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When is it fun to be married to a biostatistician?

April 27, 2019

Always, if that biostatistician is Leila. But especially during scenes like the following….

It’s dinner time for 7-month-old Ben, and two types of orange mush are on the menu: sweet potatoes and peaches.

Ben likes the peaches much better because they are sweeter, but Leila is trying to get him to eat both.

With a twinkle in her eye, she says, “This calls for … randomization!” And proceeds accordingly.

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A moment of pure joy

April 24, 2019

In recent years I’ve become less and less sure of how I want to use this blog. In part, I’ve become a bit more humble about the value of my opinions. For example, I have lots of things to say about Trump, but I don’t have any relevant expertise (besides a Ph.D., which reflects training in BS detection…), and my previous political posts have changed approximately zero minds, so what’s the point?  In addition, I’ve become increasingly cautious about sharing stories that are not entirely my own. My 12-year-old son may deserve more anonymity than I have given him up to this point, for example.

So my main options going forward are what? Endless navel-gazing, or complete silence? I’m not sure. For now, I thought I would share a moment that continues to make me smile a full day after it happened.

I’ve been getting a bit of media attention lately regarding my use of music to teach biology. Yesterday it was KOMO-4’s turn to visit my classes and interview me. I wanted to give them a good show, so I wrote a new version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” about the cross-bridges between actin and myosin inside muscle cells:

X-bridges

It’s a vocally demanding song, and not one especially suited to my plain, nasal voice, so I was nervous about singing it. As I began, I noticed that my nervousness had moved up my vocal range by at least a whole step; the low notes now felt REALLY low, and were hard to deliver with any volume.

The silver lining, though, was that the high notes were now easier to reach. As I neared the end of the song, I wondered whether I should abandon my original play-it-safe ending and go for the high note — the G above middle C that Barry Manilow hits in his version. Now almost delirious with adrenaline, I decided to go for it. Here is what happened next (via low-quality audio; the critical note comes about 33 seconds in):

 

So, yes, I hit the note, and the students clapped, and I felt GREAT.

It was partly an ego thing, of course: I had done something that was sort of impressive, and I received recognition for that. But it felt like something more than a personal triumph. It felt like a moment of artistic beauty — created by me, yes, but also Paul Simon, who wrote a beautiful song, and Art Garfunkel, who sang it so well, and Barry Manilow, who provided the dramatic ending, and Ameritz Karaoke, who created a superb backing track, and KOMO-4, whose interest prompted me to do this song, and Andrea Brown, who wrote the Everett Herald article that got KOMO-4 interested, and Jenny Marin, who wrote the EvCC press release that got Andrea Brown interested, and my coauthors Sarah Ward, Becca Price, and Katie Davis, who helped me write the journal article that led to the press release … and my students, whose interest made the performance meaningful.

It was beautiful, and I got to be a part of it, and that was totally exhilarating!

When can I do something like that again?

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A tiny rebellion

December 7, 2018

Sam, now 22 months old, is becoming really playful, with an exaggerated har-har-har laugh to match. But he is also becoming willfully defiant.

These days, when I give him his nightly bath, he takes a cup and scoops up some bathwater and dumps it on the bathroom floor. I tell him, “No.” He does it again. I take the cup away. And then he takes his toothbrush, dunks it in the bathwater, and sticks it out over the floor, transferring a drop or two of water in the process, while gently cooing, “Noooo.”

Unwilling to laugh or cry, I just shake my head — my usual compromise.

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My dream about Brett Kavanaugh

October 7, 2018

I just awoke from a dream that featured two surprises relating to Brett Kavanaugh, the just-confirmed Supreme Court justice.

The first surprise was that I got a letter from him in the mail — a form letter, but a letter nonetheless.

“Dear Greg,” it began (in the manner of form letters generated by programs smart enough to fill in the names of individual recipients).  “Every year, millions of Americans are victims of sexual assault or related offenses. If you have been a victim — either recently or not so recently — I want you to know that you are not alone, and I hope that the enclosed ‘survivor’s kit’ will provide helpful support as you move forward with your life.  If this kit is not relevant or useful to you, please consider passing it on to someone else. Sincerely, Brett M. Kavanaugh.”

The second surprise was that, within minutes of receiving this letter and opening it and reading it, I noticed Justice Kavanaugh, wearing his black judicial robes, emerging from a guest bathroom of my home. (In the dream, I was living in a one-story mansion with hardwood floors and featuring an enormous living room with a grand piano. It somewhat resembled the residence of my late Grandmother Jane.)

I walked across the enormous living room to greet him. “Hey, Judge,” I said. “I just received your letter.” He nodded.

“You know,” I continued, “I opposed your nomination to the Supreme Court. But I was moved by this letter, even though I myself have never been assaulted.”

“One of my big fears about you,” I said, “is that you aren’t necessarily looking out for people who lead lives less privileged than yours — people who’ve been marginalized and victimized by racism, sexism, and other toxic attitudes and institutional biases. But this letter gives me hope that these people are on your radar after all, and that you will use your power to ensure justice for ALL.”

He drew in a big breath, preparing to speak. And then I woke up.

NOTE: I am reporting this dream as I experienced it because I found it interesting. The dream should not be construed as an argument for or against Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court, or as anything other than a flight of fancy. 

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I suspect that Christine Blasey Ford is being truthful

September 23, 2018

Nobody asked for my personal take on the Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh allegations, but here it is anyway.

My main concern here is the question, who is most likely to be telling the truth? We will never know for sure, but we can consider what is possible and what is likely.

First: Could they BOTH be telling the truth? Could Blasey Ford really have been assaulted in the manner that she described, but by someone else whom she mistook for or misremembers as Kavanaugh? Not likely. Blasey Ford has said there is zero chance that she has the wrong guy. Either her story is wrong, or Kavanaugh’s is.

Second: Is either person known to be serially dishonest? I don’t think so. Blasey Ford is a generally respected psychology professor; Kavanaugh is a generally respected judge. Some have argued that Kavanaugh perjured himself before the Senate, but the details are sufficiently dense that I’m not sure what to believe.

No, what really has me pissed off are the ignorant, disingenuous, and cruel portrayals of Blasey Ford as an out-of-control liar — from people who demonstrate little to no germane understanding of sexual assault in general or Blasey Ford’s case in particular. Here are some of the common yet utterly wrong claims being made.

(1) “The timing of her compliant is highly suspicious.” No, it’s not, explains Dahlia Lithwick. Blasey Ford kept this to herself for a long time because that’s what many girls and women do in a society that has shown them little sympathy. She eventually alluded to the event in years-ago conversations with her husband and therapist, then wrote her letter when Kavanaugh was one of several potential nominees under consideration. That’s not proof of anything, but it’s not suspicious either. Imperfect handling of her charge by Sen. Feinstein and Democrats is not her fault.

(2) “It’s not plausible that she remembers X from this incident, but not Y.” Blasey Ford’s account should certainly be examined for internal consistency and for consistency with other external facts. But if you claim (as a physician friend of mine did on Facebook) that Blasey Ford’s story is incompatible with “basic behavioral psychology,” you’re being WAY too presumptuous about what she should and shouldn’t remember. When a person experiences trauma and then tries unsuccessfully to forget about it for 35 years, the nature of the 35-year-old memory will depend on (A) the details of the trauma, (B) the details of the post-trauma processing, and (C) the particular brain of the survivor. I’m not an expert on memory per se, but I do have a Ph.D. in physiology. Most amateur psychologists, including my friend, are in over their heads on this one.

(3) “She just made this up to stop the Kavanaugh nomination because she’s pro-choice, etc.” I’d assume that Blasey Ford, like most academics, is politically liberal, and there has been some reporting to support that. But I haven’t seen any good evidence that she’s a radical activist or anything like that. More to the point, who among us would trade a peaceful, happy life for a flurry of death threats and public vilification, all for the sake of possibly reducing a particular judge’s chances of confirmation, when the next judge nominated will probably be equally pro-life anyway? That’s not an ulterior motive; that’s closer to masochism.

It’s those who are smearing Blasey Ford who have the ulterior motive.

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…And re-introducing Sam

September 22, 2018

Here’s a bit about the current life of Sam, now 19.5 months old.

Thanks to persistent instruction by Leila, he knows and uses several signs (e.g., “more,” “please,” “all done”). This has been the case for months, but lately he’s been adding more out-loud words. Most of his favorites begin with B (“boo!”, “boo-buh” for blueberry, “ba” for ball, “bee” for frisbee) or end in a “Z” sound (“shoes,” “cheese”). I’ve been struck by how much of this learning depends on our intonation. If we say a word with an exaggerated flourish that he finds interesting, he is much more likely to learn it. “Boo!” is one example; another is “down,” to which I give the Howard Cosell “Down goes Frazier!” treatment. (“Sam, do you want to go DOWWWN the stairs?”)

His favorite books include Over in the Meadow by Ezra Jack Keats, Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, and — somewhat to our dismay — anything about Clifford, the big red dog.

His favorite pastimes (some represented below) include manipulating thin objects like tupperware lids and dominoes, visiting an owl decoy on a fence a few blocks from home, carrying multiple large balls simultaneously, and throwing and retrieving these balls.

His favorite comfort objects are burp cloths, a stuffed teddy bear and dog (which he often carries around in his mouth, as if he too is a dog), and the aforementioned balls.

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Introducing Ben

September 9, 2018

Ben Zelnick-Crowther was born on September 5th!

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The family joke is that “Ben” is short for a family name originating with his grandmother’s car: BEN5491.

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In fact, however, and as you might guess, Ben is really short for Benjamin.

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Favorite columnists: Bruni, Lithwick, Loofbourow, Saletan, Stephens

September 3, 2018

Some of my favorite blogs have regular “linkfest” posts featuring notable pieces from around the web, often with brief commentary. I’ve wanted to do that myself for years, so here’s a post along these lines. More will follow if I can find the time and energy. For now, I’ll just admit that I get a lot of my news from Slate and the New York Times, so these sources will be overrepresented in listings like those below.

NEW YORK TIMES

SLATE

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Conversation-wise

August 5, 2018

Sorry, what did you say?

Oh … well … thank you.

I credit my parents — both of them.

You know how you get some things from your mother and some things from your father? Well, I get my conversational style from both. I think their respective influences are about equal. It’s kind of a “codominant alleles” situation.

For my mom — and also her brother Scott — the basic principle is that you show someone that you care about them by asking them lots of questions. It’s a matter of fundamental politeness, like saying “please” and “thank you.”

Of course, everyone knows that it’s nice to ask people about themselves. But my mom is unusually consistent about actually doing it. I think she may have a three-question minimum; any less would be impolite. And the questions can’t all be totally generic, either. “How’s it going?” is a fine conversation-starter, but it doesn’t count toward the minimum.

It’s funny — peculiar funny, not ha-ha funny — that my mom’s parents, for all of their other marvelous qualities, were NOT great conversationalists. Her dad told tangent-filled stories that were not well-tailored to their audiences. Lots of details about which roads you should take to get from town-I’ve-never-heard-of A to town-I’ve-never-heard-of B. And her mom was generally terse, especially when talking about herself. Somehow my mom and her brother internalized a very different code of conversation — a code of gentle but persistent questioning. So I try to ask a lot of questions too.

Are you wondering how my dad fits into all this? Well, my dad believes in the same approach, to some extent. He once took a Dale Carnegie course on “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which taught him that people like to talk about themselves, and that you should enable that by asking questions. But my dad is more relaxed than my mom about demonstrating his interest. He thinks the Dale Carnegie thing works best when you ask questions that you really care about. Don’t ask questions just for the sake of asking questions.

One other thing about my dad: he once was a newspaper reporter. It wasn’t necessarily the job he was best at or liked the most, but I like to imagine him sniffing out hidden truths, like Woodward and Bernstein, or David Fahrenthold. Rutland, Vermont did not have many presidential scandals to uncover, but my dad was there, just in case. I think once he got to investigate a suspicious fire.

Anyway, while I’ve only dabbled in journalism myself, I think I bring my dad’s reporter’s mindset to a lot of conversations. I try to get past the small talk to find the story that the person wants to tell AND that I will find interesting. My tendency to drill down like this may be off-putting; sometimes, if I’m getting overly journalistic, I’ll pantomime shoving a microphone into the other person’s face, just to make fun of myself. I think most people appreciate the questions, though.

While my tendency to “interview” people reminds me of my dad, I should note that my mom is a good reporter too. She’s often in an information-gathering state, anyway. I suppose it’s hard to say exactly where one parent’s influence ends and the other’s begins. Or, for that matter, where their collective influence ends and one’s own personality begins.

Hmmm — that was quite a lengthy monologue, wasn’t it? Not my best work, conversation-wise. But if you’ve ever wondered why I converse in the way that I do, well, now you know!

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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.