Friday, January 04, 2013

2012 Year in Review

My 2012 looked similar to my 2011 - a lot of reading, writing, studying, and teaching. Throw in a bunch of running and a pretty miserable Cubs season and the year came and went pretty quickly. I traveled back to Iowa for the first time in four years, giving me a chance to visit old friends and help my parents a bit. However, if my 2012 is highlighted by anything, I think it comes down to three things: experiencing some great speakers here at CU-Boulder, passing my comprehensive exams, and not only setting, but reaching, a running goal.

Great Speakers

You know what else is great about all these tickets? I think I spent a total of $2 on them.
I'll remember 2012 for the outstanding speakers I got to see in person. First was Neil deGrasse Tyson, speaking at Macky Auditorium in February. In a talk called "The Delusions of Space Enthusiasts," Tyson, in a most entertaining way, talked about how we doubt our power to innovate, how we look too much at the past of the space program, and how our culture reflects our focus on science. Thankfully someone recorded it and posted it, so listen for yourself.

In April, Cornel West came to CU-Boulder. He is, most likely, the most powerful speaker I've ever heard. Tying together messages from Plato to Martin Luther King to Curtis Mayfield, he sharply delivered messages about race, culture, power, democracy, and life in a way that I'd never heard before. I wish there was a recording of that speech, but thankfully Dr. West's oratory is easy to find on the web, such as this great recent presentation or his weekly podcast with Tavis Smiley.

To kick off our school year, the School of Education hosted Gloria Ladson-Billings. I must say that I felt a little vindicated when she stressed that we, as educators, should use social media -- not just to connect to people, but to understand the culture of connectedness in which our students are growing up. I think this hit a point about culturally relevant pedagogy that gets overlooked: it's not just being aware of what culture our students are part of, but how they expose themselves and participate in that culture.

By far, the speaker here at CU that got the most attention was President Barack Obama. He came here not once, not twice, but three times -- enough that I joked that he was trying to get Sasha and Malia eligible for in-state tuition at CU. President Obama is a great speaker, but because we hear him almost daily I can't say that much of what he said was very surprising. Even so, you're welcome back any time, Mr. President.

There are a couple white pixels down on the stage. That's President Obama, trust me.

Comprehensive Exams

Part of the process of being a PhD student usually entails passing some sort of comprehensive or qualifying exams, signifying to the university that you're a candidate for the degree and capable of engaging in your own research. I wrote about this process extensively using the #OpenComps tag at, so I won't go into much detail here. As I look back at it, having passed my exam just over a month ago, I focus less on the exam itself (a week of writing followed by a 90-minute oral exam) and more on my maturity as a graduate student. Simply put, things are making more sense, and I'm able to connect more ideas from more perspectives. That's a good feeling, even if I still have frequent and healthy moments of, "Wow, there's still so much I don't know!"


I painfully remember in December 2009, after a semester of almost no exercise and some pretty unhealthy eating habits during finals week, the rotten feeling I had walking to campus to turn in my last paper. The 25-minute walk felt like it took effort and I was breathing harder than I should have been. During my previous several winters, I'd been coaching wrestling, walking to and from school daily, and skiing. Now I was nowhere near that active -- and it showed. In the months that followed, I tried going out for short runs. On a 1.5-mile loop near my apartment, I remember having to stop and walk several times due to fatigue.

I kept running and my fitness improved, if only slightly. I was a very casual runner in 2010. Starting in the spring of 2011, however, I started tracking my runs with RunKeeper and I transitioned from simply running to becoming a runner. Gradually, 1.5 miles became 2.8, and in June 2011 I ran 6.5 miles at a 12 min/mi pace. That August, I ran 10 miles at a 12:30 pace, and by the end of the year I had racked up 200 miles.

I ran infrequently over the winter months coming into 2012, nursing some knee pain that didn't want to go away. By the end of March, I'd only tallied 37 miles. By May 1st and the end of the semester I was at 55 miles, and I'd started to figure out that my knee hurt no more if I ran 4 times a week or 4 times a month, so I picked up the pace and set a goal for the year: 366 miles, or an average of one mile per day. (2012 was a leap year, remember. Also, new, highly-cushioned running shoes alleviated most of the knee problems.) I had some catching up to do, but no work or classes during the summer in the way of progress. I ran 48 miles in May, 26 miles in June (not bad considering I traveled for almost two weeks), and 34 miles in July. Perhaps inspired by the Olympics, August was my best month yet at 58 miles -- which put me in excellent shape for a beautiful climb of Mt. Meeker in September.

Mileage dropped off during the fall months, but I ran enough to keep my fitness up. Still, I needed a big December to reach my goal. Thanks to a light schedule post-comprehensive exams, I ran 64 miles in December, almost all of it 5 miles at a time along the Boulder Creek Trail.

My big December gave me just enough to finish the year at 366.9 miles. The progress on the graph below looks steadier than it sometimes felt. For some people this kind of mileage isn't a big deal, but for me -- the overweight, short-legged kid who hated to run -- I think it's a nice accomplishment. Trust me, my sore-kneed, sometimes 220+ pound body fits all too comfortably on the couch to see it any other way.

Best of 2012

Favorite book: I read a lot in 2012, but rarely did I get a chance to sit down and read a book end-to-end. But one book I read last summer keeps influencing how I think about scaling technological and educational innovations: Michael Nielsen's Reinventing Discovery, which I reviewed in August at

Favorite article: Last year I chose Anna Sfard's 1991 article On the Dual Nature of Mathematical Conceptions, and this year I'm tempted to choose her 1998 article On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One. However, I think I've been more influenced by Marty Simon's 1995 article Reconstructing Mathematics Pedagogy from a Constructivist Perspective, which I reviewed at

Favorite show: In 2012 I never missed an episode of Breaking Bad, I routinely watched some of the top shows on Discovery, and caught The Daily Show and Colbert when I could. Still, I pay attention to traditional television less and less. (I still get an unusual amount of enjoyment from the shows of my youth, like Night Court and Cheers, which I'll watch in marathon fashion.) Instead of regular TV, I watch and listen to a ton of programming on the web. My favorites this year included pretty much anything with +Gina Trapani -- I've long enjoyed This Week in Google, and this year she started another show called In Beta with +Kevin Purdy. Now that she's joining All About Android, I'll be glued to that show stronger in 2013 than I was before.

Favorite album: According to my stats, I listened to 548 Tori Amos tracks and the single track I listened to most was R√∂yksopp's Vision One. But for music that was actually released in 2012, I think I've been most impressed with Garbage's Not Your Kind of People, with Norah Jones's Little Broken Hearts close behind.

Favorite hardware: I bought a Galaxy Nexus from Verizon in December 2011, a pretty significant hardware upgrade from my Droid X. It's difficult to separate hardware and software in mobile devices, but the amount of things I can accomplish with this pocket-sized device is incredible. From now on, I think I'm sticking with Nexus hardware, which probably means leaving Verizon when my contract expires for whatever phone Google releases after the Nexus 4.

Favorite software: I still heavily rely on Mendeley and became a regular Evernote user in 2012, and both make me realize that the distinction between software and service is getting pretty fuzzy. Niether of those products would be nearly as useful without their web and syncing capabilities. It's difficult to pick a favorite, but this year I'm going with Google Currents, Google's news reader for Android. Maybe the app by itself isn't super impressive, but to me it represents how I was able to ween myself away from subscribing to the RSS feeds of major news sites, where my time was wasted in Google Reader getting past entertainment news and superficial political coverage. With the help of reading Clay Johnson's Information Diet, I realized that by checking just a few headlines from something like The Daily Beast's Cheat Sheets, I could get most of the news coverage I needed.

Favorite service: As I did in 2011, I have to give the nod here to Google+. I still check Facebook occasionally and Twitter pretty regularly, but neither have the features or rich conversations and ideas that I regularly experience on Google+.

Make it a good 2013, everyone!

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