control and planning. In many competitions, the robots have to solve tasks or navigate obstacles without any human intervention. This can require considerable programming prowess to execute elegantly. One colleague (who was an advisor to his son’s team) said kids’ programming tends to be a batch of spaghetti code – long lists of instructions and contingencies sort of hacked together to get the job done.

A colleague pointed out that if we care about kids learning the control/automation side of robotics, then the “messiness” of the physical machines often gets in the way. It’s hard enough to devise an intelligent algorithm for navigating obstacles without also worrying what happens when a wheel inadvertently jams up.  One could imagine kids being overloaded with the frustration of learning to program AND having to deal with clunky hardware (these robots aren’t being designed by engineers with graduate degrees, remember). So he wondered whether a “virtual robotics competition” – where the robots were just simulated avatars a la Second Life – would be an interesting case to study.

On the flip side, others felt that learning about the “messiness” of physical systems, how to improvise solutions, plan for contingencies, etc., were equally valuable lessons, perhaps more important than learning elegant programming habits. Having gotten my start in software engineering, and now being very interested in “learning with the hands,” I could see both sides of this argument. Dealing with physical systems can be very frustrating at times; that was one of the appeals of the “virtual world” when I started in computer science. On the other hand, we live in a physical world, and I wonder what is lost when kids don’t get a lot of experience just interacting with the (non-mediated) world as they grow up.

My thinking is that if you want to teach programming, then teach programming, with or without robotic avatars. Just as we teach Newtonian physics in high school with an emphasis on theoretical models (mechanical systems operating in airless vacuums using weightless strings and pulleys, for example), one could imagine teaching the fundamentals of programming with reference to “ideal” robots or objects.

But to me, there is something special about tinkering with physical systems. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I feel like there are some valuable lessons in there, some of which are shared with the programming world (perseverance in the face of failure and frustration; the need for careful planning; problem decomposition, etc.), but others which are entirely separate from virtual spaces (namely, how gears work, what friction “feels like” on different surfaces, the strengths and limitations of motors, etc.)  Just writing these down, I feel a big “so what” question looming – do we really care that youth gain facility with building drive trains? It’s more than that – it’s a “feel” for mechanical systems. Again, I’m at a loss for words. Maybe I’m just being sentimental. But I know I’m not alone in this. Others have been writing at some length on the need to re-integrate the hands into educational experience (e.g., Doug Stowe’s Wisdom of the Hands blog), and some have designed engineering curricula appropriate for elementary school (e.g., Engineering is Elementary).

Actually, I can think of one lesson that differentiates the physical from the virtual – I’ve written about this in the past. The physical world does not have an “Undo” button. Mistakes have consequences. A piece of bad code can be erased and revised in the blink of an eye, but a badly assembled drive train can mean a week of wasted effort.

Right Involvement

This blog entry isn’t about woodworking. I want to keep up an intent to post at least weekly, and the last night of a weekend has become my time to write. Tonight I find myself thinking of events playing out on the national and world stage.

A couple of weeks ago we came back from Maui and I was struck by how restful it felt to “unplug” from the news and e-mail. Right when we’d departed for Maui it was clear that something significant was brewing in Egypt – by the time we returned it was in full revolution. Now we see unrest in other countries, and there is a showdown between the governor of Wisconsin (and his multi-billionaire backers the Koch brothers) and the public employee unions.  Oh, and the Republican majority in congress just voted to defund Planned Parenthood, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and a slew of other organizations they politically oppose.

So I sign the appropriate petitions, write notes to my senators and representatives, even make sure I’m current on my donations to the right organizations.  But I don’t get on a plane to stand with the Wisconsin marchers.  I don’t drain my savings and give it all to political advocacy groups. In fact, now the pendulum for me is starting to swing in the other direction – I don’t even want to read the news any more. I feel like there is nothing I can do to alter the outcome, so why allow myself to be repeatedly enraged every time I pick up the newspaper?

And yet… somehow it feels important to bear witness to these events. The people in the streets in Cairo and Madison are counting on the fact that others are watching and holding the powerful accountable. If the rest of us shrug our shoulders and ignore the conflict, the powerful win.

So what is the right balance? I don’t have the answers. Right now “bearing witness” feels right, and I’m trying to do this without diving into the hyper-partisan media sources who (for good reason) are trying to inflame the passions of the readers. Anybody reading this: any thoughts on the matter?

Quick woodworking update: I’m working on what I think will be my last segmented bowl for a while. While the product is pretty, I don’t enjoy the construction/shaping process nearly as much as working from a solid block of wood, so I think I’m going to go back to fancy pens and solid wood turnings after this project.