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Amphibians evolving into reptiles

September 7, 2022

Among the books I sort of remember from my childhood are the Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel. As I recall, one of these books was among the very first books I ever got to choose at a school book fair — pretty exciting stuff for a 1st grader. I also recall being haunted by the story “The Dream,” in which Toad performs on-stage while Frog slowly shrinks away to nothingness.

Upon rediscovering these books as a parent, I’ve been really impressed by Lobel’s use of simple text to suggest nuanced ideas and emotions. In particular, the story “Alone” from Days with Frog and Toad touches upon a problem common to people of all ages: if treasured friends or loved ones want to be alone for a while, does that mean they are growing apart from us?

Last year my Aunt Beverly gave my youngest son, Ben, a plush tortoise, which got me thinking about green-and-brown animals and ultimately inspired me to try to conjure up some of that Frog-and-Toad magic. The resulting tale, “Turtle and Tortoise,” included a bit of music, so I thought it would be nice to make a video, featuring illustrations from Ben’s cousins and the voices of his grandparents.

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Unsafe at any speed

August 22, 2022

Another academic quarter of teaching (Summer 2022) has just ended, meaning that it’s time for me to make another quixotic attempt to get back in shape, eat more healthily, get adequate sleep, etc. etc.

Often I like to kick off these attempts with a modest track workout like 4x400m, just to see what my new baseline is. At the moment, though, I’m so unfit that I don’t think my body can handle the track. Instead I’ve had to find excitement in the time-honored tradition of out-of-shape city dwellers everywhere: running for the bus.

The most dramatic version of this occurs when, trying to get home from Everett, I arrive at Everett Station just after the 512 bus leaves for Seattle. This sounds hopeless, but the 512 has to snake its way out of the station and go through a couple of traffic lights to reach its first stop, about four blocks away, on 34th and Broadway. Sometimes if I get to Everett Station within 30 seconds of the 512’s departure I can still beat it to 34th.

Such was the situation today. With some help from the lights, I managed to reach that Broadway block about even with the bus, flailing my left arm as it passed in the hope that it would stop for me. It did! I had made up the stagger!

My satisfaction lasted for about one second. “That was really stupid of you!” the driver greeted me. “This bus comes every 10 minutes!” (Not true; it’s every 16 minutes.) “You should have waited for the next one! All you did was slow me down and make me late!”

“I’m sorry,” I panted.

“No you’re not!” the driver replied. I fumbled with my bus pass. “The card reader isn’t working — just sit down!”

“Uh, yes — I am sorry,” I said, a bit more sharply.

“No you’re not!” the driver insisted again. “You were thinking only of yourself!”

I considered proposing that I might be a more competent judge of my own emotions than a public-transit employee who resents customers for daring to come aboard. Not wanting the road rage to escalate any further, though, I stayed silent.

Every comeback has its hiccups, right?

Maybe next time it would be safer to just go to the track.

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Not really reading

July 26, 2022

One of the ways in which I am utterly disappointing as a liberal-arts-college graduate, and as a voting citizen, is that, aside from the requirements of my job, I don’t read all that much.

If there’s a classic novel out there that you greatly admire, an absolute masterpiece of the genre, you can be certain that I not have read it. Ditto for non-fiction books. I don’t know why the caged bird sings, I don’t know how Stella got her groove back, and I don’t know for whom the bell tolls. I’m not at all proud of this; it’s just the way it has been for me for many years.

It was against this backdrop that I found myself waking up from a dream in which I had been profoundly moved by some sort of long-form reporting I had read on SlateSlate indeed being a main source of the online stuff that I do read (quickly, during breakfast and so forth).

The piece was called “The Source.” It was a meandering nonfictional account of rock-drilling technology and immigrant workers and a bunch of other stuff that wouldn’t have belonged together unless synthesized by a masterful writer, or, in this case, by a dream. I worked my way through it on a lunch break or something, reasonably interested, and then arrived at the final paragraph.

“In the hills of ______ County in Virginia,” the paragraph said (approximately), “there is a field of giant flat rocks. In the middle of one of the rocks is a hole, no more than a few millimeters in diameter. And through this tiny hole, every day, come millions upon millions of gallons of fresh, pure water, a godsend for all who live in the area, human and otherwise.” It had the vibe of a David Attenborough-style documentary, intending to highlight a particular example of the wonders of nature.

There were several other sentences too, perhaps tying this random tidbit to the rest of the piece. And there was an overhead photograph, which did indeed show an enormous rock with a tiny hole. For whatever reason, the hole was dry at the moment captured in the photo.

As I read this paragraph and stared at the photo, I found it incredibly profound and moving. I wept, then woke up, then marveled at how strongly I had been reacting just a moment ago.

Was I finally, reluctantly acknowledging the awesomeness of nature? (Such a tiny hole! So much water! So much life dependent on the water!) Was I crying out for the information and insights that I would surely gain if I would only make reading a priority in my life? Was I just feeling hot after a long summer day?

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Cycling Next to Sara Hall at the World Athletics Championships

July 19, 2022

My wife and I just spent a long weekend at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon. 

For most of the visit, I felt rather like a track-and-field tourist, interested in the sights and sounds, but not particularly invested in them. I saw a few old running friends, but felt no strong connections to the athletes competing. Many of the names familiar to me — Johnny Gregorek, Joe Klecker, Eilish McColgan — were familiar mainly as offspring of runners who were famous back in the ’80s and ’90s, when I was more attuned to the running scene.

And then this morning there was the women’s marathon. My wife was keen to see as much of the race as possible, so, like a few dozen other attendees, she and I rode our bicycles alongside the marathoners for several decent (2-mile) chunks of the race where this was feasible. It was a nice way to experience the race — a big change from standing in place while the runners stream by — but still felt a bit touristy. I could imagine a guide saying, “To the left of your vehicle you can see Sara Hall, the former American record holder in the half marathon, currently in 9th place…”

By mile 24, Sara, now the lead American, had advanced to 6th, about 20 seconds behind Angela Tanui of Kenya. As she turned onto Centennial Boulevard for the last time, about 50 of us mounted our bikes again and started the final cruise to the finish. Sara’s husband Ryan was among us, pulling over every minute to bark out exhortations (“16 SECONDS BACK! YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE!”), then weaving through the peloton to reach the next pull-over point.

The cyclists around me seemed to share Ryan’s sense of urgency. They abandoned their previous generic, polite cheers in favor of slightly unhinged shouts and shrieks. A chorus of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” reached a volume that might have alarmed the Kenyan runner just ahead.

To a casual fan, the hubbub might not have made much sense. Sara no longer had a shot at a medal, and there was no formal team competition to magnify the importance of exact times and places. Did it really matter whether or not she caught the 5th-place runner?

We in the peloton knew that, for Sara, it most certainly DID matter. When you are a serious competitor at a race that is important to you, you want to walk away from it knowing that you gave it everything that you had. To get to that point, you engage in all kinds of desperate negotiations with your body as it withers from the effort. Just one more mile and then you can have some Gatorade! Just half a mile and then you’ll get a nice downhill!

Often the final deal to be offered is, just try to catch one more person. Just this one last person.

Today, Angela Tanui was Sara Hall’s one last person, and we knew it. We knew it because we had made this plea many times before to our own faltering bodies in our own sub-world-class races.

We also knew that such contracts are between an athlete’s brain and their muscles, with spectators only getting a 1% stake in the deal, if that. But if Sara was going to keep working on her 99%, we were damn well going to do what we could with our 1%. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Half a mile to go. 5 more seconds to make up.

I’m not the most overtly patriotic guy, but I found myself joining in the chanting, solidarity and sentimentality finally overcoming shyness. U-S-A! U-S-A! It’s what everyone else was chanting, so it’s what I needed to chant too.

Sara pulled ahead and finished in 2:22:10, five seconds ahead of Tanui.

Had we made a difference? Had we willed her to 5th place?

Perhaps not, but we had been there with her, and it felt great.

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Addicted to pubs?

July 4, 2022

This blog has occasionally noted my ongoing efforts to improve my work-life balance. Here’s the latest.

Over the past two-plus years, I’ve made some progress in understanding and managing the problem, i.e., my tendency to prioritize academic work over all else. However, one aspect of the problem (or is it the entirety of the problem?) has been stubbornly resistant to correction: my tendency to obsessively focus on certain tasks, namely, creating/revising PowerPoint slides and publications (“pubs”).

As I’ve said in comparing myself (inappropriately) to Alexander Hamilton, part of the issue is that my work really does get better with revision. If I want my work to be as good as possible, I can revise it, and re-revise it, and so on. There’s a real trade-off between time invested and product quality, and knowing when to declare something “good enough” is legitimately challenging, not just to me, but to lots of people.

Today, though, I’m not thinking about the trade-off. I’m thinking about how it feels to be caught in the midst of one of those deep dives of writing and revision. I’m thinking about it because it happened to me again just yesterday. The rest of the family left for a vacation, and I had a full day to do anything I wanted to do, and what did I do? I started a draft of the paper “Assessing Molecules’ Polarity as a Gateway to Predicting Their Biological Properties.”

This will eventually be a nice little paper, suitable for a journal such as CourseSource, but it will not set the world on fire. It’s not even the more important of the two papers I’m supposed to be working on right now. And yet, once I started this no-particular-deadline project, I was totally immersed, unable to extricate myself until I simply got tired and had to go to bed.

Why? What was going on in my brain?

There was certainly some in-the-moment satisfaction of doing good work. I replace this word with that slightly more apt word; I move this sentence’s verb closer to its subject; I shorten this phrase from 8 words to 5 words without any loss of meaning; and on and on and on, slowly making the piece better.

It wasn’t purely pleasurable, though. If it was, I wouldn’t have needed to take frequent food and Twitter breaks. Writing a sentence, or making an OK sentence better, is hard work. So why couldn’t I just stop? Why couldn’t I just say to myself, “OK, that’s plenty of progress for today — let’s save the rest for later”?

I don’t know. It’s something I need to figure out.

One clue is that my PowerPoint obsession HAS gotten somewhat better lately. I don’t agonize over slides quite the way I used to; I can accept most of my slides as good enough while still fixing the ones that really need fixing. This is progress. But my writing process still feels as out-of-control as ever. Guess how long it took me to write this post?

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Parodies Lost

June 19, 2022

On any given weekend, my wife and I might exchange a few off-the-cuff lines of hypothetical song parodies. Some of them are fairly cute, at least within their particular context. Today, for example, when she offered to make me a chai tea, her spoken offer was followed by a bit of singing of “Sweet Chai of Mine” in the style of Guns ‘n Roses.

I asked her about this in the kitchen the other night while we were dividing a large package of ground beef into smaller portions and bagging them.

“Your raw parody ideas are roughly as good as mine,” I said. “Are you ever tempted to run with an idea and write a whole song?”

“No,” she responded firmly. “I don’t ever want to put more than 15 seconds into it.” She grabbed one of my beef bags and gave it a concerned look.

“Yeah, I guess that’s a difference between us,” I noted. “I’m pretty happy to review my draft lyrics over and over and over, knowing that patient editing will eventually yield good results. But that requires an almost obsessive attention to detail.”

She unsealed my beef bag, squeezed out a small residual air pocket, mashed the beef into a more evenly flattened shape, resealed the bag, and placed it into a perfectly matched empty space in the freezer. Then she looked up with a wry half-smile.

“Yeah,” she said, “that just doesn’t sound like me at all.”

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A PANDEMIC DREAM

June 11, 2022

Tonight my three-year-old ran home from the lake

Over city streets known to me but new to him.

How he made it home I’ll never know;

The body finds a way.

He surprised me in the kitchen,

Looking almost casual, almost proud,

Torso naked, dark-blue shorts halfway down his legs.

When he reached his mama in the hallway,

He fell to the floor sobbing

And stayed there a good long while,

Safe at home, but broken from the journey.

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Choose something

May 25, 2022

…And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

–Robert Frost, “Choose Something Like a Star”

The shootings at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas left me unsteady today.

For reasons that I do not understand, it was helpful, for a few minutes, to give myself over to Randall Thompson’s setting of “Choose Something Like a Star,” commissioned for the bicentennial of a Massachusetts town, and which I had once sung in choir.

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A&P rant, part 5!

May 20, 2022

In 2019, I gave you the following:

This week the HAPS listserv set me off again. Below is my latest message to that group.

* * * * *

Hello Shobnom — 

Your question seems to be about managing students’ perception that there’s too much material to cover, and many of the responses you have gotten so far are about how to help students get on board. To round out the range of viewpoints expressed, here’s mine. Please note that (A) I am speaking only for myself and (B) I am addressing what I see as general trends in the teaching of A&P, without meaning to throw shade on any particular person or group. 

I claim that when A&P students say that we’re asking them to learn too many things, they often are RIGHT! 

In biology and K-16 science education as a whole, there has been a strong movement toward emphasizing greater depth of understanding and worrying much less about breadth of content coverage. For example:  

Vision & Change

Next-Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

the core concepts of physiology

classifying biology questions with Bloom’s taxonomy

* etc.

Nonetheless, many A&P folks continue to cling to their mile-long lists of terms and learning objectives, stating or implying that the length of the lists indicates the rigor of the course, and/or that this is simply how it has to be because their textbook/course chair/department/HAPS says so.

My own advice would be, if your students consistently tell you that there’s way too much to learn — that, by the time they get to the digestive system, they’ve forgotten the musculoskeletal stuff because there’s no time to review — that, faced with thousands of names to memorize, they have no time or energy for critical thinking or integration — you should consider listening to them!

Think really hard about what you really want your students to be able to do, say 1-2 years after completing the course. What would that long-term retention and success really look like? Is your primary goal that, in 1-2 years, they’ll still be able to name all those bones and muscles and nerves, or do you have other aspirations for them? 

Consider what others have identified as overarching course themes; compile your own list of what you really really really want your students to be able to (still) do in 1-2 years; run it by your local experts/authority figures; and then plan your teaching accordingly. 

Good luck,

Greg

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Post-election links

November 4, 2020

I was contemplating writing a post called “Which is worse — lying or narcissism?” But I don’t have the time or energy or focus to do that, so instead I’ll just link to my two favorite Slate writers, Dahlia Lithwick and Lili Loofbourow, who, as usual, have expressed themselves with the perfect combination of facts and logic and emotion.

If you were to infer from these links that I feel incredulous, angry, and sad, you’d be right.

It is one thing for 46% of voters to say — as they did in 2016 — “I don’t think the current political system is working, so I’ll give this unorthodox new guy a try.” (Don’t get me wrong, that was horrifying in light of what the unorthodox new guy represented, but I could understand the desire to shake things up.) It is quite another thing for a similar percentage of voters to witness four years of epic presidential cruelty, lying, mismanagement, and corruption, and to conclude, “This hasn’t been so bad — more of this, please.”