During the last Winter Olympiad, almost exactly four years ago, a friend was rewarded with a special bicycle. Thinking about this and watching Sage Kotsenburg take the gold in Slopestyle triggered a few thoughts.
Colleen is one of those people who goes out and just does it. She was worried about climate change and the fact that many American kids are out of shape. Both are enormous problems that require efforts at many levels and she saw encouraging children to learn how to garden and use their bicycles more as a project she could take on. Trek, a large American bicycle maker, agreed and created a very special bike in recognition of her work.
It turns out the bike had to be special as Colleen happens to be unusually tall with much of it in her legs. Tall enough that normal bikes don't allow a comfortable and efficient riding position. Most of us can get a good fit by finding a frame size and geometry that is a reasonably close fit and then having a professional fiddle around and make everything perfect. But a few people are better served with a made to measure frame. The final result was a learning experience and was delivered with a beautiful paint scheme.1
At the time Colleen had just retired from professional beach volleyball. Up until then much of her life had been defined by sport. Before the beach she was professional indoor player in Italy and the Netherlands and before that an All-American in college. She grew up as one of those kids that you would chose first for your teams. Athleticism, drive and the height for some sports. A natural.
Sage Kotsenburg is a natural. Perhaps and extreme natural. It turns out he had never attempted the trick that took him to the top of the podium - 1620° of rotation with several complex moves along the way .. . the 1620 Japan. No one else had attempted anything like this either. It came to him three minutes before he pushed off on his run. It also turns out he hadn't been in a gym since September.
Most of us can participate in sport at some level. At many levels of participation passion and practice - what might be called drive - often determine outcomes. Many of us remember that 5'9 star on their high school basketball team. But as the level of competition increases and athletes become more elite, drive alone no longer cuts it.
A sport often selects not only a specific body type, but also muscle type, the ability to process oxygen, reaction time, vision, and even the ability to visualize.2 Body type is easy to pick out short track speed skaters tend to be short with low centers of gravity and exceptionally low amounts of body fat. Elite gymnasts and divers are compact - physics dictates this as it is difficult to accelerate long limbs. Cycling road racers are mostly between 5'8 and 5'11, swimmers have long torsos and short legs, basketball players are remarkably tall, and Sumo wrestlers are not exactly thin.
Some, but not all of the positions, in indoor volleyball favor height. Jumping ability, vision and "court sense" are also important and Colleen had those so volleyball was a natural sport. Beach volleyball, on the other hand, only has two players and is not quite as specialized. Height is still extremely useful, but so is acceleration and Colleen's limbs are too long to accelerate quickly. She worked on improving as much as she could, but physics gets in the way. The trick was to find a lightning fast partner. But it is also important that both players have the other gifts required for the sport, so the search was difficult.
David Epstein's The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance is, in my opinion, the best science book of 2012.3 It focuses on elite athletes with some of the best non-technical explanation on why most of the best long distance runners are from a small part of Kenya and most of the best sprinters are from a small area of Jamaica. There is insight on the dramatic increase in female athletic performance, why 10,000 hours of training is bunk as there is a genetic component to how we respond to various types of training. There is even the story of a true super-baby.
Epstein has an easy, almost conversational, style and I'd recommend his book to anyone with an interest in sport, to anyone with a kid who does sports, and to anyone interested in a readable "it's not as simple as nature vs nurture" science book for non-specialists. A perfect companion book for the Olympics - the story on XC skiing will completely amaze you.
That's one book...
Colleen's physical appearance makes her fascinating to kids. Combine this with her work as a professional athlete and she reasoned she might be able to inspire some to bike to school and to work in a community garden. She geared up and set to work. Work that was much more difficult than first imagined.
There was a fly in the ointment. Parents objected to such "dangerous" activities.
People are terrible as assessing risk. The notion of risk has been blown out of proportion. Sadly the American response is one of fear and this is amplified when children are involved.
Teens exhibit dramatically different online behavior from adults Some have labeled them digital natives - implying they have a very different relationship with technology and communication itself. That they are somehow different and many other things follow from that.
The general public's use of the Internet dates to the mid 90s. About that time my Human Computer Interface department began to study networked behavior in teens and twenty somethings. Some of us were studying usage data and others were conducting ethnographic studies. It was noted teens weren't naturally adroit at understanding the new technologies. They could use some of the technologies, often finding uses not envisioned by the creators, but an understanding of the technology was rare. One described teens, in fact most non-technical users of technologies, as technology idiot savants.
It's Complicated: the Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd is my second recommendation.4 danah is a social researcher who has been interested in teens and their use of the Internet for well over a decade. She's done a large number of interviews carefully asking questions and listening as a proper ethnographer does. And she asks good questions, thinks and then continues to listen at a deeper level.
Her book tackles a very complex subject. Teens and adults are both human and, as such, desire social contact. Adults have an easier time finding high quality contact, but teens are experimenting and learning and are effective limited by adults and social constructs. There is a huge perception gap between the two groups. Contrary to popular opinion teens strongly prefer real face to face interaction, but opportunities are vastly reduced from what they were a generation ago. To get some social contact they are forced to knit together online interactions using available tools - often in ways and for purposes different from what the tool inventors and service providers envisioned.
Privacy is important, but takes on different meanings. Teens employ many novel approaches with varying degrees of success. There is a deep misunderstanding on the part of adults. The same extends to online safety and the adult natural fear and over-protective nature feed the problem. Conversational context is a deep issue that adults frequently don't consider.
As many of you know I have issues with some popular terms. One is digital native and I agree with danah's position. The term is so general as to be non-descriptive and, out of context, overly confusing.5
danah has a nice chapter on bullying and the asymmetry between teen and adult use of the term. Her definition for bullying is, I think, particularly useful - particularly when one considers online behavior. And speaking of useful, a regular reader of this blog will see her book on dealing with bullying published shortly.6
In summary It's Complicated is an enjoyable and an important book for anyone with teens, soon to be teens, and anyone who involved in networked services and applications - building, growing or investing. I'd love to hear the reactions of teenagers. danah's style is very readable for such a technical subject and I can hear her voice as I read it. She manages to get across the notion of what a public is as cleanly as I've seen it done without getting into the weeds.
And no - I'm not very optimistic on seeing any growth in teenage use of Facebook. The story of Myspace to Facebook is fascinating and has some fascinating roots in race, social class and design. There are some interesting echoes in the design of Microsoft, Google and Apple products.
So much more, but this is a deep and complex subject and going further than a brief bit of bait is inappropriate unless I was to write a few chapters. I'd probably do that, but I'm not a good writer and danah is deep - you need to read it.
You could do far worse than to read both of the books. Both were good enough that I read them front to cover in a single session. Not good for sleep, but there are times when you ujust can't put a book down.
1 Most bike geometries are made for a range of male proportions, but many can be adjusted for female riders. In the past decade women's specific designs have appeared that can give better fits and a much more comfortable ride. Colleen's height puts her past the normal range for most men's bikes, plus her proportions dictate a different geometry. The photo shows her on a production bike where an attempt has been made to get a fit - approximately wrong. In the end the final result of the Trek exercise is in the range of a 70 cm steel frame.
Made to measure frames are easier to find these days as there are a number of excellent small bike makers in the US. Many of them use the same CAD tool that helps dictate geometry. If you are a woman and need a custom frame it is best to seek out someone who understands the somewhat different requirements. In this case some completely new design was required.
Stay away from mail order and big box stores if you are looking for a bike. The best best, even for a very garden variety ride, is to consult with someone who can listen to your needs and, combined with your measurements, find something that you'll be happy with. The good shops tend to be bicycle-only. The great ones will send you elsewhere if the right bike is one they don't happen to carry.
2 I haven't seen a competitive sport that requires smell and taste ... perhaps a challenge for someone.
3 I won't give a direct link. Most of the books I buy these days are ebooks. The default for most people is Amazon, but I prefer the readability and layout of Apple's iBook reader. Prices differ on the various stores. The Sports Gene goes for the same at both stores, but the next book I note is significantly less expensive from Apple.
4 I have an early copy - it should be out by the end of February. danah spells her name without capitals.
5 I'm neither techno-utopian or techno-dystopian. The term digital native was used by techno-optimists in the 90s to paint a paritcular future that was something of a belief and hasn't panned out. It may have some utility in certain contexts, but it don't work for general use. I remember talking with danah on the subject ten years ago when we were chatting about overloaded language and the Internet. Both of us are in the techno-realist camp ... go out into the wild, look and measure first.
I worry the phase space for dystopias is much larger than that for utopias and hope we can move the realistic world more towards the utopia space. That demands an enormous amount of thought and effort. Even a good enough path does not emerge on its own accord.
6 I only know a working title which I think is Don't Let the Bullies Ruin Your Life by Uche Nnoka. I've seen a very early draft and it looks useful. Her definition of bullying strikes me as aligned with danah's.
A nice tofu soup that is perfect for a cold Winter day and just seems healthy
° 1 tbl good quality olive oil
° 1 medium onion sliced thinly
° 3 celery stalks sliced thinly
° 6 to 8 garlic clove sliced thinly
° 2 tbl granted ginger
° 1/2 to 3/4 tsp finely ground white pepper (white is important here!)
° 1-1/2 cup mushrooms
° 8 oz firm or extra firm tofu, sliced in thin slabs ... get the good stuff at an Asian market
° 2 tsp sea salt
° scallions chopped for garnish. watermelon radish is great and I've microwaved frozen peas and used them with good success
° put the oil in a pot over medium heat and sauté onion, celery, carrots, garlic, and ginger 'til they are soft. don't let them brown. You may need a bit of water if the veggies aren't very wet and dry out in the process
° stir in the white pepper and about 10 cups of water, bring to a simmer and let it perk away for about 15 minutes
° add the mushrooms, tofu and salt and continue to simmer for another five minutes or so
° adjust with salt if needed
° serve in bowls with the toppings (scallions and some watermelon radishes or whatever) and drizzle with a bit of olive oil