Science is a flip flopper

If you are a politician, being a flip flopper is a negative label your opponent tries to lay on you as an indication that you follow the crowd of public opinion. This seems a bit unfair as admitting your were wrong would also seem to demonstrate you are open to better information and can change your mind rather than being dogmatic. Dogmatic vs. flexible – I can go either way on this issue. (Note – you must read what I write making an effort to laugh when I try to be humorous. I will stop putting in these reminders only when people start contacting me to say I am funny. I will interpret as a compliment the observation that I have an unusual sense of humor.)

Science appears to suffer from this same dilemma when it comes to advising the public on practical issues. If you work as an educator, whether you should assign homework or not seems to change from one week to the next. Food science and health have a similar problem. Eggs are good for you and then they are not. Potatoes are another source of uncertainty. I think wine is a “yes”, but I can never remember if it is just red wine or all wines. What about beer? I prefer Jack, but I count this as one of my few bad habits and everyone should be allowed one or two.


[Sparrow Cafe]

I decided to visit a new coffee shop today because coffee is now officially in. Even NPR says so. Even better – the newest science says you can have 3-5 cups. This should be just about enough to get me through the day. I am ignoring the part about decaf.

So, join me while you can. No way to know when the other flip flop will fall.


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Long walk to the other side

Most mornings I walk to a Starbucks about 1.5 miles from the house. The trip is a combination of exercise, coffee, reading and writing. Plenty of steps for the old Fitbit.

The distance to “the office” is not a problem, but I dread crossing streets in the big city. Here is the crosswalk I fear the most. This crossing is right next to Best Buy headquarters and is nine lanes across. I counted this morning.

longstreetThere is a signal for pedestrians, but it is this signal that annoys me. I noticed today that the signal gave me enough time to make it across a lane and a half before the blinking orange halt hand appears. I might make two lanes with a speed walking start. While it is true that I no longer possess the blinding speed of my youth, I seriously doubt that the delay would allow an Olympic sprinter to make the crossing in time. All of those young professionals hurrying off to the office and me annoying them in a desperate quest for coffee.

I have heard the impression that “only the good die young” and I take some solace in the expression, but I would rather not be taken out by junior in his BMW.

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And I thought only “the Donald” said ignorant things ….

Lately, I have been focusing my time on my serious blogs. I was starting to feel guilty ignoring my commitment to amuse my friends by commenting on frivolous topics and events. Nothing meeting my standards seemed to be happening. Finally, an event has occurred that requires the attention of the curmudgeon.

Jeb Bush has explained the problem with higher education and the job market. We have been asked for “meat on the bone” which evidently translates as a specific agenda to deal with national and international problems and a solution to slow economic times. Jeb has the solution – drop the university majors in psychology and philosophy.

In an effort to compete for media attention with Donald Trump, Mr. Bush has decided to ridicule Psychology majors:

Universities ought to have skin in the game,” the Republican presidential candidate said, according to the Washington Examiner. “When a student shows up, they ought to say ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working a Chick-fil-A.’”

This is a great example of a situation in which politicians improvise rather than sticking to their prepared scripts. Caught without a vetted comment, they rely on personal insights and knowledge. However, such comments are valuable in providing true insight into the depth of candidate understanding of relevant issues (higher education) and personal biases (what is important about an education).

Many psychology majors are upset (including me). Psychology was one of my undergraduate majors and the field in which I focused for my Ph.D. Just to be clear. By definition, you really do not complete an undergraduate degree to secure a position as a psychologist. This would be similar to explaining that you cannot become a physician (medic) or lawyer by completing a pre-med program (often via a psychology major) or philosophy program. The goal of an undergraduate degree in psychology is either to prepare students for advanced training or to provide the opportunity to develop a wide variety of skills valuable in many professions. Those of us who teach in these programs should in no way be condemned for the popularity of offering courses that attract students. We do have the advantage or I guess problem according to Bush of explaining topics that many students find interesting and relevant.

I suppose it is fine to pick on psychology majors, but picking on Chick-fil-A was likely a mistake. This chain is about as Republican as you can get.

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Hanging in there

I just ran across an NPR piece (with audio if you would rather listen) investigating the retirement decision of college faculty members. I appeared too late to influence my decision, but I did find it to be an interesting read. Did you know that working past 65 is quite common within the academy.

Another study found that 60 percent of faculty planned to work past 70, and 15 percent to stay until they’re 80

I can understand older faculty members feel. Being a senior academic is a great job. The work is rewarding and the pressure is much lower than in the early years. The pay is good – unlike in the early years. In general, I think most people respect academics.

Here is why I think academics (including administrators) should retire at 65. Universities train more PhDs than they hire. I suppose we do this assuming we are giving these students an opportunity and those that most deserve the jobs we train them for will be successful. This is what most choose to believe. It also seems possible we admit students to advanced training because this keeps both grad programs afloat and faculty research programs “manned” (used in a gender neutral way). The 75 year-old some admire for his/her dedication is preventing a 25 year-old from having a great job.

Universities could take a more nuanced and helpful position here. I am guessing that given the choice between complete separation and full-time work, many academics past the age of 65 hold on to their positions. This is not the best outcome for institutions or for those put in an all or none position.

I am satisfied with my personal decision to leave when I did. I wanted to live in other locations and I wanted the freedom to work on projects I felt most suited to my talents. I miss the opportunity to be an active researcher and to work with students. I miss the interesting social experiences that come from working within a group with diverse interests. What I now think I understand reflecting on my own experiences is that many hang in there because of the social connections. Institutions look at the issue of senior employees in terms of money and competence. Within higher education, I think paying more attention to the maintenance of social connections and the opportunity to engage in scholarship may be as important. Some institutions provide office space to those who retire. The institution saves a great deal of money on salary and the retiree has the opportunity to continue social and intellectual connections.

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What is everyone complaining about?

Every other month or so I have to write this kind of post. I get to the point I feel what I have found to be good is under attack and I am baffled. The best I can do is to imagine the attacks come from extremists who know no better. It is possible my views are just as divergent leading me to conclude that the truth is somewhere in between. However, without staking out different views there would be no middle ground.

It is trendy to put down present educational tactics even among educators. What follows is a rambling reaction to several of these attacks. Folks offer personal horror stories of educational experiences or the story of others failed by the system. They use such anecdotes to explain that education is failing. I don’t get those who take these positions, I just pretend I do. Some claim books and lectures are bad. I love books and always have. I enjoy a good presentation with or without Power Points.   I enjoyed school and I enjoyed learning. Topics bored me and I suppose some of my teachers could have been better, but I was never upset with the total experience. I guess I always assumed that life offers you a variety of experiences and you just have to sort through the mix.

Some of the books on educational reform I have been reading contend that the education machine from content providers, to administration, to the educators themselves is based on a self selection model. Those suited to the status quo moved on to develop content, administer and teach. If you were part of the system and benefited from the opportunities it offered, how do you defend yourself against the self selection complaint? On the other hand, how do you know if this is true? I know plenty of college students who were mediocre and went on to become K-12 teachers. Some were quite good. It seems very possible this is about values rather than success in a previous stage of the education process.

Moving to another unrelated complaint – What about lectures? I do sometimes become fatigued after about 50 minutes, but as long as a presentation is informative I get value from such experiences. It is true some presenters are not very good. It is also true that some topics just don’t interest me. I remember some classes with great presenters I ended up skipping or dropping because I could not make myself find the information of value. I could not blame the quality of the presentation for my lack of enthusiasm. This is just the way things seem to be.

Generic statements that this or that instructional tactic is boring annoy me. Contrived interaction is what I find boring. Take five minutes, turn to the person beside you, share a description of the teacher who changed your life. I want to head for the door. I want my interaction to be learner-centered – contrived, scripted interaction is not. I have plenty of colleagues to discuss the information I receive from what I hear or read. I know these individuals and our interactions do not require an awkward period of becoming acquainted. Our discussions occur within a context. These contrived experiences seem to happen so often at conferences when presenters want to show they are up on new practices and do not want to be  teacher-centric and lecture. If you have 15 minutes of information do not apply for a 30 minute session. Give me what you have and let me move on. By the way – these differences are not learning styles, these are learning preferences. My point is those who argue a given tactic need to be eliminated often fail to acknowledge that not everyone sees things in the same way.

Here is the way it is – now I am no longer suggesting we have our own preferences. We live in our own minds. What happens outside is important only to the extent it influences what happens inside. This is what so many miss or don’t want to understand. I read frequently that we must encourage students to be in charge of their own learning. I never understood the process any other way. I decided whether to go to class and whether to read the book. Most importantly, I decided whether or not and how to think about my learning experiences. The lecture, the book, the contrived discussion – these are simply external experiences I may or may not process. Everyone works this way. Each of us is in charge of our own learning no matter the differences in experiences.

The proposal that we are failing to prepare students for the jobs of the 21st century kind of baffles me. My world ended up having the characteristics pundits claim we are not preparing young people to confront. I would probably qualify as being a knowledge worker relying on technologies that were not imagined when I was educated. Those who failed to experience these changes as they happen somehow think rapid change is a new thing that requires unique preparation. The personal computer did not emerge until my career was about half over followed about ten years later by the Internet. I am guessing you realize that these changes happened but have never given a thought to those old enough to experience such changes reaction. How could they possibly adapt to do things they were not trained to do? If you are interested in learning and willing to learn, change is motivating because it brings such opportunities. Being part of these transitions has provided a perspective those who came late to the game simply do not have.

One final example – again making an observation about perspective. The present educational focus on coding baffles me. Yes, many present ways depend on programs and digital devices. I was not taught to program, I taught myself from books, magazines, and videos (books and presentations). I learned to become a competent programmer because I thought I had to have such skills. Once, I started I found great satisfaction in writing software that did interesting things and the process of learning new things became self perpetuating. I now seldom use the skills I used when I was younger because software necessary to meet my needs is both far more available and made to be modified by nonprogrammers. I often wonder how many of the educational proponents of programming have ever written a program that served a personal need or a program used by someone else. Clearly, programming is a valuable career skill for experts, but dated as a skill for a large proportion of future workers. Isn’t it the outdated skills we are trying to down play. Ed tech people used to avoid the impression they were teaching computer literacy. Now, computer literacy may be a more accurate way to describe what is needed.

Those with a limited time perspective may assume the challenges they imagine for their students are unique. Unique, perhaps, but each age cohort has had to learn to adapt. Perhaps you have not thought of things this way. You just need a longer perspective. Remember President Reagan’s famous debate quote – I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience. I must admit I never thought I would quote Reagan.


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Run Flat

runflatA run flat tire might sound like a good idea. Who wants to pull over to the side of the road to change a flat? You may have never heard of run flat tires and I must admit I had no idea that I was the owner of such a technological advance.

We were up North (that is Minnesotan for we were at the cabin) and I thought one tire looked a little flat when we preparing to drive back to The Cities (Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs). Despite growing up on a farm I admit to having very, very limited mechanical skills. However, driving on gravel roads during my formative years meant I am very experienced changing tires. I thought this would be a simple matter of driving to a station and putting a little air in the tire. Our new car seems less sophisticated than our last. The Town and Country would let you know when a specific tire was low and provide the tire pressure for each tire. We abandoned what I thought was a great van for a Toyota Sienna because it has all wheel drive. Again, this is an Up North thing. All wheel drive is helpful when driving out of the woods after a snow storm.

So, I make it to the gas station, but had no way to evaluate just how flat my flat tire is. I decide to purchase a tire gauge. Everyone should carry one of these. I make my purchase and test the tire I thought was flat and the gauge will not register a pressure reading. This is the point at which my lack of mechanical awareness and common sense become a problem. I decide the gauge must be defective, inform the clerk in the station of this discovery, and am given a new gauge. The new gauge also registers no pressure which leaves me completely befuddled, but also a little embarrassed. I am about to ask the clerk for help when I decide to try a different tire. Sure enough, the gauge does work. The low tire seems to have no air which seem impossible based on my understanding of auto mechanics. I try to put some air in, but I can hear air escaping at the same time. Giving up on the gauge issue I decide to attempt to drive to the next town where I hope to find someone to fix my tire.

The car seemed to function reasonably well given I was driving on a tire I thought had no air pressure. I have been cautioned against driving on a flat and ruining a rim when young so I was careful. I did get to the next town, did find a full-service garage, and did get the tire off the car. However, I then learned that the tire could not be fixed (something about it being a split and not a puncture) and was also told that it was a run flat tire. One of the supposed benefits of having run flat tires turned out to be a significant problem. Run flat tires are evidently built to run for 50-100 miles even when punctured. The side walls are extra stiff. A secondary benefit of run flat tires is that having such tires evidently means cars no longer need to carry a spare or the equipment to change a tire – less weight, better gas mileage. It took some convincing. The owner’s manual says I have a spare. I looked everywhere a spare might be kept. Sure enough, I could find the location on the floor of the car that provides a way to attach a spare under the car, but the spare and the mechanism were not installed on my car.

So, here is the deal. A run flat is good for 50-100 miles. The recommendation is 50 miles. I am 140 miles from The Cities. I know I have run 25 miles already and I am uncertain of how long the tire was flat before it was discovered. One of the reasons you and I have probably never heard of run flat tires is that few cars use them. This means you cannot find them. This means you are likely to find yourself stuck for a day or so if you should ever have a flat in many parts of the country. Most folks, simply as a function of how many people live in populated areas, would be OK, but those folks living elsewhere need to look for a motel and have the local garage have a tire ordered. We were lucky. The garage we found gave us a loaner car at no cost. Such experiences are on the positive side of what living Up North can mean.

We ran into one more issue with the tire. One reason cars with run flat tires and all wheel drive do not carry a donut spare is that the tires must be within 3/16 of each other in tread depth or risk damage to the transmission. Of course, a donut tire is very different in size. If the 3/16th standard cannot be met, the recommendation is to buy all new tires. This would mean we would lose approximately 25000 of wear on our remaining tires and have to spend approximately $1000 for a new set of tires. I am really tempted to change back to traditional tires. I could carry an extra tire or just assume I could find a replacement far more easily should the need arise.

I would think a dealer would tell you about run flat tires and explain the advantages and disadvantages. This was not our experience and I mildly resent the oversight (Toyota of Saint Cloud). I am old enough to be beyond taking myself too seriously. Asking a clerk for a second tire gauge and suggesting to a garage guy that there must be a spare tire are now just kind of funny. Experiences like this make for good stories. Check your tires.

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Ads and ad blockers

Whether you should be forced to view ads in online content is a brewing controversy you may have not known existed (a recent description). Think of it as similar to the issue of whether you should record television programs and then fast forward through the commercials. The companies producing the content want you to see the ads. You might prefer to not take your time to do so. A similar issue applied with online content and has become more prominent with the update to Apple software. There have been ways to block ads in content for some time, but Apple has made the practice easier by kind of accepting the practice as the default.

Most of us, including me, seldom consciously consider the role that ads play. We may know, but fail to give the motives of those who include ads much thought. For example, we may accept ads in newspapers and magazines and accept the presence of the ads because we can do nothing about them. We may not consciously acknowledge that the presence of the ads subsidizes the production of those publications and “buys down” the cost of the publications to us. What about those content sources we can access at no cost – say television and Internet content? To some extent, the ads do the same thing but to an even greater degree with these forms of content. The revenue from the ads is what the content providers receive in compensation for their work.

This issue has become a cause for me. You might wonder why. I do include ads in my blogs (you may see one of these ads in the side bar). Just for the record, I receive no money unless someone clicks on one of these ads. The appearance of a Google ad alone brings no revenue to the content provider. Also, for the record, I have never made enough in a month of offering content (since 2002) to cover my expenses for renting server space. So, on average, whether my ads appear or not, makes about one McDonald’s coffee a month difference to me.

What has begun to bother me is the principle of ad-supported content and public willingness to avoid thinking about how this works. I wonder if most folks consciously consider the work of content providers. Part of my concern is that this apathy will ruin what I think was part of the original vision for the Internet. This vision was the Internet would reduce the barriers for content generation and allow more folks to participate and possibly “profit”. My concern is that a technical battle here will squeeze out the small players.

Here is what I mean. I have the background and technical skills to block the blockers if I choose to do so. I am presently experimenting with ways to do this and the consequences to my traffic flow should I decide to take certain courses of action. For a demonstration, take a look at one of my other blogs. If you look near the top of the page in the left-hand side bar, you will see a message related to ads and ad blocking. I can tell if you are employing an ad blocker or not.



Instead of sending these messages, I could have my software take an action. I could send anyone using ad blocking software to an error page instead of allowing access to content. This is a version of what “pay wall” sites such as the New York Times already do. You go along with the revenue generation model of the site or you are not allowed access. Those who depend on the ad revenue or can implement such software strategies and lose their viewers as a consequence will likely move on to spend their time in other ways. As an example of a site heavily dependent on ads, I would point people to the Free Technology for Teachers site.

My purpose in this post is one of raising awareness. Understand the consequences of your actions and consider the position of those who take the time to generate the content you consume.

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Big data and coffee shops

I spend most of my career attempting to interpret charts such as the one that appears below.


I must admit this one had me stumped. I have used a service called LastFM to keep a record of all of the music I play on my devices since late 2006. It is just kind of fun to look at the data and consider trends in my musical interests. Recently, the service added a feature that presented year by year totals. I was surprised to see the remarkable decline in my activity.

I have now been retired for about a year. It appears the decline started a little before I ended my academic career and then decelerated rapidly. Here is what I have concluded from careful analysis. I listen to music pretty much non-stop when working at my desks. I suppose I stopped putting in the long hours that resulted in 30,000 listens. It takes a long time to listen to 30,000 plays.

I do not have the perception that my work activity has slacked off that much. I probably spend more time reading and writing than I did when I was a working professor so the recent decline had me stumped. Here is what I think is happening. I now spend much more time in coffee shops than used to be the case. Most days I spend a couple of hours. Because I do not want to annoy the other patrons, I do not listen to music from my computer or tablet and I am content with the audio feed in most shops. I suppose I could use earphones, but the “ear phone” look has never been my thing. So that is my present working (kind of a play on words) hypothesis – blame it on the coffee shops.

I think I may create a series of Instagrams of the many coffee shops we have in Minneapolis. We have been making it a point to visit a new one each week. I use a bagel shop as my daily “go to”. Avoid the lunch crowd and there are plenty of tables.

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Thomas is the cheeky one

When my kids were kids, we had Sesame Street. I thought it was great. The video segments appealed to kids, but also had something for adults. When troubled by the reality that we are different, we can remember what Kermit had to say when he sang “it’s not easy being green”. What four-year-old understands that message?

I just read that Sesame Street is going to 30 minute rather than 60-minute episodes and will now be “shared” by HBO. How will mothers (and perhaps fathers) have enough free time to make dinner? How will those families who need Sesame Street be able to afford HBO?

Sesame Street issues aside, my grandkids seem more fascinated with Thomas and Friends. I was worried for a while about this strange fascination with model trains, but I am beginning to  understand. The Thomas and Friend series tells stories based on the exploits of the trains that operate on the island of Sodor. For the experience to make sense, I imagine the island somewhere off the coast of England.

The television series seems to have a formulaic model. Each engine appears to have a personality flaw that consistently gets the engine in trouble. Thomas, kind of the hero, is described as being the “cheeky” one. I still have not figured out exactly what cheeky means (maybe pretentious) and the kids have no idea. The kids do know the names of all of the characters on sight. Despite their flaws and misadventures, the engines always seem to recover and are then regarded as “useful”. I guess this is the message – be a good person and you will be useful.

While new in my awareness, Thomas has been around for some time and was originally conceptualized by clergyman William Awdry as a character in books for children. Television stardom came later.

After watching numerous episodes of Thomas and after investing in not one, but two train tables for Thomas and his friends (actually my wife made these purchases), I finally was able to take a ride on Thomas. Evidently, Thomas is now touring. The ticket to ride on and photograph Thomas was expensive, but I suppose so was the cost of shipping Thomas from Sodor to Duluth.



One thing I will say about the ride was that it was short. You can get away with that when you have a large fan base.


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Just cuz it’s the big city

Just cuz it’s the big city you should not assume these fellows are more sophisticated and make smart decisions.



It is garbage day and this is the view down my street. What I want you to notice is the different colors of the garbage containers. Each color represents a different company. The trucks begin their runs at 7. There is a truck for garbage. There is a truck for recyclables and a truck for yard waste. So, multiply the number of trucks by the number of companies and consider how the simple matter of waste collection has been made far too complex.

Despite the damage to the streets, the noise and the danger (trucks sometimes move very quickly because the next container for them may be a block or so away), the city cannot seem to escape from this situation. The companies claim the right to compete for business. Different residents have allegiances to a different company. Greed and stubbornness make a bad combination.

Some local politician needs to be brave. Perhaps it could be someone who has already decided not to run in the next election. Divide the city into districts if there is a concern that all companies have a chance. Ask the companies to lower their rates because of the greater efficiency the city ca offer. Use the lower cost to explain to citizens why they must now have a blue garbage container instead of a green container. The higher quality of the road surface could be a bonus. There must be an opportunity for reasoning and logic in a situation such as this.

This never would have happened in North Dakota.

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