Archive for the ‘Physical Reboot’ Category

Venn diagrams are such fun tools.  I wrote a post a while back about the career planning Venn diagram that I ran across.

Career Options

And that is still what’s driving me.  Where to find that intersection between Enjoyment, Skill Set, and a Paycheck.

So let’s talk about another Venn diagram (I promise I’ll loop back around to careers in a moment).  Two of the things that I enjoy most are programming and dancing.  Can I make them intersect?  The default diagram appears to look like this.

Programming - Dance

But wait, dance is heavily influenced by music, there is a mathematical aspect to music (especially the way I think about it) and programming bears a striking resemblance to mathematics.  So here is my intersection model for programming and math.  Pretty, twisted, no?

Programming + Dance - Simple

In any case that leads to the core point of this post, which is that I’m taking a new turn in my reboot process and investing some significant amount of time into a project that really is an intersection between programming and dance.  I’m building a web site and suite of web (and possibly *phone apps) to help dancers find music.   Along with that I’m spinning up a new blog to help shape the ideas that go into the site.  So if music and dancing are things that interest you, please hop on over to my new blog.

And as promised, back to careers.  This lands me squarely on this version of the career diagram.

nopayoverlap

If the stars align I hope to bring the paycheck circle back into an overlapping state.

career-options

Being middle aged and not always remembering that at critical times I am prone to small injuries and other consequences of over-exerting myself.   And of course sitting in front of a computer for many hours doesn’t tend to help even when I do my best to stand and stretch regularly.  I’m also still ‘just’ middle aged and will prove that by not boring you with the details, but it’s pretty common for me to walk into yoga and let the teacher know that this or that has been strained so I’ll be “taking it easy” today.

I recently strained my back enough that I actually took a couple of weeks off from yoga (which is a pretty high bar for me).  So the first day back I used my normal line on the teacher and she said okay and everything was fine.  I suspect she kept a slightly closer eye on me during back bends and whatnot, and I did in fact take it easy on such poses.  But that was pretty much the end of it.  This morning, for whatever reason, I went a step further and asked the teacher what I could do to help with the specific issue I was having (new chair, more sitting in front of a computer, one particular muscle in my back was strained).   And  I received some wonderful advice about specific poses as well as the more general (and always useful) advice to keep my core tight and think about those muscles throughout the class – make that my intention for the day, so to speak.  And she helped with some hands on corrections during class.

That’s a pretty big bonus for just asking a polite question.  So why don’t I do that habitually?   Especially because I just spent 10 months feeling like a broken record.  Telling my high school students to please, please, please ask if they don’t understand something.  And using every technique I could come up with to re-enforce that message.  One might think that I would be better about taking my own advice.   It’s pretty darn good advice after all.

Well in this particular kind of circumstance hopefully I will in the future.  After all, I have proven that I can learn (if a bit more slowly than I would like).

But in the more general case, I think it comes back to the combination of mindset and general introversion – it takes a lot of energy for me to engage in that kind of conversation, so I need to keep in mind how pleasant it can be when it goes right.  And how much I can learn by asking questions.

Señora reboot and I just returned from La Paz, where we spent a week studying Spanish in an immersion environment.  It was a really incredible experience and I intend to write a post about it in more detail sometime in the near future.  But I seem to be blocking on that for now, so here’s a quick juxtaposition of one of my biggest meta-learnings from that trip and something that popped up in yoga today.

Perfection is the enemy of good enough.  Or in the context of this trip – grammar (not even perfect grammar, just any grammar) is the enemy of staying afloat.  I’m just not at the point where I have enough vocabulary to be functional no matter how many grammar rules I may memorize.  As I spent time with my teacher we had to stop so frequently to define (or redefine) words that it really didn’t make sense to try to obsess over grammar or really over correctness at all.  By the middle of the week his mantra for me was “SVO” (subject, verb object).  Breaking my thoughts down into that size chunk is really, really, really hard, as I’m sure you know  by now.  But frankly I am just going to have to learn to live with that for a while.  And I’m going to spend my Spanish study time for a while doing as much as I can to just internalize a decent set of vocabulary.

So what does this have to do with yoga?  Well.  Coincidently, two different teachers at two different schools have mentioned in the last month that I am overly dependent on my joints.  What does that mean?  Well I hyperextend my knees.  I have lordosis of the spine.  I have perhaps a bit more flexibility than is actually healthy in a number of other joints.  So rather than using core strength and finesse to achieve some postures I just bend.  Now since I started yoga when I was forty and couldn’t touch my toes without bending my knees at the time, I didn’t have this level of flexibility in my joints then.  Which means to me that by trying to take as straight a line as I could to the ‘perfect’ versions of postures I muscled through some things in a less than healthy way.  So now my joints are a bit looser than they should be an I get to spend time trying to keep core strength whilst relaxing into postures.  So in the case of yoga, perfection may be even worse than the enemy of good enough, it’s the enemy of a healthy body.  Which kind of defeats the purpose of doing yoga in the first place.

That said, does anyone have suggestions for Spanish vocabulary building websites, programs or books (that don’t pollute the experience with trying to teach grammar at the same time)?

One of the things that started me thinking along the lines of “Reconcilable Differences” was a pretty firm case of “Context Matters” with a sprinkling of “Language is Hard”. I was working on Triangle Pose (Trikanasana) in yoga and the teacher kept telling me to isolate my upper body. Well in the competition dancing that I did as a youngster, the phrase “upper body isolation” was almost always used to refer to making your ribs go in the opposite direction from your hips. This is of course different in different kinds of dances, but for the kind of dancing that I did, it was a core enough concept that this kind of upper body isolation was part of my routine warm-up.

So when I heard a very similar phrase in yoga I immediately started moving my chest away from my upward hip, which body-feel-wise was amazingly close to the Latin dancing upper body isolation that I’ve done a million times. And of course, that was the exact opposite of what the teacher intended. In order to achieve Trikanasana, the chest has to be aligned with the upward hip and by moving it away I was making the problem worse. After several repetitions and a physical correction from a very patient teacher, I figured out my mistake. And since I have spent a lot of time doing “upper body isolations” I was able to make a good deal of progress quickly once I understood the issue, although this is still really hard. And dealing with nuances of language that have been heavily skewed by years of dance while trying to hold yoga poses is still really hard too, but it is really cool when something filters through my excessively think skull.

And while I’m thinking about dance and “Context Matters,” I have to relay my very favorite example. It is in the different ways that one “Partners” in ballroom dancing and Kung Fu. In Ballroom, the lead (which is the role I danced nearly exclusively) does everything possible to project to his partner where he is going. This is very very important to avoid foot trampling and other unfortunate incidents. But when sparring, you want to do everything possible to prevent your partner from knowing what you are about to do. This is very very important to avoid injury and humiliation even in a ‘friendly’ sparring situation. So I guess it’s a measure of my insanity that I actually went back and forth between doing these two kinds of partnering for years. Perhaps I should have switch to following in dance?

So while drawing on past (or even present) experience that seems relevant to what I’m currently working on is useful, understanding where they are different is equally important.  And of course language always matters!

Note: If you just stumbled upon this post, it’s part of a loose series. There is no need to read the whole thing, but you might want to scan this post for context.

One of the things that I value most about teachers of physical skills is where they are able to translate their knowledge to the context of my body. I’m a middle aged man who did nothing at all resembling physical activity from for my teens and early twenties, I’ll never have the same kind of physique as even a middle aged man who kept in shape his entire life.

So what are some of the differences in body type that have affected my practice of Kung Fu, Yoga, Dance, etc.?

Age, sex, muscle mass, stretchiness (there’s got to be a better word for this one), proportion of length of arm to length of leg, difference in core strength, proportion of torso to limbs, lots of other internal proportions, nimbleness of ankles, proportion of my height to my partner’s in partner dancing, proportion of my everything to my partner’s when sparring. Okay, I’m getting the bit off more than I can chew sensation again. But let’s see if I can take a couple of these to illustrate and I may have to come back to this list later.

The incident that spurred this line of thought was in yoga class. The (female) teacher was taking the class through a pose that was fairly new to the series that the school is putting together – the finger stand pose – (if anyone can tell me what the sanskrit name for that pose, I’d appreciate it). The way this teacher had been teaching the pose previously was to advise people to work their hips up and back between their hands until they could kind of fall into their hands an lift their legs. The last time she taught it though, she gave an alternative of thrusting your hips back and using the momentum to pull your legs up. When I asked her about it after class, she said that she added the alternative because a male student noted that he was incapable of doing the particular hip contortion that was necessary to manage the first variation.

But I do worry that male/female differences in yoga practice in particular can be overlearned. My favorite counter-example is Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward bow pose) – my sister used to do this all the time when we were growing up. I tried it a couple of times and failed (when I was 5 or 6) and assumed that it was something that was just easier for girls so just gave up. But that particular pose was introduced recently in a class and not only could I do it, but it feels really good. Beware of overlearning.

Another body type of difference that has been top of mind recently is the proportion of heights when partner dancing. Mrs. Reboot and I have been taking various forms of beginning swing lessons recently (East Coast, West Coast, Lindy) where holds are relatively loose and substantial height difference can pretty easily accommodated. We’re taking group classes where you might end up dancing with twenty partners of radically different heights during the course of the class. It is amazing to see the number of leads who lift their hands the same amount (or at least try to)when turning a sub five foot tall follow as a six foot tall follow. And then the worst variation of that is when they blame the follows on the extreme end of the height spectrum for not doing something right (I’m not quite sure what the “something right” is in their heads). But one of the great things about taking a group class like that is being able to quickly go through the various adjustments one can make to accommodate partners of different heights.

An alternative for a specific activity might be to find a coach who is as close to my type as possible. That’s never worked very well for me. Possibly in part because that tends to poke at my competitive instincts, but also the matrix of differences is so big that I’m not sure it’s really feasible to find that kind of match in all dimensions. So that brings me back to valuing coaches who can do the translation from their type to mine. And where partners/fellow students are involved both observing and learning from what they can do differently based on their physical differences.

I’m a bit worried that I think too much in terms of dichotomies, dilemmas, quandaries and paradoxes (especially because I could only spell one of those words without the help of the spell checker).  But this one hit me over the head from a couple of different directions in yoga class this morning, so what the heck.

First the rant version:  I got to class this morning and put my mat in the back of the room and headed to the locker room to change.  When I got back, a young lady had put her mat directly in front of mine.  Very nicely lined up, she probably spent some real time making sure she directly centered it.  Now this was in a fairly small class, so it wasn’t that big a deal to shift left a bit.  But this particular studio has markings on the floor so that in a full class you know how to set up your mats to get three rows nicely staggered so that everyone can see themselves in the mirror.  So was she just so focused on getting to a relatively early morning class that when she got there she didn’t think to be polite about where she landed?  I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I’m not sure.  Then there were the three people that walked into a totally silent room and snapped their mats open when clear and crisp  “bang” sounds.  One of these days that’s going to startle me enough that I’m going to pee my pants.   Then they’ll be sorry.  You betcha!  Or the guy that stuck his towel on the only open shower stall as I walked into the room and then proceeded to spend several minutes gathering his accoutrements to actually take a shower.  Are these people all just oblivious, so focused on what they are doing that they don’t realize that they’re being incredibly rude?  Or are they totally aware and don’t care?  The flip side of this is that I like to feel that I’m a reasonably polite person, but I know I can focus to the sacrifice of all else even when I’m not trying, so I wonder how many blog posts are out there ranting about the incredibly rude things I’ve done?  Possibly even just the incredibly rude things I’ve done this morning?

Anyway, now that that is off my chest.  Call it the rudeness corollary to the Focus/Awareness Quandary.  Let’s get to the meat of the issue, which is what got kicked off in my yoga background process by the first couple of incidents.

This class was a Hatha class that the studio is calling their “Fire” series.  It’s small variation on Bikram using a few additional poses from the Gosh 84 posture series and mixes up some ordering.  The point is that it is very close to a series that I’ve been doing for years, but was only the second time I had done this sequence and a few of the postures therein.   So I had to listen to the instructor more carefully than I usually do and keep an eye on those around me for queues and examples for where things were different.  The net result was the least focused class I’ve had in a long time.  But at the same time, I caught a couple of queues for poses that I have done for years that I had somehow missed.  Which tells me that even in one of the more focused activities in my life, broadening my awareness sometimes is probably a good thing.

The real question though is how to know how to mix that up most effectively.  It is certainly useful in Yoga (as in programming) to be able to focus so tightly that the rest of the universe disappears.  But how long should you do that for?   My back is telling me (in the programming case) that perhaps that time is shorter now than when I was a teenager.  Maybe I need to invent a programming egg where I can just close myself in and spew code.  Anyone know where I can get one of those?  I’d prefer the model where I can just think the code too, no typing required …

One of my favorite yoga teachers opened class the other day with an exercise that I had never seen done before although I think it’s more common in ‘softer’ yoga practices.  She asked everyone to turn to a neighbor and share a way that they use their yoga practice outside of class.  Well, since I’m an off the charts introvert (I am going to get around to writing that post one of these days), I managed to pause just long enough that as I turned to each of the people around me, they had already engaged with someone on their other side.  So no big deal, I sat and enjoyed a few minutes of meditation.

But near the end of the sharing time the teacher looked up from her conversation and commented on how relaxed I looked sitting by myself in the middle of the chatty room.  And of course she then put me on the spot to share with the entire class.  An introvert’s nightmare.  But I sucked it up and took the opportunity to very briefly share that I was volunteering to teach High School students Computer Science and since Yoga was one of the skills that was newest to me, I frequently took things I learned in Yoga to help me teach in that entirely different environment.

And this is why I find Yoga so much fun.  The response wasn’t a blank stare or a nervous laugh (either of which would be completely reasonable and somewhat expected when I allow myself to geek out in public), it was “Oh yeah, I use a programming example to help teach yoga sometimes.”  And went on to describe how she talks about how computer code reduces down to a series of zeroes and ones, each of which has meaning.  Which means that if one of those bits gets flipped for whatever reason your program may do something entirely different than what you expected.   And doing yoga is kind of like this kind of program – every instruction you send to your body is important at the most exacting level – crossing wires or flipping one bit can make your program crash or do something different than you wanted.  I particularly take this to heart in things like Chataranga (Yoga Pushups) where a very healthy exercise can quickly degrade into a shoulder injuring anti-exercise.

In any case, you should all be proud of me.  I  did not respond by breaking down the argument on the spot and trying to open a discussion about how this analogy may or may not be applicable and where it might break down.  I answered with something that I hope came out as a slightly more engaged version of “Thank You” and we went on with the class.

But since you’re here, let’s break this down a little bit.  Especially because I just reviewed binary numbers with my class and we’re going to do a check on error detection soon.  With my old Apple II which had no parity bit for its memory and had a dense enough instruction set that flipping a bit in an instruction almost certainly did something valid but different than intended I think the analogy is pretty accurate.  Especially because it wasn’t uncommon to have an occasion to program directly in machine code.  In the current world almost no-one including the deepest level system programmers write machine code directly (and yes, I know quite a few such creatures, was one myself not too long ago).  Further, with a modern computer almost all memory is error checked in some way or another so a single ‘bad bit’ will either be automatically corrected or something will error out rather than continuing to execute the error.

And now I am thinking about exceptions like Black Hat Hackers that probably do write machine code directly and certainly look for places where changing a single bit will make a program behave differently than intended.  But of course I could get myself stuck in an infinite loop here so I will stop and allow you to get back to something more important.  Like going to a good yoga class of participating in your favorite form of healthy exercise.

Or take a moment to add your thoughts on why programming and yoga (or your favorite form of exercise) are related. I bet my yoga teacher and I don’t have a corner on that market…

I’ve been attempting to acquire a number of new skills and been around people learning new skills for various reasons in the last year or so and it has lead me to formulate what I think of as “The Beginner’s Dilemma.”  The general idea is that as one starts to develop some facility in a new skill, one over assesses one’s competence, sometimes by a significant amount.  At some level this is probably a good thing – if you accurately assessed your ability at the very beginning you’d probably give up.  Or at least I would.  On the other hand, if you over assess too much at something like driving a motorcycle or flying a plane, you might earn yourself a Darwin Award post haste.

As usual, the most important variation on this is in my continued attempt to teach high school students to program, but let me share a couple of short anecdotes from other parts of life first.

My most long-standing version of The Beginner’s Dilemma is ballroom dancing.  When I first started to learn to dance I thought I was god’s own gift to dancing almost immediately.  Nearly twenty years later  (with lots of hours of lessons, practice and competitions) I’m just happy that I can get out on a dance floor without stepping on my partner’s toes while leading something that is recognizably the dance that I am attempting.  Now part of that is because I’m not a natural dancer, but the part about overestimating my ability early on is completely true and not because I got worse from practice!  When taking beginning group lessons today, I see the younger version of me all over the place accompanied by various levels of chutzpah, so I’m not the only one that goes through this phase.

Another blatant variation on this is the effect of new yoga students in Bikram Yoga classes where all levels take the same class.  The last two times I’ve taken classes I ended up near a young man who obviously thought he had the whole thing figured out (different dude each time).  Each of them took a place front and center in the class, which is a good indication that they are ready to show the world what they can do.  On the first day, the young man made it through the whole class, but never held a pose for more than a moment – I actually really enjoy this variation because it helps me work on my focus, especially in balancing poses, there is nothing like someone continually falling over in front of you to practice focus while balancing.  On the second day the dude held all of the standing poses, but completely overextended everything – then he lay down and literally slept through the floor series!  Anyway, I wish them both the best and hope that they make it past The Beginner’s Dilemma hump without hurting themselves.

But this brings me back to the core point which is teaching youngsters to program.  I had a real advantage in the early eighties in that no-one around me new how to program.  So I could ride the overestimation wave long enough to actually get good before anyone came along to assess my work.  And fortunately it’s pretty difficult to hurt either one’s self or one’s Apple II by programming.  Especially when one is young enough to sneer at things like lower back issues and lack of exercise.

But the kids in my class are expected to “know how to program” by the end of the year.  So when one of them spends days tweaking simple functions to draw a  Batman figure rather than spending the time on getting Batman to move and scale (which was the point of the assignment), I’m obligated to grade him down for that.  Right?  And burst a bit of his beginner’s overestimation bubble.  Or possibly a bit more than a bit.  I’ve got to say, that is one of the hardest parts of this volunteer gig.  Of course the kid next to him did something similar with being obsessed with the graphics design aspect of the assignment, but took my advice and spent time at home getting the actual programming stuff.  So I’m not going to beat myself up too much.

So how do you keep a student riding the wave of beginner’s overestimation in his own ability while still getting him to learn the things you want to teach him?

And how do I acquire a new skill myself now that I’ve overanalyzed this issue to the point where I doubt I’ll ever be able to ride a beginner’s overestimation wave myself?  At least I’m not in danger of trying to learn to drive a motorcycle. So there’s that.

I was sweating away in yoga the other day doing a pretty good job of turning my brain off when a thought popped into my head so forcefully that I fell over – I was in Dandayamana-Dhanurasana (standing bow pose) at the time.

I continue to try to achieve the full standing meditation effect because I feel like it helps to keep me sane to do that.  But thoughts keep interfering.  Most of the time they are fairly orderly somewhat conscious lines, like composing a blog post.  While I’m not sure I am thrilled with the compromise (sanity is reputed to be pretty important, after all), it’s certainly productive time when I do that.

So on this particular day, the thought that just popped into my head was a solution to a problem that I had given up on solving.   One of the things we’re using to teach computer science is a book/website called CSUnplugged which is a great set of lessons aimed at late elementary school and up to teach basic computer science concepts without using a computer.  This is how we took our class through things like binary numbers, image representation, and text compression.

But we’ve got a somewhat unruly class of ninth and tenth graders (okay, that was redundant, wasn’t it).  So we have been building slide decks and adding some interactive material both of which are aimed a little closer to our target demographic.   But it takes a long time to do this kind of auxiliary material even when the core lesson is already built.  So I had given up on additional exercises since I couldn’t come up with anything good.

Then came along standing bow pose in a 105 degree room.  And into my head pops the idea to expand on the idea of removing vowels from sentences to a full on interactive experience.  Part of the original lesson had a sentence “Cn y rd ths?”   But since I had just been listening to some lectures that covered the history of  abjads (writing systems without vowels) and had a lot of fun composing some sample sentences without vowels for one of my slides, it occurred to me as I was standing on one leg that the kids would probably have some fun doing something related to that.  And like any revelatory experience I didn’t think this all through – the idea and a full picture of the mini-game of translating/compressing and retranslating decompressing two different phrases – one common one and one from lewis carroll just popped into my head and (almost) knocked me over.

Which leaves me with two questions.  First, for the yogis out there –  is this kind of experience part of what I should look for in meditation rather than the purely relaxing/restorative aspects?    And second for the teacher out there, is it worth falling over in the middle of yoga class to come up with a good classroom exercise?

P.S. My favorite “fine line” expression remains – “There is a fine line between genius and insanity.” May I always stay on the right side of that line (or was that the left side)?

One of the things that I’ve been struggling the most with in my attempt to teach programming to high school students is to get them to experiment.  This is particularly hard for me because when I learned to program I had no formal instruction for the first four years, so experimenting was by far the most used tool in my toolbox.

Because of this I’ve been emphasizing that there are many different ways to do things and showing (or getting the students to demonstrate) different solutions wherever I can.  And then I try to get them to compare the solutions again emphasizing that they both solve the problem and where each solution has advantages and dis-advantages.  But in so many cases, they seem to get into a mindset of doing something the ‘right’ way and then they get stuck.

As I was settling into yoga practice this morning, the teacher said something that really connected with me.  We were doing Child’s Pose, which for this style of yoga is one of the most basic and oft-repeated poses.  As such, you kind of feel like you know it after the first class.  But even though there weren’t any new students in class, she spent a couple of minutes encouraging us to experiment with the pose, settling differently in the hips, holding the hands wider or narrower, same with the feet, etc.  Because even in the most simple things, you can train yourself to do them more effectively.

That, of course, led me down the path of other physical training I’ve done including Kung Fu and dancing and marking patterns in how things are taught and how I learn them.  I’m not going to attempt to dump all of the details, but whenever I’ve found a teacher that takes the approach of “your body and your background is different than mine, so let’s try this a bunch of different ways until we land on something that works” I learn much more than the “this is the way it’s done and I’m very successful doing it this way, so let’s get you doing it exactly this way and you’ll be successful too” type of teacher.

So how does this relate to programming?  I’m pretty sure it’s almost the same concept.  For instance, almost any language has a bunch of looping constructs and you use them differently for different tasks and there are plenty of ways that you change up how each of those constructs are used depending on any given task.  And of course as anyone who’s worked with programmers for any period of time knows, there will be endless debates about what the ‘best’ way to solve a particular problem is, with the line often blurring between style and function.  Which is almost a direct parallel to conversations I’ve had with martial artists and ballroom dancers, now that I think about it.

And while I don’t think many of my 15 year old students spend a lot of time practicing yoga (or ballroom dancing, or Kung Fu), I suspect some of them have trained in high school sports like basketball and soccer.  And it seems like the same concept would apply.  Does anyone out there have a good example I can use in a more familiar (to a 15 year old) sport?  Or thoughts on how to draw such a story out of the aforementioned 15 year olds?