February 2013 Awards

Improbable sentence. “Ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman hung out Thursday with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on the third day of his improbable journey with VICE to Pyongyang, watching the Harlem Globetrotters with the leader and later dining on sushi and drinking with him at his palace.

Personal finance vid of the month. Helaine Olen, author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry“.

Apocalypse sign. CTA Digital’s iPotty with Activity Seat for iPad.

Noteworthy death. Mr. Matthew Crowley.

Weightroom t-shirt. “Gardening. It’s cheaper than therapy.”

Non-conformist. Photos.

Wasted talent. Professional sports division. My favorite excerpt, “Justify My Glove”.

Word—sequester.

Social media app—SnapChat. This news story gives it real cred. Maybe they’ll make a movie.

Consumer purchase, minimalist division.

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Nature pic—Holden Village (taken by La Fuerza)

Near Stehikin, WA

Near Stehikin, WA

Weekend get-away—Holden Village

Sitting in the bus I was flashing back to when I was a high school water polo legend traveling to away games.

Sitting in the bus I was reminiscing about when I was a SoCal high school water polo legend traveling to away games wit da’ boys. Lake Chelan water visibility, easily 25′.

Most widely read post. The Link Between Walking or Cycling to School and Concentration.

Be Less Lonely

By making time to read. Every day. And not just periodicals, blogs, email messages, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updates. Fiction and non-fiction books.

Bookish people are less lonely because they have an endless supply of friends. With the exception of some especially good long running series, television and film characters usually don’t rise to the same level of friendship as literary ones.

Cleo, an eighth grader at a middle school I’ve been helping out at this year, figured this out about eight years ago. She reads incessantly. Averaging about a book a day. Substantive books typically read by high schoolers. And then she reviews them on her blog, Cleo’s Literary Reviews. Apart from sometimes reading in classes she’s not supposed to, I have no idea how she does it.

Our negative preconceived notions of bookworms as socially stunted people ill-prepared for the “real world” are anachronistic. Cleo likes her school and gets along great with her classmates. She appears imminently happy and has a promising future in the “real world”. Cleo will impress with her vocabulary, imagination, and knowledge of the world.

But the longest lasting gift of reading doesn’t have anything to do with competing in the global economy. Most importantly, Cleo’s happiness won’t fluctuate as wildly with the vagaries of “real life” relationships because she’ll always be buffeted by a steady stream of interesting people, created by an endless army of imaginative authors.

What I Learned From a Forced Digital Sabbatical

Despite my charming personality, my university students have a very hard time unplugging from their phones and the internet for the length of a class session—one hour and forty-five minutes. I just did it for 100 hours. I know, total badass.

My digital sabbatical was forced in the sense that I didn’t volunteer to participate. Some families from church were going to Holden Village in Washington State’s Cascade mountains, a four hour car trip, seventy minute boat ride, and slow 11 mile uphill bus ride away. They asked if we wanted to join them. Betrothed wanted to go. Happy wife, happy life.

Actually, I dig Holden. We had been once before, about ten summers ago. Beautiful setting in a dramatic, heavily forested mountain valley. Simple living. Eat, hike, read, pray, socialize, repeat. This time there was 4-5 feet of snow.

Lessons learned:

1) It’s good for introverts to (interpersonally) stretch on occasion. As a card carrying introvert, I like solitude. At Holden I actually have to talk to other human beings at meals, on group hikes, at church services, and in the evenings. I enjoy socializing in moderation.

2) One can read mad amounts when unplugged. I took an unread novel on my iPad and decided to leave behind a hardcopy nonfiction book I’ve just started. Mistake. Thanks to some reading marathons, I blew through the 300 page novel and then scavenged for additional reading material including three sample chapters previously downloaded to the Pad and the cookbook that derailed my reading in the middle of last year. Then I found and read a recent issue of Sports Illustrated. I often wish I read more. All I have to do is step back from the laptop and television.

3) Group living is more exasperating, but ultimately, more enjoyable. One of our carpooling friends decided on the way to the boat to stop and visit her sister in Wenatchee on the way home. “Your kidding me,” I thought to myself. When we turned away from home for that detour I was running low on patience and wishing we had driven separately. But the visit was short and nice. The sister’s husband sells apples all over the world. He had just returned from Germany and Italy and explained how he had tried unsuccessfully to visit a large (10,000 boxes) new customer in Libya. The apple snack was delicious and the family was personable and interesting. I’m glad I met them even if we got home an hour later. We also would have lost out on a lot of joking and good conversation if we had driven separately.

4) While unplugged, the world will continue pretty much as is. In the summer, I think the boat runs daily, so there’s always a day-old New York Times in the village library, but last week there was only our Friday and Monday boat arrival and departure, so no new papers, causing a serious uptick in blood pressure. To make matters worse, our carpoolers drove all the way home without turning on National Public Radio. What if North Korea nuked the South I wondered? Did UCLA beat Stanford? Did Christine Gregoire get a new job in the Administration? Alas, the Russian asteroid and the South African para-athlete girlfriend’s shooting and death were still headline news. It was as if a global news gatekeeper was saying, “Okay, nothing to look at here, move along.”

5) Teenagers are prone to exaggeration. Everything was going fine until Saturday night Contra dancing. Shit, sounds like something Oliver North might have done in the mid-80s. The GalPal was a tad excited. After sticking a fork in my novel, I dragged myself to the dining hall where the tables had all been pushed aside. Betrothed and Seventeen were having a great time. After their dance, Seventeen made a bee-line for me and said, “You HAVE to dance with mom! It will MAKE her life!” “Nahhhh.” “No SERIOUSLY Dad, it will MAKE her life!” Well, who knew, it turns out I have mad Contra dancing skills. And now, apparently, Betrothed can die in peace. I will spare you the photo album and video library of the event.

6) Teenagers aren’t just funny looking, they’re funny. I may have doctored the whiteboard next to the teen’s door. Shortly afterwards they returned serve with this salvo, which as you can see, I doctored.

Advantage twelfth graders.

Advantage twelfth graders.

7) In ping-pong, as in life, quit while you’re ahead. The first night I opened a can of whup ass on the GalPal. We rolled through 7-0 and it ended up something like 21-13. The second night, she also made a stirring comeback, but ultimately succumbed, 22-20. The third night, somehow, she couldn’t find me.

8) I’m a legend in my own mind. Despite turning a year older a week ago, I can still reverse slam dunk with a backpack on.

Mad hops

Mad hops

How long could you completely unplug? I’m guessing somewhere between 1 hour and forty-five minutes and 100 hours? Don’t hurt yourself trying to replicate my feat, but do consider a Holden Village get-away. It’s great for the soul. You don’t have to be Lutheran or even Christian, and you can decide how little or how much to participate in Village life. The lodging is rustic, but clean and comfortable enough for a few days or weeks. The food is mostly vegetarian, plentiful, and tasty. And don’t forget, if you volunteer to scoop ice-cream, you get a free serving afterwards.

True Confession

If you were standing here beside me right now you’d probs (adolescent form of “probably”) counsel me to immediately abort the mission. You might even slam the laptop on my fingers. You’d argue, and I’d be hard pressed to prove otherwise, that this is not the right time or place to confess that I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. But being of slow and stubborn stock, I feel I must come clean.

Straying from the marital straight and narrow started innocently enough, wishing the love of my life was a few pounds lighter, then fantasizing about weekend get-aways. I wish I could say this was a one-off and that I immediately realized the damage done, but in fact, since taking the plunge, I can’t stop thinking about her. She’s promised to spend hours with me. Take me places near and far. Climb steep mountain passes. Crush anyone that gets in our way. To always be there for me.

If you’re a female reader, you’re probably so disgusted with me that you can’t see straight. If you’re of the male persuasion, you’re wondering what she looks like. Without further ado. . .

Be still my beating heart.

Be still my beating heart.

The start of a beautiful relationship.

The start of a beautiful relationship.

Five Lessons Learned Blogging

What I’ve occasionally written in the past still holds—even though my readership continues to grow, it is relatively small. That’s not easy to pull off, the secret is to start with a really small readership. There are millions of bloggers in better position than me to teach others how to build a readership. Instead of a roadmap to the blog big-time, these are the modest reflections of a small-time blogger after five years and 712 posts.

1. Visuals matter. Clutter hurts, interesting high resolution pictures help. I don’t apply this insight. When it comes to “visuals”, I’d assign PressingPause a “D”. A “C” for the “WordPress in a box” template and an “F” for pictures. For pete’s sake, I’m using a default WordPress picture of a pinecone in my header. Every “D” student excels in excuses. Mine? I gave someone in my family my camera and I’ve been real slow to replace it. I’ll try to do better.

2. Good content matters even more. Ask big-time bloggers the key to their success and they’ll almost always say good content. Which means lesson one isn’t a panacea. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your layout is if your content sucks. And vice-versa, some bloggers, like John Gruber, provide such great content that excellent visuals are unnecessary. Same with Bill McBride. Minimalist templates, few if any pictures, and millions of visitors monthly.

3. Sex sells. I learned this when I included a picture of two bikini-clad snowboarders in a post that became my all-time most read. I’ve since deleted the post because it was skewing my statistics. Although the Huffington Post isn’t a blog, it’s an online newspaper that mostly rebundles hard news from traditional papers, it knows this lesson especially well. A large part of its success can be found halfway down the righthand column. It unapologetically applies the “sex sells” lesson. Here are some of the righthand column headlines from Wednesday, February 13, 2012.

  • What I have Risked for the Best Sex of My Life.
  • Listen: Graphic Jodi Arias Sex Tape Played to Jury.
  • ‘Naughty’ Librarian.
  • Beckham’s Bum.
  • Beyonce Tries the ‘Boob Window Thing.
  • Eva’s Biggest Turn On.

This stuff works! Right now I’m wondering if Eva’s biggest turn on is Beckham’s bum or Beyonce’s boob window. The use of ‘boob window’ is a significant turning point in HuffPost’s short history. To this point they’ve used “side boob” almost exclusively. “Under boob” headlines are also starting to appear. “Over boob” can’t be too far behind.

4. Passion matters. In writing as in sports, the arts, teaching, damn near everything. I was reminded of this watching Mumford and Sons on the Grammy’s. Give this example from a Colorado “Red Rocks” concert a listen. Total effort. Mesmerizing.

People appear more interested in what I have to say when I’m fired up. Angry even. But the anger can’t be finessed, it has to be authentic. And remember my recent post about being tired? These days it takes a lot more to get me to throw a punch. I would like to write angry more often, but it can’t be forced. I can’t get angry twice a week, or even weekly. So that’s a challenge.

Related to this, my most widely read, most opinionated pieces are the result of my subconscience working overtime. An acquaintance of mine, a very successful writer, once shared a memorable writing insight with me. He said if your writing project isn’t the first thing you think about when you wake up it’s not working hard enough. Ironically, my most widely read posts are ones that I pound out more quickly than average. Because I’ve been writing them for days, weeks, or months in my head.

5. Vulnerability matters. Maybe not if you’re writing exclusively about technology (Gruber), or real estate (McBride) or Economics (Cowen). Two positive examples of this are Penelope Trunk (extreme at times) and Mr. Money Mustache. This is another insight I haven’t figured out how to apply. The reason being, I don’t know how to be more vulnerable without compromising my family’s and friends’ privacy. That takes precedence. Maybe someday I’ll spill my guts in a semi-autobiographical novel.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

p.s. Be sure to return early next week for a post featuring vulnerability, sex (well, at least allusions to it), and pictures, oh my.

The Link Between Walking or Biking to School and Concentration

My seventeen year-old supper nanny of a daughter babysits for a Mormon family up the street. They have six children, the oldest in fifth grade. When she got home from their house Saturday night, she excitedly announced that number seven is on the way. The coolest thing about this constantly expanding brood is that they walk, or scoot, or cycle to school during the week and walk to church on Sundays. Whatever the Pacific Northwest weather. They’re quite a spectacle, all dressed up, scattered up and down the sidewalk. School is two miles round-trip, church almost four. Early elementary children walking four miles to and from church, someone call Social Services.

Probably without knowing it, our Mormon neighbors are onto something. Sarah Goodyear recently reported on the results of a 2012 Danish study that found that kids who cycled or walked to school, rather than traveling by car or public transportation, performed measurably better on tasks demanding concentration, such as solving puzzles, and that the effects lasted for up to four hours after they got to school.

The study was part of a Danish project that looked at the links between concentration, diet, and exercise. Researchers were surprised that the effect of exercise was greater than that of diet. According to one:

“The results showed that having breakfast and lunch has an impact, but not very much compared to having exercised. As a third-grade pupil, if you exercise and bike to school, your ability to concentrate increases to the equivalent of someone half a year further in their studies.”

Goodyear writes the process of getting yourself from point A to point B has cognitive effects that researchers do not yet fully understand.

Another research conclusion jives with my experience:

“We learn through our head and by moving. Something happens within the body when we move, and this allows us to be better equipped afterwards to work on the cognitive side.”

Here’s the problem though. Goodyear:

“Nationally, as of 2009, only 13 percent of kids in the United States walked or biked to school, down from 50 percent in 1969.”

Her related questions:

“But if more parents realized that packing the kids into the back seat actually affects their ability to learn, would they change their ways? Advocate for building schools in more walkable locations? Demand improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure? Or simply make the time and effort required to get to the kids to school under their own steam, accompanying them if need be?”

And the excellent concluding paragraph:

“Many parents pay for test prep and after-school enrichment programs to make their kids more academically competitive, and go to great lengths to schedule time for those activities. Imagine if they invested those resources instead in something as simple as helping their children to travel safely from home to school on foot or by bike, arriving ready to learn.”

Public policy questions always involve challenging trade-offs. This particular one seems like a rare exception. School transportation costs make it difficult for districts to commit adequate resources to teachers’ professional development, students with special needs, better curriculum materials, and building improvements. If schools districts started requiring students that live within a mile or two of their school to walk or cycle, the savings could be used for those other priorities, teachers would accomplish even more as a result of increased student concentration, students would be healthier (and their adult chaperones), roads would be less congested, and the environmental impact of school travel would be greatly reduced.

Win. Win. Win. Win. Win.

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If Only Schools Were More Like Businesses

Every once in awhile, it’s important to inflict pain on yourself. Builds character. Run a marathon. Fast for a day. Do your taxes. Watch a Wayne LaPierre press conference. Or most painful of all, listen to politicians and business people talk about what we need to do to reform education in the United States.

Their message—breakdown the government monopoly on schools by infusing them with business principles. Most importantly, competition. Between teachers, schools, and districts. Highest standardized test scores win. Their unquestioned premise is that the business community has its shit together. The pro-business propaganda is so steady we start to believe it.

Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Lots of schools would close every year. But I guess we could just tell the affected families that “creative destruction” is just a natural, even healthy part of the business cycle. They’ll understand. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And teachers would start relating to students the way my local bankers and insurance agents routinely do, from behind websites, and sometimes via the telephone. Last week I received birthday cards from my bank and my insurance agent. I recycled both cards without opening them. No one at my bank or insurance agency would know me if I walked into their offices. We have no personal relationship, only an economic one. The best teachers know their students individually, and something about their families, their interests, their hopes for the future. But maybe all that effort to connect with students is misguided. Maybe teachers should be more like my banker and insurance agent. Just design some websites where students can get assignments and submit their work and mail out computer generated birthday cards once a year. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And every school would ace every state assessment whatever the form. Because that’s the way my car dealership works. When I take my car in, I’m told they have to get perfect scores on the evaluation they mail to me afterwards. Heaven for bid if they get any “9’s”. It seems like gaming the system to me, but I guess it’s just an advanced form of assessment thinking, everyone getting perfect scores all the time. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Most importantly, the best thing about business people is they’re always accountable for their performance. Regular performance reviews ensure it. That’s what teachers need most of all, more business-like accountability! Or maybe not. Here’s Nassim Taleb blowing that fallacy apart:

Those who have the upside are not necessarily those who incur the downside. For example, bankers and corporate managers get bonuses for “performance,” but not reverse bonuses for negative performance, and they have an incentive to bury risks in the tails of the distribution – in other words, to delay blowups.

Read the history of Wall Street from 2007-2008 for sordid example after example. Five years later, in the U.S., there’s a sure-fire way for business people to avoid accountability. Climb the corporate ladder as high as possible. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

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