September 30, 2006 8:48 PM

Expect the Unexpected for Every Race

I am in Minneapolis and preparing for the marathon that begins in less than twelve hours. Today has reminded me that one should never expect carefully-made plans for the day before a race to go as so carefully planned. The world moves forward in its own way. Sometimes we can control little other than how we react to what the trip presents us.

I've enjoyed meeting with my good friend today, after months of training together "virtually". I have also enjoyed seeing his family again and meeting several interesting people in their entourage. But my plans for visiting the expo, driving the course, eating, and resting have been thrown out of kilter.

I am in my room and ready to rest. The training and preparing are over. Now all that remains is the test. I'll try to balance running to meet my goal with running to enjoy the scenic course. I think I am willing to give up part of my goal time if I need to in order to enjoy the run. Let's see if I feel the same way when the race challenges my resolve tomorrow.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Running

September 29, 2006 5:36 PM

Installing a New President

Today, my university installed its new president. The installation was high ceremony, with faculty dressed in full academic regalia, a distinguished platform committee, and an appearance by one of Iowa's U.S. senators, who is a UNI alumnus. (Alas, business on Capitol Hill changed his plans at the last minute and limited him to a video address.) As much as universities have changed in the last thousand years or so, we still hold onto some of our oldest traditions and ceremonies. That's a good thing, I think. It creates a sense of purpose and history, tying us to our forebears in the quest to understand the universe.

Ben Allen, President of UNI

I am excited by our new president. He comes to us from a major research school, a sister institution with which my department has dealt recently. Everyone I've spoken to from his old university, whether staff or administrator, regular faculty to research superstar, has praised his intellect, his ability, and his character in the most glowing of terms. We need a leader of high intellect, ability, and character as we face the many changes that confront universities, especially public universities, these days.

President Allen's installation address gives those of us in the sciences reason to anticipate the future. He seems to understand clearly the role that science, math, and technology will play in the world in the coming century, and he seems to understand just as well that a comprehensive university such as ours must play an essential role in educating both capable citizens and professionals prepared to work in a technological world. And his vision takes in more than just the aims of education; he sees the importance of participating in developing our state's economy and to lead in areas where our strengths meet the greatest needs of the public. These include the training of capable teachers and -- perhaps surprising to folks who think of the Great Midwest as only a homogeneous population of old European ancestry -- the integration and development of modern immigrant communities.

I feel great hope that the new president of my medium-sized public institution in the heartland of America believes that we can and must become world leaders in the areas of our strengths. As he is fond of saying, good is the enemy of great, and we must ask and answer difficult questions in order to discern where we will excel -- and then carry out a plan to do so. Even greater is my hope in his belief that science, math, and technology are among the areas we must come to lead.

Now my department faces a big challenge. At what can we be great? What specialty can we develop that will be world class?

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Managing and Leading

September 26, 2006 5:54 PM

Taper Almost Finished

I am now almsot 2.5 weeks into my three-week taper that ends with the Twin Cities Marathon on Sunday. The two weeks before this one saw me cut back to 41 miles each, ending last Sunday with a relatively easy 10-miler on an out-and-back trail route. I did run 1.5 miles at goal pace on the way back, but for most of the time I took it easy.

This last week is the easiest of all. I took Monday off, and then this morning I ran one hour at goal pace. One of the marathon coaches I've read recommends this for the Tuesday of the last week; the goal is to get one last bit of marathon-pace work in, without overdoing either time or speed, while at the same time emptying the body's glycogen stores for fueling up this week. I'll run light and slow Wednesday through Friday, just enough to stay loose and keep my mind on task. Good rest is my goal.

As I noted in my previous update, in some ways I find the well-known "carbo load" of the last week to be among my biggest challenges. You'd think that eating would be easy, right? But eating the right things at the right times throughout the week seems tough. At least I don't have to worry about taking on too many calories... or do I?

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Running

September 24, 2006 11:36 AM

The Aims of Education

I was cleaning out my briefcase and found a paper I read last summer, Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education. It's not about computing, of course, but it does argue quite nicely that we should set higher goals for our institutions of education than just knowledge, or just training for a trade. In particular, we should aim to produce people "who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art." I think that we can aim this high in computer science, and even in our introductory courses.

For Whitehead, to become educated is to learn the art of using of knowledge. The using of knowledge is essential; by themselves, facts and rules are mere trivia to clutter the mind. We should always give students the chance to do something meaningful while they learn -- say, manipulate media files -- as they learn. Some believe that teaching students abstract knowledge is valuable as a means of "sharpening" their minds, to ready them for real thought later. But pumping inert knowledge into the minds of students is a waste of time at best and hurtful to them at worst:

The mind is never passive; it is a perpetual activity, delicate, receptive, responsive to stimulus. You cannot postpone its life until you have sharpened it.

The mind is already alive, eager to do something worthwhile. If our topic elicits their interest, then our instruction must let them run with it now. Only then will they learn anything useful.

Whitehead argues strongly that students must learn both broadly, to become a cultured citizen, and deeply in some area, in order to fully appreciate the power and beauty of ideas.

What education has to impart is an intimate sense for the power of ideas, for the beauty of ideas, and for the structure of ideas, together with a particular body of knowledge which has peculiar reference to the life of the being possessing it.

I love that phrase: an intimate sense for the power of ideas, for the beauty of ideas, and for the structure of ideas. But this sense of intimacy can come only when the student studies some area of knowledge deeply:

The appreciation of the structure of ideas is that side of a cultured mind which can only grow under the influence of a special study. ... Nothing but a special study can give any appreciation for the exact formulation of general ideas, for their relations when formulated, for their service in the comprehension of life. A mind so disciplined should be both more abstract and more concrete. It has been trained in the comprehension of abstract thought and in the analysis of facts.

Whitehead felt that English education at the time he wrote this essay (1929) suffered from a lack of this deep focus, from a need for the sort of special study that develops foresight:

The profound change in the world which the nineteenth century has produced is that the growth of knowledge has given foresight. The amateur is essentially a man with appreciation and with immense versatility in mastering a given routine. But he lacks the foresight which comes from special knowledge.

In short, expertise matters!

But does it matter what sort of expertise the student develops, in the arts or the sciences, in literature or technology? Not really, because the ultimate destination is the same in all these areas: style.

Finally, there should grow the most austere of all mental qualities; I mean the sense for style. It is an aesthetic sense, based on admiration for the direct attainment of a foreseen end, simply and without waste. Style in art, style in literature, style in science, style in logic, style in practical execution have fundamentally the same aesthetic qualities, namely, attainment and restraint. The love of a subject in itself and for itself, where it is not the sleepy pleasure of pacing a mental quarter-deck, is the love of style as manifested in that study.

Here we are brought back to the position from which we started, the utility of education. Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being. The administrator with a sense for style hates waste; the engineer with a sense for style economises his material; the artisan with a sense for style prefers good work. Style is the ultimate morality of mind.

He closes his essay with a claim that education is essentially a religious exercise, though not religious in the sense the word is typically used.

A religious education is an education which inculcates duty and reverence. Duty arises from our potential control over the course of events. Where attainable knowledge could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice. And the foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity.

One of the beautiful things about computer science is that we can learn powerful ideas, useful ideas, meaningful ideas -- and we learn how to make them come alive in programs. We can create and control systems using these ideas. We can watch their effects on the world, both at the level of technology and at the level of the people who use the technology, or whose lives are otherwise made better by the technology's presence.

Not a bad little find, this essay.


Postscript: When Whitehead discusses education as "the acquisition of the art of the utilisation of knowledge", he writes a paragraph reminiscent of thoughts I had when thinking about textbooks a few months ago:

This is an art very difficult to impart. Whenever a textbook is written of real educational worth, you may be quite certain that some reviewer will say that it will be difficult to teach from it. Of course it will be difficult to teach from it. If it were easy, the book ought to be burned; for it cannot be educational. In education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path leads to a nasty place. This evil path is represented by a book or a set of lectures which will practically enable the student to learn by heart all the questions likely to be asked at the next external examination.

Introduction to Computing ... A Multimedia Approach

I am certain that many of my colleagues would find the textbook I'm using in CS1 this fall, Guzdial and Ericson's Introduction to Computing and Programming with Java: A Multimedia Approach, difficult to use. The topics are in a different order from other CS1 books. The ends of the chapters don't provide lots of handy little exercise on if statements and for loops that many professors like to assign in homework and offer on exams. It doesn't even have the sort of programming assignments one might expect. Instead, it asks interesting questions about media, and computing with media. It asks students to extend what they've learned to some new facet of the current topic. But there is no right answer to most of these questions, which leaves students and instructor to exercise judgment in selecting tasks and evaluating work. Shocking! Maybe some real education will take place.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Teaching and Learning

September 21, 2006 5:58 PM

An Audience of One

What if they through a talk and no one came?

I went to a talk on teaching here today and was the only member of the audience. The speaker came, of course, and the organizer of the talk, too. But then there was just me. The speaker honored me by giving his talk anyway. During the session, a fourth person arrived, and he was half-audience and half-expert.

The talk was on Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (SGID), a technique that helps faculty receive information on how well a course is going. The technique resembles the writers' workshop used in the creative writing world and the software patterns community. In the course of a class period, a moderator -- a person with no connection to the students or course, and preferably not in a power relationship with the instructor -- poses three or four questions to the students and then works with them via group discussion to arrive at a consensus about what is working in the course and what could stand improvement. The moderator requires certain skills at guiding discussion and framing the points of consensus. The author -- the instructor -- is not present to hear the discussions; instead, the moderator meets with the instructor soon after the diagnosis to present the feedback and to discuss the course. Much like a PLoP workshop group, instructors often serve in round-robin as moderators of SGIDs for one another. SGIDs are usually done during the semester, after students have enough time to know the course and instructor but early enough that the professor can use the information to improve the course content, structure, delivery, etc.

Many instructors might think of this as useful only for "bad teachers" who need to get better. But I think that even the best instructors can get better. Getting feedback and using it to inform one's practice seems like a good idea for any instructor. The colleague who gave this presentation, a math professor, is widely recognized as one of the best teachers at my institution, and he has used SGIDs in his own courses. I can imagine having a SGID done in one of my courses, and I can also imagine offering this tool as a possibility to a faculty member who came to me looking for ways to improve their teaching. I can even imagine using the tool to diagnose a particular instance of a course -- not because I think that there is something intrinsically wrong in my approach, but because the particular mix of me, the course, and the student body in the course don't seem to be working.

The similarity between the SGID and a writer's workshop seemed strong. I'm thinking about how one might augment the process I was shown using ideas from PLoP workshops, such as the summary the workshop group does before moving on to "things we like" and "ways we think the author could improve the work".

Also much like the PLoP experience, this process requires that a teacher take the risk to have students discuss their work openly in front of a third party and be willing to listen to feedback and fold it back into the work. Many writers are uncomfortable with this idea, and I know that many, many university professors are uncomfortable with this idea. But getting better usually requires an element of risk, if only by allowing honest discussion to take place.

I'm glad I was the one person who showed up for the talk. I learned from the presentation, of course, but the discussion that took place afterward, in which the half-and-half latecomer described his teaching career and the role an SGID had in helping him earn tenure, was even more illuminating. He was a good storyteller.

By the way, there is still plenty of time to register for PLoP 2006, which is collocated in Portland this year with OOPSLA. I'm looking forward to both conferences, though I'm sad that I won't be able to run at Allerton Park before, during, and after PLoP!

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Patterns, Teaching and Learning

September 18, 2006 6:24 PM

A New Entry for my Vocabulary

In my last entry I quoted a passage from Paul Graham's essay Copy What You Like. Graham encourages students of all sorts to develop the taste to recognize good stuff in their domain, and then to learn by copying it.

My friend Richard Gabriel is both computer scientist and poet. He has often talked of how writers copy from one another -- not just style, but sentences and phrases and even the words that catch our ears, that sound just right when used in the right place.

In that spirit I will steal, er, copy a word from Graham.

Most of the words that our discipline has added to the broader lexicon are hideous abominations, jargon used to replace already useful words. The next time I hear someone use "interface" as a verb in place of the older, humbler, and perfectly fine "interact", well, I don't know what I'll do. But it won't be pleasant. In this vein, I did recently hear an unusual word choice from a graduate student recently moved hear from Russia. Instead of "interaction", she used "intercourse". It sounded charming and had a subtly different connotation, but these days in the U.S. I suspect that most folks would look askance at you for this word choice.

But in "Copy...", Graham put a CS jargon word to good use in ordinary conversation:

It was so clearly a choice of doing good work xor being an insider that I was forced to see the distinction.

Standard English doesn't have a good word with the meaning of "xor"; "or" admits the same confusion in regular conversation that it does in logic. But sometimes we really want to express an 'exclusive or', and "xor" is perfect.

Now I'm on the look-out for an opportunity to drop this word into a conversation!

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General

September 18, 2006 6:03 PM

Professors Who Code

Steve Yegge's entertaining fantasy on developing programmers contains a respectful but pointed critique of the relevance of a Ph.D. in computer science to contemporary software development, including:

You hire a Ph.D., it's hit-or-miss. Some of them are brilliant. But then some subset of virtually every educated group is brilliant. The problem is that the notion of a Ph.D. has gradually been watered down for the last century. It used to mean something to be a Doctor of Philosophy: it meant you had materially advanced your discipline for everyone. Von Neumann, Nash, Turing -- people like that, with world-changing dissertations, ....

... These kids have to work hard for their Ph.D., and a lot of them never quite finish. But too often they finish without having written more than a few hundred lines of code in the past five years. Or they've over-specialized to the point where they now think Big-O is a tire company; they have no idea how computers or computation actually work anymore. They can tell you just about everything there is to know about SVM kernels and neural-net back propagation, or about photorealistic radiosity algorithms that make your apartment look fake by comparison. But if you want a website thrown together, or a scalable service written, or for that matter a graphics or machine-learning system, you're usually better off hiring a high-school kid, because the kid might actually know how to program. Some Ph.D.s can, but how many of them is it, really? From an industry perspective, an alarming number of them are no-ops.

Ouch. I'm sure Steve is exaggerating for dramatic effect, but there is a kernel of truth in there. People who study for a Ph.D. in computer science are often optimizing on skills that are not central to the industrial experience of building software. Even those who work on software tend to focus on a narrow slice of some problem, which means not studying broadly in all of the elements of modern software development.

So, if you want to apprentice with one person in an effort to learn the software industry, you can often find a better "master" than by selecting randomly among the run-of-the-mill CS professors at your university. But then, where will you connect with this person, and how will you convince him or her to carry you while you slog through learning the basics? Maybe when Wizard Schools are up and running everywhere, and the Ward Cunninghams and Ralph Johnsons of the world are their faculty, you'll have a shot. Until then, a CS education is still the most widely available and trustworthy path to mastery of software development available.

You will, of course, have to take your destiny into your own hands by seeking opportunities to learn and master as many different skills as you can along the way. Steve Yegge reminds his readers of this all the time.

In this regard, I was fortunate in my graduate studies to work on AI, in particular intelligent systems. You might not think highly of the work done by the many, many AI students of the 1980s. Paul Graham had this to say in a recent essay:

In grad school I was still wasting time imitating the wrong things. There was then a fashionable type of program called an expert system, at the core of which was something called an inference engine. I looked at what these things did and thought "I could write that in a thousand lines of code." And yet eminent professors were writing books about them, and startups were selling them for a year's salary a copy. What an opportunity, I thought; these impressive things seem easy to me; I must be pretty sharp. Wrong. It was simply a fad.

But whatever else you say, you have to admit that most of us AI weenies produced a lot of code. The AI and KBS research groups at most schools I knew sported the longest average time-to-graduate of all the CS areas, in large part because we had to write huge systems, including a lot of infrastructure that was needed in order to do the highly-specialized whatever we were doing. And many of us wrote our code in one of those "super-succinct 'folding languages'" developed by academics, like Lisp. I had the great good fortune of schlocking a non-trivial amount of code in both Lisp and Smalltalk. I should send my advisor a thank-you note, but at the time we felt the burden of all the code we had to produce to get to the place where we could test our cool ideas.

I do agree with Yegge that progressive CS departments need to work on how better to prepare CS graduates and other students to participate in the development of software. But we also have to wrestle with the differences between computer science and software development, because we need to educate students in both areas. It's good to know that at least a few of the CS professors know how to build software. Not very many of us know when to set the fourth preference on the third tab of the latest .NET development wizard, but we do have some idea about what it's like to build a large software system and how students might develop the right set of skills to do the same.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, Software Development, Teaching and Learning

September 16, 2006 1:48 PM

Beginning My Descent

I am almost one week into my three-week taper now. I've only run 29 miles so far this week, with only one track work-out. That was an 8-miler on Wednesday, 6x800m at 3:06-3:08 per repeat. Tomorrow I'll do 12 miles, at a pace close to my marathon goal.

My last two weeks of big mileage (60 and 58) tired me out. It rained all day the day of my last long run, scheduled to be 20 miles, so I ended up running indoors. Now, 184 laps sounds much worse than it is... I found a good rhythm, had plenty of scenery to view and distractions to occupy my mind, and I had easy access to restrooms and fluid. But I ran just a bit faster than planned, say, 1-1.5 seconds per lap, which took its toll over twenty miles. I ended up happy with my time but sorer and bit more tired than planned.

So my body is ready for the rest. This week I'll do 43 miles; next week, 41. I've done a much better job this year of striking a balance between pushing myself with hard workouts and being patient on recovery runs and breaks. This is the phase of training that must be dominated by patience and punctuated by shorter runs of intensity -- but mostly not faster than marathon goal pace. I will do one more speed work-out next week, 5x1600m, as recommended by the training plan I've followed all season.

What will be toughest for me is eating properly. I need to build up my fuel stores a bit over the next couple of weeks, without overeating as my mileage goes down. Plus, I'm not very good about eating regularly on teaching days, because I get into my preparation for class. I almost wish that someone would write a guide for how to eat during the taper. I like to learn from patterns of successful behavior. Of course, I could write a guide, but I haven't found the patterns yet...

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Running

September 14, 2006 3:03 PM

Department as Student Recruiter

Our second session today is on student recruitment. We've been thinking about this a lot, but my thoughts during this session are still at the level of a few key points:

  • Universities have staff that recruit students under a corporate banner, but the faculty have a passion for science, math, and technology. Given the state of national enrollments in these disciplines, we really have to make recruitment one of our central missions.
  • The same story from fundraising: increasingly, the responsibility for recruitment is devolving from the university to the departments and faculty.
  • Trying to grow an academic department when the university has a posture of decreasing enrollment, or at least a public image of doing so, is difficult. When the potential audience thinks you are trying to get smaller, they don't take your recruitment efforts seriously.
  • Faculty should be involved in developing relationships with high school students -- and parents. Personal touch, especially from the people who will be in the classroom with students, is invaluable. When the target parent is an alum, the effect is multiplied.
  • How can a medium-sized, public, undergrad-oriented university such as mine recruit effectively out of state? Why should an Illinois high-schooler come here? Almost every state has a school -- or ten -- like ours. What makes us attractive?
  • Offering an especially strong program in a particular area can draw some students, but only those who already know what they want to study.
  • An idea offered by someone else... Maybe we should brand ourselves as what we are: "proudly educating Iowans". Selling yourself as doing a well-defined task well is sometimes attractive to people outside the target, because they appreciate excellence.
  • Another idea from someone else... Focus on in-state students, which our bigger, R-I sister institutions don't do. This is different than the previous idea, which is about branding; here the university would willingly cede out-of-state students.
  • More and more students these days come to the university undecided about their majors. (Our advising staff has stopped calling these folks "undecided majors"; they are now called "deciding".) How do we take care of these students and maximize the chance that these folks give CS and the sciences a fair chance? The community colleges cater directly to this audience and are pulling enrollment away from our universities. How can we get them to come to the university? UNI has an advantage over some 4-year institutions. We have a common liberal arts core that all students take, which gives students a couple of years to decide -- while still making tangible progress toward a degree.

I have more questions than answers at this point.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing

September 14, 2006 2:06 PM

Department as Fundraiser

The first session of our department heads' retreat is on fundraising. When I became department head I did not think of fundraising as a part of the head's job. But in today's funding climate for universities, it is, even for a small, public university that doesn't have massive research infrastructure. As this passage from an article at Chronicle Careers begins,

It's not uncommon to hear administrators at public universities joke that their institutions once were "state supported," then became "state assisted" and now are merely "state located."

The loss of state support has had a substantial impact on academic programs, with universities often left scrambling to fill the gap. In light of those cutbacks, the role of fund raising is ever more important to the health and development of academic programs.

University foundations do this sort of fundraising, but increasingly the colleges and departments themselves are taking active roles in raising the dollars for their programs. And that makes a lot of sense, because departments and colleges are much closer to the needs and potential donors than foundation officers -- and we have the passion about our programs and needs.

Our foundation has a collegiate development officer for each college. This officer focuses on "major gifts", which here means gifts of at least $15K. This includes cash gifts and planned giving. The CDO's basic plan is to keep UNI on the radar of potential donors -- even of current donors who currently give small amounts, because many of those folks progress to bigger giving. In fact, that's where most major gifts come from; it's rare for someone who hasn't been involved before suddenly deciding to give a major gift.

What can departments do? We have two primary target audiences. One is corporate. Those who hire our students have a stake in our efforts. They are interested in the sort of labs and software tools our students use. They also want to build name recognition with potential employees.

The second is alumni. In terms of long-term giving, this is perhaps the more important focus. Here, we have some control over the personal element that underlies a strong fundraising effort. We need to keep in touch; let them know what their old profs are doing, what their old classmates are doing, and how the facilities and buildings are changing; and invite their ideas and feedback. Many alumni still feel a deep personal connection to one of their professors, or even to a secretary. What the department can do best is, like our CDO, stay on their radar. And many of our alumni want to be in our radar.

When we approach these audiences, seeking funds for certain purposes will be more successful, and more effective for the department, than others. Scholarships are a relatively easy sell. But we need to approach them strategically. We want breadth of support through the student body, to be sure that we help lots of different kinds of students, but we also want depth in certain areas (say, support for the best students, in order to raise the academic climate of the student body).

Another dimension of fundraising is the liquidity of the gift -- cash versus endowment. Like many universities, ours has a goal of increasing the number and size of our endowments. This is also a goal of mine, with the notion of having a company endow a laboratory, a computer classroom, or even a particular software platform. Rather than chasing dollars all the time to upgrade the computers in a lab, wouldn't it be wonderful to have an annuity keeping the lab fresh? We'd be able to devote our energies to other, more important items.

For us, any attempt to garner endowments will be most effective with corporate donors, at least for a while. We are a young department, at a university offering young CS majors. We separated as a department from Mathematics in 1992, and the math department began offering CS majors only in 1981. Many of our alumni who are old enough to be giving gifts big enough for endowments identify more with the Department of Mathematics than with computer science. Perhaps our most prominent alumnus, the CIO at a major financial services company, earned his degree in mathematics, with a "computer science emphasis", before UNI offered a CS degree. (Fortunately, he identifies himself as a CS guy!)

In truth, though we need a mix of cash gifts and endowments. The number of donors capable of making an endowment-sized gift is relatively small, and endowments grown from smaller gifts need time to mature. Furthermore, we need cash today to do things that need to be done now.

With alumni, this all translates back to relationships. Pay attention to the details -- for example, don't send mail o Mr. and Mrs. if one of the spouses has passed away. Send personal thank-yous to every donor -- even the donor who gives $5. Ultimately, don't think of people as potential donors; think of them as people. That sounds like trite marketing-speak, but it is the best way to succeed in raising funds -- and the best way to succeed in most other respects as well.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Managing and Leading

September 14, 2006 10:13 AM

And Now We Return...

Ten days without blogging means that I have been busy. The work busy-ness has been two-pronged: teaching CS1 for the first time in a decade, and launching the department's academic program review, which the university requires every seven years. Off campus, in addition to family, the last two weeks have been my two biggest training weeks as I get ready for my upcoming marathon.

Oftentimes, a conference is the "break" I need to get back to writing. (Next month, OOPSLA will give me my annual booster shot of inspiration and great ideas!) Today, it is a retreat of all the department heads in my college. We are discussing some of the major issues that face science and technology departments these days: fundraising, recruitment, and strategic planning. So I'm thinking about these issues right now, and I'll probably write down some of those thoughts here.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General

September 04, 2006 5:50 PM

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Okay, so much for the maudlin confession. How did that 22-miler go?

For the first time in a very long time, when I woke up yesterday morning, I did not want to run. It was exceedingly cloudy, and the evidence of hard overnight rain lay all over the ground. And I was feeling tired.


I finally urged myself out of bed. It was cool, which is great for a long run.

The run went well, much better than I could have anticipated. I ran negative splits, even though I hit my first 10K lap faster than planned. For the full run, I averaged 8:30/mile, down from the 9:00+ miles I was running early in this training season. 8:30 is at the lower bound of the "30-60 seconds slower than goal pace" range that the creator of my training plan recommends for long runs late in the season. Being this fast, I will happily run a slower 20-miler next Sunday; my body will need to recover.

I was especially pleased with miles 19 and 20: 8:04 and 8:02 respectively... right at marathon goal pace! And this came at the end of a 60-mile week.

Of course, then I was sore. It felt good, though, and I was able to go for a short walk with my family in the evening. I had an easy 3 miles planned for this morning but took it off so that I could take an easy bike ride with my family later in the morning. The bike ride served the same purpose as the run -- to loosen my legs up for the coming week -- but was so much more fun than the run would have been.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Running

September 03, 2006 8:39 PM

Crisis of Confidence

But here you are in the ninth
Two men out and three men on
Nowhere to look but inside
Where we all respond to

-- Billy Joel

I had an abrupt crisis of confidence while running this morning. My legs had just started to feel the miles. Even though I've had good times in training the last few weeks, I pictured myself in the marathon, at that moment when my legs start hurting and I realize that there are still 4 or 6 or 8 or 10 miles, when my resolve is at its lowest and I simply have to gut it out if I want to finish the race strong and meet my goal -- and just then I wondered, maybe I'm just not tough enough mentally to overcome. The prospect those remaining 4 or 6 or 8 or 10 miles suddenly seemed very lonely.

The crisis was short-lived. Pretty soon I was thinking the other seemingly random thoughts that tend to fill a 3-hour run. But my earlier thoughts hung around my head like an echo, with the lyrics and uneven melody of Billy Joel's "Pressure" as accompaniment.

In that short period, I found myself wishing, almost counterintuitively, for a tough run, or even a bad stretch of training. Last summer went pretty smoothly, and look where that goth me. This year started with hamstring problems and so my training started slower and bit tougher than usual, but lately things have been going pretty well. When I'm on the course in the Twin Cities and my resolve bottoms out, will I have what it takes to gut it out?

In that short period, I found myself thinking of my friend Greg who is training to run Twin Cities with me. He lives in Arkansas, where summer is brutal on a marathon runner. Constant heat and unbearable humidity add to the hilly terrain to make every long run a chore. Greg's work schedule makes training even tougher, as almost he has to run in the middle of the night if he wants to get his miles in. As a result, he is worried that he won't be ready for the marathon. My counterintuitive thought was, maybe he'll be better prepared than I am for handling that "moment of truth" during the race; he'll have faced hard, painful runs all summer long.

How is that for my egocentrism and feeling sorry for myself? I guess a really long run on a rainy, dreary day can do that to the best of us. Once I moved on to my next thoughts, the idea that Greg somehow benefits from his current suffering seems foolish, just the sort of foolishness that someone who has had it easy sometimes indulges in. The bottom line is that I have to find the resolve when I need it. All the rest is just excuses.

Don't ask for help
You're all alone
You'll have to answer to your own

-- Billy Joel

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Running

September 01, 2006 5:39 PM

Entering a Long Weekend

We've been in class for only two weeks, but I am ready for the long Labor Day weekend. The steady onslaught into the department office of beginning-of-the-year events has slowed, and we will soon be into the steady state of the academic semester. Of course, that includes preparing the spring course schedule, handling a tenure case, promoting new programs, writing a newsletter to alumni and other friends of the department, and many other activities, so the steady state isn't a slower place, just a steadier one.

I'm looking forward to reading this weekend. I've fallen woefully behind of reading my favorite bloggers and essayists. I hope to remedy that while checking out some U.S. Open tennis on television. I did get a chance to read a little bit today and ran across a couple of neat ideas that hit home during a busy week of classes and department duties.

The creation of art is not the fulfillment of a need but the creation of a need.

-- Louis Kahn

I've written on this topic before as it relates to design, but Kahn's line struck me today in the context of education. As much as we educators need to be pragmatic enough to think about how we serve a clientele of sorts, it is good to remember that a university education done well creates a need for it in the mind of the learner that didn't exist before. Even education in a technical area like computer science.

Then there was this short post on Belief by Seth Godin:

People don't believe what you tell them.

They rarely believe what you show them.

They often believe what their friends tell them.

They always believe what they tell themselves.

If we want to affect how students act and think, then we can't just tell them good stories or show them cool stuff. We have to get them to tell themselves the right stories.

More reading will be good. I'll also have a chance to do some relaxed thinking about my CS 1 course, as we move into real programming -- foreach loops! But I have some home duties to take care of as well, and I don't want to be this guy, even if I know in my heart that it is easy to be him. Any work I do this weekend will be firmly ensconced in the life of my family. I'll just do my homework at the dining room table with my daughters...

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Teaching and Learning