Practice, practice

11 Mar 2013

It’s spring break week for many school districts in the Twin Cities. Who needs warmth and sunshine? We’re staying in Minnesota for cold and snow!

While away on a quick trip to Winona for some time with family I’ve managed to sneak away to a nearby archery pro shop for some concentrated practice. This is a sport of repetition. To be successful you must develop a shot routine which is absolutely consistent from arrow to arrow. I spent the first 45 minutes of both two-hour practices “blank baling,” that is, shooting into an archery target (the “bale”) without any target face attached. The point is to focus on developing a consistent routine without the inevitable pressure of trying to shoot a bullseye. Rather than boring I find it to be a fascinating exercise. There are so many independent components of a repeatable shot routine to be burned into muscle memory. Too much focus on one component can result in regression on another. I try to turn it into a step-wise routine, and it’s working pretty well so far.

One of the challenges of practicing without a coach is missing out on the third-party critique of your form. At today’s practice I went back to my trusty tripod and iPhone, this time positioned high above me shooting down so I could get a view of my draw arm and release.

At the end of my practice I decided to try a scored game. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea actually. I was quite curious to see how I’d do, but I didn’t want to distract myself too much from working on my technique. In the end I couldn’t resist the temptation to see how I measure up to some of the other archers I know.

The game is called a “300 Round” and consists of a total of 60 arrows shot into a “5-spot” target in 12 5-arrow “ends” or rounds. That’s 12 arrows each into the five small targets. The inner 8-cm white circle scores 5, the dark blue 16-cm circle scores 4, and anything else is 0. The innermost 4-cm ring is scored an “X”. It still generates 5 points, but the X’s are scored separately to act as a tie breaker if necessary. A shot that touches a line always gets the higher score. A perfect game, therefore, is 300 points with 60 X’s. That’s a rare feat for any amateur archer.

I tried to stay relaxed and focus on my shot routine. In the end I scored 294 with 33 X’s. I’m really pleased with that score. Here’s what the target looked like when I was done.

Target showing 294 33X score

]1 My target showing a score of 294 33X in a standard 300 round.

A look at my scorecard reveals that I shot most of my 4′s at the beginning except for my final arrow! Argggh!

My scorecard from today's 294 33X practice game.

]2 My scorecard from today’s 294 33X practice game.

I shot 29 5′s in a row at one point. Not bad. I observed that my sight was floating around less at the end of the game than at the beginning. Whether greater concentration, more relaxation, or some semblance of “flow” is responsible I’m not sure. It was a good feeling though.

Novice archer

5 Mar 2013

I’m a bit notorious in my family for diving headlong into new hobbies and interests. Photography, cycling, and thrifting for menswear are some of my recent adventures, and now I can add archery to the list. Unfortunately, precious few of my interests are free or even inexpensive. My wife is a kind and generous woman.

This new interest of mine has an interesting origin. My 11-year-old son discovered the Ranger’s Apprentice book series by Australian fantasy author John Flanagan. Flanagan’s hero, 15-year-old orphan Will, is apprenticed to a “Ranger.” The Rangers function like a special forces unit, and Will becomes an accomplished archer. My son’s imagination was stoked, and I’m pretty sure he would have signed up to be a Ranger himself if he could.

I’ve always believed in letting our kids’ interests guide them, so my wife and I arranged for an archery birthday party for my son and some friends in January. He (and I) had a great time shooting at targets including balloons and zombies. Soon after his birthday party we signed him up for an Introduction to Archery class at Rapids Archery Club near our house. Rapids Archery is an amazing archery facility with a beautiful indoor range and acres of outdoor targets.

I didn’t sign up for the class with him, but I wish I had. He had a great time, and I caught the bug with him. We bought him his own bow, a PSE Chaos AD, which has been a great fit for him. Not one to be left behind in the gadget acquisition game, I started shopping the classified ads on Archery Talk, a popular online forum for archery enthusiasts.

Fast forward a couple weeks, and I’ve procured a pretty sweet target rig for myself. Nearly everything has been purchased used from forum members. (Insert comment for my wife’s benefit about how much money I’ve saved.) Check out this little video tour of my setup.

Most schools were cancelled in the Twin Cities today thanks to large snowstorm. (To call it a blizzard would be giving it way too much credit.) As a result I got to visit the archery range and got a couple hours of practice. I brought my tripod and Glif so I could capture some video with my iPhone. In the absence of a personal coach, this kind of video capture is a handy way to check your technique.

I’ll probably post the occasional video to YouTube just to document my progress, and I’m sure there will be future posts about the mental aspects of archery. But I’m way too new at this to have developed any particular insights yet. Maybe next week.

Santa brought cash this year, so I decided to use the proceeds (plus some leftover birthday money) to indulge my photography habit. I’ve been a huge Joe McNally and David Hobby fan since I bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D7000, a couple years ago. Those two photographers are masters of producing amazing photos with small flashes. I’m such a fan I signed up for a one-day “Flashbus” workshop with the two of them in April, 2011.

I bought a Nikon SB-900 flash soon after I bought my D7000, and I’ve been experimenting with it ever since. (The SB-910 is the current model, and I got my SB-900 on eBay for quite a bit less than retail.) Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS) is a pretty cool way to incorporate what’s known as “off-camera flash,” that is, using a flash that isn’t mounted to the camera. The most common position for an off-camera flash is slightly above the subject and a few feet to the side of the camera. The built-in flash of the D7000 can be configured to communicate with and trigger the SB-900, even making it possible to adjust the power of the flash from the back of the camera. Cool stuff indeed. Check out this short little YouTube video that demonstrates Nikon CLS.

McNally is a CLS master who often utilizes many flashes simultaneously for a single shot. That’s great in theory, but hard on the wallet in practice. Several SB-910s cost as much as a nice DSLR itself. Even a used Nikon SB-600 flash goes for at least $200 on eBay. I’m afraid Santa wasn’t quite that generous.

Hobby uses a lot of expensive flashes too, but he also promotes cheaper, non-Nikon models. Cheap can be good, but as soon as you leave the Nikon universe you give up all the benefits of CLS. That was a tradeoff I was willing to make, so I ordered two Yongnuo YN-560 II flashes from Amazon.

Being non-CLS flashes, I lose my ability to control their output from my camera. The flash output has to be set manually using the buttons on the back of each flash. They will trigger optically, however, which means that they can look for a flash of light from another unit and flash in response. (This isn’t generally a problem for the photo since the duration of each flash of light is so much shorter than the shutter speed of the camera.) Sometimes though you might want to have a flash very far away or out of a direct line of sight. That’s where radio triggers come in.

Pocket Wizard makes the gold standard equipment for triggering flashes wirelessly. Their newest triggers, the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5, even support wireless CLS when paired with CLS-capable Nikon flashes. Amazing, but spendy. Four triggers (one for the camera and three for each of my flashes) would cost about $800. Again, I wasn’t that good last year.

How about the bronze standard then? Many companies make much less expensive radio triggers, though, like the Yongnuo flashes, you give up any fancy CLS-like features. Most of the least expensive ones seem quite unreliable based on the reviews I read, so I started looking slightly upscale. A bit more research led me to the Cactus V5 triggers which get consistently good reviews. At $75 for a pair of triggers, a set of four is cheaper than a single MiniTT1 or FlexTT5.

Are you keeping score at home? We’re at ≈$1,800 for the all-Nikon solution vs. ≈$300 for the Yongnuo/Cactus combination.

The final piece of the puzzle is the addition of a light modifier. Bare flashes generally make for unflattering portraits, so the standard solution is to employ an umbrella or soft box to create a larger, softer light source. Scott Kelby, a pro photographer and owner of Kelby Training, turned me on to a package deal from B&H Photo which includes a 24″ soft box, umbrella bracket, and light stand. Added to the small flash-mounted soft box I already own, a Lumiquest LTp, I’ve got some options for lighting portraits.

So there you go. With my new system I can employ up to three separate flashes and trigger them at a distance of up to 100 m from my camera. I hope my research will benefit another aspiring photographer who’s looking to expand his or her lighting kit.

If you’ve never run a marathon before, the pre-race chaos of the starting line area can be pretty intimidating, and it’s easy to get away from your race plan. (You have a race plan, right?) After running three of them myself, I’ve come up with a few tips that might help a Twin Cities Marathon newcomer. Some of these may verge into TMI territory, but, hey, we’re runners. We share.

  • Get to the dome plenty early. Better to have extra time than not enough. The dome will be open so you don’t have to worry about standing out in the cold.
  • The lines for the restrooms will be long. Bring your own toilet paper because they’ll probably run out. Just go ahead and get in line even if you don’t have to go right at the moment.
  • BodyGlide is your friend. Use liberally.
  • Put some fresh clothes in the bag that gets hauled over to St. Paul. It will feel good to change out of your marathon shorts and shirt.
  • Don’t wait too long to get to the starting line because the runners line up in order of projected finish times. If you’re shooting for something in the neighborhood of 4:30 or faster, you’ll have to fight your way through a sardine-packed crowd to move that far up.
  • It might be a bit chilly before the race. You can bring an old sweatshirt and just toss it when you get warm enough. (I think they gather up the discarded clothes and give them away.) I used a garbage bag once to stay warm for the first mile or so. I just tore it off and threw it in a garbage can along the road.
  • Resist the temptation to go out too fast. This is hard. You’ll be amped up on adrenaline, and you’ll feel super fast. Don’t do it! Run your race at your pace. If this is your first marathon you should try to run even splits; let the speedsters try to do negative splits. A bunch of those runners that blow by you at the start will be in your rearview mirror by the end.
  • The race pace wristbands are handy if you don’t have a GPS watch.
  • Don’t overhydrate right before the race. If you do you’ll end up needing to use a porta potty at about mile 2. Don’t be suprised to see a line of dozens of men (and some women) lined up against the Sculpture Garden wall peeing. (I’ve done this myself and was surprised when I looked to my left and saw a woman right next to me. I warned you about the TMI.)
  • Look for Supreme Court justice (and former Viking) Alan Page playing his tuba on the right side of the road at about the 2.5-mile mark.
  • Don’t try to run while you take a drink at the water stops. You’ll probably spill half of it on yourself. Take the opportunity to walk for a few seconds while you keep yourself hydrated. Just move over to the side so you don’t get in anyone’s way. You won’t be the only one walking.
  • The pace groups are great if you get a good pace leader. My experience has been mixed. Last year the pace leader I was running with went out way too fast. I don’t think I’ll run with one of those groups again, but your mileage may vary.
  • Enjoy the crowd and the signs. Some of them are pretty funny.
  • If you want people to cheer for you by name, write your name in big letters on your shirt. (Just don’t forget to write it somewhere that won’t be covered by your race number.)
  • The hill up to the U. of St. Thomas from East River Rd is the famous one, but it still goes gently uphill almost the whole length of Summit Ave. Don’t let your guard down.
  • The last bit to the finish line is downhill. It’s a good way to finish, but don’t try to sprint it out. You might hurt yourself, and you won’t take much off your time anyway. Better to enjoy the crowd.
  • Don’t forget to raise your arms in victory as you cross the finish line. Somebody’s taking your picture.
  • If you’re meeting your family at the Capitol, have them bring you some food. By the way, the meeting areas are marked out alphabetically. It’s pretty easy to find one another.
  • Remember to have fun.
  • You might not end up on the podium, but don’t forget that completing a marathon puts you in pretty elite athletic company. You are a tough athlete.

The Twin Cities Marathon is a beautiful race, and you’ll never forget doing it. Do your best to savor the experience. You won’t regret it.

It’s my birthday today so in celebration I’m linking to a fun article on the New York Times Opinionator site called “It’s My Birthday Too, Yeah.” If at least 253 people read this post there’s a greater than 50% chance that at least one of them will be celebrating a birthday today too. So happy possible birthday, anonymous Internet person!

Ira Glass and his This American Life team produced a dynamite program for last week’s broadcast. Their Back To School episode described the work of Paul Tough and his new book How Children Succeed. According to Tough and the other guests on the show, traditional cognitive skills of the sort most often measured by standardized tests don’t completely account for the real-life outcomes of adults.

Economist James Heckman described his research on the outcomes of students who get a GED. Those students, who presumably have achieved a certain level of cognitive skill, don’t have economic and social outcomes markedly different than students who drop out of school. That result caused Heckman to look deeper and understand why. His hypothesis is that cognitive skills don’t tell the whole story. He concluded that non-cognitive or “soft” skills such as self-control, determination, and impulse control contribute significantly to adult outcomes.

Another guest, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, described the effects of poverty and childhood stress on brain development. Ira interviewed Kewauna Lerma, a young woman who had all of the risk factors as a child and has benefited from an intervention program designed to teach non-cognitive skills.

I don’t think anyone who works in education can doubt the truth of the stories told in this episode. Perhaps Ira’s Back To School program presents an opportunity to communicate that to folks who don’t share our perspective.

We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished. Much of what we’ve pioneered in the past ten years is now commonplace. Our goal was to make it easy for others to produce audio recordings of events and make them available to the world for free. That’s now the norm. We have succeeded.

We’ve helped event producers and podcasters to create and publish programs themselves, and increasingly that’s what they’re doing. There simply isn’t as great a need for a service like The Conversations Network. So we’ve decided to complete our mission by helping our remaining partners continue their podcasts on their own websites.

Doug Kaye, of IT Conversations fame, announced last Sunday that The Conversations Network had accomplished its mission and will be shuttered this December.

It would be difficult to overstate Doug’s influence on the podcast medium over the last decade and 3,300+ podcasts. I’ve listened to hundreds of them myself. IT Conversations was an enormous source of professional development for me as I started my work in educational technology leadership seven years ago, commuting two hours a day and absorbing as much as I could from the amazing conferences IT Conversations covered. It was just what I needed at the time.

Once I started listening to IT Conversations it was only a matter of time before I had to try it myself. The Savvy Technologist Podcast started in June, 2005, and Doug’s influence was apparent from the beginning. I’m pretty proud of most of those episodes, and I copiedlearned almost everything I know about podcasting from IT Conversations. (Doug’s “Secret Lives of MP3 Files” presentation alone was worth the price of admission.)

I stopped doing my own podcast once I started producing Apple’s Conference Connections podcast. (Although I still have copies of all of those episodes, I fear they’ve disappeared off the web.) Those were inspired even more directly by IT Conversations. In fact, I always considered that series “IT Conversations for the ed tech crowd.”

While I’m personally sad to see it come to an end, it’s clear that the original vision of IT Conversations has been accomplished. So thanks, Doug. You have contributed mightily to my development as a leader and a technologist. I wish you the best in your new career as a photographer. I owe you a beer… or two. Maybe more.

Rogue pruner

17 Sep 2012

Were I not the law-abiding citizen that I am, I’m not sure I could resist taking my pruner under the cover of night and fixing this tree. It’s been bothering me every day for several years on my drive home from work. I’m about to go all tree ninja on it.

Maple tree showing absurdly bad crotch