Google Fit Goals – A meditation on motivation

A while ago, Google Fit introduced the possibility of adding weekly goals in Google Fit. Of course, I didn’t use them.

After all, I liked Google Fit as a pedometer and activity tracker. I was too busy to count my steps or time my activity throughout the day, but I wasn’t too busy to know how often I’d been jogging that week. The idea seemed stupid to me.

Then, recently, while playing absent-mindedly in the Google Fit menus, I set up my “run three times a week” goal.

Screenshot_20171112-182058.png

And, I’ve grown to like it. I feel a pressure to get that purple line all the way around the circle, and really want to avoid having to see an incomplete-goal icon for the next weeks. It’s genuinely a motivation.

I like to think I embrace motivation

I teach a lot of middle-aged Germans who grew up in communist East Germany and who feel baffled by anything that smacks of ‘gamification.’ After all, they didn’t need points and badges to get things done back then, why should they need them now?

These are the same people who think that Carnival (or Halloween) is stupid because they don’t need to be forced to have fun. (But go ahead and ask them when they last put on a costume…) Or that Valentine’s Day is a joke imported from the west and they can be romantic anytime. (But then, ask them when they last bought roses…)

My point is, there are people who think they are strong enough to not need tricks. But, in most cases, they’re the ones who are also mostly satisfied with their current level of… whatever. They might say “I should run more” or “I need to take more time for my wife,” but the inevitably say it in a tone of voice that makes clear they have accepted it will not happen.

On the other hand, I like to think that I embrace motivation. I have a sense of who I am and who I could be, and a clear understanding of how big the difference between those two people is. And, though the person I want to be (a third person altogether) might have the willpower to not need motivational tricks, the person who I could be certainly embraces them.

TL;DR: The Google Fit weekly runs tracking is more motivational than I thought, and I’m frustrated that I didn’t realize that I was dismissing something I would like to embrace.

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On the need for new business vocab and some bad suggestions

Listening to a recent episode of StartUp on the race for autonomous cars, I heard a (former?) Uber executive say that Uber was a “tech company.” This was said as a way of explaining Uber focusing on the tech of self-driving cars.

The idea seemed to be “don’t think of us as a taxi company, we produce tech.” And, I guess that’s an acceptable worldview.

The thing is, I don’t think the world needs tech. The world needs something more… But I don’t know what.

Let me try to explain what I mean

I don’t think that anyone, anywhere, is looking for more tech. We use tech but really what we want is to recombine the things around us. Recently, the tech sector has broken things apart and put them back together in new ways. It’s what Uber did, and Airbnb, but what people needed was a way to better utilize cars and apartments, and make some money.

What I’m trying to say is that I wish we had companies that looked at the world in general and said “what could be? And how can we contribute to making it happen?” Most of what makes our future utopia happen will involve tech, but, much more, it will involve using tech to change the way other parts of the world function. Ideally for the better.

Hearing the unnamed exec say “we’re a tech company, so we’re focused on the tech” (paraphrase!) I thought Hmm. His vocabulary is limiting his worldview. He needs to see the world differently.

Some alternatives

So, what vocab can be used to see the world better? To be honest, I don’t know. But, here are a few possibilities.

  • Solutions. As in “we’re a solutions company.” pros: we need solutions. cons: It sounds like empty corporate talk.
  • Holistic. As in “we take a holistic approach.” pros: Existing vocab, already means something close to what I want it to mean. cons: Sounds fatuous, will frequently be ignored or made equivalent to “using crystals for health.”
  • Big picture. As in “we’re a big picture company.” pros: Should encourage big-picture thinking. cons: Corporate newspeak, so universal that it already has been parodied in “re your brains.”
  • Intrastructure. As in “we’re in intrastructure company.” pros: I made it up, so it can mean whatever we want. (Infrastructure is the structure between stuff. Intrastructure are the structures that connect things.) cons: Doesn’t have a meaning yet and can easily become another empty word. Will be mocked before being adopted.

All of those are bad ideas. But, I don’t think I have to wait to have a solution before I point out the problem. I am, of course, eager to hear what your ideas for an alternative are.

The history game

This is part of me trying to share the things that work best in my lessons. Unfortunately, this one starts a little weird, as it’s probably not going to be great for you without some modification. My version is all the way at the bottom of the post.


The history game

You won’t believe this, but I didn’t have a single intermediate to advanced group that didn’t get into sorting historical events. The idea is that students are given events from different ‘timelines’ (their town, their country, the industrial revolution, basic American history, whatever) and have to sort them into order.

Sure, we all know that the Declaration of Independence was signed before George Washington became president, but was that before or after the local landmark church was built?

Gameplay

I generally ask the students something like, “who do you think knows more about history, you or the person on your left?” And we sort of all talk about the other people’s history knowledge, never our own. (Because that gets more talking done.)

Then, I say we have a history test, and we’ll see. (My students all know that the ‘tests’ aren’t real, and they still get wound up.) They all insist they’re not “good at history.”

I spread out a lot of events — without year — on individual strips of paper and I make one end of the table the future, and the other end the past, and say “The rules are simple:

  • You turn over a paper and read it out loud. Then, you just fit it into our timeline. I’ll start with (takes paper), “JFK is born. Hmm. I think that happened between the future and the past.”
  • The next person turns over a paper. And has to fit it into the timeline. “First steam engine invented.” That was clearly before JFK was born…
  • As the game continues, we can all discuss where an event fits, but only the person who turns it over gets to make the final call. That leads to a lot of “do you think Bismark had a chance to read ‘Das Kapital’?” conversations.
  • When we’re finished, we’ll check our results. Originally, I didn’t think this was an important step, but after so much energy is invested in it, it’s a hit.

Generally, we’re all impressed by some surprising things (the American wars against the Indians ended in 1924! Who would have guessed?) but impressed at how well we’ve done.

The prep

At the bottom of the post is the stuff that I use, but it’s pretty tuned to Dresden, Germany. The thing is, there are a lot of different timelines on Wikipedia, and I took events from different ones that I thought my students should know, and sorted them into one single timeline.

I took events from:

And I put them together. I’m not going to lie, I invested an hour or so in making this (which is why I’m sharing it). That’s more than I generally invest in a single lesson, but it was a winner across five different intermediate / advanced groups and I’ll be keeping it in my back pocket as an activity for when I fill in for a colleague or whatever.

My version

This is what I use. I copy the events twice, using the first list as the answer key and printing the second set larger and without the years in order to make the papers for the table.

7500 BC: Oldest known people in the area of Dresden

742: Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was born

800: Saxony was founded

962: Holy Roman Empire was founded

1434: The first record of the Striezelmarkt is made

1455: Gutenberg Bible was first printed

1492: Christopher Columbus lands in Puerto Rico and ‘discovers’ America

1517: The reformation started

1624: New York City (then, New Amsterdam) was founded

1670: August the strong was born

1681: Pennsylvania founded

1710: Production of Meißner Porzellan was started

1712: First steam engine was made

1743: The Church of our Lady was built

1749: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born

1776: The American Colonies declare independence

1787: The Constitution of the United States was signed

1788: The Abitur was introduced in Prussia

1789: George Washington became President

1814: The Great Garden was opened to the public

1815: Otto von Bismarck was born

1816: Steam locomotive that runs on rails patented

1818: Karl Marx was born

1820: Zugspitze climbed for the first time

1830: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) was founded

1839: Railway between Dresden and Leipzig opens

1848: The “Communist Manifesto” was published

1849: May uprising in Dresden

1870: Deutsche Bank was founded

1871: The German Empire was founded

1889: Adolf Hitler was born

1892: The diesel engine was invented

1893: Blue Wonder Bridge was constructed

1895: First Nobel Prize was awarded

1911: Ronald Reagan was born

1917: John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born

1918: King of Saxony abdicates (quits his job)

1924: The ‘wars’ against the American Indians (native Americans) ended.

1934: Udo Jürgens was born

1945: Dresden was bombed

1946: Donald Trump was born

1954: First German World Cup victory and Angela Merkel was born

1956: First Eurovision Song Contest

1959: Hawaii becomes a state

1961: Barack Obama was born and Berlin Wall was built

1976: Apple (the computer company) was founded

1990: Germany reunified

1991: First BRN was held

1992: Soviet forces were withdrawn from Dresden

2002: The 100-year flood happens

2014: Last (most recent) German World Cup victory

Oldest known people in the area of Dresden

Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was born

Saxony was founded

Holy Roman Empire was founded

The first record of the Striezelmarkt is made

Gutenberg Bible was first printed

Christopher Columbus lands in Puerto Rico and ‘discovers’ America

The reformation started

New York City (then, New Amsterdam) was founded

August the strong was born

Pennsylvania founded

Production of Meißner Porzellan was started

First steam engine was made

The Church of our Lady was built

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born

The American Colonies declare independence

The Constitution of the United States was signed

The Abitur was introduced in Prussia

George Washington became President

The Great Garden was opened to the public

Otto von Bismarck was born

Steam locomotive that runs on rails patented

Karl Marx was born

Zugspitze climbed for the first time

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) was founded

Railway between Dresden and Leipzig opens

The “Communist Manifesto” was published

May uprising in Dresden

Deutsche Bank was founded

The German Empire was founded

Adolf Hitler was born

The diesel engine was invented

Blue Wonder Bridge was constructed

First Nobel Prize was awarded

Ronald Reagan was born

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born

King of Saxony abdicates (quits his job)

The ‘wars’ against the American Indians (native Americans) ended.

Udo Jürgens was born

Dresden was bombed

Donald Trump was born

First German World Cup victory and Angela Merkel was born

First Eurovision Song Contest

Hawaii becomes a state

Barack Obama was born and Berlin Wall was built

Apple (the computer company) was founded

Germany was reunified

First BRN was held

Soviet forces were withdrawn from Dresden

The 100-year flood happens

Last (most recent) German World Cup victory

November Training Plan

So, here’s a thing I’ve been doing: I’ve been running 5k for time as my weekly hard run for the last several months. And the times have been improving. As in, I’m running at speeds I’d never run at before. (I’d do so much better at the APFT than I did back when I had to do it!)

Check out the October run time:

october5k

The November plan:

For core fitness, I’m starting simply by trying to expand my current plank-a-day workout to a 5m plank workout every day. I discovered that in this lifehack article (fun fact: all the photos are of women in revealing workout clothes… but when it comes time to teach you something, of course, there’s a man in the video)

Because I have had foot pain, I thought another good place to start was by resolving to do three of these activities each day (I might revise that down to two).

Lastly, as I’ve had a ‘function’ for my Tuesday runs (traditionally, they’ve been my hard runs — see this month’s planned hard runs below) I’ve decided to make Thursday my ‘goofy’ run, which is to say, I’m going to try and run while stopping intermittently to do other exercises. (Like this one, which I don’t think I could do in good conscience in my apartment.)

Here are the four Tuesday hard runs I have planned.

Hard runs:

  • Intervals: Max interval at 23:00 5k pace (4:36/km)
  • Mile repeats: Pace 4:36/km
  • Intervals: Max interval at 22:00 5k pace (4:24/km)
  • November 5k for time

I’ve really only resolved to try this monthly training plan thing this and next month. And this month is really mostly about experimenting with habit-forming. We’ll see how it goes.

BandLab: First impressions, my setup

I recently started experimenting with BandLab, a pretty cool combination cloud music editing platform and app. The idea is pretty cool: use your mobile device to start on a project, away (presumably) from your cushy office and laptop. Then, you can work more readily at your laptop, later.

The app includes collaborative tools, and the option to ‘fork’ someone else’s work (if they’ve made it available) in order to make it your own. I like the idea.

So, I downloaded the app, and I made an account.

This is a different kind of account. It’s an accounting of my first impressions.

Recording on my mobile device

Because the phone’s built-in mic seemed to pick up more of the sounds of my fingers on the keyboard than the actual piano, I bought a splitter and a patch cable to record directly from the piano’s headphone jack.

Initially, I planned to use one headphone jack for the phone, and the other for real headphones (because it’s valuable to hear what you are playing — at least at my level of incompetence).

It was an adventure. I plugged everything in, and it seemed to work, but something about the setup was sending phantom headset volume control signals to my phone. The phone volume wasn’t important, but the constant notification was overlapping other things on the screen.

Grr.

Google research was no help. Different apps were suggested, and I installed and then uninstalled them. (Guess whether they were effective or not.)

So, in case anybody is curious, here is what I learned the hard way: using the splitter with a microphone plugged in but no headphones caused the weird signal. I guess I could have gone digging for my old jogging headphones, just to have something plugged in, but I didn’t feel like standing up.

So, I tried using BandLab’s live patch-through setting, to hear what I was playing. That drove me crazy because there was a minuscule between playing a note and hearing it and that drove me crazy.

Now I know, and I think that the next time I sit down to record, things will go more quickly. (Most of the time I had blocked out to try recording went into sorting out the cables.)

My first impression

So, what did I think?

I’ll save you long, wandering reflections on how bad my piano playing sounded when played back to me. Instead, I had two takeaway lessons from my first attempt to record something in more than one track:

  1. Playing with a metronome is going to be important if I want this to work. Sure, you can listen to what you’ve already recorded as you play, but I need to get my rhythm locked down better. I loved that BandLab broke things down into measures (you can see them at the top of the multi-track window), but that’ll only be helpful if I stick with them.
  2. I’m going to need to think more deliberately about the building blocks of a piece. That goes for ABAC type song structuring, but also for ‘what is this track for?’ kind of thinking. What I did was pretty basic: play a piece I know on piano, play it again with the ‘strings’ setting on the epiano, combine them in the app.

Where is all this going?

I don’t know. With all the other things I’m working on, I don’t know why I have this in my head. There is a ton for me still to learn, but I’ve really enjoyed my time at the piano, and this gives me a little something to work towards.

Will I post songs that I’ve written? I don’t know. I have ideas for things to write about, though no real lyrics, yet.

More likely is that I’ll post MP3s of ‘orchestrations’ I’ve made for existing songs, or instrumental music that I’ve put together on several tracks.

Only time will tell.

 

Branding, or how much material can you copy from the Internet?

I’m going to sit now in judgment on other English teachers. I think that most of them make one of two opposing mistakes:

  1. Everything comes from the Internet. Their students experience the lessons as a hodge-podge of formats and headers. The general impression that students have is ‘All Toby does is print stuff off from the Internet.’
  2. They make everything themselves. The people I have seen do this generally have pretty abysmal formatting, but they make great resources tailored to each group. The groups are impressed with the work they put into preparation and would happily recommend them to friends and colleagues, but the teacher is so swamped with preparation, that they don’t have time for more lessons.

As a guy who wants to make a resource to create worksheets on the Internet, I’m very aware of the risks of over-relying on downloaded (or photocopied) resources. Students do not value your talent in leading a conversation, introducing vocabulary, and explaining grammar. The best teachers make it seem so effortless, that most students won’t appreciate the effort you invest until they try to teach their own native language.

And, of course, going the other route and just doing everything yourself is great… for one group, but not for twenty or thirty. (Not if you also want to learn to code, have writing projects, make music… This post is basically aimed at me.) What’s more, when I create a resource for only one group, we always find typos, and there is no point correcting them because nobody will ever see it again. This means that everyone basically sees the first draft of everything. I make a pretty good first draft, but the second draft is always better.

The first pillar of my solution: I use stuff from the Internet. But I have also become very proactive about communicating in the I form what my plans are, and on what basis I’ve made them. And that I got some resources to help us with whatever. Here are some things that I have said in my lessons:

Steffen, Mary, and yes, sometimes you Bert, have been making the ‘He, she, it — s muss mit’ mistake and I know that you know it. But we’re going to drill it a bit more in the next lessons to help make it automatic.

Or:

Normally, I’m happiest when you don’t make mistakes, but I’m glad you made that one because it brings me to something I want to talk about: the passive voice!

I know you all love grammar, but it’s important to master this if you want to talk about processes…

The goal in these little chats is to explain that I am a professional who has a plan, and not just a guy who was lucky enough to grow up speaking the language they are paying to learn.

The second pillar of my solution: With my worksheet generator (mostly) finished, I’m focusing this year on creating worksheets that are highly reusable, and yet tailored to me. The goal is to make it clear that I made the resources and to make them so quirky that it feels tailor-made for my classes. (Which are, fortunately, all quirky.)

The way I’m approaching this goal is by using two kinds of text in the worksheets. There are the absurd texts that I write, illustrating the use of the structures to be practiced. (See this example.) And there are the ‘drill texts’ in which the students fill in the blank, or complete the sentence, or translate from German, or whatever… and these are (almost) entirely boring, could-be-copied-from-the-internet bland.

The goal is to make something that confronts students with the vocabulary and structures they need and is still uniquely me. Then, after one group finds a typo, I can correct it and use it with another group. Because I teach in three different schools, I make them without a header and just paste in the header I made for the appropriate school.

In summary: I’m only about two months in, on using the second pillar of the solution. Nonetheless, the first results are positive and, combined with using my dynamically generated worksheets (which are, being made by me, also quirky) with the appropriate header on them. (That’s automatic with my great website!)

Practice Objectivity

This is another post in my ongoing series on the individual chapters in “The Obstacle is the Way.” I don’t know how useful or interesting it will be out of context.


In a chapter about how assigning values to things before we fully comprehend them, I think my favorite couple of lines are these:

Everything about our animalistic brains tries to compress the space between impression and perception. Think, perceive, act–with millisecond between them.

A deer’s brain tells it to run because things are bad. It runs. Sometimes, right into traffic.

I think I those lines for a number of reasons. I like the acknowledgment of our ‘animalistic brains,’ I like the visual aid, and I like the juxtaposition of the animal and the modern, because our animalistic brains weren’t made for the environment in which we live.

Which isn’t to say that they don’t offer anything of value, but that reacting to an upset boss the way you’d react to a predator–or even an upset ‘chieftain’ in a hunter-gatherer society–is counter-productive and one of the ways we repress ourselves.

I’m diverging away from the material of the chapter by getting into this territory, but something I’d like to examine better (or, read more about) is the fact that I don’t think people believe what they think they believe. When the animalistic brain reacts, the rational brain is a few steps behind and supplies reasons after the fact. (No, it would be tragic if my boss were to get angry at me, because…)

Getting back to the material of the chapter, the two paragraphs above are followed by the following two paragraphs:

We can question that impulese. We can disagree with it. We can override the switch, examine the threat before we act.

But this takes strength. It’s a muscle that must be developed. And muscles are developed by tension, by lifting and holding.

And, this is another thing that I think isn’t talked about enough: the importance of controlling yourself when it’s not super-important, because it will be much harder when it’s important. (For me, one example is being careful of how I speak to my kids when I don’t need to be careful about what I’m telling them, so that I have ‘muscle memory’ there for when I’m more concentrated on content than on how I say it.”)

The chapter only offers three strategies for doing this: contempt, describing things by means of their strict content, and thinking of your own problems as the problems a friend has. The rationale for this last one is that we’re more objective when thinking about our friends’ problems than when thinking about our own.

I think, if I could expand on this chapter, it would be to add priorities. Something that frustrates me is when a person complains about something in their life (the town where I live is so expensive!) but rejects all suggestions to make changes. Eventually, it usually comes down to something being more important (as long as my parents are alive, I want to live close to them). When a conversation reaches that point, I suggest “Instead of feeling sorry for yourself in such an expensive city, why not be glad that your parents are alive, and you’re happy to sacrifice having a big apartment for being close to them?”

It has been my experience that, if something is important to you, moving the ‘downsides’ of life in general into the appropriate ‘cost column’ in the accounting ledger of life makes a big difference. After all, we all think things along the lines of “there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for goal.” That suggests, after all, that living in an expensive city is better than living in an expensive and dangerous city. You’re ahead of the game! The price could be much higher!