Your face or mine?

March 27, 2023

Thanks to some recent rom-com research by my wife’s friend Mandy, we now know who should portray me in a hypothetical big-budget movie.

I vaguely remember Ashton Kutcher as the hunky young actor who dated and married the much older Demi Moore back in the 2000s. These days, if the new movie Your Place or Mine is any indication, he’s a middle-aged guy who looks a lot like me, only with better hair and better clothes.


Breaking: college professor discovers books

March 19, 2023

I have previously lamented my general inability to fit book-reading into my life.

Well, guess what — I’m currently reading an actual book, and I’m learning a lot from it!

The book is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011). It’s about how people make decisions, usually relying on our brain’s fast, intuitive “System 1” while occasionally consulting our slower, more deliberative “System 2.”

Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics for demonstrating that humans are often less rational than economists have assumed. He has plenty to teach us about decision-making. However, my biggest “Aha!” moment did not concern the clever psychology experiments summarized throughout the book, but rather the meaning of the word “shotgun.”

Here is the key passage (from Chapter 8, “How Judgments Happen”): “The control over intended computations is far from precise: we often compute much more than we need or want. I call this excess computation the mental shotgun. It is impossible to aim at a single point with a shotgun because it shoots pellets that scatter, and it seems almost equally difficult for System 1 not to do more than System 2 charges it to do.”

The bit about shotguns was meant only as a quick reminder of how they work, but for me, that was quite a revelation in and of itself. “Wait a minute!!!!” screamed my brain. “You mean to tell me that shotguns don’t fire bullets!?!?” I was so stunned that, as a sanity check, I called my dad (who knows about firearms, like most adults, especially in a state like Vermont, which has a relatively large population of hunters).

I realized that, for many years, I had held some contradictory ideas in my head without ever noticing the contradictions. On the one hand, I was vaguely aware of “shot” as being a bunch of little pellets of lead or something — an idea consistent with my recollection of the Dick Cheney hunting accident and my understanding of the term “buckshot.” On the other hand, I had never considered what one might call a gun that shoots shot, and instead had assumed that shotguns shoot bullets, like revolvers, which I pictured as being flatter than shotguns but also somehow synonymous with shotguns.

It was satisfying to (finally, at age 49) resolve these paradoxes in part because my understanding of a bunch of shotgun-related metaphors was instantly enriched. Within my own field of biology, for example, there’s shotgun sequencing, in which chromosomes are blasted apart into many small pieces. Twenty years after the human genome was sequenced with this game-changing technique, the name suddenly makes much more sense.

So, in conclusion: these things known as “books” are really something! Apparently they’re just chock-full of useful information! You all should check ’em out sometime.


A good hard look at pi

March 18, 2023

Like many math-positive families, we celebrated Pi Day (March 14, or 3-14) by eating pie and listening to a pi song — not the Kate Bush one or the Larry Lesser one, but this 2005 masterpiece from comedy rock group Hard ‘n Phirm.

Like certain other songs by this group — “The Carbon Cycle,” “El Corazon,” “Holes,” “Trace Elements” — this one sort of winks at STEM education; its chorus is a recitation of the first few dozen digits of pi.

My six-year-old, Sam, was captivated by the music video’s combination of wizards with wands, kids, a robot, and a number that (like Buzz Lightyear) goes to infinity. And so when it came time to make a birthday card for a friend’s party this weekend, Sam decided that the card should feature the digits of pi . . . and not necessarily anything else. But when I gently suggested that he precede the already-written digits with the line “Happy Birthday — Have Some Pi,” he was agreeable to that.


They Might Be Thieves

January 5, 2023

I don’t know what it’s like to have dementia, thank goodness, but I imagine it to feel similar to how I felt between 5:15pm and 7:15pm today.

4:15pm: I open an envelope from my wife’s dear old college roommate, revealing an eight-page letter hand-written over a period of several weeks. Not having the time to read the letter right then, I set it on the kitchen counter next to the envelope, some other mail, and my laptop.

5:15pm: My wife arrives home and sees the envelope. “Where’s the letter?” she asks. I have no idea. “IT WAS RIGHT THERE!” is all I can say. The remaining mail, recycling bin, garbage can, etc. are all searched and re-searched to no avail.

6:15pm: After dinner, when I get my laptop off the kitchen counter, I discover that my mouse is missing too. Is this a clue? Or is it just the universe mocking me?

7:15pm: The mouse is discovered inside one of the 4-year-old’s toy recycling trucks. The remaining recycling trucks are searched for the letter without success, but the letter is then discovered beneath a pile of the kids’ books in the living room.

In honor of the eventual resolution of this mystery, here’s one of my favorite They Might Be Giants songs — a fierce, defiant ode to maintaining one’s grip on reality.



January 1, 2023

It has been a hard autumn on the parenting front. While the 16-year-old remains easygoing and helpful, the 4-year-old and 5-year-old seem to push everyone’s buttons daily, if not hourly.

The tykes’ capacity for sowing frustration was especially evident to me during the week before Christmas, when I was off of work and spending more time at home than usual. As it happened, I was also trying to write some sort of “hooray for our family!” song for my wife as a Christmas present. As of the start of the week, the first and last lines of the chorus were, “We’re a sappy happy chaos family!” After several days of metaphorical and literal stormy weather, those lines had become, “And still we push onward through the snow,” with a new melody and chords to match.

In earlier years I had been able to convert fatherly frustration into songs of optimism. Why wasn’t I up to the challenge this time? Was I getting too old to be an effective parent?

I thought back to when the 16-year-old was 4, and how he drove me crazy at the time. But eventually he turned 5 and then 6, and somewhere in there being a dad became OK again, and then better than OK. Presumably that will happen again with the current 4- and 5-year-olds.

As another Christmas fades out of sight, I’ve landed on the conclusion that, in the development of children, I am just not a fan of ages 3 to 6.

I don’t feel great about that conclusion; three years is a huge chunk of a child’s life. But of all the ideas that a downtrodden parent could cling to, this one seems especially useful right now, helping me maintain some patience and optimism amidst the daily indignities.


Footprints in the snow

December 30, 2022

We all know how footprints work — how indentations are imprinted into soft surfaces like dirt or sand or snow. But how does one arrive at the situation above, where the footprints rise ABOVE an otherwise smooth surface?

Here’s a hint: we had snow and unseasonably cold weather for a few days (with occasional trips across the driveway on foot), and then the snow was melted and washed away by warmer rains. The photo above was taken most of the way through the washing-away process.


Book-smart, but not so good with wallets or can openers

October 16, 2022

My wife loves to make suggestions about how I might perform tasks more effectively.

Sometimes she is incorrect in believing that her way is objectively the best way. A few years ago, for example, we had quite an exchange about the way I store and update my list of Christmas card recipients and their addresses, which, much to her chagrin, does NOT involve a Google Sheet. I had to stand my ground on that one.

At many other times, though, I find myself saying with a sheepish shrug, “Gee, honey, I guess you’re right.” Or if I’m too embarrassed or irritated to concede out loud, I may just shake my head.

Yesterday I misplaced my wallet for the third time in the last four months. When Leila proclaimed that I needed a better system for hanging onto my wallet, I couldn’t really disagree. Whatever the acceptable failure right might be, it’s definitely less than nine times per year.

Later in the day, while we were washing dishes, I hit rock-bottom on the “Yes, Dear” scale.

“Do you wash the can opener after you use it?” she asked.

“Well,” I replied cagily, “I rinse it VERY briefly.”

“I think you should stop doing that,” she continued. “It’s all rusted, and it stopped turning. I had to add a bunch of WD-40 oil to get it moving again.”

Cue the head shake.

I was not ready, and am still not ready, and may never be ready, to admit that I, a 49-year-old college professor, have been misusing can openers for my entire life. But it might be true.


Will I ever race again?

October 2, 2022

Different aspects of running are enjoyable to different people. My favorite encapsulation of this basic fact comes from Don Kardong in the essay “Collision Course” as published in his 1985 book Thirty Phone Booths to Boston. Kardong, a Stanford alum, recounts a “fun run” at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), where electrons are brought remarkably close to the speed of light, the one true speed limit in the universe.

(As a side note, I have a family connection to SLAC: my cousin Knut is an engineer there, as his father Knut was before him.)

Here is the key passage:

“…I thought of something that had once happened to me at a Sunday fun-run back in Spokane. The organizer had always stressed health, cardiovascular fitness, and easy running, and was dismayed at those of us who ran fast.

“On that morning he cornered me after the run, striving to be good-natured, and said, ‘What are you doing, running like that? This is a fun-run, you know.’

“I looked at him, and said words that came back to me as Brook and I sprinted along the electron path at SLAC.

“‘It’s fun to run fast,’ I told him.”

Yesterday while running, I found myself thinking about Kardong-running-at-SLAC thinking about Kardong-running-in-Spokane. It was almost time to drive up to my son’s ultimate frisbee jamboree in Burlington, but I had time to run 3.5 more miles. I could take the blue loop, or I could take the red loop.

OK, I’m being melodramatic; the blue loop and the red loop are the same loop. What I really mean is, I could do the loop slowly, or I could do it hard.

In the context of my current casual training schedule, this might have been just about the least consequential choice imaginable. There was no yesterday’s run to analyze, no tomorrow’s run to worry about, no race on the horizon.

Nevertheless, as I weighed the options, I found myself interested in the outcome. If there was no incentive whatsoever to run fast, aside from fun, would I choose speed over comfort?

Reader, I chose red. To be specific, l opted to time-trial the 2.2-mile Jackson Park perimeter loop, with 0.6 miles of jogging on either end.

On the tough Jackson Park terrain, recovering from a mild respiratory infection, I struggled through the lap in 15:14 — barely under 7-minutes-per-mile pace. Still, that was 44 seconds faster than the 15:58 I had managed three weeks earlier. I jogged home depleted but happy to have made the effort and to have gotten encouraging-under-the-circumstances results.

It’s this sort of experience — infrequent these days, but still recurring — that makes me think that someday — maybe next year, maybe the year after that — I will once again toe the starting line of a local “fun run,” determined to make the fun as concentrated and as brief as possible.


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.


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.