Category Archives: research

Living with Weight Loss

outline of person meditating

Between 2019 – 2021, I lost 70 pounds. How I did it–both the good and bad practices–is a story for another day. I have kept the weight off for 15 months, a milestone in itself since the statistics related to regaining weight are discouraging to say the least. Losing the weight was finding the resolve to follow the directions given by my coach and establishing weekly check-ins to support accountability. His recommendations for nutrition and exercise worked as he predicted, and I made steady progress. Even after I reached my goal, I kept following those guidelines fairly closely as I knew how easy it could be to slip back into old habits.

After the first year, though, I was ready for a bit more normality in my diet–spaghetti and meatballs, french fries, ice cream. And, I was finding it harder to muster motivation to get on the treadmill despite the Apple Watch with its monthly challenges and helpful reminders. Yet, part of me understood that I had established a “new normal” as they say, and while I could be a bit more liberal with my food choices, I couldn’t go back to the old ways.

What I wasn’t prepared for, perhaps, was the fear of regaining the weight. The longer I am able to keep it off, the worry eases a bit as I think I have found a balance, but there is still a bit of anxiety on weigh-in days. And, if there is a pound or two extra, the old tales of failure and recrimination begin to spin themselves.

I am not willing to live with fear and recrimination on a daily basis and am working through the negative patterns to find solutions for dealing with them. Meditation helps as I can more quickly and easily (sometimes) recognize the states of mind and the stories…notice, name and stop the narrative before it gets too far. Begin again. Accept without judging.

I know, just as during meditation I can refocus on the breath or the body when my mind wanders, I can begin my healthy practices again. But, I must do so in a spirit of tenderness towards myself. Joseph Goldstein makes a beautiful distinction between acceptance and resignation. We must purse the first in the present, but it doesn’t mean we can’t also pursue change in the world. We are not helpless.

This article from the Medical Clinics of North America describes the problems associated with maintaining weight loss long term and has tips for medical providers for supporting those who have lost large amounts of weight. They are clear enough for regular people to understand as well. Their opening case study and their descriptions of the thoughts that go through your mind (were they reading mine somehow?) certainly resonated with my experience. It was actually a bit of relief to know that I am not alone.

One of their fundamental recommendations is providing people with specific training in maintaining their new weight, something I think I stumbled upon on my own. They have practical, research-based suggestions from eating breakfast to getting regular exercise: no real surprises, honestly. They also suggest helping people create risk-management plans along with ways to deal with lapses, pretty standard behavior management strategies, briefly mentioning mindfulness practices as potential coping mechanisms, lumping them in with hobbies.

At least mindfulness got a mention and I think it deserves more exploration as meditation connects with several of their other suggestions. It has certainly helped me with what they call cognitive restructuring, learning to recognize and redirect the negative patterns of thought that I described above. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to take changes or lapses in stride. We aren’t going to be perfect and setting all/or nothing goals is the first step on the road to failure. It is, in meditation terms, the ability to begin again, strengthening our skill and commitment each time we do so.

A Little Research

can go a long way.

I’ve been getting almost daily emails from a business consultant who is sure he will be able to help me with lots of leads for the nonprofit I head.

The problem? The emails are directed to my predecessor who retired six years ago.

While I suppose there may be old contact information out there on the web, the correct information can be found at our website, which is conveniently the same URL as the end of the email address he has been using. In fact, if you search Google using the email address, our website is the first hit.

I suppose I should have just marked it spam and moved on, but in the spirit of James Veitch, the comedian who spent two years replying to spam emails, I decided to reply. It was simple and to the point:

I would be interested in knowing where you found your contact information since the person you reference hasn’t worked for VSTE for six years. I obviously need to update something.
That’s really the reason I haven’t responded: you promise all sorts of stuff but clearly haven’t taken the time to even visit our website to find out anything about VSTE!
I suspect that if you HAD done some research, you would have discovered that your company is not a good fit for our organization.

To his credit, the gentleman replied with an apology and a thank you for getting back to him. But no gratitude for my helpful business lesson? Maybe I should send an invoice.

Random Fun (Or Why I Love My Job)

I’m prepping a talk about “Librarians on the Edge” for a group of school librarians here in Virginia. Part of that prep includes reading BiblioTECH by John Palfrey, founding director of the Digital Public Library of America. I’ve spent a good bit of the morning browsing the DPLA website and am most fascinated by the app that allows you to search the site by color. Called Color Browse, the app was built by Chad Nelson who, like most humble programmers, adds all sorts of qualifiers (it’s alpha, there’s code to be cleaned up, etc.) to what is a very cool way to do a search, mainly because you get this amazing cross section of resources.

I chose yellow and besides the postcard below was directed to several copies of a magazine from North Carolina and admission tickets to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment.

Charlotte North Caroline postcard

Choosing saddle brown led to a motherlode of books, including Archer’s Barbecue Scrapbook, a collection of handbills and news articles about events where Archer’s Barbecue of Albemarle was featured.

Questions and Answers

This week’s reading for the thoughtvectors course is Man-Computer Symbiosis,  JCR Licklider‘s 1960 reflection on the relationship between man and computers. I was born just two years after the article was written and have been fortunate to watch Licklider’s vision become reality to the point where, as Just An Average Guy points out, my mobile phone not only understands me but answers back to let me know what she has found or not found in response to my queries. Jala points to Google Glass as an example of technology as an extension of man.

I do not think we have reached the level of symbiosis with machines being able to make decisions. There is Watson, of course, who put humans to shame on Jeopardy. IBM describes the machine as more human than computer, able to understand natural language and learn as it goes. Other writers give lots of fictional examples of symbiosis, with Iron Man being the most popular. I guess they are too young to remember, KITT from the television show Knight Rider, an artificial intelligence module installed in car who helped his human counterpart solve crimes.

The question that haunts everyone seems to be just where this is going. Imelda does an excellent job of summarizing the various reactions of her classmates. Symone chooses to stick with humans as both intellectual and emotional human beings and as I read her response to Justin’s more optimistic view of computers and rational thought, I thought about ideas related to moral reasoning such as Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, a theory developed just about the same time Licklider was imagining man-computer symbiosis. Just how would Watson react to the various moral dilemmas such as the Heinz dilemma?

As for me, the nugget I chose seemed to get at the heart of Licklider’s notion of symbiosis:

Present-day computers are designed primarily to solve preformulated problems or to process data according to predetermined procedures. The course of the computation may be conditional upon results obtained during the computation, but all the alternatives must be foreseen in advance. (If an unforeseen alternative arises, the whole process comes to a halt and awaits the necessary extension of the program.) The requirement for preformulation or predetermination is sometimes no great disadvantage. It is often said that programming for a computing machine forces one to think clearly, that it disciplines the thought process. If the user can think his problem through in advance, symbiotic association with a computing machine is not necessary.

However, many problems that can be thought through in advance are very difficult to think through in advance. They would be easier to solve, and they could be solved faster, through an intuitively guided trial-and-error procedure in which the computer cooperated, turning up flaws in the reasoning or revealing unexpected turns in the solution. Other problems simply cannot be formulated without computing-machine aid. Poincare anticipated the frustration of an important group of would-be computer users when he said, “The question is not, ‘What is the answer?’ The question is, ‘What is the question?'” One of the main aims of man-computer symbiosis is to bring the computing machine effectively into the formulative parts of technical problems.

As an amateur programmer, I understand the first paragraph completely. Long before I wrote a line of code, I have outlined the system I have clearly identified my problem, outlined a system that will address that problem and tried to consider all the various pieces of the system I wish to put in place. Then, after using the system for a time, I revisit it to revise and update based on gaps that have appeared.

But, when we move into the second paragraph, we begin to move beyond those kinds of problems to ones that do not lend themselves so easily to systematic solutions. Here is where Licklider believes a symbiotic relationship between man and machine can make all the difference as we attempt to ask the best questions we can before we ever even consider looking for an answer. Sometimes, researchers engage in the lamppost approach, so named for the story of the man who, after a few too many drinks, is found by his friends searching under the lamp on the street corner. He tells them he has lost his keys somewhere. When they question why he is looking at this particular place, he explains that, even though he knows they aren’t really here, the light is better.

Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, outlines the problem with this approach in the field of genetic research:

That’s the same situation we faced in the mid-1980s when trying to find the genes for most Mendelian conditions. We really desperately wanted to understand them, but we lacked enough biological or biochemical information to be able to know where to look. That challenge inspired a host of people to develop a new strategy, which we now call “positional cloning.”

Harnessing computers to help us get at the heart of the issues before we start coming up with answers, making sure we are asking the best possible questions, is the essence of Licklider’s notion of symbiosis.

And to go back to the  notion of associative trails, I’ll end with some thoughts about this particular quote from Gardner Campbell that popped up on a Google search as he imagined the networked world as helping enlarge our capacities:

Licklider dreamed of using computers to help humans “through an intuitively guided trial-and-error procedure” to formulate better questions. I am hopeful that awakening our digital imaginations will lead us to formulate better questions about our species’ inquiring nature and our very quest for understanding itself.




Understanding the machine

Is It So Hard to Believe?

There are many times when I wish that I was still in the classroom. It seems like there are so many great opportunities to engage students in new ways of thinking and learning. I imagine an exciting classroom space where kids could write and create and collaborate, where my Nancy Atwell style reading and writing workshops could move beyond the walls of the classroom, encouraging students to pursue and share their ideas and passions with the world.

OK, take a deep breath…I was just beginning to get a good rant going about this post from Richard Byrne about the new Student AR app for Google Glass. I went back to click on the press release and discovered that the whole post was an April Fool’s Day joke. Phew!

So, now what am I going to write about? How about the fact that I believed it in the first place? Throw in names like Bill Gates and Salmon Khan and is it so hard to believe that they are busy creating an app that takes the teacher out of the game of assessment? It isn’t so far fetched. The Hewlett Foundation sponsored the Automated Student Assessment Prize, designed to encourage development in the area of automated assessment, and EdX has created discern, automated scoring software. At least one researcher is busy showing that the computer can grade as well as a person and much more quickly.

The article from University of Akron about the work of Dr. Mark Shermis is interesting and a little ironic. Perhaps the writers should have used the software to avoid the grammatical error in this paragraph:

The study grows from a contest call the Automated Student Assessment Prize, or ASAP, which the Hewlett Foundation is sponsoring to evaluate the current state of automated testing and to encourage further developments in the field.

Did you find the mistake? “Call” should be “called.” I would also suggest that the communications and marketing department should refrain from calling their website the “news” room since this is obviously a press release. It makes passing reference to critics of the research study but doesn’t dig too deeply into the controversial nature of automated scoring. Lucky for us, The New York Times takes news a bit more seriously and describes the real criticism of the grading software: it can be fooled. Les Perelman, the retired professor from MIT who launched a petition against adopting such software, takes great pleasure in both critiquing the research AND gaming the system.

Those who criticize Perelman point out that the purpose of the software is to provide instant feedback to students so they can learn to be better writers. The final product will be read by a real person. So, what of that instant feedback? Karin Klein’s daughter found that the software was more confusing than helpful. And, Barbara Chow, from the Hewlett Foundation and quoted by the University of Akron, seems to undermine that very argument. Automated scoring will mean more writing on tests and less human grading:

“Better tests support better learning,” says Barbara Chow, education program director at the Hewlett Foundation. “This demonstration of rapid and accurate automated essay scoring will encourage states to include more writing in their state assessments. And, the more we can use essays to assess what students have learned, the greater the likelihood they’ll master important academic content, critical thinking, and effective communication.”

It turns out that fact checking is exactly what the software doesn’t do well. It is checking for basic structure and grammar rather than knowledge or critical thinking. As an adjunct for several universities, I laughed out loud at Perelman’s argument for why higher education is so expensive:

“The average teaching assistant makes six times as much money as college presidents,” he wrote. “In addition, they often receive a plethora of extra benefits such as private jets, vacations in the south seas, starring roles in motion pictures.”

Dr. Perelman received a top score for this well designed argument. Oh, if the computer scoring software could only make it so.

I hope you have a great April Fool’s Day…try not to be taken in as I was by jokes that border on truth.