Masks: an easy & fun microscope lab activity for kids

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Jan 102021

At the start of the school year we were lacking for science projects to do. There was one thing we had a ton of — masks: bandanas, cotton masks, synthetic, surgical masks… We also had a cheap little microscope, bought by my mom years ago for my son, used once or maybe nonce. We were settled on the couch with our laptops, when we thought: “nope, today we’re rolling up our sleeves!” Even though it was entirely spontaneous with no prep, the lab turned out unexpectedly nicely. Disclaimer: water is a weird liquid and the permeability of a material to water maybe doesn’t have anything to do with how well it protects against COVID-19 transmission, so no conclusions there. Coincidentally, the things that real studies show are better at preventing COVID-19 spread tend to look less porous, and also let less water through. And permeability and fabric under the microscope is what this lab is about.

Materials and equipment needed:

  • Microscope
  • Stopwatch or timer
  • Measuring cup (ideally 2)
  • Masks & bandana + any other face coverings

Observation and measurement:

  • Place mask or bandana under microscope at 40x magnification, make observations (e.g. what do the fibers/weave look like, is there light coming through? etc.)
  • Measure out a quantity of water (1/2 cup or 1 cup, so ~250mL or 500mL)
  • Place mask or bandana over second cup (nice if this one is a measuring cup too, but you can also pour out the liquid to measure).
  • Pour the water you measured into the second cup
    • Use a stopwatch to time how long it takes for most of the water to seep through
    • Read off how much liquid has made it through (the rest could e.g. be absorbed by the fabric of the face covering)

That’s pretty much it. We had such a good time with this one, that we also repeated it with one of my son’s friends (it was a warm September day, we did the lab outside, everyone wore masks etc.). It’s good to have at least two kids working on this together, so that one can work the timer while the other is pouring, or hold the mask so that it doesn’t fall into the cup etc. On that occasion I spent 5 minutes creating a lab sheet they could fill out, I’m sure you could make a much better one…

OK, so first thing, fabric looks really cool under the microscope!  This alone should have your kid going “Wow!” We found lower magnification (40x) to be more interesting than 100x because you see more of the weave.

The above image is from a bandana I wore as face covering for the first few months of COVID, here placed under the microscope.

The bandana is so permeable that the water will go right through, leaving the kids scrambling to start/stop the timer at an appropriate time. If you have a range of face coverings, they should be different enough that precise timing is not of the essence, but having a highly porous fabric in the mix adds to the excitement.

On the other end of the spectrum are surgical masks. Ours didn’t let any water through in any reasonable amount of time and this should have your kids scratching your heads in surprise, so I recommend doing this one last, as we did by accident. This also lets the kids get creative about how they’d like to write this result in their notes.

Our cheap little microscope had the option of illuminating either from above or below. The “from above” illumination was nice for seeing the color and structure. The from below was great for seeing where the light got through and where there were holes. For a green neck gaiter, here is the contrast:

On the other end of the spectrum, the surgical mask has a very different structure, and when illuminated from below, you don’t see clear pockets of light, rather there is diffuse light that is coming through additional layers.

That’s about it. If you happen to have a microscope collecting dust somewhere (it’s under a dust covering through, right?), I highly recommend this quick activity. If you do do this lab, I’m curious what you found and how you enhanced it.

Death beneath the surface

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Dec 272019

“For our mother Flora Park in loving memory.” So read, approximately, a small plaque on the backrest of a bench in the SF arboretum. crosses superimposed on garden benches

“Aaw,” I thought, “How nice that she was loved.” And then, “How sad that they lost her.”  For as far as the eye could see, and beyond, there were more benches. Every bench told of death and loss. At the very exit, the system was explained: 
SF arboretum bench tributes

But that afternoon I did not want to think about death, I wanted to think about trees and to celebrate my wedding anniversary. I had to admit, however, that if death does have a place, gardens are it: a place for quiet contemplation. There’s the cycle of life, the changing of the seasons, and depending on your skill as a gardener, just a lot of plant death, period. Our two family cats were laid to rest in gardens. When my father died, my mother and I got a flowering plant and planted it in the back yard where they used to garden together. I’m not sure how that made sense, but it did. I’m drawn to cemeteries on hills with trees. And yet, it seems that in order to carry on with life, we need to be in a bit of denial about death. Bench reminders do not help with that.

Some years ago, when my parents’ mortality was for the first time plainly apparent, I had to marvel at how everyone gets up in the morning, and worries about mundane daily things, or even medium-term life things, when WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE. But I carried on worrying about short-to-medium-term things. One of the best places to do that is work, which tends to be all absorbing, until, I was confronted with these, posted on office walls:

This was a reference to Sheryl Sandberg’s learning on resilience after loss, and maybe sometimes when I looked at those posters, I thought about resilience, but I always thought “Sheryl’s husband died,” with the associated pang of sadness. I had a reservoir of feeling about death, my father having died two days prior to Sheryl’s husband.  I might read “Option B” someday, but I’d have to get over the irony of using “option” in the context of death. Because death is not optional. We have to live with it, and without the people we lost. 

More recently I was in the Stanford arboretum on a guided tree walk, when the next tree of interest was right by the mausoleum.  I don’t think I’ve ever gone to the mausoleum intentionally, but I’ve stumbled upon it a number of times while appreciating the arboretum and the cactus garden within. It’s a monument to what I can only imagine was unbearable loss. The whole university is officially named “Leland Stanford Junior University” after, and established because of the death of, the only son of wealthy businessman/governor of California/senator Leland Stanford. The boy’s death mask is on display at the on-campus Cantor Arts museum, another earlier startling discovery. His body (along with that of his parents) is interred at the mausoleum.

Leland Stanford Junior death mask
More and more people might stumble upon the mausoleum now, with new construction encroaching on the arboretum (Jane Stanford had decreed that no buildings would be built within the borders of the arboretum but neglected to specify its borders). 

I have benefitted from others’ loss, their desire to turn that loss into something meaningful that will commemorate their loved one, whether it is benches to sit on in a beautiful garden, a book on how to build resilience (if I ever read it), or a university that has educated and advanced humankind. The price I pay is knowing of that loss, of having death surfaced to me, uninvited. 

There is no meaning in a particular death except the one we choose to give it. 



It took a couple of years, but I think I figured out a meaning of life, sufficient for my own. It is: live life and then make way for other life. I only started wondering about life’s meaning in earnest a few years ago, and this was how I arrived at what might seem like a tautology, but I think is sufficient to fuel me for the rest of the journey.

Youth was, as Stefan Zweig might have put it, a period of expectation. I wasn’t searching for meaning, because I was learning. And as I learned, I expected to experience, accomplish and learn more. As I got older, expectations narrowed and loss or the fear of further loss, of vitality, of life, arrived. And the “how” started to turn to a “why”.

At first I intensified my search for knowledge, reading about the frontiers of physics, the formation and history of our planet, the evolution of life, etc. “The Vital Question” helped (Nick Lane had been my favorite origin-of-life author for many years) by showing how it could be that complex life is so rare in our corner of the universe. But it was no longer enough. If anything it made it seem weird that I as a sentient being was here to observe the universe.

It takes me back to the question of the Zoom of Life (a blog post from 4 years ago that may very well have kicked off this search), the scale at which one is supposed to think of one’s own life. Since then I had become unanchored at several zoom levels, or at least, many of the anchors were slipping: I had lost a parent, it wasn’t as clear what humanity had left to achieve, at least on its own, AI-unaided (or maybe that was just my “back in my day” reaction to this day).

I figured a lot of people have given this some thought for at least a couple of millenia, and so I might just rip off whatever they figured out about the meaning of it all. I first turned to the thoughts of other doubters, and though their attitudes were heartening, they didn’t seem to have quite the answer I was looking for. Over the period of two years, I listened to the audiobook version of the History of Western Philosophy. It for the most part went in one ear and immediately out the same one.

I experimented with producing something, perhaps life was about what you could make. A couple of self-published children’s books later, the futility of everything seemed only stronger. And then in the middle of listening to the book “Scale,” in the chapter arguing about the futility of life extension, there it was. I heard it as the purpose of life is to be and then make way for other life. That’s not quite what was written, and the quote was by Steve Jobs, but I had missed this (else I may have received it more skeptically). But right then, the miscomprehended version made so much sense. My life is part of a thing much bigger than me, LIFE. Individual life is short by design. I get to experience it, and the marvels of the universe and nature and being human and some of the wonderful things humans have produced like science, and art and music and food; and interact with others and learn a lot. And then I won’t be around to do so any more, but other life will.

A few books later, I read in both “Lost Connections” and “Natural Causes” how people with depression or facing terminal illness, after taking LSD, felt more at peace because they saw themselves as part of the great stream of life. I haven’t tried the stuff myself, but I do think happiness depends on finding the right zoom setting.

Missed connections (thinking about my dad)

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Jun 152018

My dad and I sit in the same spot, on a terrace in front of a tiny cottage he and my mom built in Croatia, looking out at sunset after sunset. Only I sit here after his death, and he, of course, sat there before it. I have the many photographs of sunsets (and sunrises) he took in the ten years between when the cottage was built and when he could no longer return to it. There were a number of times we looked at the sunset together, sometimes I think there was even a herd of sheep bleating in the spot where now a mini excavator is parked.

My photo in 2017 on the left, my dad’s in 2013 on the right.

But mostly we watched sunsets separately. Inside, there is the remainder of his vast library, all that could really fit. I recognize several titles I had read recently. In some books I find little scraps of paper. On them, in tidy handwriting, he listed page numbers and a few notes to himself. He treated books with care and hence did not mark them up directly. It’s difficult to decipher from his notes what he thought of the books. Many books don’t have such notes. Had he read them?

Most people must have regrets about things they didn’t do with their dad. One of mine is not having discussed enough books. As with shared sunsets, we did read some of the same books, mostly popular science. But somehow at the time we only discussed them casually, not with the intense interest I have now in asking him about them. I wasn’t the person I am now. Partly it’s that I’ve gotten a few years older. Partly I am a different person because of his death. I’ve lost some interest in TV and written fiction, and have turned to nonfiction books, the stuff of my dad’s shelves. His side tables used to have tall stacks of books he’d be reading simultaneously while following some thread of thought or logic. Because of the non-linear way he approached books, I’m not even sure we could connect over a book’s central theme, but I’d be just as happy to discuss whatever ideas had lead him to pick up the book in the first place.

Speaking of mis-connection, it may be that sunsets were not his favorite time of day, but sunrises (what if the “sunset” above was actually a sunrise??), or perhaps the many shades of blue and gray he photographed even before the sun had risen. This too would have been a nice topic to talk about, but I didn’t spend much time here. The mile one needs to walk out of town to reach the cottage has grown shorter the more I’ve walked it, but at the time it seemed a trek. The various bugs (wasps, mosquitoes, flies) that kept me away, I’ve learned to get along with (the ones I don’t manage to eliminate, that is). As the sheep and mules and horses have moved out and the properties around us are cultivated, the wilderness has retreated a bit as well. I used to not understand why my dad didn’t want to hang out in town and beelined for the cottage as soon as he could, but now I feel much the same way. And again, his death changed things. It is a tiny cottage, and his absence has allowed me to move in in a way I could not have while he occupied it.

I might bemoan the missed connections, but we connected on other interests over the many years we had together: hiking and camping, woodworking, physics, gardening. These days, fortuitously, I enjoy glimpses of my mom and dad’s garden, through his eyes. I had added my dad’s photo album of his and my mom’s garden from the spring of 2003 to my Amazon Photos. That year he was not yet retired, and the cottage was just about completed. Some days I get an “on this day” notification, and it shows me irises and columbines he photographed in Boulder, Colorado in 2003. It’s a nice connection through time. 

Old Wrinkly and the Internet

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May 142018

In the “How to Train Your Dragon” children’s book series, the hero, Hiccup, consults his grandfather, “Old Wrinkly,” when he encounters a problem, such as his friend getting sick with a mysterious illness, or not knowing the function of the “ticking thing.” Old Wrinkly, being an elder of the Hairy Hooligan viking tribe, knows things, both past and future, and his infusions of wisdom nudge Hiccup’s adventures in good directions.

Lately, I’ve started to worry that being Wrinkly ain’t what it used to be. I blame the internet. It fetches a lot of the knowledge that would otherwise have been most easily accessed by asking an advanced grown up.

Take learning to cook. It used to be something passed down from generation to generation. If you somehow did not know grandmother’s secret recipe, your cooking may have been set back. These days online recipe sites contain dozens of versions of each recipe, including “Grandma’s secret [..] recipe”s (traitors!). If you can’t quite recall how it’s done, there’s typically a YouTube video showing you how, perhaps even more patiently and instructively than grandma would. And before, or rather, right after I accuse others of betrayal, I must admit that I helped edit a cold smoking recipe my dad was putting online (which he learned from his uncle).

What about the family-tie strengthening activity of information exchange? If we are not calling our parents to ask them how to get out a particular stain out of a shirt, or fix a leaky faucet, we’re not calling them as often. My dad had lived through a lot, and read a whole lot, and my asking for advice was one of the ways we connected. He would often send sketches with ideas and solutions. Now, though I miss my dad dearly, I manage to do the simpler things like unclog a garbage disposal or change the fan speed for the HVAC system, with the help of YouTube. My mom is an interesting hybrid. She not only has a ton of stored knowledge on hand, but is unbeatable in retrieving info from the internet with her mad search skills. But not every advanced grown up can achieve this.

As a parent I feel my wise status is fast expiring. My son doesn’t quite have free reign of the internet… for now. At the same time I cannot, for example, say that I don’t know something, because he’ll instruct me to look it up. Still, as an intermediary I am keeping some importance. For example, even though I think inglish speling shud bi fonetik, I am kind of happy that my son often asks me how to spell things. A work friend once praised Alexa as being so useful because his kid could ask it how to spell words. We had an Amazon Echo at the time, but I swiftly kicked it to the curb. Old Wrinkly is the source of (mostly) correct spelling around here!


San Marino was my first serious relationship with a neighborhood of gardens. I fell in love just as soon as I stumbled upon it, soon after I started college. Across California Blvd. from my Caltech undergrad dorm the flat street grids of Pasadena (already a very nice city) quickly give way to curving, hilly, quiet, tree-shaded streets bordered by large lots and beautiful gardens. I walked these streets sometimes during the day, but sometimes also biked them at night, enjoying the intoxicating fragrance of evening blooms.

It may have been the sleep deprivation associated with doing math and physics problem sets late into the night, or maybe the fog/smog that frequently enveloped the gardens, but being there felt like a dream. One huge old oak tree, whose gnarled branches were illuminated by ground lights in the fog, looked equally unreal in reality and in my dreams.

People must have lived on those streets. But either they were not there, or I did not perceive them. I could contemplate the(ir) gardens at my leisure. Just once, I spoke to one of the residents. My friend and I had been biking around, and encountered a small black kitten for the second consecutive night. She had a rubber band around her neck. Concerned, I went up a sloped driveway and rang the doorbell. A woman opened the door and explained that some kids had been playing with a stray kitten. We thanked her, and bagged the kitten, whom I named Nikita, to the protest of my Russian-born friend, who thought it was not an appropriate name for a lady cat. I was afraid that Nikita would try to escape back to San Marino, to return to the beautiful gardens, but she stayed.

After concluding our studies at Caltech, Nikita and I had moved to Stanford just at the height of the dot-com boom. Stanford didn’t allow cats on campus. Unable to find a place to live, we ended up initially living in unincorporated Menlo Park, in a warehouse. Atherton, a city exceeding even the affluence of San Marino, was just blocks away. But at its boundary the gardens were hidden behind towering walls and hedges, and the sidewalks were non-existent. Once I thought I glimpsed a tennis court behind one of the fences. I just now tried to figure out which garden that might have been by looking at satellite images on Google Maps. However, having a tennis court hardly narrowed down the candidate gardens. Every second property seemed to have one! If you zoom into San Marino, you can find a similar density of tennis courts. Who knew? I hope someone sometime writes some image recognition software to count up all the tennis courts in the world.

Atherton tennis courts.

Satellite image showing tennis courts in San Marino, CA

San Marino tennis courts.

A year into gradschool Nikita moved to Colorado to live with my parents, allowing me to move to Stanford campus, where I promptly lost the housing lottery and ended up in a shared rental in Los Altos. Los Altos had no sidewalks, which curtailed my explorations then, but I’ve been back since to make up on the gardens I was missing. In 2001 my husband and I moved into a cottage in Old Palo Alto together. The Eichler-style linoleum-lined 1 bedroom cottage was behind a modest 1920s house. But the neighborhood! It had miles of sidewalks and beautiful gardens. Steve Jobs lived a few blocks over, though I never quite figured out or cared which house it was. After we moved to Michigan, whenever I was back in the area, I’d walk around the (O)ld Palo Alto neighborhood. The cottage is no longer there. It and the front house were promptly replaced by a new mansion. But the gardens are still fantastic. And now that I’m back in the area, I visit there just to walk around.

A white wisteria in Palo Alto

There are other neighborhoods I’ve enjoyed. In Ann Arbor, a neighborhood of winding streets by the Huron river was irresistible when the dogwood or cherry trees were in bloom. When (thanks to Hotwire’s hotel roulette) I stayed in Hotel Angellino during a conference, I walked the streets of Bel Air and Westwood to reach the UCLA campus. I wandered around Piedmont after spotting it from a conference at the Claremont Hotel. Last Christmas, I was in Los Altos Hills picking up a last-minute order of wine bottles intended as Christmas presents. Finding myself on unfamiliar winding streets with intriguing gardens, I resolved to return. It was so worth it. You know how sometimes there will be a vista point along a winding route? Every garden there had a view of the bay. After seeing many “neighborhood watch” signs with threats of any suspicious activity being reported, I wondered how suspicious-looking our garden-gazing activity was. But I forgot about that when a man walking a horse came up behind us. We crossed the road to make way, and the man said “Don’t worry, he has already eaten.”

In light of the fine gardens that are open to the public, ogling people’s private gardens may seem strange. In fact, some of the nicest public gardens are nestled right smack in the middle of the the most beautiful neighborhoods; Gamble Garden in Old Palo Alto, for example. And it is hard not to mention the 120 acre Huntington Gardens in San Marino, my favorite botanical garden. I used to wander in there regularly, down a long, winding driveway. Since I assume no one expected a pedestrian, you could just stroll in. Shortly after I left Caltech, they’d installed a little booth in the driveway. When I tried walking past, a uniformed guard got all huffy, demanding that I make a “donation” to the foundation. These days, a weekend visit will set you back $29. I gladly pay it. There is hardly a botanical garden within range that I won’t visit given a chance. Once, having an unplanned 5-hour layover in Paris, I beelined for the Jardin des Plantes.

But botanical gardens suffer from a certain problem. If I had to sum it up in one word, I’d say “collections.” Huntington Gardens boast 1,400 different rose cultivars, and 1,200 different camellias. And if there is one thing to take away from The Little Prince, it is that the worst thing you can do to a rose is to put it next to 1,399 other roses. It is impossible to appreciate the individual beauty of a rose bush when it is placed in tidy, boring, rectangular rows next to roses that may be bigger, curlier, a slightly more exotic shade, whatever. The perfectly rectangular grid of 516 peony cultivars in Ann Arbor’s Nichols’ arboretum looks like nothing for most of the year, and then like a bunch of people snapping selfies for the few weeks that the peonies are in bloom. Same with the 140 dahlia cultivars in Mendocino’s botanical gardens.

I had felt guilty for not (yet) having taken my mom to San Jose’s municipal rose garden (only 159 varieties?). But when I finally did, we admired its tidy rows and pergolas, and other people taking selfies, but I found myself wanting to wander a few of the nearby streets which seemed to have nice gardens.

Each private garden is a whole. Composing each one is an art. The plants need to complement each other, and sustain year-round interest. California’s climate allows for a wide-range of garden styles, from succulent & cactus gardens reminiscent of the arid southwest, to english cottage, to Japanese gardens, or OK, fine, native California gardens. You never know what you’ll encounter next on your walk.

Atherton’s boundaries are the boundaries between green and gray in this satellite image.

While small gardens are lovely, some garden artistry requires… a larger canvas. But how to reconcile large gardens with the need to build more and denser housing?  San Marino’s wikipedia page points to rather strict regulations intended to maintain lot sizes and property values (see footnote for examples of things bolstering the appearance of gardens). In the same article there is also a reference to Forbes’ and Bloomberg’s lists of most affluent cities. San Marino was #48/#78 (depending on whether you look by zip code or city), but there was also Palo Alto (#97), Los Altos (#37), Los Altos Hills (#7), and a few other neighborhoods I’ve walked just to explore. At #1 was Atherton which had successfully rebuffed me with its walls and hedges.

Coincidentally, a few weeks back my friends and I drove down Atherton Avenue, dodging rush hour traffic by cruising down the heart of Atherton. There were no tall fences or hedges in sight! The gardens stood naked, exposed. Atherton, I’m checking out your gardens next.


Some regulations from the San Marino city ordinances:
“Ever since 1913, the year this city was founded, the City has built a reputation for well kept properties and strict enforcement of zoning restrictions and building regulations. The values and general welfare of this community are founded upon the appearance and maintenance of properties and property values.”
[In addition to not being able to park your car in your own driveway (cars must be in garages!), let alone on the street, there were several other prohibited behaviors relevant to garden aesthetics:]
7. Allow overgrown vegetation – likely to harbor rats, vermin and other nuisances; causing a detriment to neighboring properties and property values.
8. Allow dead, decayed, diseased or hazardous trees, weeds and other vegetation constituting unsightly appearance, or a detriment to nearby property.
14. To neglect premises to spite neighbors, or to influence zone changes, or to cause detrimental effect upon nearby property values.

[Also, interestingly, if this was in effect at the time, I did not have a license to “operate” my bike on San Marino city streets.:]
BICYCLE LICENSES Bicycle licenses are obtained at City Hall for a nominal fee and must be procured before a bicycle can be operated on City streets. []

A year of being a self-published pest

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Feb 022018

The first self(?)-published author I can recall foisting his book upon me was my 9th grade French teacher. He told the class he had written a book, praised it at length, and instructed us to order it. Shortly thereafter he brought in a tall stack of glossy-cover paperbacks and collected our money. The book did not teach us French, but a few of us did gain some new knowledge; I recall it was quite racy. The next person to unexpectedly reveal herself as a (self?)-published author was our nice travel agent. It was a thriller involving the Croatian independence war, a deep conspiracy, an obsessive romance. I couldn’t figure out in either case why they wanted me to read their books.

Looking back now I recognize all too well the need to disseminate one’s book to anyone within reach. With other hobbies, e.g. woodworking, I was content to admire my creations myself, or sometimes show them or give them to friends. But a BOOK… almost as soon as I started working on it, it seemed to start saying to me that it wanted to be read and printed. And no matter how sensible my initial expectations that there would be just a few copies of this BOOK, and that I would give it to friends and that will be that, the BOOK by its very concept messed with my head.

To make matters worse, due to some productive procrastination, I ended up writing three children’s books instead of one. I had wanted to create one picture book, that would be a special present to my son, of a story of a picky-eater prince by the name of Peter. But I had trouble getting an illustrator to commit to the project, so I (logically) decided to self-publish a chapter book (Poofthorn) instead that would not require illustration. After realizing that this actually did not bring me closer to the goal, I started to learn to draw and as practice self-published a picture book (The princess had to go #2) based on a story my grandmother had told me to cure me of my princess obsession. This made me recognize the limitations to my artistic abilities all the more, so I went back to trying to find an illustrator and found a long-lost friend. So Prince Peter came into existence too.

Each BOOK, as it developed and then was born, evoked new hopes. Rationally I knew that those hopes were unfounded. I had listened to dozens of episodes of a writing podcast, as well as books and blog posts on self-publishing. I knew that thinking your book was better than a majority of the stuff out there, besides being a delusion, also doesn’t actually qualify it for publication. I knew that even the most well-known authors typically wrote 5+ manuscripts before finally selling one. And that was the traditional publishing route. I expected my amateur “manuscripts” would not make it past an editor. But then I also knew that almost nobody actually managed to sell their self-published work. Even worse, there is a stigma around self-publishing. A friend reading the chapter book asked if I was not concerned that people could figure out who I was! The common-sense advice was to never put self-published work on your CV. And yet, as I wrote, or drew, or received new drawings, I fell in love with my BOOKs and wanted a future for them out in the world.

Each BOOK told me why it needed to have more copies dispersed:

  • The Princess could save little girls from the princess industrial complex.
  • Prince Peter would show an upside to trying veggies.
  • Poofthorn would get kids excited about botany (it worked on my son, he is pictured below taking notes at Foster Botanical Gardens).

I tried different things: self-publishing exclusively on Amazon and using Facebook ads to advertise (especially for the 5 days out of 90 one can offer them for free). I tried a free iBook for the Princess. Although I could pay via ads for a few people to download my books for free, that was that.

I gave copies to friends. I tried online giveaways. I sent Prince Peter as a “slush pile” submission to about a dozen publishing houses. Only one of the publishers allowed submissions to include an self-addressed, stamped envelope so that they could send me a rejection letter. This rejection letter read something like “We receive 3,000 manuscript submissions a year, we publish 10”. Or maybe it was 30,000 and the 10 are solicited.

At this point reason would say to give up. But just as I would resolve to do so, I’d want to try one more thing. I added illustrations to the chapter book, hoping that now the books would sell like hotcakes. They did not.

I tried to see if I could distribute my books locally. The local bookstore replied twice to say how their consignment program is “temporarily on-hold.” I wrote the “Friends of the Mountain View Library” association (whose member I had been) about their upcoming used book sale, and asked if I could peddle my books in that context, or if I could donate my books to them and they could distribute them. The answer was a rather stern no. I briefly contemplated approaching a librarian, but googling for info on how to that, I found a librarian’s scathing blog post that said pretty much what I suspected, which is that self-published authors are the bane of librarians’ existence, and that no patron has ever requested a self-published book, ever. Just as I scrapped that plan, I emailed the librarian at my son’s school. By the second email she agreed to “have a look.” I met her before the first bell at a container that was the school’s temporary library during construction. She took the book and held it gingerly away from herself, while saying a short “Thank you” and swiftly closing the door. Have not heard from her since.

When running Amazon ads, I found myself in an Amazon help forum, where someone was saying that he had self-published his book just for his own satisfaction, but that friends and family had said how great it was, and that he then felt encouraged to try to find a wider audience for it. I thought, hey, that’s me, my mom liked my books! By the way, on a writing podcast an editor said that mentioning your mother’s opinion of your book was just about the worst thing you can write in your inquiry letter. But if not our moms, who is going to lend support and encouragement to struggling self-published authors everywhere? So I tracked down this particular author’s book, and downloaded it, because all the snooty editors and self-publishing nay-sayers could be wrong. He could be an undiscovered Andy Weir! I’m still trying to get through the book. How can I put it? It just isn’t very good. It was time to look in the mirror.

In October I had concluded my last creative writing effort, the first story out of a hypothetical five of the Explorers who Toot webcomic. A webcomic, I thought, would be free of constraints a book had been subject to. But when I tried to tell people about it, nobody replied. Even my friends and family seemed to have had enough.

That’s it, that’s my year of being under the spell of the BOOKs and pestering my friends. Sorry friends. Sorry strangers who might find these in your “little free libraries” (What? Did I say that out loud? OK, I won’t do that… probably)

Caltrans district 4 bike survey maps

 data fun  Comments Off on Caltrans district 4 bike survey maps
Nov 232017

Earlier this year Caltrans conducted a survey, where you could drop “pins” on a map and specify examples of good bike infrastructure, where there are barriers to biking, and where new or improved bike routes are desired (all this on state-owned/maintained roads).

3,400 people took the survey, and dropped 20,000 such pins. The survey report contained many interesting insights, but still I was a bit disappointed that the output was not as interactive as the input. The included heat maps seemed too coarse to distinguish particular roads (except potentially some bridges):

Caltrans had shared the survey data along with the report*. When I asked around how one might re-construct interactive maps from it, my colleague Andi Gros suggested I try leaflet in R.

I did! So now you can see individual roads, pan and zoom thanks to OpenStreetMaps. 

There are also the individual comments people pinned to the map. There were just too many to plot together interactively without making my browser unhappy. 

So instead I attempted separate maps for

  1. Examples of good infra (The Stevens Creek Trail features rather prominently!)
  2. Barriers to biking (south of SF only), you can also attempt to load a map with all the comments.
  3. Places where new and improved bike infrastructure is desired, again you can try all the comments too.
  4. (circles only) Roads people would like to travel along or cross

So this Thanksgiving I am grateful for bikes, for people who bike, for Caltrans caring that there are people who bike, but most of all that we can have a sense of humor about transportation infrastructure.



* As a survey taker I wasn’t necessarily anticipating that the data would be available for download (I tend to not read instructions). But the comments I think are great to read and share. Do let me know if you find anything that should not be there. Thanks.

Recharge: a month of doing little

 random musings  Comments Off on Recharge: a month of doing little
Nov 212017

After working at Facebook for 5 years, I was eligible for a month’s “recharge” leave (thanks Facebook!). I opted to spend it in Croatia, with my mom.

Spending September in Croatia has eluded me for a long time. And when I did manage to fit in a couple of summer weeks in Croatia in the past, too often I’d spend them cramming  (while in school), or preparing courses I’d teach, or writing papers or grant applications, or cutting things short to travel to conferences. This gift of a recharge was the gift of doing nothing. At all. Even husbands and sons will want to do something fun and adventurous. They stayed behind.

My recharge looked approximately like this:

You may notice from the photos that I stayed in the same spot. Whomever I’ve told this to responded with, “I took a 2 week vacation between jobs once, any longer and I would have been bored to death,” or “We were stuck in Dubrovnik for 2 weeks once, we almost went crazy.” Not me, no need to budge. I may appreciate famous tourist attractions as millions of others do, but I never loved any other spot as much as I love this one spot.

Here I am for example in Venice:

And showing the same level of enthusiasm at some English castle:

[Not pictured: Roughly the same expression at Niagara Falls and number of other landmarks.]
Here, on the other hand, I am in Bol, Croatia.
I think that travel can lead to growth, and even superficial travel can be eye opening in youth when you first start exploring the world. But I think growth potential is limited if one does not pause and live somewhere a while.

Besides watching sunsets, I swam. A few storms and cooler weather chilled the sea (see goosebumps below from an October swim).

I had lots of time to contemplate what it means to be an insignificant little human on this planet (see also the Zoom of Life.)

My mom and I unpacked an old record player and listened to LPs while looking out at the sea and eating figs.

I drew. After practicing a bit I illustrated with doodles a short children’s book I’d written earlier, Poofthorn.

And then after practicing some more, I drew a short and silly comic, The Explorers Who Toot (Underwater).

That was it. That was recharge. Upon returning I felt mildly disoriented both at home and at work. And right before I returned I felt an acute finiteness, of life, of summer, of figs.


Last weekend I repainted some flowers on my ’91 Honda Civic, Miss Daisy. I’d done this first about 15 years ago, when the car was worth almost nothing, and now again when she is still worth nothing. But she’s worth a lot to me, and maybe even more so because she is not worth much to anyone else, and so I can modify her appearance without regret.

There are over a billion cars in the world. The vast majority look identical to thousands of others of the same make, model and year. Most people probably don’t want to modify their cars, even those who lovingly wash and wax them on weekends. But there must be many who would, if that wouldn’t instantly drop the resale value of their cars.

We spend a not-insignificant fraction of our lives in these metal containers on wheels, and the car is how many people, especially strangers, “see” us. The most we do is hang a little trinket from the rear view mirror. In a year or five, the car should look as close as possible to how it looked when it left the factory. Any modification should strictly increase its value for resale, even if we never recover the expense of the work. But when can one ever justify actually ruining resale value?

Same with houses we own. We not only have to consider our current needs, but the needs of the median buyer who may want to purchase the home years hence. This is not an empty fear. Real estate agents I’ve toured houses with rolled their eyes or chuckled at non-standard modifications, whether it was a converted garage or adventurously placed staircase or extra bathroom. And they would sigh sadly when a house had only 2 bedrooms, or did not meet some other standard requirement. I remember during the dot-com boom someone built a house in Mountain View that had purple turrets and such. Apparently the owner needed to sell it just a short while later, and someone remarked that they expected the owner had a lot of regret about the house.

At least most home-building animals, like rats, can make their home to their satisfaction without worrying about whether the rats to move in next will like it. Maybe birds who build for potential partners have it worse, that must be stressful. But for humans, I think it makes us behave like we are just temporarily utilizing the house we own. I once visited a friend who had bought a house in a new development. She explained that she and her husband had bought the big 5 bedroom house 3 years prior and remarked that they had not put up a single painting. Due to her husband’s job they expected to move in another 3 years (which they did), and they wanted their house at that future point to be the most pristine of any house on offer in the same development. She and others have bought big houses, not because they needed the space, but because such houses tend to keep a higher resale value.

If we ever remodel, I’d like to have backsplash tiles in the kitchen featuring cows being abducted by aliens, something I saw and bought at a street art fair (but now can’t figure out who the artist was). However, I might chicken out. If for some reason we need to sell the house, whether that is the following year or 30 years down the road, will it sell for less because a buyer might not want a kitchen embellished by cows being abducted by aliens? Probably. And this makes me sad. That we are living in tasteful, generic houses, driving generic cars, all striving for the same future salability.

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