October 31, 2005

Mindfulness Part 2: Education for Outcome

"From kindergarten on, the focus of schooling is usually on future goals, rather than on the process by which they are achieved. The single minded pursuit of one outcome or another (i.e. - getting into Harvard) makes it difficult to have a mindful attitude about life (Langer 33)."

This idea is closely related to the concept behind my frustrations from an earlier post, The Art of the Resume. Langer has identified what I believe to be a major flaw in our current culture's approach to education, and other aspects of our culture as well.

Yoda: "Always on the future his mind is, never on the here and now."

As Langer points out, from very early on the main end of schooling was to advance to something else - the next grade, good college, good job, etc. Case in point: high school "SAT" courses which focus solely on improving student's test-taking skills. What a sickening concept, teaching kids how to amplify their results based on what are essentially tips and tricks. Back in the good ol' days they used to have classes which improved SAT scores, too. They were called math and english and history.

The main point is this; such a heavy focus on the ends causes a disregard for the means. In this case, the means is education - the gaining of knowledge about the world, about one's self, and about God. "Pish-posh," says our culture, education is merely a conveyance. In other cultures the journey is as or more important than the destination. I believe, as I imagine Langer does as well, that our culture has fallen out of sync with a healthy balance between the two. I feel that a better understanding and approach to engaging students in the process of education would, ironically, be a dramatic benefit to the same goal that the current tradition holds.

There are other negative aspects to outcome based education as well. When children take up a new activity with an outcome-based orientation there exists a "predominate anxious preoccupation with failure." The emphasis is on "Can I or can't I?" as opposed to "How do I?" A result of this mindset is an inordinately mindless fear of failure. I can't tell you how many times I've witnessed the utter trauma that simple math test has caused in so many of my peers' lives. I mean I have seen individuals near the point of mental breakdown over an insufficient grade on one test (or more commonly over the fear of a pending grade being insufficient). One such example occured very recently following a Cultural Anthropology midterm. About a week after the test before a Friday class I over heard a girl say that if she didn't get her test results back that day it would ruin her whole weekend. I sincerely hoped for her sake that she was being facetious, but I suspect that there was some truth in her comment. Can you see how unhealthy such a preeminant focus on failure is? This girl almost certainly could not care less whether she actually learned about other cultures, all she was concerned with was the grade. In my own academic career there have been many times where my sole motivation for performing a task was the sheer terror of getting a bad grade.

I was reminded by this section of the text of an interview I read. The actor Owen Wilson was being interviewed by a magazine and one question/answer stood out to me even before I read the Langer text:

MAGAZINE: Have you gotten better at dealing with criticism?
WILSON: Now if a movie goes south it might not capsize me like it used to. But I still have a terrible fear of failure. My father gave me a [Samuel] Beckett quote, "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." I find that really liberating.

I believe that outcome based education is a disfunctional tradition. A healthier system would include more emphasis and value placed on learning and education as more than just a vehicle. The key words of Beckett's quote are fail better. There are no failures, only ineffective solutions. The only real failures occur when one becomes so hung up on a "failure" that they fail to use the experience as an opportunity for betterment. So the "Culture of Failure" is not a failure, but simply an ineffective solution for achieving said outcomes. The key is thoughtful consideration of what is going on and how to deal with it.

October 21, 2005

Poker Sucks

Ok, poker is a big joke these days but I just had to post this pic from the FullTilt homepage. I don't know exactly what it was a promo for, but I found the image to be hilarious. There's something about seeing Phil Ivey's shadowy face in a reference to where Sean Connery would normally appear that I find totally ridiculous. Phil Ivey is such a champ.

The handles of the pros on this site appear in red, which I believe is the root of the pun "The Hunt for RED in October" as opposed to the Tom Clancy movie The Hunt for Red October.

October 20, 2005

Poetry Post

Author's Note: Here's another post that I made on the discussion board for my literature class. Our study has shifted from literary fiction (primarily short stories) to poetry. As one may imagine, the study of poetry has created somewhat of a discontented stir amongst the students. Now, when there's discontent going on I'm usually inclined to be in on it. The following is a response to a post by my fellow student Aaron V. in which he discussed his frustrations with poetry in general:

I appreciate that Aaron has articulated his idea about poetry being an esoteric club, one which requires specific training in order to enter. It is apparent to me that once one is trained to understand poetry they often feel compelled to enforce upon themselves an appreciation for it. This is most pointedly true for me in my own experience. For instance, today I was flipping through the most recent issue of the Dialogue publication at Calvin. Indeed, I was actually reading the poems and feeling their effect (well, some of them at least). Upon realizing that I was getting into it, I started to feel guilty about a previous interaction with the Dialogue. That previous experience was as follows:

One evening when I was a freshman living in RVD I was hanging out with some friends of mine at the smoke pit*. We discovered a copy of the Dialogue that someone had left behind and it spurred a conversation about the usefulness of such a publication. Now I of all people should have at least been able to play devil's advocate and stick up for a publication of the arts (as I have frequented the Spoelhof basement for many classes here at Calvin). Instead, I found that I much preferred to bash it as a bunch of lofty b.s. produced by people who were either trying to fool the reader into thinking they were deep, or had already fooled themselves. Well, the combination of the presence of lighters and a large, sand-filled ash basin was too much to resist and the pages of the Dialogue were soon being consumed by flames of protest.

Or we were just being jackasses via an insensitive display of, as Aaron would put it, ignorant frustration. As I said, the memory of that incident caused me to feel some guilt today, but that feeling of guilt was soon replaced by another thought...a question. Have I fooled myself? The various ways I have interacted with the Dialogue represent two distinct mindsets (a.k.a. perspective or point-of-view). My current perspective is more open-minded to poetry, but does that prevent my previous mindset from being equally valid? Now instead of feeling guilty I was a bit unsure, scared that I might be one of those people who is compelled to be "into" something just because they know how to; like Aaron said, a part of something bigger than themselves. It is certainly comforting to be able to reassure one's cognitive capacities by exercising skill in reading/understanding poetry. I fear that the effect or meaning - possibly subconsciously self-enforced - that some of the poems have may be an outlet of that reassurance.

This, I believe, points to the fact that our respective realities are a construct of whatever mindset we happen to be in at that point in time. Here's a somewhat hypothetical generalization: I once found poetry to be frustrating and useless, now I find it to be interesting and meaningful. Now, when I am confronted with someone who finds poetry to be frustrating and useless I think that they are wrong. But they are me. Their ideas are valid, and I must respect that (in the same way that I didn't respect the ideas of the other side when I participated in the Dialogue burning). My point is this (and I would imagine that Aaron may agree); I call into question the tradition of enforcing poetry on students as being a good thing. In my experience, many poems are primarily successful only in polarizing the reading audience. Some people don't get it and immediately tune it out, while others revel in their ability to get it and perpetuate what makes them feel better than the people who don't by writing more poetry.

Granted, this is an extremely cynical conceptualization about poetry in education, and you probably shouldn't buy into what I'm saying. Honestly, however, it is the way (or at least a way) that I am inclined to think. Maybe a year from now my mindset will have changed again and I can have an argument with my former self and prove that jerk wrong once and for all.

*Ok, I better qualify this a little bit for fear of misinterpretation. Many of my friends at Calvin are smokers, or at least smoke occasionally. In dealing with that, I have found that some of the most genuine social interaction in all of my experiences at Calvin has occurred while hanging out at the smoke pits. Unfortunately a resultant of this was the breaking of a promise that I once made as a very young kid to my parents (I remember speaking the actual words), "I will never smoke even a single cigarette." Ah, I'm beginning to understand the relevance of the cliché "never say never." Yes, I have sampled a cigarette or two, but I am under no delusions about the negative health implications of smoking, not to mention its potential for addiction, so I've tried to keep it under the auspices of responsible freedom. So please, please, please don't call me in a giant frenzy about how evil smoking is because I already know that you are right.

October 18, 2005

A Series on Mindfulness: Part 1

Upon the recommendation of Charles Young (Chair of Achitecture, Calvin College) I am reading a book by Ellen Langer titled Mindfulness. I sense that the text represents Langer's primary work - her theories about a concept which she has dubbed "mindfulness". In the following series of posts I plan on summarizing what I have read and focusing specifically on ideas which I found to be particularly relevant.

The first few chapters of Mindfulness primarily discuss the distinction between mindfulness and mindlessness. Thus far Langer has only hinted at the definition of mindfulness; rather she has concentrated mostly on its opposite, mindlessness.

Mindlessness is propogated by three categories or factors:

1. Entrapment by category
2. Automatic behavior
3. Acting from a single perspective

While the creation of new perceptual categories is a mindfull process, mindlessness takes over when we rely too heavily on pre-set paramaters which often do not do justice to the dynamic nature of many aspects of life. I suppose an example of such categorization could be the typical traits assigned to genders. In poker, it would be mindless to assume that Annie Duke is going to play passively just because she is female. Mindfulness, on the other hand, would include observation and situational analysis within a specific context. In that sense, the concept of mindfulness is very applicaple to poker strategy in general. All of the "rules" for correct play are flexible and depend heavily on the situation. So to rely too heavily on inadequate categories is an act of mindlessness.

Automatic behavior is another device, similar to categorization, which is naturally helpful for human cognitive and active processes. Our brains are capable of "auto-pilot" for many activities such as typing which would be impossible to complete with such efficiency without it. Again, this is useful and necessary for many tasks - the trouble arises when that function invades other areas which are more important. When regular practices become so routine that we no longer even know what we are doing, that is mindless. Another way of generalizing this category would be inadvertant attention to structure as opposed to conscious attention to content.

The following is a good example of automatic behavior from my own experience:

When I was learning how to drive we only had two cars and they were both manual transmission. My parents were confident that I could handle learning the rules of the road and stick-shift at the same time. I specifically remember how frustrated I was with my mom when she was trying to explain the concepts of working the clutch. She was proficient at it herself, but when it came to explaining what to do she effectively had no idea. She knew she could do it, but she didn't know how.

Thirdly, acting from a single perspective. A good analogy is following a recipe as if it were necessarily the only possible way of preparing that dish. According to that m.o., if a little extra salt gets added the recipe is ruined and must me thrown away. As with both of the previous catergories, the crux of the issue has to do with disregarding the dynamic quality of many situations.

Next time: Education for Outcome

October 11, 2005

It Begins...

Author's note: I originally intended for this to be a very short post which would insinuate that the poker bug had bitten again. However, once I started typing I found that there were more things that had to be said (funny how that works). Anyway, don't be surprised if I re-open the annals of WEALTHY STREET POKER sometime soon for updates on my micro-limit adventure.

Less than a week ago I randomly discovered a residual $0.75 (that's seventy five cents) on my Paradise Poker account. The reason for this is that Paradise only allows cash-outs in full dollar increments. The last time I cashed out was over three months ago, similarly, the last time I played poker online was also that long ago. In the time since I haven't even touched my account, hence the discovery of the $0.75.

I've been playing it in my downtime at Calvin at $.02/.04 Seven Card Stud and Limit Hold'em tables. Not too long ago the lowest stakes that Paradise offered was $.50/$1, obviously there would be no way of playing $0.75 at those limits, but it's plenty to sit down with when the small blind is only a penny. Actually, I should clarify...I started at the 2c/4c limits and gradually progressed to slightly higher limits such as .05/.10 and .10/.20 as the roll increased slightly yet progressively. It's amazing that after all I've been through in poker a thirty-five cent pot at micro-micro limits can still give me a little charge. On that note, it's never really been about the money. I thought it was at some points, but it wasn't.

Regardless, that $0.75 is now over forty dollars ($43.33 to be exact). If the number one rule for professional gamblers is to play a game that can be beaten, I'd say that this exemplifies that rule. It may be silly for such little money, but hundreds and hundreds of hands later I was able to multiply a seemingly infinitesmally small bankroll into almost 6000% as much as its original state. That's a pretty decent profit margin, wouldn't you say? And the fact of the matter was that it was actually fairly easy. I just sat there patiently waiting for good spots and practicing a little finesse every once in a while. In fact, it was almost a given that I was going to keep increasing the stack due to the fact that the lowest limit games are super easy to beat. That model by which dollars are earned at poker is radically different from "gambling" such as blackjack. In order for anyone to ever even think about turning $0.75 into $43.33 at blackjack they would have to risk huge chunks of the bankroll constantly and in turn would need to be consistently lucky for that period of betting. For long periods of time it is impossible to continue to multiply a bankroll by playing roulette. You either go broke quickly or slowly, but you do go broke.

Now it's time to take a look at what is probably the second rule for pro "gamblers." That would be not losing all your winnings once you get 'em. This is the rule I don't much care for. Historically I have much preferred to win some money at beatable limits and blow it all by risking too much at higher stakes. After all, card smarts won't keep any one from going broke - money management is as important if not more. That being said, I'm sure that I'll blow that $40 in the next few days. What was I gonna do with that money anyway, buy stuff?

P.S. - Any reference made to the general concept of professional gambling above does not in any way imply that I wish to pursue that as my sole career. I am simply using that as an example from which to draw conclusions about gambling.

P.P.S. - I had it up to over $95 at one point, the operative word being had. Enough said.

October 10, 2005

Pub Post

One new bar on which to report: Birch Lodge located on Michigan Street.

As per our usual arrangement, Tyson and I trekked over towards Logan's Alley for the live music at 9pm on Sunday. Logan's is pretty small (read: very small) and we got there a little after 9, so the place was crowded. Plus, the band wasn't knocking any socks off for the few minutes that we were inside. So we opted to bail and check out Birch Lodge, which we had passed on the way down. Again, this was another hole-in-the-wall type of joint that seem to be common on Michigan Street. The atmosphere was decent however, and they were pushing the "lodge" feel with warmer pine wood and skiing/sporting paraphenalia on the walls. There was even a row of über-tacky cut birch logs nailed above the bar.

Note the "Stella Glass" necessary for true
enjoyment of this Belgian Brew.

The draught selection was slim, six or eight taps ranging from the usual domestic lights to some more gnarly local stuff like New Holland's "Mad Hatter" India Pale Ale. We selected a middle ground with a pitcher of Stella Artois which was reasonably priced at less than $11. We've been ordering quite a bit of Stella recently; it's light and easy to drink yet has a very gratifying "beer" body and taste unlike domestic crap. Incidentally, I've had Mad Hatter before in bottles and it was some funky stuff. Apparently American micro-breweries like to play this little game called "Let's see how much hops we can put in the IPA!" Don't get me wrong, I'm all about hops but I feel that a successful incorporation of hoppiness should be balanced and drinkable as oposed to pure pungency.

Speaking of bottled beer, after having been down to Founders a couple of times and experiencing how amazing their selection is fresh from the tap I have a newfound appreciation for the local brewery. I suppose the same could go for stuff like Mad Hatter and I should keep an open mind about ordering draughts of micro-brew that I didn't care for in bottled form. Regardless, I will always be puzzled by people who go into bars and ordered bottled beer. When I'm paying four or five times the retail price for a portion of beer I at least like the illusion of getting something that you can't get in the store. To each his own, I suppose.

"You just gotta keep living, man. L-I-V-I-N, living!"

October 06, 2005

Show, Don't Tell

Ugh, this is becoming the literature blog. Scratch that, this concept is universal. It's the idea of showing as opposed to telling to express a concept or idea, and there are many applications including music, film, and the written word.

Music - In particular, a touchy subject: praise songs (think LOFT). Sentimental Hallmark style schlock that enforces a specific emotion as opposed to arousing genuine ones is bad. Next topic.

Film - Sentimental Hallmark style schlock...yeah, you get the picture. I think the main point is that there is a lot more value, utility, enjoyment, etc. to be derived from films that are not entirely self-explanatory. I believe that a deeper level of engagement, such as questions a film raises, adds immensely to the enjoyment - especially for replay value. This is relevent for all films, regardless of a each one's particular genre (sappy drama, slasher horror, blow-em-up action). For instance, I think that Mars Callahan's first movie Double Down is a good film. It's really low budget, and the writing/acting/cinematography is goofy at times, plus the ending is total fluff. Yet there is a consideration of issues other than simply making a quick straight-to-video escape flick. One of the most insightful inclusions was the following line, spoken by Michael's father:

"Have you ever spent money you worked your ass off to get? You always say 'Money won is twice as sweet as money earned,' well that's bull___."

Granted, none of the characters in the movie ever really learn this lesson (they win their big bet at the end and live out their days on Easy Street), but I feel that the inclusion of a little throwaway philosophy is a credit to the film. And my point is that even the most ridiculously non-literary works benefit from a degree of thoughtful complexity.

What was the other topic, again? Oh yeah, the written word. "Double Down is good because it's not just a totally dumb movie." Do you believe it? Show, don't tell.

October 04, 2005

All For Angkor?

The Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reip, Cambodia - one of the architectural wonders of the world.

Does anything about this image scream "We need more WordArt!"? Engineering Senior Design Project Team #13 (a.k.a. - "All for Angkor") thinks so. This group of "individuals" is responsible for orchestrating a collaborative effort with a student architecture design team from South Korea (thanks, Grandma) to design a structure for an agriculture building at the proposed Angor Global University. However, despite the alliterative name the group has chosen I feel that this project will be no different than the scores of relatively useless SDP's that came before them. I am available to this and other groups in the class to impart aesthetic design knowledge (ART) as well as architectural insight (ARCT) and so far all of my efforts to help have been roundly rejected (by a bunch of ENGR's).

I am growing increasingly exasperated with the unilateral disregard for my offering of contribution to the project. Let me expound a bit on that "WordArt" comment earlier...Yesterday the team was drafting a Power Point slide to submit which would visually and textually summarize the project goals, etc. I explicity expressed my desire to assist in this element of the project - it is graphic design after all. Pitifully, when push came to shove, I was relegated to sitting in the back of the group and watching as another project visual got ridiculously butchered, "Engineering Style." The typical result is either an extremely grey and bland "blah" of a presentation, or the opposite - as was this case - a grotesquely disharmonious amalgam of trashy word art and block-picture overlays set with an obscenely tacky color "scheme," or lack of one to be more precise.

Regardless, if the team doesn't want my help then they should stop wasting my time. If I were the owner of a firm I wouldn't let a single one of these people anywhere near the graphic-design aspects of producing project visual. After all, they're engineers! All this cookie-cutter crap is really starting to get to me. Aaach! I'm getting worked up and I can't type derrogatory thoughts as quickly as they are popping into my head. More on this later...

P.S. - Apologies to anyone in the team who may happen across this post. I'm just venting a little bit, you know.