Friday, November 29, 2013

Reading Required

So I recently rediscovered this old blog. Why? Because I was looking up an old post. Why? Because I wanted to recall the last few lines of A River Runs Through It. Why? Because I wanted to read them to my daughter. Why? Because hearing our voices helps calm soothe her, and it matters little at this age what you say, however it is nice to say things that you feel good about welcoming someone into the world with.

After all, in addition to rediscovering this blog, I did recently become a father, which was, well, pretty far and away the most awesome (in the literal sense) experience of my life. My daughter Cedar is now 2.5 weeks old and it has been great fun spending time away from work getting to know her and becoming a family with her and Taska.

So that's fun but why worry about reading at this point? At a few weeks old she doesn't really do much other than eat sleep and poop, but when trying to move her from one of those states to the next (usually eating to sleeping) it seems that talking and reading to her is helpful. She doesn't, of course, understand what I'm saying, but it feels good to talk to her about things that I'd like her to hear.

When she was first born I spent some time thinking about nature vs nurture and how amazing it was to think that for an old person like me, nature vs nurture is an academic discussion about how I got to be who I am today. We look back post facto and attempt to discern the causes of various skills, shortcomings, and quirks. Amusing for sure, but not really practical. For Cedar, though, nature vs nurture is the difference between what has been done and what is left to do. Nurture hasn't happened yet, and to a large extent, it is on me to do it. Thus the discussion becomes far more practical.

So bearing in mind the weighty responsibility of providing the nurture half of the equation, I stop and think a bit before reading anything to her. I'm not foolish enough to think that everything we do must be perfectly aligned with the parenting master plan, that way lies certain madness. Kids don't really like master plans, and are sure to make attempts at planning look foolish. However, having a roadmap is really helpful, even if we all know that no battle plan survives its first contact with the enemy.

So, I starting thinking about my roadmap for teaching things to Cedar, and really haven't gotten too far. I know what I don't want, but I'm not sure I know what I do want. Since you are rearding this, you probably know me well, but, keeping the fiction of a reader who doesn't know me, let me explain a bit about my values. I clearly want to arm my daughter with a few tools that I think will serve her well. Among these are:

  1. Analytic thinking. Math, science, engineering, technology. Aka STEM. Aka the most effective tools our species has ever found to understand our world and make our lives better
  2. Atheism. Knowing that there is only this life, and knowing that we must rely only on each other to guide us through it.
  3. Spirituality grounded in natural beauty. An appreciation for the wonders of the world, the mountains, the desert, and a desire to be out moving in that world.
  4. Compassion and empathy. Understanding that we are all in this life together and that distinctions such as us and them are rarely useful.

Ok, so that isn't a cogent and coherent set of principles for life, so don't get hung up there, if I had to set down 4 and only 4 values to live by, I'd think a lot harder and maybe do a bit better. However, that's not too bad a start, and if I manage to raise a daughter who, at some point in her life, gets why some of those concepts are important, then I think I'll feel like I've done a fair bit on the nurture side. Most importantly it's a reasonable rubric for what I want to do here.

Of course, again, I know it sounds like I'm overthinking this, and I know that at most levels this won't really matter. She doesn't understand what I'm saying, and it is more important that we spend quality time, hearing my voice, etc than the content of any specific thing. Still, some things, (the bible, for example) just wouldn't feel right to me, to read to her. So while reading certain things is about as effective as writing equations on Taska's belly while she was pregnant, that's still a thing I'd like to do. Something about the tone and perspective is what I'd like to have feel right.

Here's what I have read to her so far:

  • The ending to a river runs through it Beautiful and sentimental prose, but not really advancing the values above. Also, short.
  • Calculus for infants. A wicked cool book, but really not age appropriate. It's mostly a picture book, and here I'm looking for words to start her off right (yes I know she doesn't understand, but still.
  • Fox in socks (no link needed). One of my faves, and I'm sure this will be fun later for both of us, but until it's fun for both of us, it probably isn't that meaningful.
  • A random academic paper on probability theory. She liked that, but of course the content was really too detailed to even pretend that it was useful.
  • A few random feminist blog posts. Ok this was fun. They are the right length, conversational in tone, from a perspective I can agree with, or at least not feel wrong about, and often apropos. But the quality is hit or miss.
  • Winnie the Pooh. Of course this is fun too, and will hopefully be more fun later, though there are not enough pictures in my copy to hold her attention. I think this one probably does pretty well with a couple of my values above too.
  • A random essay from Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas. There were a couple I tried, but they were a bit too erudite, and I just felt silly reading them to a 2 week old (not that this would generally stop me, but ...)

So at the end of all this, the real question is where do I find a list of awesome things that someone like me would enjoy reading to their daughter? A little looking on amazon lists and similar didn't really reveal much, and many of the books that claim to be good training for math or similar (mostly for a bit older) aren't really that good, or even aligned with my philosophy on such things. Dr Seuss and A A Milne are generations old, and while they are still good, there are surely new folks who've written things like the Lorax which are good children's literature that also carries a good message. Similarly there must be folks who've done this before and started reading something fun, say A Brief History of Time, or similar?

As usual the problem is reduced to a search problem, and in this case it's probably more of a filtering problem. Hence I cast the question to the masses (I.e. the two of my friends who actually read this blog).

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


I had a mishap while climbing last Tuesday.   "Mishap" is my way of describing a fall from 25-30 feet onto some rocks, followed by several hours waiting for the awesome folks from YOSAR  to arrive and help me understand whether I was badly hurt, and then 2 hours of painful walking downhill back to the valley.

There are several things I'm still learning from this incident, about myself, about climbing, and about good decision making in general.  There are several things that enabled me to be writing, analytically, about this mishap a few days later, with a trip to the ER resulting in me walking out with only 3 band-aids to show for my troubles.   

Since this was the worst climbing accident I've had, I've been thinking about what happened, and wanted to write a bit to describe the incident and to spend some words analyzing it to see what I could learn from it.

My partner and I, both experienced, though not super strong, climbers (~20 years of trad leading between the 2 of us), hiked to the base of East Buttress of El Cap, only to find it crowded with 4 parties ahead of us.   We aren't that fast, so we didn't think it made sense to wait for 2+ hours before starting what for us could be an all-day climb.  So we hiked down and walked over to Higher Cathedral Spire (now we are at 3 hours of hiking and 2000+ vertical feet).  This route is great fun, and I'd done it 2 weeks before.   We climbed it well and summited, calling our friends to arrange a pick up and shuttle to pizza and beer from the top.  Descent is 4 single rope raps.

On pitch 2 as we pull the rope, the tape at the end probably gets stuck in a crack just above the belay.  We believe that as we pull it out, the rope jerks, forming a knot, which we don't notice until it is above the crux bulge move on this pitch.  We look at it and decide to keep pulling in the hope that it pulls through, rather that using the tail we have to lead up and untie the knot now.   From where the knot is to the top is ~5.6/7, but to get to the knot is 5.9+ so this made sense, probably.

The knot, of course, doesn't pull through.

Now I'm tired.   I'm frustrated, and I just want my pizza and beer.   (danger!)  I don't want to relead this pitch, and now that I think of it, the normal route is rather winding, and while we have over half the rope, it isn't obvious that we have enough to lead the normal route.   So I climb the first 30 feet straight up, clipping a few pins.   Then I transition to prusiks to directly ascend the stuck rope.   I'm clipping gear so that if the knot pops through, I'll be caught by my partner who has me on lead belay.     This goes slowly, as you might expect for someone a bit tired, and not having jugged a line in a while.   Eventually, after 20 more feet of jugging and cursing, not in equal amounts, my partner suggests that we abandon the effort.  She's realized that we have enough rope to tie off, descend the first pitch and hike out.  We can get the rope tomorrow, or leave it for someone else.

I agree, and shift to rapping the line.   Cleaning my lead pieces as I go down.  She's still belaying me, but neither of us really think the rope will pop, since I've just jugged on it for 20 mins.  (danger!)

Immediately after unclipping the 2nd to last piece, about 25 feet up, ~10 feet above the last piece, the knot passes the rap rings and I'm suddenly in free fall.   I land on the jagged rocks at the base of the pitch.    My partner is stunned.  Comes to help me and thinks I must be dead, since I'm upside down bent in the wrong direction over a rock, moaning.   I don't know why I'm alive.   I don't know how, but I stop moaning, wiggle all fingers and toes, jump up and move away from the rocks and sit down elsewhere.   She calls YOSAR, describes the fall.   I'm very cogent at this point and talk to them myself.   They tell me not to move my back (which hurts like hell) and wait for rescue.

Long story short(er): YOSAR comes, I'm feeling better, they clear me to walk out, assisted by them.  I do.  I sleep.  I get a ride to my hospital in the Bay Area, and X-rays are all fine, only 3 band-aids needed.

What happened?  Why didn't I die, or get paralyzed?

1)  I was lucky:
  • I just didn't hit the critical parts of my body (spine, neck)
  • I bounced off a slab at about 15 feet, and rolled into the rocks.   That slowed me down as well. 
  • I was wearing a backpack.   Not sure how much good it did for me, but it  could have helped absorb impact in sensitive places.  However, the phone and headlamp inside were not broken.
2) But also, we weren't totally stupid, we had done a few things right that might have helped:
  • I was still on lead belay.  My partner probably had started to catch me.  I didn't get out a measuring tape, but the heights of the pieces, depending on how much slack was in the rope, would indicate that she could have been slowing my fall before I hit the ground, maybe significantly.  Neither of us can remember whether that was the case, though she recollects that the rope was "tight" as she moved around to try to assist me after the fall.
  • I was wearing a helmet.  I didn't hit my head, as far as I know, but the helmet would have helped somewhat, if I did.
  • We were prepared for some bad situations.  I had a space blanket, so I kept warm while waiting, and we had headlamps, rudimentary first aid, and cell phones*

But what happened?  Why were two reasonably experienced climbers in this situation in the first place?

1) We were unlucky:
  • The rope formed a knot spontaneously, just above the crux
  • It happened on this pitch, the hardest on the route, and a winding one
  • The knot didn't pull through under our weights, or under my jugging
  • The knot pulled just after the 2nd piece was unclipped, probably the most dangerous place, gear-wise, on the route.   Anywhere else would not have resulted in ground fall
  • The 4 parties on EBEC that sent us here to begin with
2) But we could have been smarter, for sure:
  • When the knot first formed we thought about it a bit, and decided to let it go to the top and pull it.  We might have thought a bit more about that, especially about the winding nature of the route, and what we would do when it didn't pull.   At least we stopped and discussed.
  • On the other hand when it didn't pull, I started climbing without taking the time to discuss all of our options.   If we'd stopped for 2-3 minutes and analyzed the situation, we would have accomplished several things:
    • Recognizing, as a team, that we had the option to tie off the middle and rap down, leaving the rope.   We might have taken that had we discussed it then.
    • Deciding to jug or to re-lead, thinking about the consequences of each, and the alternatives if we failed.
    • Analyzing the above two might have led me to use more protection in the pitch as I climbed, knowing I might be giving up and rapping down the stuck line.  As it was I put sparse pro because it was easy climbing there.  But rapping down on a time bomb of an anchor needs a different level of pro than climbing up on easy terrain.
  • Mostly the above can be summarized by saying that we were tired and frustrated and wanted to get out of the situation quickly.   This was pushing me (at least) to act, rather than stop, think, and communicate.   There was no urgency, other than pizza and a ride from friends, so there was no reason not to stop and discuss.   Just like the Korean Air pilots discussed in Gladwell's Outliers, we needed to have open, frank communication about our options, and I probably cut that short because I wanted to go take care of things quickly.   
So on the whole I was unlucky and I was lucky, and I tend to think that they balanced each other out pretty well.   In the end it was a good lesson to learn from, without overly serious consequences (lost out on a week trip to Greece to climb, and some good climbing time between jobs, but after a week, I'm back on my bike and moving around pretty well.)

I'm glad I had an experience like this, and very glad, of course, to walk away from it.  I think it will make me a better climber, and possibly also a better person.   Gladwell's lesson in Outliers is about communication, and its import in times of crisis and risk is easier to remember when reinforced by real pain and real experiences.   It's one thing to read about something, and quite another to earn some bruises.  

I don't think my partner and I made dumb mistakes, and I don't blame myself for the accident, and of course I certainly don't blame her, but that doesn't mean I can't learn from the mistakes we did make, and carry those lessons into the rest of my life, in addition to climbing.   I think after 12 years of climbing, I was due some accident, as the sport isn't perfectly safe (neither is anything else), and while I would have loved to choose the time and place a bit better, this doesn't turn me off to climbing at all.   I've had several (more serious) bike wrecks, and keep cycling.   We did a lot to keep ourselves safe, and we got pretty damn unlucky, so my takeaway is not that we are taking stupid risks, but rather that accidents can and do happen, and one needs some luck, and some good crisis management skills to prevent them, and failing that, to mitigate them.

Now, I just need to heal so I can tie my shoes, then back out on the rock to ensure I get out there before I rust.


* Note:  I've usually been reticent to take cell phones climbing, especially in wilderness areas, as it seems like there should be places where you go where you _know_ that you are relying on yourself and your partner alone and you cannot call for help.   In this case it was very nice to have my partner call YOSAR and have them come check me out and help me down.   Had we not had a phone my partner and I would have had to choose between me staying there alone for at least 4 hours as she went for help, or me deciding to go down even with my injury, taking a risk with a back injury.   Neither option would have been good, though, in fact both would have worked out OK in this case.   So, will I take a cell phone with me climbing next time?   I'm not sure, but I'm closer than I was last week.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Where mosquitos breed

I've come to a time in my life where I feel a strong desire to keep things as they are.   I want to do the laundry the same way each Sunday.   I want to eat at the same restaurants and eat the same meals.  I want to read the same books over and over.  Watch the same movies again and again.

This isn't healthy.

This isn't what I want my life to be.

I want to try new things, I want to have new experiences, and learn new things.   I don't want the next few years to be a polished repeat of the last few.    I'm giving the same performances I've rehearsed for the last few years, only better, since I know my lines.

It's so easy to repeat the same lines over and over.   It's so easy to get stuck in a rut, because getting out takes effort to move in some other direction.  Forward, backward they are the same and they are easy.   Getting out, moving laterally, that's a hard thing.   It takes effort, and more to the point it takes risk.    I'm not a good risk taker.   I have gotten very comfortable, and comfortable people can't take risks, because they are, by definition, comfortable.   But taking risks is important in life, and risk-avoidance is a risky strategy in and of itself.  Avoiding risks leads to stagnation, and that leaves one unprepared.   If I'm lucky, I have a good half my life left to live.   Do I believe the world will be the same in 40 years as it was 40 years ago?  Will I be prepared to face the worlds of 20 or 40 years from now if I want my life to be the same as it was 4 years ago?

How can I prepare for coming storms, for unexpected ups and downs?  Being sheltered isn't a recipe for maintaining strength.   Fight life's little battles every day, and in opposing them, grow stronger, more versatile.   Relearn how to take risks.   Stop rehearsing the same script and go live a new life every day.

How can I do this? 

I'm not sure, but I know a few things I'm going to do to start breaking some routines:
  • We'll move to San Francisco - after all, why not?
  • We'll share a flat with some other folks - after all, why not?
  • Try to reduce my material possessions (moving should help!)
  • When repeating something, do it by choice, not out of laziness
  • When I feel nervous about something - do it anyway
  • Practice saying yes
  • Practice saying no, when I would normally say yes
Will this help?  Will I free myself from stagnation and keep my vitality, my life?   I hope it will help.   

Some ruts are good: well-worn trails are smoother and more efficient at taking you where you need to go.   Comfortable isn't a bad thing.  Sleeping on rough burlap sacks isn't going to make one any better at's just going to cost you a few hours of sleep and make you cranky. 

Similarly I have some comforts I don't want to do without, things that don't make sense for me to give up.   Like climbing trips, especially Joshua Tree.   They center me, like Taska does.  There are several others, smaller ones, I don't have to give up everything.   But I do have to make some sacrifices, and I'm ready to - since the sacrifice of a comfort means moving out of a rut, and into the real world.   Growing stronger in the real world - not hiding in a stagnant pool.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why Blog?

As you can tell on the right hand side, I haven't updated this in over a year, since my Grandmother passed away.   Why should one blog?   I never have figured out the answer to this question.   Is this a journal for myself?   I don't think I'm quite ready to put that up for everyone to read (though it does exist).   The comments about murdering people in their sleep (ok that doesn't exist) or whatever else don't seem quite worthy of public distribution.   But I don't delude myself that anyone actually reads this place, so what is this for?  

Twitter takes care of the need to share interesting thoughts and links with folks, without the time sink of writing a post (or, god forbid, an essay).   Short form, 140 chars, is severely. restrictive, and if you want to convey meaning in 140 chars, you have a challenge.   However
Why blog? Tweet instead or write in a moleskine with a lock.  But don't stop writing.
 seems to pretty accurately capture any meaning worth extracting from this post.   So why am I writing it?   It's fun.   I have a little time now, since the DOE review is over, and my life is coming back to normal.  I'm at home for the holidays and I had to play with Blogger for other reasons.    Probably seven other reasons.   It's like doodling, but with your mind.   And thinking about a prospective reader, which I don't when I write in my journal, focuses the mind a little, while allowing yourself freeform text makes the thoughts flow a bit more freely.

So, maybe for the new year I'll try to update this place once a month or so, which, of course, isn't any serious effort, but represents an apparent factor of 12 increase over prior efforts!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Margaret Brooks: A Strong Woman

A feminist to the core, though she denied it to the end. A poet and a scientist. A caring mother and grandmother whilst being an agent provocateur. A woman of contradictions, yet clear of mind and strong of will for the 35 years I knew her, and, from what I know, for the 61 other years that I didn't. In her contradictions, I saw many of my own.

I shared her birthday. I shared her taste for red wine (and, later, martinis). I shared her love of conversation and argument. I shared her love of crosswords. I shared her impish sense of humor that is, I think, funniest only to ourselves.

Now that she has completed this journey, I still share all of these things with her.

I recall not that long ago, she was expressing her doubts about modern technology and, specifically Google. A friend at my work pointed out that she, as an academic, was linked inextricably with Google, especially Google Scholar. Of course, so are my mother and me...(of course, I cannot help but point out that my own service does a better job of listing my and only my papers.) Sharing this academic and genetic lineage (though in point of fact Jewell is not genetically linked with Margaret...she being my Jim's mom...) over 3 generations is pretty cool, actually. And I recall Margaret being a bit struck by those links.

More to the point though, she was around when I was very young and instilled in me, with Jim and Jewell of course, a very open and frank style of addressing truth, and searching for truth via discussion and advocacy. She loved to provoke, to force people find and defend what was important to them, and this style I still find in my own interactions. She could be murder to be around, of course. Poking people in their tender parts isn't always the recipe for smooth interactions. She, however, always expressed disdain for the comfortable and the smooth. I never doubted that she had my best interests at heart, and I reacted to that style by growing very confident in my ideas and my mental abilities. A confidence that has come and gone a few times later in my life, but one that I still draw on. This, among other things, I owe her for.

We knew, of course, that she was dying, and I went home several times this year to be around...just to be around. Now I'm leaving tomorrow for Geneva and some meetings that are inconvenient to miss. Death, of course, refuses to be convenient and fit itself into our self-involved schedules, and with Margaret, she never really valued convenience anyway. Priorities are often thought of as simple rankings. But of course they aren't really simple. It isn't a binary choice. It doesn't work like that, and she would have been the the first to argue with me about that.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A great view of cities

Cities and Ambition

Not what does a city say about you, but what does a city say to you, what does it make you do, subtly. Why do I feel alive when I walk down the streets of SF, but not San Jose (no offense SJers)? Why do people pay so much to live in SF or NYC, and further, what do these conditions force back on the inhabitants. I love this comment:

One sign of a city's potential as a technology center is the number
of restaurants that still require jackets for men. According to
Zagat's there are none in San Francisco, LA, Boston, or Seattle,
4 in DC, 6 in Chicago, 8 in London, 13 in New York, and 20 in Paris.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Women can't do math? Think again

Study: No gender differences in math performance | Eureka! Science News
Good news! I've long heard this idea, especially the variability idea, that female math performance is the same on average, but the variance is smaller, explaining lack of female mathematicians etc (also lack of females who are complete idiots...) however, this study, which appears to have great statistics, manages to debunk not only any difference in mean math ability, but also showed no gender bias on the variance. Nice to know. Thus we must look for explanations of low numbers of female mathematicians in the culture, not in the brain. (or perhaps in the brains of current mathematics/physics faculty).

Clearly our traditional child rearing/marriage roles for women slow them down at the postdoc/asst. prof times in their careers. This is silly in this day and age, since there is no reason why the mother should get to spend more time with the child than the father...but regardless, even preserving those old roles, one sees that this can't be the problem, since it is not a uniform lack of females in academia, but only in math/physics. Bio, history, english, etc are all (relatively) nicely populated with women. I've alwasy wondered it it has to do with math/phys tending to require that the researcher do their greatest work at an early age. Some mathematicians claim that great work is done in the _early_ 20s. This might interact with the "mommy-track" in a negative way for females. However, I still feel that the cultures within the departments has a lot to do with it... Interesting to think about.

Finally of note, but unrelated to gender, the authors bemoan the lack of complex problem solving questions on std tests for no child left behind, hence comparing genders on this topic was even harder, since they aren't tested on it. Idiocracy anyone?