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.