Improvised sports, #3: Shooting Ballery

August 16, 2014

Most basketball-related games — Horse, Pig, and Around the World, for example — emphasize shooting. So how can a hoops-minded parent get his kid to practice the less glamorous but equally important skill of passing?

Here’s one approach: challenge the kid to hit strategically placed cones with his passes.

Shooting Ballery 1

Shooting Ballery 2

[Previous improvised sports: Sock-Drawer Basketball and Bomb-Pong.]


Best Guns N’ Roses reference I’ve ever seen on a college’s home page

August 14, 2014

From Bates Technical College in Tacoma, Washington….



Ultrarunners need to stop stigmatizing DNFs

August 6, 2014

Many ultramarathon runners talk fondly of the “ultrarunning community,” a diverse cohort of individuals united in our enjoyment of running absurdly long distances. We talk with each other, cheer for each other, and console each other, as kindred spirits do. We’re like a big, happy family with an abundance of eccentric, aerobic aunts and uncles.

But there’s at least one issue that brings out our petty, mean-spirited side: dropping out of races. We feel compelled to judge those whose performance is recorded as Did Not Finish (DNF), unless the DNF is attributed to a medical emergency or simply running out of time.

A perfect example is provided by Andy Jones-Wilkins. AJW is widely and perhaps rightly considered an inspiring ambassador for the sport of ultrarunning. I’ve met him; he’s a nice guy. But he once wrote a long blog post making insinuations about 5 elite runners (Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka, Geoff Roes, Dave Mackey, Dave James) who had the gall to drop out of races.

I respect and admire Scott Jurek as I am sure most of the readers of this blog do. However, when he simply stepped off the trail at Devil’s Thumb this year [2009] a little of that respect drifted away. I would have thought the 7-time winner of WS would have gone a little further, dug a little deeper, tried a little harder, and given a little more before cutting off his wristband. Not to be. He dropped.

In the comments, I called out AJW on his judgmentalism:

Losing respect for someone based on a DNF without even knowing (or caring about) the particulars of the situation is just plain silly. AJW, you (and others) make the unfortunate assumption that everyone else should have the same racing goals and values as you (e.g., “dropping out is almost always wrong”). Anton explained in great detail on his blog why he dropped out of Leadville, and if all you can muster in rebuttal is to cite the example of Matt Carpenter, well, that’s exactly the point I’m making. Anton is not Matt Carpenter and should not be expected to behave identically because he has his own goals and his own values.

AJW responded:

I did not intend to pass judgement on Anton for dropping. By all accounts he did the right thing and I know he spent considerable time and energy trying to continue his race…. And, just to be clear, I was not judging Geoff, Dave, Dave or Scott either. I know they all had very good reasons to dnf (stomach, heat, injury, etc…) I was simply saying that, as an observer of the sport and a lover of the sport, I was disappointed that they dnf’d and I was wishing that they hadn’t.

To which I said:

When you say you’re not judging these folks, I’m afraid I don’t quite buy it. “A little of that respect [for Jurek] drifted away” when he dropped out at WS? If you lost respect for him, how can you claim that you’re not judging him? Likewise, regarding Roes at Miwok, “a struggle to the finish and an 8th or 9th place finish would have spoken volumes.” You mean that struggling to the finish would have indicated great things about his character; the obvious implication is that dropping out indicates less-than-great things about his character…. You are indeed judging these people, whether or not you can admit it.

So why am I rehashing a four-year-old argument, aside from being a prisoner of my own ultra-stubbornness and ultra-persistence? Well, irunfar.com (home of a weekly column by AJW, by the way) just posted two pieces on DNFs: Your Ultra-Training Bag Of Tricks: Handling The Dreaded DNF (by Ian Torrence) and To Finish, Or Not (by Jessica Hamel). Both are interesting and well-written, yet both propagate the notion that a DNF is something to be avoided at all costs.

Torrence’s post begins,

Did. Not. Finish. They’re an ultrarunner’s three least-favorite words.

This may well be true. But couldn’t our three least favorite words be … oh, I don’t know … “thunder and lightning”? “Eggplant for dinner”? Sure, dropping out is often a major disappointment, but it’s not always the worst thing that happens at a race.

Hamel writes,

Elite runners are often scrutinized for their decision to DNF, especially when it comes at a time when they appear to be in a decent physical condition. These moments often result in “he/she could’ve walked into the finish” responses from the crowd. If the back of the packers can finish in over double the time and in worse condition, then why can’t elites push through their low moments to avoid a DNF?

The attitude summarized by Hamel is not necessarily her own, but it is prevalent. So I will answer the rhetorical question of why. They can no longer reach their goal of setting a PR. They’re not having fun anymore. They’re saving themselves for another race. They’re saving themselves for a tough upcoming week at the office. There are a million reasons, none requiring validation by a jury of peers. With few exceptions, ultrarunning is not a team sport, and ultrarunners are not professional athletes. The 99% of us who are hobbyists should be free to pursue our hobby in whatever manner gives us the most fulfillment and pleasure. So: can we as a community stop assuming that DNFs are, in general, tragedies of the highest order? Can we as individuals stop feeling so defensive about our decisions to drop out?

I hope so.


Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: a debate with my 7-year-old

August 1, 2014

tire store

“What is that place?” asked my son, pointing to a tan building at the corner of North 80th Street and Aurora Avenue North.

“They sell tires,” I said.

“Are they good?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never bought tires there.”

“But you do THINK they’re good?”

“I really don’t know, Phil.”

“If you had to guess, what would your guess be?”

“Well, they spelled the word ‘tires’ wrong, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.”

“How did they spell it?”

“T-I-R-S. They left out the E.”

“But you could still read it, right?”

Yes, I could. It was a fair point.



More juxtapositions

July 18, 2014

I have a soft spot for oddly juxtaposed teaching materials, e.g., a handout covering both lab-grown meat and the structure of the song “Hound Dog.”

Here are some strange bedfellows that appeared in animal physiology this spring and summer.

Above: two ways to convey the idea that most sodium (chemical symbol Na) is outside cells rather than inside.

Above: Clostridium botulinum toxin, an inhibitor of the salt glands of marine birds … and the facial muscles of wealthy humans.

Above: In retrospect, this illustration of the importance of blood pressure regulation may have been too oblique.


The neurobiology of celebrity worship

July 8, 2014

The 5th edition of Biological Science by Scott Freeman et al. includes the following figure.
The Jennifer Aniston neuron.

Summarizing the study (R.Q. Quiroga et al., Nature 435: 1102-7, 2005) on which this figure was based, the textbook says, “Through experience, at least one of this patient’s neurons became singularly devoted to the concept of Jennifer Aniston.”

With this example, the textbook authors raise the issue of whether memories are stored in specific neurons rather than in distributed networks.

Are they are also implying that we collectively devote too many neurons to Jennifer Aniston and not enough to, say, Rita Levi-Montalcini?


Dear Mr. DJ…

June 15, 2014

First of all, I want you to know how lucky I feel to have you DJing my wedding. What a relief it is to know that this critical aspect of the event will be in such good hands! You know music, you know me and Leila, and you know how to read crowds, so you’ll do a terrific job. We trust you completely.

Nevertheless, since you’ve asked for guidance on what I want to hear at the reception, the following thoughts may be helpful.

For starters, can we please avoid “I Will Survive”? Yes, it gets people dancing, but it’s basically a tale of stalker-ish behavior — not great source material for this particular occasion. Ditto for “Every Breath You Take” (The Police) and “Possession” (Sarah McLachlan). Actually, beyond stalker songs per se, let’s just veto all songs about ill-advised romances. Even ones like “Stacy’s Mom,” in which the relationship is mostly hypothetical. That still leaves us with plenty of good, wholesome songs, right?

Speaking of wholesome: since many family members of varying ages and tastes will be present, we probably shouldn’t use music that is fixated on specific body parts (“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” comes to mind), the physical act of making love (“Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood), or one-night stands (“December, 1963 [Oh What A Night]“). Likewise, I have no interest in tracks that condone excessive drinking (“Margaritaville”), drug use (“Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35″), reckless driving (“Fun Fun Fun”), belligerence (“Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting”), lying (“Better Man”), larceny (“Been Caught Stealing”), egotism (“Big Time”), or jingoism (“God Bless the USA”). Or carelessness with baked goods (“MacArthur Park”).

Not everyone who will be at the wedding is married or in a relationship, so we should avoid songs about the hardships of being single. But if a song sounds too lovey-dovey, that gets uncomfortable as well. I guess what I’m saying is that you should play realistic love songs — stuff like “Love The One You’re With.” Well, not that one, because it seems to advocate “settling,” and this marriage is NOT an example of that. But you get the idea, don’t you?

I hope it goes without saying that any song over five minutes long (“American Pie,” “Stairway To Heaven”) is tedious and unwanted. This is a wedding reception, not a Grateful Dead show.

We’ll probably need some mellow tunes for the cocktail hour, but let’s not use Dar Williams. She’s an alum of Wesleyan, and, as you know, Leila and I went to Williams — Wesleyan’s rival in the Little Three. So we really want to feature Williams artists if at all possible — for instance, Fountains of Wayne, co-founded by Chris Collingwood ’89 and Adam Schlesinger ’89. Just don’t play their biggest hit, “Stacy’s Mom” (see above).

Some songs, while safe according to the above criteria, are just too sad for a wedding. Any Beatles song, for example, will remind people of John Lennon’s tragic demise. So please do not feature anyone who died prematurely. (This includes Mozart, by the way.)

I realize that these restrictions are a lot to keep track of. Would it be easier if I just provided a list of songs that you CAN play? You know, totally uncontroversial material like, say, “99 Luftballons.” Oh, wait a minute — the accidental release of the titular balloons supposedly causes a war or something. I’m not sure, because the lyrics are in German, but just to be safe, let’s skip that one too.

Tell you what — let me think about this a bit more and get back to you.


Random thoughts while procrastinating, #2057

May 31, 2014

Whenever I hear “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” or “Knock Three Times,” I chafe at the preposterous scenarios therein. How can Tony Orlando & Dawn have not one but TWO #1 hits celebrating convoluted communication strategies? Why can’t their characters just use words?

That thought is often followed by another one, though: given the existence of these two atrocious nonverbal-communication songs, wouldn’t it be nice if TO&D had a third one, just to complete the set?

I’m imagining something like, “If You Can’t Stay Away, Make Me A Soufflé; Otherwise, Pasta Is Fine.”


Mumbling towards clarity

May 13, 2014

Here’s a lesson that faculty like me need to re-learn every so often: our assignments aren’t nearly as clear to our students as they are to us.

My biology writing course (ENGL 299C at UW) currently requires the paper described below. It’s a modification of a previous assignment, so I’ve had a chance to polish it. Feel free to admire its elegance for a moment.

If I had passed out this assignment in class, then immediately asked the students if they had questions, I probably would have gotten few to no inquiries, and would have congratulated myself on another masterpiece of lucidity.

Instead, I made the students submit questions about the assignment along with their first draft. Their responses, when solicited in THIS way, suggested danger lurking around every turn of phrase! Would they as reviewers know the identity of the authors? Should the review be written to the authors, or the editors of the journal? If several different methods are used, what constitutes an “experimental strategy”? What’s the difference between evidence and data? If supplementary figures are cited in the references section, should they be considered “previous literature”?

We spent about 35 minutes of class time discussing these excellent questions and many others.

If we want useful feedback from students, we need to ask for it in the right way, after they’ve had a chance to reflect on an issue and are motivated to talk about it.

Paper 2: journal-like peer review (final version)

This “paper” will be a peer review of the article you’ve been reading (Wahl et al. 2013 or Vlad et al. 2014). For this assignment, we will imagine that the Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. manuscript has just been submitted to a journal, and that you have been asked to review it for the journal.

Most review forms ask reviewers to summarize and assess a paper’s hypothesis, the claims and evidence, use of previous literature, and writing effectiveness. You will address all of these issues in the discrete sections listed below. You should keep these discrete in your submission, rather than combining them into a single narrative. As with a real review, your audience is the journal’s editors and the manuscript’s authors. However, note that journal editors are in charge of many articles on diverse topics, and that English is not the native language of many editors and authors; thus, your writing should be clear and straightforward even in this context. Your tone should be somewhat formal, although you can still write from the perspective of a reader (“I was confused by…”) rather than making pompous pronouncements (“This was confusing…”).


Please write 150 to 300 words (1 to 2 paragraphs) that address the following questions.

What is the central hypothesis of this study? (Be as specific as possible. Use one or more direct quotes from the paper to assess whether it is defined clearly.)How was this hypothesis tested in this study? (What was the experimental strategy? What predictions does the hypothesis make?)


Identify the 2 to 4 most important conclusions of this study, and write a paragraph (150 to 300 words) about each. How does each relate to the central hypothesis? What is the evidence on which each is based, and how strong is this evidence? Consider the appropriateness of the organisms chosen, the measurements made, and the data reported. What alternative or additional measurements might have strengthened the evidence further?


Among the sources cited by Wahl et al. or Vlad et al., identify 2 that are especially important. For each one, directly quote (with quotation marks) what Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. say about this source, then rephrase this in your own words to demonstrate your understanding. Briefly state how this source adds to Wahl et al. or Vlad et al.’s paper. Go to the source itself (you should have full-text access to it) and compare it to what Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. say about it. What specific parts of the source (figure/table number, etc.) correspond to Wahl et al. or Vlad et al.’s claims about it? Did Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. encapsulate the source accurately? Briefly explain.


Identify one paragraph in Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. — not the abstract or first or last paragraph — that you think would benefit from rewriting. Use at least 2 concepts from ENGL 299C (reader expectations, omission of needless words, transitions/pointing words, reverse-outlining) to explain the problems that you see. Rewrite the paragraph and briefly explain how your version addresses these problems.


Best DNF ever

April 15, 2014

About 46 miles into Saturday’s Mad City 100K, I slowed to a walk.

For a minute or two, walking felt AWESOME! But then even that became difficult, and my race was over. I got a ride from the arboretum aid station to the start/finish area, reported my status to the race director, and took shelter in a friend’s vehicle.

It was a disappointing outcome, to be sure, but it felt different than my past racing failures (e.g., Mad City 2008). This time I was more ready to accept the result, less worried about whether it was “fair” or avoidable. I began the race aware that it would be hard to reach my very specific goal of breaking 7:20; I took my shot; and I came up short. It’s a shame, but it’s no Greek tragedy.

Thanks to everyone who helped me get to this point. And congratulations to the Mad City finishers, especially women’s winner Pam Smith and the five (!) men (Zach Bitter, Joe Binder, Nick Accardo, Jim Sweeney, Kevin Grabowski) who did go under 7:20.


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