Those who can improvise, do; those who cannot, teach

April 19, 2018

This blog occasionally alludes to my fondness for improv comedy.

It’s mostly wrong to think of a classroom lecture as a “show,” and I mostly avoid pre-planned jokes. Every so often, though, a classroom discussion will take a spontaneous turn toward the delightfully bizarre.

Earlier this week, I was trying to explain how post-synaptic neurons “decide” whether to conduct action potentials based on the aggregated input of multiple pre-synaptic neurons, some excitatory and some inhibitory. In the heat of the moment, I attempted an unplanned analogy.

“It’s like, you’re trying to decide whether to go out with this guy,” I began. “One friend is whispering in your ear that you should stay away from him — and another friend is whispering in your other ear that you should totally date him!”

“But,” a student pressed, “Why are these ‘friends’ saying different things?”

“Well…” I paused. The analogy was quite possibly outliving its usefulness, but I forged on. “It’s because these friends heard different things from THEIR friends! Somebody told your first friend, ‘Hey, I saw that guy SMOKING CRACK the other day! He’s bad news!’ And somebody else told your second friend, ‘That guy is the best. I just saw him SAVE A PUPPY!'”

It wasn’t necessarily a moment of great teaching, or great comedy, or great anything. But, at a minimum, it was fun to see what my subconscious came up with when pressed for traits that make men desirable or undesirable as romantic prospects.

In invoking puppies, I reminded myself of another memorable moment, four years earlier. A student was trying to imagine a research study that wouldn’t get funded due to ethical concerns and/or bad publicity. “No government agency would want to be known as the office that supported a study on…” She sputtered for a second while her mental search engine churned. “…A study on, say, kicking puppies.”

A study on kicking puppies? Had I heard that right? Yes, she said. She seemed embarrassed, but I cracked up. Kicking puppies is not funny, but the idea of a committee debating the merits and risks of puppy-kicking research? Brilliant!

I congratulated the student on her vivid example, and then reluctantly returned to the day’s agenda.


Don’t assume that Paul Ryan is lying about his family

April 12, 2018

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) has decided not to run for reelection. Some liberals are reacting very smugly. For example, Slate’s Will Saletan (whom I generally consider to be a reasonable journalist) notes that Ryan claims to want to spend more time with his children, then dismisses this as obviously fictitious:

It’s great that Ryan wants to be with his kids. But they’re teenagers now. Having chosen to spend 16 years in Congress while they were small, he asks us to believe that he has suddenly decided they need him in a way that requires him to retire. And he denies that this year’s inauspicious polls, which have driven dozens of other Republicans to leave Congress, played any role in his decision.

Saletan is not necessarily wrong, but his speculation is unseemly in multiple ways.

First of all, he isn’t paraphrasing Ryan very well. What Ryan actually said was, “My kids aren’t getting any younger. And if I stay, they’re only going to know me as a weekend dad. And that’s just something I consciously can’t do.” Does this mean his kids NEED him? Maybe. Or maybe HE just WANTS to know THEM better, before they’re gone for good. We can’t really tell.

Second, it certainly is possible that one or more of his children really DO need him. Some teens sail through the teenage years essentially independently of their parents; others require more support than ever as they navigate the minefields of hormones, acne, bullying, etc. We should not assume that Ryan’s kids don’t need or want much parental oversight simply because they’re teenagers.

Third, note the unnecessary sarcasm of “suddenly decided they need him in a way that requires him to retire.” Ryan did NOT say, “The situation is so dire that I have no choice but to retire.” Maybe he just weighed his options and picked the one that was best for his family. But what if one of his kids truly IS in a crisis situation (e.g., suicidal thoughts) and this WAS a sudden decision?

Fourth, “having chosen to spend 16 years in Congress while they were small” is too snide and judgmental for my taste. Maybe Ryan skypes with his kids daily, or exchanges lots of emails with them. Who knows what innumerable decisions he and his wife have made about child-rearing over the years, and how well they have lived up to their goals? Let’s not assume he’s been a bad dad just because he chose to be a Congressman.

So, sure, “I want to spend more time with my family” might be a cover for other motives. But to simply assume this, without allowing for the possibility that Ryan actually cares about his children, is cynical and mean.


Great moments in peer observation, #13

January 11, 2018

Today I was watching a colleague teach in a laboratory room whose equipment includes three ancient but still-functional Singer Caramate Slide Projectors.   We use these relics of the 1960s (?), topped with old-fashioned carousels, for viewing slides of biological tissues.

As the lab progressed, it occurred to me that my colleague has a really nice voice: deep, calm, confident, and dryly humorous, with a hint of sentimentality.  It reminded me of a voice I had once heard on TV.

“Has anyone ever told you,” I asked during a break in the action, “that you sound like Don Draper?”

“No,” he said. Then, without missing a beat: “But just wait ’til you hear me talk about the carousels!” And, after a pause: “‘A place … where we know we are loved.'”



Previewing my first lab at my new job: an internal monologue

January 5, 2018

OK, in this part the students will add a drop of sheep blood to different solutions to see whether/how those solutions affect the shape of the red blood cells.


Is this microscope bad?

No, I can’t see any cells under this other microscope, either.

Has my microscope technique deteriorated so badly that I can no longer find blood cells in blood?

Let’s try a pre-prepared slide.

OK, I can see THESE cells just fine.  So what the hell is the problem with my newly made slides?  Is the saline diluting the cells too much, or something?  Let me try a drop of pure blood.

Good grief. I CANNOT FIND ANY FRIGGIN’ BLOOD CELLS IN A DROP OF PURE BLOOD.  I’m sorry, Everett — your new physiology instructor cannot, at a microscopic level, tell the difference between blood and water. That’s just too much to ask, apparently.

Nothing else to do but put the blood back in the fridge and ask for help on Monday….

Wait a minute. Here’s another bottle of sheep blood.  Why does it look so different from the one I was using — so much brighter?  And it hasn’t been opened yet….

Maybe I should try this bottle.

Hey, THIS blood has actual cells in it!  Lots of them!

And they shrink when put in hypertonic saline!

Maybe I am sort of qualified to teach this lab after all.

And now, for my next act, I will weigh this dialysis sac all by myself.


Mom and Sam

December 31, 2017

Saying goodbye at the Albany airport on December 26th.






Humor as a teaching tool

December 24, 2017

Back at in Rutland, Vermont this week for Christmas vacation, I had the pleasure of visiting one of my old Rutland High School teachers, Mr. Peterson.

My wife, with her usual incisiveness, asked me whether there were any aspects of my teaching style that I could attribute to Mr. Peterson’s influence.

It’s a hard question, since my teaching style is derived from that of many other instructors as well as my own personality and abilities. But my best guess is that Mr. Peterson, more than any other teacher I’ve had before or since, showed me how humor could be used to enhance students’ engagement and learning.

A lot of teachers have a funny side to them, and sprinkle witty asides into their lectures. Mr. Peterson did this. But his humor was often an integral part of the learning experience, rather than a mere tangent. In one session of his “Nature of Man” class, he played the role of a future archaeologist who exhumed the remains of the 20th-century USA (which he pronounced “OOH-sah”) and reached all sorts of wildly inaccurate conclusions about its culture. As I recall, his analysis concluded triumphantly that the religion of the USA people must have centered around the toilets found in every home. In the context of that class, it was a hilarious moment, but the hilarity underscored the key take-away of the lesson, i.e., that cultural artifacts may be interpreted in ways that are logical and internally consistent, yet very, very wrong.

Mr. Peterson’s exams often included multiple-choice questions in which one answer choice was a joke. The joke answers can be seen as tiny gifts to students — easy-to-eliminate choices that also provided a chuckle. But I suspect that Mr. Peterson had in mind a larger message too — something along the lines of, “This test is not a perfect assessment of your ability to apply this material in the real world, so don’t take it TOO seriously.” And that message is an important one for GPA-focused students (like, say, me 27 years ago). Grades are important, but they shouldn’t be considered the be-all and end-all.

To this day, thanks in part to Mr. Peterson’s example, I aim to use humor in a way that contributes to (rather than distracts from) my students’ learning.

Here are a couple of favorite examples from the fall, when I was student teaching at St. John Catholic School.

In 6th grade, we emphasized the differences between viruses and bacteria, which inspired this cartoon (included on a quiz).
viruses versus bacteria

For the 8th graders, my cell biology test included this question about the pioneering genetic work of Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel:

9. A legitimate concern about Gregor Mendel’s work was that
a. As a monk, he explained most of his findings by saying, “That’s just the way God wants it.”
b. He only studied pea plants, which no one cares about.
c. He studied traits that were controlled by many genes and thus could not be explained well with the methods available at the time.
d. His assistants’ pollination methods were sloppy and resulted in pollen being sprayed everywhere, with fertilization occurring willy-nilly.
e. His experimental data matched theoretical ratios even more closely than they should have.

(Correct answer: E.) I’d like to think that Mr. Peterson — and some of my old science teachers, such as Mr. Welch and Dr. D — would have appreciated that one.


The present of the future

December 19, 2017

This is quite possibly the coolest gift I’ve ever received.

What you’re seeing and hearing in that video is a Fisher-Price Music Box-Record Player from the 1970s … playing a custom 3D-printed toy record of a song I wrote about the birth of my younger son.

My wife used a free software program to create a music-box-style arrangement of the song and create a SCAD file. Then she used a different free program, OpenSCAD, to create an STL file that could be 3D-printed.

And how did she know how to do all this? She followed the directions in a hobbyist’s blog post, of course.



An earnest attempt to persuade Trump supporters that Trump is dishonest

December 14, 2017

To me, it seems obvious that Donald Trump says whatever he WANTS to be true, rather than what IS true.

Lots of Americans agree with me, but lots don’t. One recent poll says that 36% of Americans do consider him honest.

Is there any way I can convince some part of the 36% that this guy is not worthy of their trust? I feel compelled to take my best shot.

First of all, here’s what I’m NOT going to do. I’m not going to cite some favorite examples (or a comprehensive list) of Trump saying incorrect things, coupled with links to credible sources saying the opposite. I don’t think this “fact-checking” approach is convincing to most Trump supporters. They may think, with some justification, “Everybody twists the facts. Who’s to say that Trump’s lies are any worse than those told by Hillary Clinton, or by Obama?”

That question has an answer, to be sure, but the answer is not completely straightforward. Rating the frequency and severity of lies can be tricky and subjective.

Instead, I want to offer a simpler argument based on three premises that I think most people can accept.

Here are the three premises:

(1) Everybody says things that are wrong.

(2) People of integrity admit their mistakes.

(3) If Trump were to admit a mistake, it would be well-covered by the media.

Anyone who follows the news regularly knows that the media essentially never post stories about Trump admitting mistakes. Therefore it’s safe to say that Trump essentially never does this. And since everybody is wrong sometimes (premise #1), it’s equally safe to say that Trump is making mistakes but not admitting them.

So, Trump supporters, do you really want to trust a guy who never admits to being wrong about anything?

To me, the overall behavior pattern is far more sinister than any individual fib. Once again, we all get things wrong, but our character is revealed by our handling of these flubs.

Some Trump sympathizers will say, “Well, the media are just as bad because they are biased in their coverage of Trump!”

To that, I have two responses.

(1) Yes, OF COURSE the media are biased! How can you blame them? Who among us would not be “biased” against someone who treats us as an enemy to be maligned and mocked at every opportunity?

(2) Biased or not, the media DO admit their mistakes ALL THE TIME. All decent newspapers have standard, well-established mechanisms for reporting and correcting their errors (e.g., at the bottom of online articles).

If you’re still unsure whom to believe in Trump’s feud with the media, I urge you — I beg you — to trust the side that has the integrity to own their errors.

* * * * * * *

UPDATE: I had an interesting exchange about this on Facebook with my friend Jeremie Perry. I am posting that exchange here with his permission.



New Do Interview

December 8, 2017

Five years ago, I interviewed fellow Seattlite Do Peterson on my “Sing About Science” blog. Now I’ve interviewed him in conjunction with the release of his next CD, Ideation. Here is the start of the interview.

GC: Do, your new album is called IDEATION. Help us understand this title.

DP: Yes, the album is called IDEATION. This title comes from my struggle this year to recover from mental illness with suicidal ideation. IDEATION does not just apply to bad thoughts though. The word also has broader meaning: a synthesis of ideas. My process of healing has involved recognizing and reworking unhealthy ideas about success, family, love and friendship. IDEATION speaks to the journey of synthesizing memories and experiences into healthier ideas. So in this way IDEATION alludes to both disease and remedy. The songs in IDEATION were inspired by both, starting from emotional darkness, illness, despair and shame, progressing through helpful but imperfect therapies, and ending with discovery of light, belonging, love, resiliency, and healthier scaffolding to step forward.

Do’s website, dopeterson.com, has the rest of the interview.


On gentleness

November 26, 2017

If you can, be kind;
If not, at least be gentle.
Both are goals to keep in mind,
But only one is fundamental.

Personally, I think of kindness as positive support of others, and gentleness as an avoidance of negative words and actions.

On my good days, I try to be kind. When I am sleep-deprived and/or stressed out, I ask myself only to be gentle. This mindset is obviously not the stuff of sainthood, but it’s a way to get through the day.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I am feeling thankful for, among other things, a wife who is especially gentle, and a son who has made excellent progress in this area. (I’m referring to the 11-year-old, not the 10-month-old, who mostly ignores our frequent exhortations to “Be gentle!”)

Even gentleness can be irksome sometimes. For many years, I sort of turned up my nose at “Run gently out there,” the sign-off of Whidbey Island runner John Morelock in his many Internet posts and columns for UltraRunning magazine.

For me, running is first and foremost about self-improvement and competition rather than the community and the environment. I mostly aspire to run swiftly, boldly, determinedly, etc. “Gently” is not among my top 10 running-related adverbs.

Presumably, though, John wanted people to be gentle (when running) more or less in the way that I want to be gentle (when not running). In any case, if there was an appropriate time to debate his diction, that time has passed. John died of abdominal cancer on February 5th.

Rest gently, John Morelock.