Friday, June 19, 2015

Lessons in What I Really Think

            The kids got out of school three weeks ago. Since then we’ve taken them to one grandmother, I spent a long weekend in Pittsburgh with my friends, and we are now preparing to take them to visit more grandparents. Put all this in combination with the reduced amount of time available to write and I haven’t been able to get anything together for a while now.
Of course that doesn’t mean things haven’t been happening that are worth talking about. We’ve been to museums. We’ve played on the playground with school friends and hashed over the dynamics of who got in to the accelerated program and who didn’t. We’ve been to hipster festivals and faced the contradictions of being old and being cool. We’ve had dinner with friends and come home wondering when we’ll ever let our children go to someone else’s house without one of us coming along. We’ve changed our naptime to rest time and have reaped the benefits of a happier afternoon Polly. Each of these was worth more than one sentence and maybe in a quieter time I’ll come back to them.
Today, however, I wanted to write about the challenges that having kids constantly presents to what we know about ourselves. As a person, I have a well-established sense of what I believe about the world and what values should - in general - guide my choices. Until I had children I didn’t have to think about these things too much because I moved within worlds that only challenged my values sporadically. Now, however, I feel as if Pip and Polly bring such challenges to me almost every day, from deciding how much candy I’m willing to let them have to what clothes they should wear to how much roughhousing is too much. In the process I’m constantly surprised about which choices I actually make and the unrealized assumptions that underlie them.
In the last three weeks I have stumbled into two moments in particular where this dynamic between what I thought I knew about myself and what I actually do has been brought into contrast.
The first came during a hike the kids and I took two weekends ago. We went out to a gorge about an hour outside of town that has a wonderful array of sandstone arches, rock shelters, and little creeks and spent a full morning going working our way across a ridgeline, down to a creek, along the gorge floor, and then back up past a huge arch. The whole loop was about three and half miles long and to keep the kids interested I gave them a pretty free rein to run up ahead and explore. When the path made it down to the little rocky creek it did so in this beautiful spot where the creek curved in a large arc and the space between was filled with large old-growth trees and soft beds of pine needles. The kids wanted to play in the creek, hopping along its banks and pulling up rocks to throw into the deeper pools, but I hesitated. When out in the woods we try to practice Leave No Trace hiking. We stay on established trails. We pack out our trash. We don’t bring rocks home with us. By doing this we hope to preserve the wild spaces we travel through for others to enjoy as we did.
Certainly, tearing up rocks from a creek bed qualifies as leaving a trace. Not only that, if every group that came through that spot tore up rocks and splashed them in the pools it would distinctly change, if not ultimately destroy, the very thing about that spot that made it wonderful. At the same time, I want Polly and Pip to enjoy being out in the woods. I want them to see it as a living place where they can explore and learn about the world and themselves. If we treat the woods as a pristine place where things cannot be touched and moved around, where we can only walk and look then they become as sterile and distant as a museum. Loving the woods is as much about getting dirty, feeling the wind in one’s hair, experiencing the rain on your skin, hearing the crunch of things around you, feeling mud between your fingers. To not fear the woods you have to touch it.
So I let them play and splash and run and laugh. They wound up with wet shoes and mud stained clothes and very large smiles. I’m not sure it was the right decision in the grand scheme of public preservation, but I know it was the right decision for our family’s further interest in going out into the woods.
The second moment of political difficulty involves playing soccer. Polly enjoyed playing soccer this spring and is interested in continuing to play this fall. The league in which she would play has a co-ed division and an all-girls division posing an interesting gender dilemma. Ava is inclined towards the former arguing that she (and the boys) would benefit from having her in there working and battling side-by-side. She would conceivably have to fight more for her place in this environment, but Ava felt like this was an important aspect of the world for her to learn to handle. By the end of the spring season I was leaning the other way. In joining an all girls league I felt as if Polly will get more time to handle the ball during games and will probably find more immediate success. I felt as if this would lead to her enjoying the game more in general and might incline her to continue playing longer. Throughout the season I felt as if the girls on the team deferred to the boys or waited for them to do something on the field before following along.
While we haven’t yet made a final decision (Polly has raised the possibility of doing gymnastics but hasn’t yet indicated which shed select), I have come to the realization that Ava is right. Polly should be in the co-ed league. More importantly, I am finding that my observations about the girls’ experiences on our team may have been more colored by certain mistaken assumptions than I understood. The two older girls on the team were a year younger than the oldest boys. When I think back over the season and compare those girls to the boys who were their same age instead of too all the boys, the picture that emerges looks different that I originally thought. The younger players, boys and girls, were always having to claw the ball away from the older ones. Age was the great divider, not gender. The seven year old girls were doing all the same things as the seven year old boys. Their skill levels and strength levels were equivalent. Their successes and failures were all very similar. Even their relations to the kids who were older and younger were largely the same. I was just seeing the girls’ frustrations with the older players through the wrong lens.

Raising children is eternally humbling. It is forever revealing things about me that I never fully understood. Some of these things are wonderful and some of these things are roundly disappointing. Either way, it’s quite an education in itself.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Imagining new parenting metrics

           Sometimes an idea needs to germinate. Last week I mused about the perpetual uncertainty that parents face in understanding what things matter when it comes to raising their children. Unfortunately, I feel like I didn’t get any farther than saying that successes and failures come from some mix of biological capacity and cultural training and that it’s hard to know which matters more in a given situation. I did start to talk about the emergence of advanced metrics in the NBA but only used that to whine that no such metrics are possible for parents. What I really should have done was to build on the comparison and imagine what such a system might look like anyway. So, that’s what I want to do now.
            To start with let me back up and talk briefly again about the NBA system. Owned and run by a company called STATS, LLC, SportVU is a system of motion tracking cameras and data collection software that was fully installed in all NBA arenas for the 2013-2014 season. It creates a data set 25 times a second, allowing for a host of experimentation and development in the analysis of player activity on the court. While the development of new metrics in baseball – where each play can be broken down into discrete moments of individual input-output measures - took off back in the 1990s, it wasn’t until the development of this technology enabled an analysis of holistic secondary and tertiary effects that such metrics began emerging in basketball.
            What I’ve been playfully imagining over the past several days is something akin to ParentVU wherein the secondary and tertiary effects of parenting activity could be analyzed and accounted for.  While plenty of studies have attempted to correlate discrete parental actions with various measures of child success – for example, time spent reading to children or meals eaten together – much like the rough measures of points scored and rebounds gained, these measures don’t really tell us much about how these things happen and consequently can only give us rough feedback about what parenting strategies are most effective. A good player scores a lot of points and grabs a lot of rebounds but that doesn’t give a team a good sense of how that player fits together with other teammates most effectively. Similarly, a good parent reads a lot to their children and eats meals with them but that doesn’t amount to much of a strategic guide when it comes to the full array of challenges that come with being a parent.
            What one would hypothetically want to do instead is, like an NBA team, record every move made by a parent and child over time and look for ways to correlate parental inputs with filial outputs.  This, of course, would require a level of surveillance that feels downright terrifying on the face of it, but for the sake of this post I’m going to skip past the privacy/ethical/logistical quandaries for now and imagine what kind of metrics we might be able to develop from it. I’ve come up with several from my own experience that I’d love to track.

            - “Do as I say” ratio – tracks the consistency between what parents ask children to do and the things parents do themselves
            - Eye contact percentage – tracks quantity of eye contact during time parents and children are around each other. Would be a proxy for how attentive parents are to children in various contexts – the playground, the dinner table, etc
            - Touch matrix – tracks the number and types of physical contact between parents and children as well as categorizing them into negative and positive groups. The number would be some kind of ratio per hour and positive/negative ratio.
            - Consistency index – tracks similar situations over time and determines the consistency of parental response. This would make no value judgments about the quality or nature of these responses. It is merely looking for whether responses are the same or different over time.
            - Conversational exchange rate – tracks number of conversational exchanges versus other exchanges such as corrections, instructions, punishments, etc.

As I put this list together a couple of caveats came to mind. One is that I am imagining metrics from a parental experience point of view and not a quantitative measures point of view. There are probably all kinds of interesting twists to be measured by someone better versed in the math of these things than I am. Second, this list reflects a very particular, very personal version of what makes a good parent. There are no metrics listed above for ‘one hit wonders’ such as buying spectacular presents or undertaking big displays of affection. To me these things smack of parental self-aggrandizement and I don’t think statistical tracking of such things isn’t going to lead to any great revelations about parenting strategy. Third, the metrics also reflect the current age of my children (6 and 8) and might be somewhat different if they were much younger or older. Fourth, I’m favoring percentage and ratio measures over cumulative ones. While something like number of diapers changed or soccer games attended could tell a good deal about the time a parent spends with a child, such measures would also get skewed by the different roles parents have in the household and could also tend to mistake quantity for quality. I’m less interested in how much time a parent spends around their children and more curious about what they’re doing with the time they do spend.
            Another interesting challenge – and one that I’ve thought less about – is how to measure results and draw correlations between them. This requires its own set of value choices regarding what kinds of personalities one wants their children to have, which strengths one values, which weaknesses one can live with. Then too, parenting is so much about investing ahead of time to produce results down the road that connecting the dots between input and output would be especially difficult. With all of that said, here are a few possible output metrics that I would love to connect to my parental input variables:

            - self confidence
            - respect for others
            - willingness to listen and incorporate the ideas of others
- ability to follow directions

The data provided by SportVU has changed a great deal about the strategies NBA teams employ in this day and age. After analyzing shot percentages and per possession scoring data, teams now work especially hard to create shots within 8 feet of the basket and beyond the three point line, disdaining longer two point jumpers as inefficient and less likely to produce positive results. Fluid passing and the management of court space have become more important than ever as teams look to get defenses scrambling around before they dump the ball down low or out to high percentage spots around the three point line. In turn, defenders who can quickly drop into the paint and then jump back out at shooters have become high valued as well.
            While a comparative ParentVU system would be complex beyond measure, it’s fun to speculate on what new strategies for improvement might come from them, particularly if the data could be collectively analyzed and shared across a large population. Would parents check their stats the way they do their Fitbits to see how well they’re doing on the various metrics? Would they compete to see who had the best touch matrix for the month? Would such a system spawn a whole new approach to parenting akin to the NBA’s embrace of ‘pace and space?’ Would that actually give parents a better sense of which things they can do to positively mold their kids?

Friday, May 22, 2015

What really matters?

            This Saturday we wrapped up the spring soccer season with a game played in an intermittent downpour. The first quarter and the third quarter were so wet I had to repeatedly wring out my shirt. Polly’s favorite moments in the entire game were the two quarters she got to hang out with a couple other players in the cave of umbrellas we created on the sideline. Fortunately, the team played well enough to win, 5-3, and even had a couple of pretty soccer plays to boot. My favorite of the day was a perfect pass off a kick-off by Pip to the forward on the left wing. The forward was able to receive the ball in the space between the midfielders and the defense, dribble twice, and successfully pop a shot passed the goalkeeper. It was the exact play I’d been hoping we’d pull off for several weeks.
            At the end of the game, the rain backed off enough for us to comfortably hand out trophies and say a couple of quick words to wrap up a surprisingly delightful 3-5-2 season. That record doesn’t look particularly spectacular but within it was a final eight game run during which we went 3-3-2 and only felt really out of things really. When compared to the winless streak of last fall, this was a significant improvement and people seemed genuinely pleased with how their kids had improved.
            As a coach this was great to hear, but it also made me wonder which of the things we did really mattered. At one level much of the improvement came from things I had no influence over: the addition of one stronger player and the physical growth of a couple of others may have been enough to tip the balance on a couple of days. I know that the goal kicks were better. That was something we explicitly worked on and it showed during the last couple of games. I feel like we defended one on one better as well, which was also something we talked about and worked on. Beyond those two things – and some improved goalkeeping work – it’s difficult for me to pin down exactly what we did right this time around that added up to five fewer losses than last fall. (As I write this, I think now that I need to do more specifics next time around – giving players individual things to work on and progress with in addition to drilling specific situations with the team as a whole. There were too many times when kids just didn’t know what else to do with the ball than to try to run forward with it.) As a parent, I’m happy the kids had fun and found some success. As a coach, I have no idea whether I did a good job or a crappy one.
            I raise this question because it is also a fundamental question of parenting: am I do a good job or are my children’s successes largely the result of their own growth and development. At one level, there are some obvious things we do that matter – the kids have enough to eat, we make sure they get plenty of sleep each night, we make sure they do their homework and provide them with help when they need it. But after those basics, the investments are harder to directly correlate with their successes. Kids generally learn to walk and talk regardless of their parentage. In a decent school they learn to read, write, and do math as well. How much of the effort we put in matters? Where are we wasting our time? Where should we be doing more?
            For example, take Pip’s test from earlier in the year. I spent a good deal of time putting together sample questions, talking about different problems, and working out strategies with him. He ultimately scored in the 99th percentile on that test, and I felt like all the work had been justified. But perhaps he would have done that well anyway. Perhaps those kinds of questions make sense to him and he would have scored just fine without all the extra work. There’s no way to really know.
            I’m thinking about this in another way as well. With the NBA playoffs in full swing I’ve been reading a good deal about all the new analytic possibilities that come with the massive amount of data being collected during a game. Every second of action is being recorded and broken down and statistics nerds are having an orgy trying to create new and better metrics from all of this data. They are looking away from the ball to see how one player’s movement helps or harms a given possession. They are looking at defensive matchups with increasing specification. All of this calculation is giving scouts, general managers, and player evaluators a whole new perspective on the value of different players, particularly when it comes to what have previously been known as the ‘intangibles.’

            In parenting it feels like the intangibles are everything. There are a few definite metrics that we know matter – reading to a child every day for example – but just about everything else is vague. Part of this comes from the large variety of ideals about what it means to “do well.” Different goals require different strategies and different evaluations. However, another part of this comes from a general lack of context specific data. There are no SportsVU cameras tracking our parental moves and producing numbers that can be quantified and tracked (not that I’d want this). As such there’s lots of room for overconfidence and underconfidence when comes to one’s understanding of how one stacks up as a parent. And for those who are striving to be the best parents we can – however each one of us would like to define that – the absence of metrics about what really matters, the absence of direction beyond social trends, mom and pop practices, and by the gut feelings leaves a lot to be desired.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Chipotle and the Logic of an Anti-GMO position

            About two weeks ago, Chipotle – a fast-food burrito chain which appeals strongly to millenials and others as a quick food shop without the tacky cheapness of a fastfood restaurant – announced that it would make all its offerings free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This announcement was followed by skeptical editorials in various newspapers including the two that I regularly peruse, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. While this move by Chipotle is certainly more about branding and continuing to bolster the chain’s identity as something more than just fast-food than it is about customer’s health, I found it interesting that the newspaper editorials were not more sensitive to the reasons why this move might appeal to a great many people.
The Wall Street Journal in particular essentially called Chipotle’s decision a piece of self-righteous stupidity. The paper’s editors argued that those who disdain GMO products when genetic intervention can feed more people at lower costs are little more than whining prima donnas. They also pointed out that after two decades of GMO production there are no definitive examples of harm to human health. As such, the editorial concluded, the anti-GMO crowd (in the WSJ context this means squishy, tree-hugging Liberals) celebrating Chipotle’s decision is just taking part in another round of “moral posturing.”
Well, the editors at the Wall Street Journal are, of course, free to have their opinion. However, in their blunt dismissal of anti-GMO concerns, they are failing to see how this one particular issue is indicative of a much larger nervousness about what is being done to our food by the industrialized food system. As a father of two and someone who pays close attention to the ingredients in our food, I am uneasy about the proliferation of GMOs into our food supply because this brings with it a tremendous number of unknowns in exchange for what feels like a rather dubious benefit. The unknowns fall into three general categories.

The first is a question of health. For a very long time food producers received the benefit of the doubt when it came to putting extra stuff into our food. They added various preservatives to make things last longer on our shelves. They added extra sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup to jazz up the taste of sodas, juices, teas, even applesauce, peanut butter, and bread (and enable them to use cheaper ingredients in the process). They developed a method of infusing fats with gas – i.e. partially hydrogenated oils - to enable the creation of shelf-stable, powdered dishes that only required hot water to cook. None of these on their own were directly linked to immediate health problems during their first couple of decades of use.
However, thanks to these various additives and alterations to the food we consume – especially in the cheapest/most affordable foods – the United States and many other countries that consume industrialized food are now facing epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes. Human bodies are bloating and breaking down from a constant infusion of things they were never intended to consume.
And it’s not just that people are eating the wrong stuff. It’s that the food we have come to eat over the last couple of decades has been manipulated in so many ways that our bodies have a difficult time figuring out what they need to keep us healthy. A couple of weeks ago there was an essay in The Wall Street Journal about the loss of flavor in food and in that essay there was a description of an experiment undertaken in the 1939 in which toddlers were given free rein to select their own foods over an extended period of time. It turned out that what tasted good to those toddlers at various points in time reflected what their bodies needed at that stage in their development. Some days it was blueberries. Other days it was spinach. Other days they just wanted meat. Taste mattered not just as a source of joy but as an indicator of nutrients and bodily needs. Today however, with strawberry flavored popsicles and cheese-flavored chips that connection between flavor and bodily needs is much more difficult to maintain. Our bodies still know what they need. However, when something tastes like applesauce but also contains a substantial serving of corn, the body’s various feedback mechanisms get confused. When potatoes taste like cheese how’s a body to know when it’s gotten what it needs?
In light of these experiences, is it unreasonable to worry that genetically modifying more of our food will only make things worse?

The second reason I’m skeptical about GMOs is that the argument put forth by companies for their use reflects a simplistic supply and demand logic that ignores the reality of how moves around the world. The Wall Street Journal editorial touts the ability of genetically modifying foods to increase crop yields, consequently lowering prices for food in the poorest areas of the world. This bothers me for two reasons. First, businesses in general are not altruistic endeavors. Whenever one of their voices – and the Wall Street Journal is certainly a business voice – starts to make appeals to alleviating poverty red-flags go up all over my brain. The business interest in GMOs has nothing to do with making food cheaper for consumers. Sure, genetic modification can increase crop yields but more importantly for the companies that engage in this modification is the possibility of patenting the GMO and gaining greater financial control over the seeds and subsidiary products like pesticides and fertilizers. In this light corn – the plant – no longer exists. Instead there is ‘Roundup Ready Corn’, owned by Monsanto and one cannot plant the seeds that come from a previous crop without paying Monsanto for usage rights.
Second, there is more than enough food currently grown to feed “the worlds growing population.” The causes of hunger and/or steep food prices are more often than not political and structural not agricultural. Government programs in the United States will at times pay farmers not to plant certain crops in order to keep prices stable. The infamous famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s was caused by a local drought and a political war that prevented outside food from getting to people who needed it. The increased crop yields provided by GMOs are a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Whenever people bring up a Malthusian kind of food shortage apocalypse, they are simply engaging in scare tactics.

Finally, the last reason I’m skeptical about the whole value of GMO production is that I can’t see what I as a consumer will get out of it. Every alteration we make in our food requires some kind of trade-off. There’s no magic button that allows for us to keep everything we want and get rid of all the things we don’t. While we figured out how to make produce that is bigger and stays fresh longer we also now have red delicious apples that taste like tennis balls and gigantic strawberries with barely any flavor at all. The ‘fresh’ lettuce I get in a clamshell at the store is bland and rubbery when compared with the greens I get from my local community garden. Increasing crop yields are all well and good, but that seems like a benefit for the companies and not for me. If I’m paying a few dollars less per week for food that contains fewer nutrients or just doesn’t taste that good, I’m not better off. Cheaper is not necessarily better and nobody has given me any other reason to think that a genetically modified ingredient improves my life. Until that changes, I will continue to be highly skeptical of the value of GMOs. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A List of Growing Moments

            There is no better feeling as a parent than when your child surprises you by doing something wonderful or doing something more and better than you’d ever realized they could. This spring I’ve had a couple of moments like this with both Polly and Pip. These are simple, powerful moments, ones when I notice them growing, expanding, becoming more capable of things than ever before. It seems like these moments would come with a bittersweet flavor, a wistful nostalgia for parts of their lives that have now passed. But, it doesn’t seem to work that way. As they do these new things, as they show off their new capacities, I never find myself thinking, “When did you get so old?” Instead, I feel like a child with a new toy. Suddenly a whole new world of possibilities emerges and I can't wait to see how they come to work themselves out.
            In the spirit of that I want to list a few of the things they’ve done recently. There isn’t really a theme to this list beyond capturing these moments before they get buried by the others that will ultimately come. As such this is mostly a list for me to brag and for me to hold on to, a way to draw lines on the back side of the closet door to mark their heights as they grow.

-  Earlier this year, I wrote about preparing Pip for the final ‘general intelligence’ test that would determine who gets invited to his school’s accelerated program and who does not. Well, it turns out Pip did quite well on the test. We got the results back a month ago, and he scored in the 99th percentile. This was something of a relief, though it also left plenty of questions unanswered. How many others scored just as well? Did the school district have a test number that wasn’t shared with us that would determine the final rankings? Were there other evaluative mechanisms at work that we didn’t know about? Well, we never got any answers to those questions, but Pip did receive an invitation to join the program this week. He was pleased, if not too worked up about it one way or the other. He would have been fine with things either way. In retrospect, I would have been too. We had done what we could. The rest of the process was outside our control. (Now, I have to start getting Polly ready)

- For the spring show at Pip and Polly’s elementary school, Polly tried out for and made it into the dance number for the kindergartners and first graders. This try-out took place a month or so ago, and she has been practicing with her cohort a couple of times a week ever since. In contrast to the way she approached the dance number for the winter show, Polly has been relatively guarded about what they are actually doing this time around. She has said that the music for it is Elton John’s Crocodile Rock and that she will be wearing a tutu. But she hasn’t shown us any of the dance itself.
However, this past week after a rain-shortened soccer practice left her with energy to spare she broke out her own impromptu dance performance – a one-to-two minute composition of improvised moves complete with pointed toes, elegant hands, and a nice array of leaps and flourishes. There was no music, just the pats and squeaks of her bare feet on the floor and the determined puffs of her breath. And it was not playful. Her moves were deliberate and balanced. Her focus was tight. She carried herself like a gymnast doing a floor routine. She spun and glided and lunged and twirled, holding Ava and I in place through it all.
The whole production caught me by surprise as minutes before she had been running in and out of our back mudroom making animal noises and chanting “Jinx, Jinx, Jinx, Jinx” with her brother.

- Speaking of soccer practice, Pip and Polly have both had their moments on the field this spring. For Pip, it’s been mostly the development of his goalkeeping prowess. At the start of the season he had said he was not interested in playing goalie, but after the first weekend of games he started fiddling around with one of his friends and decided to give it a try. After a couple weeks of practice and five more games, he now looks very comfortable back there. He’s alert. He’s aggressive. He moves well. And he has developed a very effective method redistributing the ball once he makes a stop.
Most of the goalies in our league try to punt the ball down the field. The strong kids send it flying like a cannonball. The weak ones often only knock it ten yards or so. In both cases, there’s no real control over where the ball actually lands between the sidelines nor any good way to advance it when it does. What Pip and his friend have learned from one of our coaches is to use a catapult motion to throw the ball down the field. The upshot of this method is that they can get the ball out to their own players in positions that allow them to effectively move the ball up the field. Pip has gotten particularly good at this. This past weekend he was able to regularly fling the ball up to half field and land it right in front of one of his forwards. And he looks comfortable doing it. There is nothing awkward or uncertain about his throws. They come out in a smooth, fluid motion that shows he knows what he’s doing. The catapult throw has become a real tool.
Polly is also feeling more and more comfortable on the soccer field. After spending much of the first couple of games hanging to the side and watching the action go past she is now standing firm in her position – often as the last line of defense before the goalie – and taking on dribblers coming into her space. Even though she can’t boot the ball very far, she is willing to stand in, stop the ball, and dribble it out away from the goal. This is great because it means I can trust her to be where she needs to be in the defensive scheme and to make an effort when the ball comes her way. This is not something I can do with everyone.
She is also taking on a more assertive role on the field. This past weekend she was playing midfield when it was time for our team to kick off. The referee called for one of our players to come up to the ball and get things going. When the others around her hesitated for a moment, she seized the opportunity and made a good pass to one of the wings. It was so good, in fact, that the next time we had a kick-off, I had her do it again. This turned out to be the highlight of her day and a moment I’ll remember for quite a while longer.

- Lastly, Pip had his school piano recital last week. He and about ten other kids take short piano lessons once a week with a school music teacher, and this was their end of the year performance. The lessons are simple and basic, requiring little more than five to ten minutes a day of practice to master. Thus in a year he’s only progressed from rhythmic doodling to playing quarter notes up and down the five keys on either side of middle C. But he’s reading music now, has developed the dexterity to jump between ring finger and thumb without hesitation, and has a good enough sense of what it means to play the piano should he want to pursue it more intensely at a later time. We have even gotten the chance to play some short duets together which has been very fun for me.
For his recital, Pip played a piece called ‘I Love Parades.’ At school, his lessons take place on an electronic keyboard which has a range of instrument sounds and background rhythms to add in as you play. He and his teacher decided he should play the piece using the trumpet sound and on the second time through add in a marching rhythm to give the piece some extra pizzazz. He was very excited about this and spent the two weeks leading up to the recital running the music over and over until he could play it smoothly from start to finish. This involved a great deal of groaning and starting over whenever he missed a note, but he was determined to do it right. For once I stayed out of this and let him follow his own inclinations.

On the day of the recital Pip was the fifth or sixth kid to play a piece. The ones who came before him were all second graders like him. Their pieces were short – probably no more than thirty seconds long – and when they played they tended to push down the keys only far enough to make a sound. This gave everything a very tentative quality. Also, none of them used a background rhythm. So, when Pip dove into his piece, it sounded different from everything that had come before. As he worked through the first measures, he struck the keys with confidence, pushing them down to their stops just as he would on the piano at home. He probably went a touch fast but the notes were clean and on rhythm. Then he fired up the march accompaniment. This caught everyone’s attention and I think Pip could sense the extra energy in the room as he headed for his second round. The rhythm of the accompaniment was a touch slower than the tempo he had just played, so Pip had an extra microsecond to make sure each note was in place. With this realization, I could see his confidence bloom. By the end of the piece, he was bopping his head to the beat and completely focused on the sheet of music in front of him. He was playing music, not just the notes, and trusting his fingers to go to the correct places. He was into it. As he played the last chords, he looked up from his stand and smiled. It wasn’t a smile of surprise or relief. It was a smile of confidence and joy. He’d played well, and it had been fun. I couldn’t have wanted anything more for him.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Business of Change

            As I believe I’ve mentioned before Ava has a particular interest in things related to Walt Disney World. Her family made numerous trips down to Orlando during her teenage years and in the process of figuring out the best ways to do everything, they learned a tremendous amount about the operations and logistics of all the resorts and theme parks encompassed within the Disney World territory. Over the last twenty-five years, she has watched rides, hotels, and parks come and go. She has read travel guides and insider accounts. She can see all the trends and management decisions both good and bad written into the materiality of the resort. For her Disney World is less a playground than a grand cultural text whose dynamics reflect the mood of our times.
            In this spirit we both read with interest an article from the May issue of Fast Company about the creation and implementation of a new organizing technology within the Disney World resort. Called the Next Generation Experience (NGE) in the text, this revolution in how visitors experienced the parks and hotels of Disney World was supposed to be built around an electronic wristband that would serve as a catch-all tool for everything one might want to do. It would open hotel room doors, generate FastPass times, purchase merchandise, order food, and more. It would also enable Disney to track park attendees and manage crowds more effectively, thus improving visitor experiences and boosting the numbers of people each theme park could reasonably handle. It was going to be the thing that brought the Disney World experience into the twenty-first century.
            What comes out of the Fast Company article is that the NGE project underwent a fairly ordinary trajectory wherein a huge, innovative idea gets watered down to a rather pedestrian set of final results. The article touches on some of the numerous conflicts that emerged between different groups during the company’s attempts to imagine what was possible and ultimately assemble what was needed to bring those ideas to fruition. While the article doesn’t claim that the project was doomed from the beginning, there is a sense throughout the piece that this kind of whittling away at the concept as a whole was kind of inevitable. It’s what happens when big companies try to fundamentally change the way they do things. There’s lots of tension and lots of trouble, and the final result never lives up to its original hype.
            What I found interesting in this piece and the reason I wanted to write about it is that it seems to be that there was one fundamental flaw in the whole re-invention process. In 2008 a team of five executives was given the charge of outlining what NGE was going to be. It was to be their responsibility to “reinvent the vacation experience” at Disney World. This charge was given in strict secrecy and much of the conceptual brainstorming appears to have taken place in conjunction with consultants outside of Disney. But, as the author wryly notes later in the article, “It’s impossible, of course, for such a big project to remain secret.” When the word got out, the pushback came fast and furious. People were fighting to protect their creative visions. People were fighting to protect their jobs. There was constant conflict between outside contractors and internal departments. There was bickering back and forth over who should get what monies and which groups should control various aspects of the new plan. A classic tussle broke out between entrenched interests and new ideas, insiders and outsiders, the winners and the losers in the process of change.
            But it didn’t have to be that way. Or at the very least there was something that could have been done at the very beginning to head off a great deal of the pushback: get rid of the secrecy. People get upset when they feel as if the rug is getting pulled out from under them. People fight back when they don’t feel like they are part of the process. People resist change if they feel like it’s happening without their input. The biggest mistake the executives at Disney made in trying to re-invent the way they run the Disney World resort was to try and keep that goal a secret from the very people who knew the resort the best: their own employees.
            For an example of how Disney executives (and any other organization looking to undertake a significant change) might have better pursued this kind of revolutionary change in their business practice, they would not have had to look very far. In his book Creativity, Inc. about his experiences as the president of Pixar Animation – now a division of Disney itself, Ed Catmull discussed a situation in which the company needed to significantly rework its operating processes in order to meet certain budget requirements. After some deliberation, the executive team decided that instead of mandating cuts in various departments they would take the problem itself to the company as a whole. They organized what came to be called Notes Day where all the company’s employees came together to brainstorm and discuss various ideas for enhancing efficiency and smoothing out the different operational systems within the company. This effort required a tremendous amount of organizational dedication in order to sift through the various ideas, gather them into different groups, put people together to talk through them and come up with a list of legitimate possibilities and priorities to pursue. However, in Catmull’s opinion this investment was incalculably useful. Not only did it produce numerous ideas that the executive team had not considered, it enhanced personal contacts across the company and gave the employees an intellectual stake in the future of their workplace. It also gave the company’s leaders a better sense of what things mattered most to their employees and how they might work with those values as they sought to achieve the necessary budgetary alignments. All of this reduced the amount and vehemence of pushback against the changes that were to come and made people better aware of the issues involved in the difficult choices that had to be made.
            I wonder what would have happened if Disney had done the same.


            As a parent I think there are at least two big messages in the contrast between these approaches to large-scale change. The first is the concept of leadership. People often view a leader as the person who tells everyone else what to do. Our cultural image of a leader is someone who has a vision and organizes others to bring that vision to life. This general-on-the-battlefield version of leadership is how the executives at Disney saw their role in developing the NGE. But what Catmull and the folks at Pixar showed is that really good leadership, the kind necessary to successfully make dramatic change happen, is a matter of tapping into the breadth of knowledge around you and giving people an intellectual stake in projects that will affect them. The leader’s role is to facilitate these interactions and provide the necessary direction to turn the ideas they produce into material results. The difference is subtle but one worth remembering whether we’re talking about big companies or small families.

            The second message is about investment in people. Investing in people is hard, time-consuming, and difficult to quantify. There’s no graph you can make to show a specific correlation between the amount of resources invested in a person and the output one receives from that investment. Instead it has to be taken as an article of faith. But that investment matters. I think about this constantly as Ava and I work with Polly and Pip. So much of what they are capable of doing now – their reading and math skills, their respect for others, their work ethic, their sensitivity to the feelings of those around them, their kindness, their responsiveness to our instructions – are the result of years of patient guidance and training. This time invested in them also means that we all have good understandings of what to expect from each other and what things matter to each other. The kids know we will listen to them and take their thoughts into account and that we expect them to do the same for us. This means we know how to approach a problem when something has to change, and there is less pushback when something doesn’t go their way. It seems to me that this is what Pixar managed to do well and something at which the executives at Disney, despite all their claims to a collaborative work environment, failed miserably.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Fallibility of Words

            Words are funny things. They purport to clarity, to providing us with a better sense of understanding. They allow us to formulate complicated thoughts, feelings, ideas, and transfer those to another person. Of all the things that make humans a distinct group in the animal world – the creation and use of tools, the control of fire, strategic planning on extended time scales – the ability to use words to communicate complex and nuanced thoughts is probably the most essential.
            And yet words fail us all the time. This is in part because they are in no way perfect. Words are variable and shaded with all kinds of meanings. Communication requires both the speaker and the audience to have an overlapping understanding of what is being said. At a simple level this requires them to speak the same language. Because I don’t know Mandarin, words spoken in that language communicate nothing to me and are not distinctly different than the various chirps and pops of dolphins. But even within the same language and the same dialect, the meanings of the words we use and the thoughts they are supposed to transfer from one to another are never as clear as we generally assume. Maybe the intonation doesn’t match or maybe one person doesn’t understand the full implications of what another is saying. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a difference in the images that are brought to people’s minds. Communication is never a perfect transfer of thought from one brain to another. Something always gets altered in translation.


It’s quite possible you saw the Cheryl-Albert-Bernard logic problem on the internet this past week. Ava printed it out and brought it home for me to try. The basic premise of the challenge is that Albert and Bernard don’t know Cheryl’s birthday, and instead of telling them she has them guess from among ten possible dates. Then she tells Albert the month and Bernard the day. After a couple of comments from each the two boys figure out the answer and you are supposed to be able to determine what it is by using their comments and making logical deductions.
This problem came from a standardized test used in Singapore, and I think it went viral because while it is a fun game there is also something fundamentally unclear about it. The absence of clarity is subtle and I think people shared it with one another because they weren’t sure whether it was them or a fundamental problem with the challenge itself.
            The solution to the problem hinges on Albert’s first comment which is “I don’t know the answer and I know that Bernard doesn’t either.” This is supposed to tell you that Albert knows  that he doesn’t have enough information to answer the problem and that he knows that Bernard doesn’t have enough either. Recognizing this sets the logical deductions in motion. However, when I read the problem, I imagined the three people having a conversation. In this conversation, Albert learns that Bernard doesn’t know the answer either, however one cannot make the same logical deductions from that situation that you can if you understand the statement to mean that Albert knows without talking to Bernard that Bernard doesn’t know the answer either. It is a subtle difference and not on the face of things particularly problematic. But, my inability to correctly comprehend the question led me to not having any chance of answering it correctly. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the logical steps, it was that I couldn’t see the problem in the way it was intended to be seen. In my case, there was a disjuncture in communication. The speaker and the audience were not hearing the same thing.

Pip encountered a similar conceptual difficulty this week with some of his homework. The teacher gave him a simple measurement sheet where he was directed to use the ruler on the page to indicate the length of different lines to the nearest ¼ of an inch. Now Pip’s smart and studious. He listens in class and he takes care when he does his work. And he got five out of the eight measures wrong.
            I know this because Pip’s teacher sends home all student work on Fridays and permits them to correct any errors and resubmit the work on Monday. Pip usually comes in and plows through this in a matter of five minutes, but with this sheet he was having lots of trouble. He just couldn’t figure out why he had gotten so many of these problems wrong. He called me for help and when I came over to look at things I could see what was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out why he had answered the questions the way he did. For example, for one line that was clearly 2 ½ inches long, he had written 2 ¼. On another that was 5 inches long, he’d written 4 ¾. At first I thought he was reading the ruler wrong and so I just told him to look at them again. When he came back just as confused as before, I went through every problem to see if I could determine how he was approaching them. It turns out that the only two he got right were lines that measured 1 ¾ and 3 ¼. It also turned out that all of his answers contained either ¼ or ¾. Pip had taken the instructions to mean find the measurement to the nearest ruler mark that contained a 4 in the denominator (i.e. ¼ or ¾), so he had rounded down all the measurements to reach one of those two choices.
            After I realized this it took a surprisingly long time to explain to him that the nearest quarter of an inch means every quarter inch increment including whole number marks and ½ inch marks. It was something that had not clicked intuitively in his mind and thus was something that he had a tricky time fitting together. For him ½ inch was ½ inch, and he had to work to see it as being 2/4 inch (Interestingly, my word processor has the same problem. It automatically shifts ¼ and ¾ to fraction forms but leaves 2/4 unchanged).
            The point of this is that while Pip could very easily perform the skill, the language of the problem didn’t fit with what he knew. Now whether that’s his responsibility to learn or the test maker’s responsibility to clarify is always going to be a negotiable thing, but it is a reminder to me of one of the constants of parenting – and human interaction in general – words are not neutral. Words are not standard. They have meaning because we have each learned them in certain ways and those ways are all unique in subtle and unknowable ways.

It also reminds me that when you think the problem is with someone else’s understanding, the problem probably also has something to do with you.