A few Days of Golf around Punta Gorda, Florida

After years of renting condos, my snowbird parents finally bought a place in southwest Florida as a cold weather retreat. My cousin Jason and I immediately seized this opportunity and booked a few days for a fall golf trip. We had no clue about the area or golf options and we intentionally didn’t plan very far ahead, we preferred to get down there, check out the house and area, and then make a plan.

Note that Jason is a bogey golfer and I am 9 strokes worse (but I play fast and have a great time).

We arrived in Punta Gorda, FL on Tuesday, October 9th, 2018 just as Hurricane Michael was barreling through the golf towards my grad school home of Tallahassee. Weather was a dominant force in the impromptu planning throughout our trip.

Coral Oaks Golf Course

Cape Coral, FL | par 72 | rating 68.4 | slope 123

We hopped off of the plane around 1:30pm and wanted to get a round in before dark to get things started, so we looked for the closest course we could find and wound up at Coral Oaks. We grabbed a quick bite in the pub to fuel up and got a full round in just under the wire (around 7pm sunset).

Coral Oaks course

This was our first experience playing a Florida Bermudagrass style course and we were immediately impressed by how easy it was to find our mishits in the extremely forgiving rough compared to our northern Indiana home courses. This revelation made our round very enjoyable and helped us keep up a quick pace.

We found Coral Oaks to be a great value at $30/round inclusive of cart and GPS (which was included at all of the courses we played) compared to our typical city courses in Indiana.

The Mustang at Lely Resort

Naples, FL | par 72 | rating 70.6 | slope 123

The rain came to Punta Gorda on day two, so we drove south to escape the clouds. Based on our experience at Coral Oaks we immediately wanted to step up a level in course design because we found that afternoon tee times in October were such a steal all around the area. After a healthy debate between a few courses in Naples, FL we selected The Mustang at Lely Resort based on it’s reviews, pictures, and discounted price point over it’s typical peak season rate.

Lely Resort Mustang Golf Course

We had a really nice round on The Mustang, and we learned that “resort golf” is fun golf with fewer challenges and beautiful views. However, we quickly tired of the common back patio enclosures that are so necessary and redundant in Florida. The consistent housing and patio designs sapped the beauty out of the course.

Jason was in the sand ALL DAY, but it was well-maintained and easy to play, a real treat coming from the north where traps are often neglected and/or concrete hard.

In the end, we found The Mustang to be enjoyable but not remarkable. We thought that Coral Oaks was a better value. We found a rate of $70/round via the GolfNow app and remarked to ourselves that it would have been a good value at $40, but that $70 was a bit high.

Waterlefe Golf & River Club

Bradenton, FL | par 72 | rating 69.4 | slope 128

Day three weather was a repeat from day two, so this time we drove north with the intent to play a course that isn’t really possible in Indiana. Jason found Waterlefe, where every hole has a water feature in play, by reviewing lots of “best course” lists and Golf Advisor reviews. The water on this course terrified me, as my long irons tend to splash whenever there is water nearby.

We started our day on the aqua range, which was awesome. It’s a driving range where you hit floating balls into a pond, providing splash indicators for distance. We could have spent a good deal of time at the range alone, but it was a hot afternoon and we wanted to get our round underway.

Gold course hole with lots of water on left

As our second resort-ish course we couldn’t help ourselves from comparing it to The Mustang. Waterlefe was an overall better experience; more interesting hole design, better contact with nature, more dynamic surrounding home architecture, and a lower fee.

We really can’t say enough about Waterlefe, it was a top-notch experience and we’ll likely return anytime we’re in the area. We found a rate of $45/round and were impressed by the creature comforts like the best GPS system we experienced and ice machines at each quarter house.

Old Corkscrew

Estero, FL | par 72 | rating 71.1 | slope 138

As soon as we began our trip we asked anyone willing to chat which course we should play and Old Corkscrew was always at the top of the list, so we made a tee time a few days in advance. Our round at Corkscrew ended up being the last round of the trip and it was a great send-off.

First thing’s first. Old Corkscrew is a murderous course; by far the most difficult design (the back tees have a slope rating of 151; compare to this year’s PGA Championship course, Bellerive, at a 141 slope rating) either of us have ever played. It’s a Jack Nicholas signature course (actually designed by Jack) and a rare stand-alone course in Florida (no homes on the course).

We got our cart squared away and headed to the practice range. It was Friday and we noticed that this course was busier than any of the others with more serious players. We were nervous that we’d get paired up, however we were able to work it out with the starter to stay a twosome.

Jack’s design punishes slices (which I hit from time to time) with right-side fairway bunkers and bad angles so we quickly started to curse his name. All of the par 4s and 5s felt like a signature hole at any other course we’re used to playing, which was awesome.

Fairway bunker at Old Corkscrew

We saw an alligator on 8 before attempting to gamble on the 9th hole approach shot (we both missed, I was closer) that Jack dares you to take to salvage your front.

The back was brutal, but fun. I put my drive on 10 in the most awkward lie I’ve ever played… and I had a smile on my face the entire time.

By the end of the round, in the heat, and at the conclusion of our loops for the trip we were beaten by Corkscrew’s design, but it was a great day on a truly wonderful course.

As we packed up, we noticed that the Florida Gulf Coast University men’s team was taking the course for practice and remarked to ourselves “that’s a hell of a home course advantage.” As we chatted up the operations manager he told us that Jack Nicholas played the first round once the course was completed and “generously shot in the 80’s,” which made us smile.

All of this torture was a steal at $50/round for a 1pm tee time.


We had a great time and learned that if you are flexible with the weather and don’t mind afternoon tee times, there is a wealth of great deals just before the peak season picks up in November.

Tips for Attending a Papal Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica

For our honeymoon last June, my wife and I planned a tour of Italy, which we did not believe could be complete without a visit to the Vatican. During our research we realized that there would be a Mass held within the walls of St. Peter’s Basilica while we were in Rome, so we decided that it would be the centerpiece of our Rome days and went about looking into how one could attend the mass.

Quick tips

The rest of the story provides more detail and context.

  1. Check the Pope’s schedule
  2. Request tickets ahead of time for special events or tight timelines
  3. Visit the Vatican on the day before the Mass to collect your tickets
  4. Bring evidence of your ticket request, or a confirmation (if you get one)
  5. Use the security shortcut to skip the security line and head for the bronze door to pick up the tickets (they are always free)
  6. Get to the Vatican earlier than you think you should on the day of the Mass (at least two(2) hours before the start time)
  7. Bring a water bottle or Camelback bag for the line (small bags are allowed in Mass)
  8. Dress appropriately but comfortably, you will be bounced for un-modest clothing (which includes bare shoulders)
  9. Remain reverent and polite
  10.  Don’t be afraid to ask the Swiss Guard questions if you get turned around, trust no one else for real information

Mass in the Basilica is somewhat rare

The first thing to know is that there are actually very few Masses throughout the year that are held within the Basilica itself. For the most part, the Pope celebrates in St. Peter’s square, in host churches on visits away from the Vatican, and near his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo. So getting a chance to see the Pope celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s is a rare honor, which means that a lot of people want in on the action.

Continue reading

NASPA 2016 Indianapolis Recommendations

As a Hoosier, I feel compelled to offer some advice on having a great time in Indianapolis during NASPA 2016.

Pre-arrival reading

Indiana on Wikipedia
Indianapolis on Wikipedia
Indianapolis on Wikitravel

What to eat

Hoosiers have simple tastes that skew towards fried and sugary. The most famous Indiana dishes are pork tenderloin sandwiches and sugar cream pie.

You can also find “Cincinnati chili” at Steak ‘n Shake; while not a true Indiana thing, it’s certainly a distinct regional item. Steak ‘n Shake is the Midwest’s regional fast-ish food king.

Where to eat

Shapiro’s Deli
Best deli in Indiana… maybe the Midwest (save for Chicago). It’s big and busy at lunch time, but it’s worth it.

Bazbeaux Pizza
Funky pizza joint at the entrance to Mass Ave, good for larger groups. If you want to stay out for drinks after be sure to hit up MacNiven’s and Bakersfield just a couple of doors down.

Union 50
For a more upscale dinner with colleagues this place has great atmosphere and live music. Reservations will be required.

Scotty’s Brewhouse
For fried stuff and local beer. Scotty’s was started by a former student of Ball State University and has slowly expanded as an Indiana chain to all of the college towns and larger cities. There are a lot of “sports bars” in downtown Indy, if you’re going to go to one, it might as well be a local one. Pretty good pork tenderloin sandwich.

Café Patachu
Great spot for breakfast, will likely be very busy in the AM since it’s near the convention center and its slogan is “A student union for adults.”

Le Peep
Another good breakfast spot. Probably won’t be as busy.

St. Elmo’s Steakhouse
If you want to splurge beyond your per diem on your own dime… this is where you do that. Most famous place in Indiana. If you don’t want the full experience, get in at the bar, order a drink and a shrimp cocktail.


Bru Burger Bar
For those of you who are fans of finding the “best burger in {x}” this is the closest contending joint.

Workingman’s Friend
A little further out… but can’t beat the burger and experience.

White Castle
Sometimes you just want 30 little hamburgers in a suitcase. No judgement!


Local beers

3 Floyd Brewing
– Zombie Dust (hard to find, drink it if you do)
– Alpha King
– Dark Lord Imperial Stout
– Gumballhead

Upland Brewing
– Dragonfly IPA

Sun King Brewing
– Wee Mac Scottish Ale
– Osiris Pale Ale

Flat 12 Bierwerks
– Cucumber Kolsch

Local wine

Indiana does have wineries, mostly semi-sweet to exceptionally sweet blends. If you are serious about wine and like things dry, you should probably order the classics from California, France, and Italy.

All/most Indiana wineries make Traminette (a cousin of Gewürztraminer) wine because it is the state grape of Indiana. It’s an up-and-coming vintage that is grown in the great lakes, so if you’re interested in a semi-dry white, give it a shot.

Oliver Winery
– Soft Red is very popular, very sweet
– Dry Red Blend


Most of the places on my list are on/near an area of downtown called Massachusetts Avenue, or Mass Ave. This shopping and food area is just a short walk/Uber/bike away from the downtown core, but the eating and drinking experience is 10x, so it’s worth at least one night out.

legit German bier hall and bier garden. Closes a little early so start here.

Libertine Liquor Bar
Hipster cocktail bar.

MacNiven’s Scottish Pub
My favorite place to start an evening. Great rotating taps.

Elbow Room
Just a good old bar, that recently got all hipstery.

Slippery Noodle Inn
Oldest bar in Indiana, lots of Jazz/Blues music, touristy.

Kilroy’s Downtown
In my opinion, Kilroy’s is like the 4th best bar at IU-Bloomington, but somehow it’s the #1 “sports bar” by revenue in the U.S. This is the Indianapolis version so expect tons of Indiana University alums there.

Outdoor adventures downtown

It’s going to be unseasonably warm (60’s) in Indy, although rainy.

Pacers Bikeshare
Like most big cities Indy has rental bikes throughout the downtown area. They are bright yellow.

Indianapolis Cultural Trail
A well-maintained running and bike trail through the heart of downtown.

Canal Walk
A nice promenade along a well-maintained canal in downtown. Lots of monuments and art along the way.

For fun

If you have the time.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum
Most famous cars and drivers from the most famous auto race in the world.

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
Indian-a, get it? It’s not often that a museum dedicated to native people is within walking distance to a downtown conference center. The Indiana State Museum (with an IMAX theatre if you need to get away from everyone) is right next to it if you’re curious about the history of the beautiful state that you are in.

Duckpin Bowling
It’s really fun.. and hard.

Exit Row Guy

Last week I was returning home from Chicago on a rescheduled fight due to the unfortunate situation at the FAA radar facility in Aurora, IL. Which is just another example of how mental health issues are a more likely contributor to chaos in the U.S. than terrorism. But I digress.

“Have you been to the North Park Theater since the renovation?”

Normally, I am an ear buds in, eyes closed kind of traveler; but my re-booked flight offered me an experience that I think is becoming ever more rare. An opportunity for an extended conversation with a stranger. Spanning real estate, the culinary scene in Buffalo, and our careers my exit row seatmate and I chatted from sitting down at MDW, through the gate delay, refueling, re-stowing of luggage, delayed taxi, and altered flight path through Canada until we departed the plane in BUF. We never exchanged names. But this conversation had a lasting affect on me for the rest of the weekend. You see, exit row guy is me, in 25 years.

Flying home to see his parents who are in their 90’s, exit row guy is in his late 50’s or early 60’s and was born in Buffalo, but now resides in Minneapolis. He ended up in Minneapolis through a series of transfers from his telecom company. From what I gleaned he’s a good technician who has survived three office shut downs over the years in Buffalo, West Virginia, and Long Island. In his last departure they gave him the option of Birmingham, Phoenix, and Minneapolis and just as predictable as snow in January the Buffalonian chose the closest flight to home over a warm winter.

I could feel his love for western New York as I updated him on the gossip around the Bills sale and as he gave me recommendations to his favorite hole-in-the-wall places around town. Only later did I consider that our conversation must have felt strange to him. You see, I chose to move Buffalo for a high-tech white collar job just a few years after he was forced to leave his hometown to keep his high-tech blue collar job. What did he feel as he heard me talk about my new favorite places downtown and lament how the housing market is too fast to keep up with right now. I’m sure he felt pride. Buffalo is nothing if not proud.

As an educator this reflection led me to consider how education may have played a role in this bizarro-world encounter. You see, exit row guy has a good job and has been with a big company for over 20 years. The kind of job that my dad (retired) had, and the kind of job that one could count on for a steady and good paycheck, the drawback is that you are at the whim of the company. These kinds of technical blue-collar jobs have always required a post-secondary education of some sort (college, trade-school, apprenticeship) and so exit row guy got a bachelor’s degree and then went to work.

Things change slowly, then all at once

However, something changed in the 20 years between the beginning of our career’s. Upon earning my Bachelor’s I went to work for a TV station in a technical blue-collar role.  But, I was the first person to ever hold that job who had a bachelor’s degree and I was not paid well (who is in their first job). This job was incredibly unstable, in fact our station was consolidated nine months after I joined and we all lost our jobs.  Luckily, I had already committed to returning to school for a graduate degree in a field I was interested in from an intellectual perspective, not to be sheltered for survival.

Once I concluded my graduate work I had options, in fact I exercised these options to end up in Buffalo by way of Indianapolis, IN and Durham, NC.  I now have a technical white-collar job, love Buffalo, and feel that I am in a position where I will never be forced to move because of my job.


This is a lesson that exit row guy helped me understand. A bachelor’s degree is still uncommon (30% of adults) but has drastically increased (<25% in 1998), thus making it easier for employers to prefer the credential for jobs that did not used to require them. At the same time, master’s degree attainment has remained relatively steady (although increasing during recessionary years) at around 12%.

But what do these observations really mean?  It’s always been easy to point to salary and unemployment as indicators that education continues to pay as an investment.

Salary by Degree Chart

But what exit row guy made me realize is that mobility, both social and physical, is also a huge advantage of elevated education levels.  While exit row guy continues to have a good job with a good salary he has been forced from his home, meanwhile I get to eat his favorite pizza whenever I want, because I have the mobility to choose to be in Buffalo.

Exit row guy got caught by a generational and economic transition point (internet revolution) and does really like Minneapolis, but there’s still a glint in his eyes about Buffalo. I hope circumstances align for him and his wife to come back home soon.

One Day in California Wine Country

First thing first… I’m not a big wine enthusiast but I’ve slowly learned to appreciate the subtleties of some varieties, specifically Icewine and Pinot Noir.  However, my girlfriend loves wine and is slowly earning badges towards amateur sommelier status. So for her birthday this year we headed out to the California wine country (Sonoma and Napa counties) for four days.  It was a cool experience with good wine, and really good food.  So here’s my completely novice advice if you only have one day in wine country.

Some general information

  • Watch Bottle Shock & Sideways before your trip
  • Most wineries open at 10:30am and close between 5-6:30pm
  • There are over 400 wineries, and they cover a large area across two counties and many AVAs
  • Tastings at the wineries that we visited ranged from $10-$25 for 3-6 different wines
  • We were able to find many 2-for-1 tasting coupons and mobile “check-in” deals which softened the blow to the wallet
  • Reservations are a must for the busy restaurants and most are on OpenTable

We chose to do about three tastings per day, which was a pleasant pace. One could certainly spend more time at an individual winery or hit several that are grouped together, we chose a more scattered approach, which meant more time in the car.

If you have one day in the area here’s my suggested path:

Breakfast or brunch

The Girl and The Fig | Sonoma
A beautiful little cafe-styled joint that has fantastic food and a super friendly wait-staff.  The fig is featured and they have their very own charcuterie shop. Their menu changes seasonally, but I opted for the BLT tartine (grilled green tomatoes, little gem lettuce, basil aioli, crispy onions) with a fresh egg and it was great.  A delicious way to start the day.

Post fig

After your meal, stroll along the Sonoma town square and check out the numerous and eclectic shops.  Once you feel like you’ve worked off breakfast/brunch stop into Basque Cafe on the east side of the square and grab some of your favorite bread for a snack later.  The croissants are incredible, be sure to grab at least two of those.

Hop in your car and drive just a few blocks north to the Vella Cheese Company which is a wholesale cheese factory with a tiny little shop for visitors.  The staff will be happy to feed you great tastes of all of their offerings.  I enjoyed the Chedder-style Italian Table Cheese, other favorites of our group included the Messo Dry Jack and Rosemary Jack.  Be sure to check out the 1960’s letter from Cary Grant to Vella framed near the door. The cheeses will last several days without refrigeration which makes them great for shipping, and keeping in the car for a few hours.

Now, time for wine…

The beginning

Buena Vista Winery | Sonoma
Where it all began, literally.  Billed as the “first premium winery in California” the history of the place is really a great way to step into the story of the region.  The premises feels like an old fort or mission and is laden with wood and gravitas.  The tasting features two of their Pinot Noir wines, which were the overall favorites of our group.  The “Bela” Pinot Noir was hands down the best wine of our entire trip.  A great way to start your day of wines.

The process

Benziger Family Winery | Sonoma
After a quick ride back through town and north towards Glen Ellen the Benziger Family Winery is aloft in the hills.  Two elements of Benziger stand out.  First, it is still family owned and operated, a rarity in the region.  Secondly, the winery promotes bio-dynamic wine-making which is a step “above” organic certification and illustrates this process via a great tour (led by a local wine-grower on a tram) of their winery from the vineyard to the cellar.  After the tour you’re invited in for a tasting.  While none of the wines at Benziger were off-the-charts on our favorites list they were solid and very drinkable.  Grab a bottle, get your bread and cheese out and have a picnic a midst the Eucalyptus trees.

The bubbles

Mumm Napa | Napa
A beautiful drive northeast into Napa and you’ll be welcomed by a Champagne/Sparkling Wine maker called Mumm; which is a much more commercial operation.  I’m not much of a bubbles fan, but the experience of the tasting was premium.  Most tastings in the region happen at a crowded stand-up counter in a noisy room; at Mumm, tastings happen on a patio overlooking the vineyard while your group is seated at a table.  Because you are seated with your party the experience feels very personal and enjoyable; after all, champagne needs to be sipped.  Mumm also hosts a great free art gallery featuring Ansel Adams photography in their wine-aging facility, a great place to take your final tasting glass.  Everyone liked different variations of the bubbles, my choice was the Cuvee M Red.  Don’t forget to ask a staff member about why only US wineries are allowed to designate their sparkling wine as ‘Champagne’ outside of France.


Brix | Napa
Watching the sunset on the patio of Brix with their flower and vegetable gardens in the foreground is a great way to end the day.  I chose the Hanger Steak and it was prepared perfectly.  A great meal.

Napa vs. Sonoma

So there is a friendly rivalry between the two counties about their wine-making prowess.  The truth is, wine is such a personal affair anyway so who cares.  Find wines that you like.  For me, I prefer the family-oriented nature of the wineries we stopped into around Sonoma county, and each of the places we stopped in Napa were very busy.

The map

Here is a map of our four day trip with locations mentioned in this post highlighted in green. Note that Wine Country lies in two valleys, therefore the driving can get significantly curvy and hilly when hopping between them.

On the way out

Muir Woods | Mill Valley
If you’re heading to San Francisco after your day in wine country and you still have daylight left, be sure to stop at Muir Woods.  There is certainly a full day’s worth of activity in the woods, but you can take a peaceful stroll on a well-kept boardwalk through fantastic Coast Redwood groves.  Just remember that Coast Redwoods (taller) and Giant Sequoia (wider) trees are different and you’ll need to drive much further north or east to encounter a Giant Sequoia.

Sous-Vide Wooo Weee!

Yesterday, I was cruising around Google+ and I happened onto a story about sous-vide cooking. Sous-vide means “under vacuum” in French and is essentially a way to slow-cook using a water bath.  Slow-cooking has always intrigued me, mostly because I love BBQ, but my last DIY experiment (Alton Brown style terra-cotta smoker) was a disaster.

I decided to try sous-vide out

After a few quick searches and blog posts I decided to give the beer cooler method a shot.  After a quick Wal-Mart and Tops trip I had the appropriate tools and meat.  I scooped up a cooler for $9 and a probe-style digital thermometer, which I should have had in the kitchen anyhow.

I was going to use the “slowly dip into water” method for vacuum sealing the steak into the plastic bag, but I happened upon a new gadget from Ziplock that is made for inexpensive vacuum sealing, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

Once I had the equipment all ready to go I vacuumed my steak into the bag with a little canola oil, salt, pepper, and Montreal seasoning.  I then turned my attention to heating the water; as it turns out, my sink produces hot water at about 120-degrees, so I filled up a 6-quart pot and turned up the heat on my burner until I got an even 140-degrees.  While the water bath was coming up to temp I “pre-heated” the cooler by filling it with hot tap water.

Once the water was up to temp I dumped the pre-heat water and poured the cooking water into the cooler and let it cool slightly, down to 136, and then I added the steak. Surprisingly the cooler really held the heat pretty well, after 1.5 hours it was only down to 133, not bad for a $9 cooler.

After I took the steak out I threw it on my trusty cast-iron grill pan with a heated grill press for about 90 seconds of high-heat searing.  this brought in the grill marks that I love and made sure that the meat was finished at a solid temp.

The result

After a too-quick rest, because I was impatient, I had a perfectly cooked mid-rare steak at 134-degrees. Because no juices were lost in the process and the seasoning got to sit, without burning, on the meat for an extended period of time the taste profile was distinctively beef with hints of the seasoning. It was the best steak I have made cooking inside; grills just do a different tango.  I used an inexpensive cut this time for testing, I’m very excited about using a prime cut next time.

The coolest thing about this process is that its super repeatable and its not as time sensitive as high-heat methods; which is awesome because when I cook for others I almost never get the timing of the entree and side quite right.

For a small investment in reusable items (cooler, thermometer, plastic bags) you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.  Of course, if you have a big clan to feed, there’s always this 16 gallon behemoth to satisfy your slow-cooking lust.

Crowd-funding Project Roundup

The world seems to to be abuzz by crowd-funding.  Hell, I even contributed to an internal business pitch competition where 3-out-of-5 pitches were crowd-funding concepts;  including my own, which won.  Crowd-funding is the new Crowd-sourcing.

So I thought I would share a couple of crowd-funding projects that I’ve contributed a little dough to in the past few months.


Which is currently in funding over at Kickstarter. Armikrog is a clay-mation point-and-click adventure game made by the team that created one of my all-time favorite video games Earthworm Jim. I’m super-pumped for this project and I hope the project can gain as much momentum as the Double Fine Adventure game did last year.


A small key-ring thermometer that will work with smartphones.  I’ll probably lose it in a day, but I saw it shortly after there was a thermostat war at the office and thought it might be cool to check out the temps in different rooms.  We’ll see if a community of weather enthusiasts can build apps that make it better than nerd jewelry.

By the way, this Kickstarter project had 22 updates during funding, which was about 15 too many emails about how pumped the founders were getting about the “exclusive lime green version”.  But I’m still excited to check it out.

Jesse Huddleston

No, I didn’t back an evil plot to build a humanoid robot.  Jesse is a former student of mine  who is going to grad school and he created a GoFundMe page to pay some expenses.  Although he hasn’t hit his goal of $6,000 he’s blazing the way for other students to start creating their own scholarships online.  I’ve already recommended this approach to 4-5 students who are entering college.

So I’m backing a video game, a gadget, and an education and I hope all three pay off. We’ll see where this phenomenon takes us, but I hope to see more advancement in the human-centered approach demonstrated by Jesse; it would be a shame to relegate something so powerful to celebrity vanity and corporate risk mitigation.

The Water Game

I don’t drink enough water and I’ve never been good at remembering to; it’s just not part of my daily routine.  So I decided to give gamification a shot at reversing this bad habit.  Based on Jon Guerrera’s 2012 talk about his system of self-improvement I was inspired to start my own test.

Forget the Apps, Gamifying with Post-It Notes from The Gamification Summit on FORA.tv

I determined that I should be drinking about 100 oz of water during the workday.  So I measured the volume of my usual drinking vessel (shout out to IIT Campus Sustainability) and found that it was 20 oz, therefore my goal would be to drink 5 full bottles a day.  I worked up a quick scoring mechanism and indicated what kinds of rewards I would get upon completion of each goal.

scoring post-itI tried to identify real motivational rewards as Jon advises, so I thought that cash would be a good place to start.  I think I will iterate in the next version so that the reward for full completion is a larger actual item like a specific blu-ray or something for my car because I don’t find the cash to be that motivating. I’m really just interested in the accomplishment at this point.  I think I may also attempt to dabble in “activated ability” concept to allow myself to receive non-water splurges (like full-flavored soda) to break up the monotony of tasteless water.


I hope that eventually I will have turned drinking more water into a habit.  We’ll see if gamification can help me with this goal.

Who’s Best Served by MOOCs?

I’m currently enrolled in my first-ever Massively Open Online Course, also known affectionately as a MOOC.  I decided to check out MOOCs a few months back because in the world of higher ed the topic has been as pervasive as Lebron James’ future team in the summer of 2010, in Cleveland.  Everybody has an opinion (via speech and funding) about how the free somewhat inexpensive courses will or won’t devastate the traditional higher ed landscape in the next few years. So I decided to try one out.

After perusing the offerings at Coursera.org, which I chose because of its ties to some of the high-caliber institutions that I always thought I was smart enough for, but didn’t have the circumstance or finances to attend, I settled on Gamification which is instructed by Kevin Werbach from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. It seemed to check all of the boxes; interesting topic that is relevant to my job, prestigious institution, and after watching the preview video I really enjoyed the instructor’s style.

We (the roster of 63,000 learners) are about 2/3 through the course and I’m proud to say that I’ve survived to make it down into the 10,000 learners who are still engaged in the course.  You see, since the MOOC is free somewhat inexpensive a lot of people stop engaging in course assignments or discussion fairly quickly.  In fact here are the most recent numbers from the instruction team:

  • Just under 63,000 students registered for the course.
  • Over 16,000 submitted Quiz 1
  • Over 12,000 submitted Quiz 2.
  • Over 10,000 students submitted Written Assignment 1

We’re now on Quiz 4 and Written Assignment 3, which I figure means that we must be below 10K.

How’s it Going?

So far, so good.  I’m really enjoying the content of the course and I’ve found it to be really flexible in terms of studying.  The instruction team tries to push use of the message boards in the course but I find that there are way too many (currently 1,750) topics and only rarely provide additional learning content. This course is a 6-week linear course, meaning that each week’s content is released on Monday morning and assignments are due the following Sunday, some MOOCs open all content at the get-go.  I like this linear approach as it keeps me from being overwhelmed and I feel like the instructor can adjust his lectures based on current events.

The Technology

Entering the course I was very excited to participate in and learn about the technology that Coursera was bringing to the table and while it’s been fairly easy-to-use, there’s nothing that’s breaking the innovation barrier.  The video lectures, which are the primary methods of instruction are fairly easy to watch and one of the nice features of the HTML5 player that is set to default is the ability to speed up time.  I usually watch the lecture at 1.5 or 1.75 times normal speed.  If I ever meet Professor Werbach I will probably have to ask him to speed it up!

However, the HTML5 player has one BIG issue.  I haven’t been able to replay a section of a lecture, the player always restarts the lecture if I fiddle with the player position slider.  The Flash player works well in this regard, but does not offer the speed adjustment of the HTML5 player, so I find myself switching back-and-forth to accomplish my goals.

I’ve chosen to participate in the Coursera Signature Track which adds a layer of validation when turning in assignments so that completion of the course can be verified if ever questioned, for a cost.  Verification is made via a webcam pic of my face each time I turn in an assignment alongside a typed honor code statement that supposedly allows Coursera to validate me via my typing patterns, however it has never indicated that my typing pattern is different even after significant effort as tricking it.

Overall, the course design and navigation is easy and straightforward.  I would be curious to see what kind of tech and assistance that they provide for the instructors. There also doesn’t seem to be a mobile app for Coursera which I would be interested in if I was a heavy commuter.

Who’s it Going to be?

Many folks who are talking about MOOCs as an alternative or supplement to higher education have now come to identify that there will likely serve specific populations of learners (for instance, curious higher ed people like me).  Interestingly enough, one of this week’s lessons in my Gamification course was on Player Types and the importance of understanding how members of each type will interact with your gamified system and I actually think that a core concept from this week can apply in projecting who will benefit from MOOCs.

In 1996 a game researcher named Richard Bartle came up with a way to organize player types of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (or MMOG, the inspiration for the MOOC acronym) into four regions of a 4 area quadrant:

Bartle's Player types

Bartle’s Player Types from Wikipedia

When I consider how these types might be used to describe students:

Achievers are those who try to accomplish all of the possible points in a class and are always on-time,

Explorers like to take different types of courses and engage with the elements of each course that are interesting to them,

Socializers enjoy class discussion and study groups, in fact they may only be able to succeed in a class via group study or projects, and

Killers (which are a controversial bunch in Bartle’s framework) are not only high achieving, but need to know that they are the best student in the class; they identify the other top students and try to beat them.

I believe that MOOCs will appeal to Explorers and Achievers the most because of the ability to engage with varied content, quickly disengage with a course, and access institutions and instructors that are not within their circumstantial grasp. Both of these types lay on the “Interested in work/content” side of the diagram, which lends itself well to a scenario where in-person contact is non-existent.

Finally, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve crossed out free multiple times in this post when referring to the financial cost of participating in my MOOC.  Because I signed up for the Signature Track I ended up paying Coursera a fee ($39.99 discounted from $79.99) to document and verify my participation and successful completion of the class.  I feel that these validation efforts will be the only way that completion of a MOOC will mean anything in the employment world, but because its a new idea it will take some time to flesh out.

Stay tuned for my next post on MOOCs after the course is over for more on the Signature Track.

Inexpensive Digital Signage with the Raspberry Pi

I recently purchased a Raspberry Pi after hearing about its potential over the past few months from friends and tech media.  The Raspberry Pi is a small, inexpensive (currently $35) computer that’s designed to be fiddled with.  In fact, it was designed so that parents could afford to give one to their child to learn about computer programming and technology engineering. You see, the device doesn’t come with any operating system, you have to install one from any number of sources; a Linux distribution, a home-brewed OS, or you can use the command line to give the device instructions.  Since I’m not a programmer, I went with the “easy” route of finding a pre-built operating system to install.

After looking around on the web for a simple first-project I stumbled upon Screenly, which is a program for the Pi that is used to manage a monitor/tv as a digital sign. This sparked my interest as I thought it might be fun to give it a shot and write a review of the project for my colleagues in the Higher Ed field, who are always looking for digital signage solutions on a shoestring budget.

Project kit list

1. Raspberry Pi & power cable
2. SD Card
3. Monitor/TV
4. Computer and internet connection
5. Ethernet cable
6. USB Keyboard


Once I accumulated all of the materials I followed the instructions on the Screenly site to download and install the operating system onto the SD Card, which serves as the hard drive of the Pi.  This part of the project required the most dedication as I needed learn a little about flashing a SD Card.  Because the Raspberry Pi is open source in philosophy, most of its users and documentation is oriented to those who operate in the Linux world.  Since I use Windows I had to find a few small programs that would allow me to unzip the Screenly software and then flash it onto the SD Card.

Once I had the software on the SD Card I plugged it into the Pi and hooked up all of the inputs/outputs (HDMI, ethernet, keyboard, and power).  Once the power was on the Pi started to boot up on my TV and after just about 2 minutes it made it into the start-up screen of Screenly which provides the URL to control the assets that will be displayed on the TV. There is a bit of command line interaction that has to be done, but it was pretty straightforward with the instructions.

Once up-and-running it was simply a matter of using the online interface to control the screen. For about $50, a screen, and 2 hours of computer time I had my very own digital sign.


I can imagine many uses for this simple setup on a college campus.  Menu boards for eateries, directional signage for conferences or meetings, advertising for events, looped video playback of news or sports highlights, and obviously branding. In my college days as the director of films for the  Union Board at Indiana University, I would have used it to play looped trailers for upcoming films.

The version of the software that I used was free and open source, however it did have a limit of one screen.  The makers of Screenly are working on a multi-screen management version that is due out soon. There is another software project our there for digital signage called Concerto that seems promising as well.