Stuff you don’t experience in North Dakota

I spent a lot of time in North Dakota. A university in a small state and a small community was probably great for me. I could concentrate on what I valued without the overhead required by a more complicated environment. I traveled a lot – every state and nearly every province – but the setting in which I lived was very predictable.

I have retired in a way that changes this. I no live in a suburb of Minneapolis and also spend a lot of time in a remote area of northern Wisconsin. A diversity of people and cultures in one locate and trees in the other.

Today, I was on my daily walk around the neighborhood and encountered a cricket match in our local park. First time I have watched cricket in person and it was especially cool to watch a pickup game.



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I wouldn’t call this a smirk

I would not call it a smirk. It is that little smile you get when observing the cute reaction of youngsters in the discovery of something new to them. It is their delight and satisfaction in the experience and recognizing that you have known the same feelings that generate this smile.

This is how I now react to educators first discovering coding, project/problem-based learning, and the personalization of learning. The expression “been there, done that” comes to mind, but it would likely be interpreted as the typical reaction of an old guy. The stereotype typically describes those of us in reaction to so many “new” things by claiming “we tried that and it didn’t work”. Stereotypes are interesting. They tend to be based on an exaggeration and over-extension of some element of truth. Some at my age do react in this way to too many things. However, labeling any reaction of someone more experienced than yourself in this way to anything you find interesting is also likely based on anecdotal experiences you are generalizing as an assumed personality trait. Think about an issue carefully before you generalize.

Here is a perspective I would encourage learners to take. Interesting ideas in education have a way of resurfacing. This is a fact. Coding to learn (computational thinking) is not new. Neither is project-based learning or the individualization of learning. Ask yourself, what happened last time? I would suggest there are several very reasonable possibilities. Perhaps it was an interesting idea, but actually did not work. Perhaps it was an interesting idea, but not practical at the time. Perhaps it was an interesting idea, but the idea needed some tweaking. It is very likely making the effort to get beyond the surface level excitement and digging a little deeper into what happened last time would be helpful. Without this effort, the cycle that sees ideas come and go and come and go will be repeated.

Coding makes a great example. I read pretty much everything Seymour Papert wrote on logo, the roots of logo within Piagetian theory, and computation as a form of understanding. I regard Papert as an “idea guy”. What idea guys connect with at one point in time are likely the same characteristics that resurface again and again. The “coding for all” trend in K-12 has rediscovered some of these characteristics. The excitement associated with these ideas generated a great deal of research in the last cycle. Researchers are not necessarily idea guys and they take a more pragmatic approach that attempts to determine whether the ideas as implemented at the time seem to work (according to the standards of the time) are beneficial. I think the research of the time did a reasonable job of differentiating what constituted a productive from an unproductive approach to engaging learners with programming experiences. If you are unaware of this work, you do not know whether your efforts are likely to fall into the productive or unproductive approach. Good science has a way of progressing. Interesting ideas without good science have a way of surfacing and disappearing.

One of the ideas that first interested me in education and educational research was mastery learning. This form of individualization seemed to hold out hope for optimizing the learning of all students. The interesting ideas did generate lots of research, but the ideas of a mastery approach also did seem to fade away. We now see similar ideas resurfacing in reincarnations such as the Kahn Academy. In this case, my explanation would be that mastery learning was a good idea when applied in certain situations (content that builds on itself), but faded because it was impractical to implement (unless you could afford a tutor). Technology may have changed this situation, but we need to think carefully about how we mix in mastery experiences with other learning experiences.

I apologize for my reaction to your present enthusiasm for coding, project based learning, etc. These interesting ideas are not new, but I can remember having similar reactions to what you are experiencing at this time. What I would suggest based on the wisdom of experience is that you think about the question of “why it will be different this time?” The “we tried that and it didn’t work” reaction of those my age should not discorage you, but it should encourage you to recognize that others have experienced the same enthusiasm and we now encourage you to start from what is already known to move these ideas forward. Ignore this advice and twenty years from now the youngsters you encounter will regard you as an old curmudgeon.

On a related topic, see “the emerging age bias” by Pernille Ripp.

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Be careful when claiming responsibility

I debated how to title this post and finally decided to make it about taking responsibility. I really liked “Keep your home page current”, but decided that would make less sense to those who are not active on social media.

Even though I no longer live there I still follow developments in North Dakota. The state and university are experiencing some tough times. This post is not about responsibility for the present state of affairs, but rather a particular issue I have noted in the political rhetoric associated with the state.

The economy of North Dakota is not that difficult to understand. Despite efforts to diversify, the financial well-being of the state depends on:

  • agribusiness (price of commodities)
  • energy – coal and now oil, and
  • Canadian visitors.

North Dakotans might assume things are more sophisticated than this, but they live in North Dakota and are not exposed to diversity – financial or otherwise.

Not long ago, the North Dakota economy was doing very well especially when contrasted to what was happening in the rest of the country. Politicians being politicians took responsibility for the brilliance of their contributions to this situation. I explained my reaction in a previous post noting that the past govenors had might the wise decision to locate their state on top of a vast quantity of dead dinosaurs.

Things have changed recently and I was curious about how the politicans have adapted. I visited the govenor’s web site and found he has yet to make adjustments. The web site notes that “under his leadership, the state has:

  • created 70,000 new jobs,
  • created the fastest growing economy in the country,
  • provided a billion in tax relief to the citizens, and
  • been ranked as the “best run state”.

This is why it is important to keep your web site up to date. Many of the jobs no longer exist, the billions in tax relief in combination with less revenue to tax means state institutions are not receiving the support that was committed, and the economy is tanking.

Oil prices nationwide have declined. The exchange rate for the Canadian dollow has discouraged Canadians from coming to North Dakota. Farm prices have fallen.

Politicians cannot really be blamed for most of the present problems (except the tax cuts), but I do find the inconsistency in taking responsibility somewhat amusing. If North Dakotans really believed they had exceptionally brilliant leaders, that ignorance is on them.

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This Old Mac

We are slowly going through the boxes we packed for our move to Minnesota. You find interesting things you have not seen in years. This is not because of our opening the boxes from the move, but because you just take a lot of stuff with you so you don’t have to decide whether or not to throw it out.

The most interesting treasure in the last couple of boxes was this old MacBook Pro 165.


After a couple of tries, I was able to get the hard drive to spin up and the software still worked. I had to use my phone to take images of the screen. Even if I could screen capture some images, this machine has no card for web access and no USB port. I might have a disk somewhere, but none were included in the boxes we unpacked.

We kind of made our publishing careers based on a couple of apps and both were on this machine.


HyperCard was a great app that had the characteristics so many value in an educational app – low floor, high ceiling. It was easy to learn to use and allowed coding that allowed a user to create very sophisticated products. Some see HyperCard as heralding the linking now allowed online.

I found a HyperCard stack that must have been created by our youngest daughter probably in 1992 or so. The stack provides her comments on different rooms in our house.


Here is her comment on the toy room. Evidently she saw the toy room as kind of a junk or storage room. This seemed to be fine with her because we did not bother to clean this room when we prepared for the cleaning lady.


Some of the projects that initially allowed us to attract a publisher were created by elementary students (with our help) using Kid Pix and Hypercard. The projects I remember must have been based on the next generation of hardware because these projects included images the students “colored”. This MacBook pro was still monochrome. It seems interesting to use a machine again that does not allow color.

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Wish I understood this better

I have serious concerns for the present political climate in the U.S. and the damage being done by the politicians manipulating the public as they compete for votes. While there are clearly people hurting and frustrated in this country, the solutions offered to them focus on simple solutions and an “us versus them” mentality. Those most in need of help are likely not to have the background to think critically about what they are being told and too emotional to make the effort even if capable. It seems to me this situation is knowingly being manipulated by politicians.

I doubt if immigration or trade issues have simple solutions. I doubt a separatist position has made sense for several generations and the mechanics of effective trade lie outside the control of any country. I suppose I have bought into the flat world model of Tom Friedman.

The folks who feel unable to keep jobs in the auto, heavy machinery or electronics industries because of manufacturing advantages elsewhere are the same folks who swarm the big box stores to purchase cheap electronics and goods manufactured elsewhere. To raise labor costs here and to employ more US citizens to do things similar to what is already done elsewhere would raise the cost of these products in this country. There might be potential for redistributing the wealth of middle and low-income families, but redistribution means some will win at the expense of those who lose. In addition, exports in industries such as agriculture would suffer in reciprocity for imposing artificial costs on imports. Again, some citizens might benefit, but what would be the overall consequences for the economy.

If one judges by the success of the stock market since 2008, the economy seems to be perking along. This is a real number representing real money. The question is where this money goes. If one gets past assuming we can focus only on the economics of this country and ignore the rest of world with populations who must also deal with basic issues of survival, the first questions to ask should concern the distribution of the piece of the global pie that is clearly already ours to divide.

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Free at last

One of the best feelings in being retired is knowing I am free to voice my opinions on issues important to me. You might assume that this was always the case given the constitution that governs our behavior – free speech and all. While I admit to some transgressions, educators are reluctant to express themselves. This is especially the case in the presence of our students – the individuals we are responsible for influencing.

At the college level, I wonder about the legitimacy of this type of expectation. It gives little credit to either student or instructor. It assumes instructors would use their position of authority to demand acceptance or at least vocal parroting of a belief – e.g., the correct answers on exams or the position to be taken in a paper must be consistent with the beliefs of the instructor. It assumes students have no beliefs of their own and have no capacity to use these beliefs to question the life experiences that come at them. The development and application of such skills is the very essence of critical thinking. Developing critical thinkers is promoted as essential to 21st-century learners.

Social media offers educators an opportunity to express themselves. I am disappointed that so few educators I follow take positions on political issues. What other profession can so easily be manipulated through political pressure? So often educators seem to be a political punching bag unable or unwilling to defend themselves.

Some suggest that educators separate any political comments they might make from comments on educational practice. For example, if you participate in Twitter chats with colleagues do not comment on political issues using Twitter. If you have a blog that you use to comment on your classroom practices, create a second blog if you want to comment on political issues. In my experience, few educators make the effort. Political issues may arise that encourage their comment, but the effort required to commitment to a second outlet for their opinions is just too much work.

I am disappointed in the commitment of my colleagues in voicing the feelings and the experiences I know they have. The repression of personal beliefs is not something anyone in this country should accept. If I ever felt inhibited, I am pleased to now say I feel free at last.

I can’t be one of those old dudes in Texas playing shuffleboard. Whatever talents I have left are better suited to other endeavors.

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Minnesota Caucus 2016

This is “super Tuesday” or “terrible Tuesday” or some such thing indicating the significance of the date in determining the 2016 Presidential candidates. This will be the first time I have participated in a political process in Minnesota. Politics in North Dakota was different. I decided early on that I have Democratic values and I have mostly voted with that party. I participated one time in the “primary process” in North Dakota. I think it has an unusual name – maybe district convention or something. I remember attending one such event. The specifics have faded a bit, but the process was quick. I checked a candidate on a slip of paper and was told I could pick up materials from a table. I had no use for a bumper sticker so I passed. It was very quick and small. I am thinking being a North Dakota dem had a lot to do with the experience.

The Minnesota experience was very different. I was not certain how a caucus went so I looked it up online. I thought I had participated in a caucus in North Dakota, but I checked and this does seem to be the case. The crowd here was immense. Far larger than I remember for any vote I cast in ND. I understand the caucus process is about more than a preference count, but few are interested in the platform or becoming delegates. There must be some way to separate those interested in these other commitments and accommodate the mob that just wants to state a preference. The crowd was a great thing and I hope there is some significance in the level of interest.

No funny stuff in this post. This is a serious matter. My concern is that many are disturbed by the negativity and extremism that now seems to dominate the political discourse in this country. We deserve better from our leaders.

caucus1 caucus2

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When brilliance fades

Politicians take credit, but usually not blame for things that happen during their administrations. North Dakota had a great run when many other states were struggling because it was able to frack and retrieve oil. What annoyed me at the time, was the tendency of politicians running and representing the state (translate as mostly republicans) to take credit for this prosperity. The “easy” money in hard times allowed cutting taxes and job growth. Re-election was easy and even encouraged some to encourage other states to look to North Dakota as an example. At the time, I suggested that the brilliance of the North Dakota politicians was positioning the state on top of huge numbers of dead dinosaurs.

Changing circumstances can reveal the flaws in bad plans and claims of brilliance. I have been gone from the state and working at the University now for a couple of years. I still keep up on what is happening and I know institutions have been asked to cut budgets, leave open positions open, and make other adjustments to help the state deal with shortfalls. Today, I see the state is closing rest stops in an effort to reduce spending. Perhaps this is an effort to encourage greater reliance on the “public sector”.

I don’t read much about politicians stepping up to take the same responsibility for the down turn. Pretty much the same cast of characters, but the spin will have to be a little different this election season.


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Suggestions for surviving at an outlet mall

While on the road, I ended up in an outlet mall and had the time to pass on the following wisdom.

I have some unique skills that have allowed me to survive and sometimes flourish in this complex world in which we live. As I age, I am sensing this responsibility to pass on my knowledge to future generations. There are plenty of elders willing to mentor others in business or academics. Sports teams often hire older players past their prime because such players provide positive role models in the locker room or on the bench. It is in this spirit that I am willing to pass on some of my unique wisdom – how to survive if you find yourself stranded at an outlet mall.

So, there you are stuck at an outlet mall far from home and access to the sports or news channels on television. You probably ended up here in good faith. You were foolish enough to believe the claim – let’s just stop in for a second so I can find some bargains for the grandkids. It is hard to argue that you are unwilling to sacrifice a few seconds for the grandkids. The problem with the request is that the definition of “a few seconds” is never made clear. I have time to write this post because a few seconds ago I was dropped off at a mall Starbucks (by mutual consent). Stretching a few minutes into several hours is possibly explainable by Einstein’s theory of relativity which I admit I do not understand. Something about space can stretch time. However, I know my wife is not an expert on advanced models of the universe so I am guessing “a few seconds” is simply a euphemism women use so men do not complain ahead of time.

Anyway, back to my suggestions.

First, if you are new to the outlet mall experience, it is important to establish low expectations for your capabilities. I long ago made it clear that walking on concrete for long periods of time, stopping and starting to look in store windows or merchandise displays, resulted in foot pain. Foot pain causes me to move slower and slower and to become more vocal with sighs and groans. This becomes annoying to anyone expecting you to participate actively in shopping. With expectations managed, you should be allowed to sit somewhere comfortable for the duration.

Come prepared. Bring a book. Better yet, bring an iPad or computer and a phone that can serve as a mobile hotspot. Remember that being on the Internet for several hours places a great strain on your batteries so make certain your device has been charged or bring a cord. If you forget your cord, a depleted battery may also shorten the time you must stay. Make sure your phone is charged so that you can announce that your laptop has no more power and you can find nothing more to do.

Second, search for a food court. Many outlet malls have one. If you can find a food court you are golden and can survive for hours. There may be other mall husbands hanging out as well. Sit toward the outside away from the food stores. DO NOT make the cardinal mistake of immediately ordering a meal. Remember, you are here to pass the time and SAMPLE. If you feel conspicuous you can immediately purchase a soda to sip while you work on other things and carefully survey your options. Once you are familiar with your surroundings, work slowly. Perhaps a hamburger first. Wait a bit and then perhaps a chocolate dipped, ice cream cone. Some malls have a Starbucks next to the food court. Usually, the Starbucks will be in a separate room. You can pass an entire afternoon in such a setup. Visit the Starbucks to have a latte and use the wifi. Move into the food court for a little Chinese (the three selection option and not the four) and station yourself at a table near the Starbucks so you can make use of the wifi. Remember, slow and steady.

Finally, when your significant other returns with her treasures never comment on the quantity or ask about price. This will likely result in an invitation to participate more accurately and will not matter anyway. Offer to help carry the bags to the car.

I hope these recommendations are helpful. These are only general guidelines and you will have to make adjustments based on your surroundings and personal needs.

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Life in perspective

This one is for my old colleagues back at the University of North Dakota. For no fault of their own, they are going through some frustrating times.

Yes, this is a picture of a common southern beer (Lone Star) and an oyster po-boy. The beer is what triggered the memory generating this post (the po-boy was good – oyster season just started).

I order a Lone Star once during any road trip when I notice it on the beer list. I like to quote song lyrics and noticing a Lone Star beer triggers the opportunity. Usually, Cindy has to listen when I break into song and then explain the significance of the lyrics. A blog post is probably better suited to my talents. The lyrics that follow are from “Lightning Bar Blues” and I associate the song with a midwest bar band hero – Johnny Holm (the link above should take you to a version recorded in Ellendale, ND, in 2008). I last heard the band at a street festival in Alexandria, MN

The band starts the song acapella (use the link and at least listen to the first 30 seconds):

I don’t need no diamond ring

I don’t need no Cadillac car

I just want to drink my Lone Star beer

Down in the Lightning bar

Some versions of the song substitute Ripple wine for Lone Star beer, but I suppose the message is the same. The Ellendale version uses the reference to Lone Star and this is how I remember the song.

What a great comment on the “big picture”.

I guess this is a drinking song. Please limit yourself to two.

[A bonus track from the band]

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