I Wonder

Is there such a thing as “intrinsic motivation”? Apart from built-in biological compulsions to eat, sleep, reproduce? I’ve wondered this for a while and asked myself the question most recently as a result of excerpts from Robert Samuelson’s September 6th Washington Post article titled “School reform’s meager results“.

A few excerpts:

“Reforms” have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) “scalable” — easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains.”

“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure.”

From that comprehensive list, only curiosity strikes me as something we would likely agree is mostly intrinsic in nature. We’re not very introspective when we talk about our intrinsic motivations. If we were more reflective I suspect we’d find our motivations are at best intrinsic/extrinsic amalgamations.

When I listen to people explain why they think they did well in school, they typically say, “I didn’t want to let my father/parents/grandmother down.” They weren’t naturally gifted. There were adults in their lives they didn’t want to disappoint.

Given that, maybe the key to education reform is strengthening families in ways that will lead to heightened parental expectations to the point where students are extrinsically motivated by them to work harder and achieve more.

Running on the Edge

Missed my fitness-related posts? My sister says nobody cares, but she thought the Cubs were winning a pennant this year. My sister aside, I’m proceeding as if everyone cares. :)

This is the first summer in a decade I didn’t race in a single triathlon. I was supposed to race (on two wheels) up Mount Baker a few weeks ago, but passed after receiving an early race morning email about extreme conditions and a course change. And I was thinking about doing the Hood River Gran Fondo (100 mile bike race) today, but pulled the plug on the cycling season earlier in the month so bagged that too. I should quit calling myself a triathlete. Is it ethical to continue wearing my Timex Ironman watch?

A running friend extraordinaire annually comps me admission to the Seattle Half or Full marathon the Sunday after Thanksgiving. His website advertises it and so they give him a bunch of pre-paid entries. Most years I run the half, which I really enjoy, but this year I signed up for the full since I haven’t gone long for two years. Everyone should do a marathon every other year, don’t you think?

Enter Dan, Dan, the long distance Man. Dan lives down the street and we train together. He’s of Midwestern stock and a stud, but he gets a little loopy when talking about supplements. We ran the Portland Marathon together two years ago. I was having GI issues at mile 21 and told him I was heading into a PortaPit. “Want me to wait?” “No, go ahead, I don’t want to slow you down.” Sixty to ninety seconds later, with my new and improved plumbing, I started chasing after him. SO frustrating, I could see him, but couldn’t close the gap since he was chasing a woman in a yellow bikini. He finished exactly one PortaPit stop ahead of me and I continue to give him grief for refusing to wait for me.

I don’t think Dan wants to race Seattle with me, but he does want to keep me company on my Saturday long runs. We ran 16 miles Saturday. He didn’t know I was marathon training. I explained I had just decided and that the Seattle race peeps allow you to switch from one race to the other up until race morning.

I’m getting a late start, so I’m kicking up my mileage faster than you’re supposed to. The general rule is no more than a 10% increase in mileage per week. I’ve increased it 20% the last two.

Dano, or the Supplement, or the Malamute, is convinced I’m going to injure myself. He thinks I should be running no more than four days a week, five at the most. I’m running six. Two years ago in Portland I ran well for 20 miles and then faded over the last 10k. Just looked at my late summer/early fall 08′ training log and my mileage was surprisingly modest, 35-45/week. This time I’m going all in with increased mileage with the goal of maintaining my pace through the last 10k. One problem. Miles 20-23 in Seattle are damn hilly. So not only am I increasing my mileage too quickly, I’m getting after it, doing one track and one hill workout weekly too. I almost felt a micro-tear in my calf as I typed that.

I told Dano that if he’s right and gets to say “I told you so” I’ll take 10 days off and run the half. No big deal. Saturday’s run started and ended at the “Y” because I had a massage scheduled for right afterwards. Sunday was a true Sabbath. Today, nine weeks from blast off, I feel (almost) as good as new.

In my next life, I hope to be married to a masseuse.

Bill Gates and the Poor Widow

Forbes is out with its “Most Wealthy” lists. Bill Gates’s wealth is estimated at $54b. He has reportedly given away $28b so far. $28b out of what would have been $82b is 34%. The $28b is an eye-popping figure, but maybe the percentage figure is even more impressive because the wealthier people become, the more focused they seem on becoming even more wealthy. A lot of credit goes to Warren Buffet and David Rockefeller for inspiring him and providing his wife and him a model for their foundation.

Often very wealthy people get lots of credit for large flashy gifts when in actuality their gifts are usually a small percentage of their net worth and they serve as needed tax deductions. [An aside. I’m looking forward to the Facebook movie coming out next week. Zuckerburg, Mr. Facebook, is reportedly furious at how he’s portrayed in the film. Yesterday he gave $100m to the Newark Public Schools. Coincidental timing?]

Then there’s Luke 21, verses 1-4. “As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘I tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'”

Gates’s example doesn’t rise to the level of the poor widow, but it’s similarly inspiring.

This BGIII mugshot (taken in 1977 following a traffic violation) is pretty funny. His smile suggests he’s confident things will turn out okay in the end even if his insurance premiums go up.

File:Bill Gates mugshot.png

One Less Car

As I suspected, I didn’t make it twenty years and 200,000 miles. Sold the 1993 Camry wagon last week. Kelly’s Blue Book and Edmunds had it valued at around $1k which is sad considering I’m considering buying a bike frame for $2k. I sold it for $2,500 because of the $1,500 “The Positive Momentum blogger used to drive this” premium. Annual car insurance premium dropped $500. I was spending $1k/year on repairs. In 12 months we’ll have an extra $4,000. Past that point, we’ll pocket at minimum an extra $1,500/year in savings. At minimum because the three or four of us will drive slightly fewer total number of miles in cars that get better mileage (and as bonus, are on average, more safe).

Maybe one of the most vexing questions of 2010 is how does one meet daily expenses, save for children’s college education, and save for retirement when wages are flat? Economists report that it costs just over $200k to raise a child for eighteen years. Social security will be delayed and reduced. Medicare will cost more. Taxes will increase. The few people with pensions will see companies renege on promises and reduce benefits. Today, $100,000 in savings might generate $4,000 in investment income.

It’s easy to gain weight and fall into debt fast, but it takes decades to get physically and financially fit. A frustrating paradox. The question is whether you earn more dollars each week, month, or year than you spend on average.

I’ve written before about how financial journalists and pundits focus far too narrowly on the perfect investment strategy and not nearly enough on defense or reducing overhead. One of the best ways to reduce overhead and one of the quickest ways to balance a personal financial budget, is to figure out how to live with one less car.

Tammy Strobel, is a Portland, Oregon based blogger who has published an electronic book on how to live completely car-free. I’m not there, but appreciate the challenge. Note that one of her chapters is titled “Saving $8,000 a Year”.

Make Parents Accountable for Children’s Fitness

More positive impacts of aerobic activity. Wish I had a dollar for everyone of these types of articles I’ve read recently. Key paragraph from a NYT blog titled “Can Exercise Makes Kids Smarter?” “. . . the researchers, in their separate reports, noted that the hippocampus and basal ganglia regions interact in the human brain, structurally and functionally. Together they allow some of the most intricate thinking. If exercise is responsible for increasing the size of these regions and strengthening the connection between them, being fit may ‘enhance neurocognition’ in young people.”

Later in the post the blogger references research that claims 25% of school-aged children are sedentary. The conventional conclusion, recommit to physical education in schools. Before doing that, it’s important to ask who should be accountable for K-12 students’ relative fitness, their teachers or their parents and guardians? Recommitting to physical education in schools assumes it’s their teachers, but I assume two things: 1) public school teachers are being held accountable for far too many non-acacademic social/economic/health-related problems and 2) parents or guardians should be held most accountable for their children’s relative fitness.

Consequently, I propose doing away with traditional team-sport based physical education in elementary, middle, and high schools and in its place breaking up the school day with two or three ten minute-long calisthenic/walking/yoga breaks. In addition, I propose mothballing every school bus in urban and suburban districts and banning parents and guardians from driving their able-bodied students to school. Similarly, I propose banning urban and suburban high school students from driving to school. Under my proposal, every able-bodied urban/suburban K-12 student will have to walk or ride bicycles to school every day.

The protests will take the following forms: 1) it’s too far and will take too long; 2) at times throughout the year it’s far too cold, dark, and wet; 3) the neighborhoods we’d have to walk/bike through aren’t safe enough; 4) it violates freedom of choice.

In order. 1) Move closer or enroll your child in your neighborhood school. My tenth grade daughter lives 1.75 miles from her locker. Most people can walk 16 minutes/mile, so in her case it would take approximately 28 minutes to walk to school or about 15 more than in a car given the before school traffic jam on the streets and in the school lot. She’d have to go to bed 15-20 minutes early which is tragic because she’d probably miss “SuperNanny.” So it’s an extra 30 minutes a day, but not really since I’ve eliminated physical education. In actuality, she saves 25 minutes a day. If she rides her bike at a comfortable 12mph, she’d reduce her commute to about the same time as a car. I can hear her, “What about my gargantuan textbooks and violin?” “Get an iPad and I didn’t hear you practice last night.”

2) Inevitably, parents/guardians would have to walk with young children which would create community and also contribute to their fitness. And a little physical toughness would be a very good thing.

3) This might be just the impetus to make them safer. It’s illogical for some to claim we’re the “greatest country in the world” if some of our neighborhoods aren’t safe enough to walk through. Again, groups of parents taking turns escorting children in the mornings and afternoons would most likely have a very positive ripple effect on the safety of dicey neighborhoods.

4) True, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Consider not just the health benefits, but the economic ones. Imagine what school districts could do with their transportation savings. Reduce property taxes, offer more extracurriculars, reduce class size, update their technology tools.

To make my proposal more pragmatic I propose letting any student (and all bass players) that can verify that they’re getting at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity a day (through after school sports or independent play that a coach or non-parent/guardian adult can vouch for) opt out. Ideally, this will lead to swimming, cross country, and other teams being overwhelmed by new students turning out, which in turn will require districts to devote some of their transportation savings to these activities. It may also provide coaching opportunities for the displaced physical education teachers, the only real losers in my proposal.

Or parents and other citizens can keep blaming teachers for problems mostly outside of their control.

Three Changes

Life in the U.S. will be considerably different in twenty years as result of three changes that few people think about much at all. While we watch “reality television,” obsess about celebrities, follow sports as if which team wins really matters in the grand scheme of things, and shop til’ we drop, these changes will remake the United States in profound, yet unknowable ways.

1) Young women are running circles around young men in secondary schools and in colleges and universities. I’ve written about the implications of this before.

2) The world’s economic power is shifting to the east.

3) The earth is warming much more rapidly than anticipated.

What specific, symbolic, yet tangible changes might wake people up to these fundamental shifts? This example is far too subtle, but still worth noting. With respect to the first change, last year, for the first time ever, women earned more Ph.Ds than men. Another more dramatic example I anticipate happening sometime in the next twenty years, the first female President of the United States.

The second change isn’t as worrisome to me as to citizens whose identities are primarily national in orientation. I reject the zero sum assumptions of the global economic race metaphor. I celebrate the fact that hundreds of million impoverished, rural Chinese and east-Indians, fellow human beings, are experiencing markedly improved qualities of life.

Number three is the most vexing because reducing C02 emissions will require international cooperation on a level never before demonstrated by the world’s governments.

Like waking from a collective slumber, twenty years from now many will wonder when and how women became so much more influential than men, when and how three billion Chinese and east-Indians became so much more influential than 400-500 million Americans, and when and how we made such a mess of the natural world.

Christine O’Donnell

This is funny. From wikipedia:

She attended her university’s commencement ceremony in 1993 but did not receive a degree, due to outstanding unpaid tuition.

Her apparent familiarity with debt means she might do well in Congress. One wonders though, what are the odds if she loses (the special Senate election in Delaware) on November 2nd that she attends the swearing in of newly elected Senators anyways?

Positive School Culture

The “secret” of creating a positive school culture is to attend to the details. The larger feel of a school, its overarching ethos, often hinges on subtleties like student friendly signs like this one. A single sign is relatively inconsequential, but a constructive tipping point can be reached when positive signage is combined with other student friendly practices.

Beautifully Sad

College drop off one is in the books. How was it? Beautifully sad. After the final hugs, we finally boarded the airport shuttle bus. Eighteen made it especially tough because she wouldn’t walk away. She just waited and watched, never budging. I guess I should have known that was coming, but Fifteen had to inform me that Eighteen’s always stood frozen in time watching whatever conveyances take her loved ones away. Points off for not knowing that.

I was surprised by the GalPal’s relative calmness. Later she informed me she’d been crying quite a bit in private over the last few weeks. Her spirituality made all the difference. Her epiphany? Ultimately, Eighteen belongs to God. We’ve just been taking care of her the last eighteen years. She’s also convinced the distance will prove instrumental in Eighteen assuming adult responsibilities.

Lots of thoughts were swirling around in my head on the shuttle bus ride to the airport. The overarching one was how beautifully sad the separation was. I suppose some parents are glad when their young adult children finally leave the nest. That, in my mind, would be sad sad.

It was a reminder that in life whenever we choose intimacy (by partnering with someone for long stretches of life or by choosing to reproduce), we inevitably increase the risk of painful separation brought about by human fallibility and/or the natural passage of time.

Another thought was how nice it was that I didn’t have to give the final pep talk I had tentatively planned titled, “Work Even Harder, Honor your Grandparents, Don’t Eat Too Many Chocolate Cocoa Puffs, and Be Sure to Get Enough Sleep” because we spent four days together, days marked by dinners out where I told a few college and life parables that communicated everything I had wanted to. I know her well, she listened carefully, I felt no need to elaborate.

The weirdest thing about the four days was how comfortable Eighteen was in her own skin, even when surrounded by her sometimes annoying sister, mother, (and always) annoying father. Day four, after moving in to her dorm room, I suggested she go to the dorm’s dining hall for lunch and “meet us back here” by the student store cafe. “No, I’d rather eat with you guys.” It wasn’t the decision of a shy, anxious, introverted first year, but that of a young woman who appreciates her family and wanted to enjoy our visit to the very end. Despite the antics of her perpetually silly family, there was never a hint of embarrassment, just a mix of fondness and gratitude.

A silver lining of the trip was the thoughtful way Fifteen seemed to process a visit to a neighboring college, her dad’s dinnertime parables, and her sister’s first day of college orientation. She’s always done well in school, but now I think she’s even more motivated to do her best.

The first five-six days at home have been different, but nice. Last week I bought a smaller piece of halibut, only half a gallon of chocolate milk, and the GalPal and I have had enjoyed more time alone.

And the inevitable, natural passing of time marches on.

Left to Right. . . Two College Women and a High Schooler Ponder Their Future


Full title “Patreaus Gives FL Lunatic More Attention Than He Ever Envisioned”. Patreaus is an extremely impressive individual and we’re all indebted to his unparalled service. However, last week he made a big mistake when he brought global attention to a FL pastor of a 50 person church (of which apparently 12-15 show up most Sundays).

Patreaus has no regrets. Here he is in a recent Christian Science Monitor article. “I’m not commenting on an issue of free speech. I’m providing an assessment of the likely impact of an action by a fellow American citizen on the safety of our troopers and civilians. I think I’ve got an obligation to those I’m privileged to lead to provide such an assessment.”

“It’s perfectly fine for a four-star general whose mission depends on developing goodwill to say that the action of this small group of extremists in Florida is going to undermine what we’re trying to do,” says Christopher Swift, a fellow at the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia School of Law. That doesn’t mean, he adds, “that they are going to shut down these folks. He’s concerned about an 18-year-old private running into an 18-year-old Afghan. How is that Afghan going to give the American soldier the benefit of the doubt when he has pictures of Koran-burning on his mobile phone? Petraeus is right to call that out.”

I strongly disagree. Patreaus and Swift have forgotten what everyone learns on playgrounds when first starting school. . . the simple effectiveness of ignoring and isolating oneself from problematic people, or in the case of the FL “pastor,” the seemingly unstable.

Here’s what I suspect Patreaus would say to me. “Assume the burning goes ahead in the church’s parking lot. At minimum, the local paper covers it, which would most likely provide all the necessary kindle for a much larger media firestorm anyways.”

We are a rubber-necking, tabloid loving, reality television watching people, so maybe Patreaus is right about that, but the FL “pastor” is absolutely loving his fifteen hours of fame. The way he’s playing it, his fifteen hours is about to turn into fifteen days.

Patreaus has exacerbated a problem that all of us, bloggers included, should have ignored. Odds are had we turned our back to the burning and not written or spoken about it, it wouldn’t have ended up on any Afghans’ mobile phones.