Missed connections (thinking about my dad)

 random musings  Comments Off on Missed connections (thinking about my dad)
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

 random musings, Uncategorized  Comments Off on Old Wrinkly and the Internet
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.

On running and not running

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Feb 062017

Runners — in many ways I have to grudgingly admire them. When I roll in to work, they are already there, hair damp, crunching on some granola, having woken up at some ungodly hour to go for a run. More irritatingly, their self-discipline and drive seem to carry over into their careers, where they are, unsurprisingly, disciplined, driven, and successful. I meet them at international conferences, where they’ll make special note of the spectacular sunrise they saw as they ran up and down town, making my being caught by the dawn light, reading a book in bed, extra lame.

Before I get into criticizing running, let me explain what I think it’s good for. It’s good for getting from A to B in less time than it would take to walk. This can be nice for the above mentioned sightseeing, when you have a limited amount of time but much you’d like to see, especially on rugged trails outdoors. If the trails are not rugged, you can get from A to B by bike faster. Just saying. And if B has something you’d like to catch, e.g. a bus, a hat blown off by the wind etc., running is a good approach then too.

Insofar as running is exercise, running is likely better than not exercising at all. Exercise helps you feel better, both brain-chemically and feeling more energetic. However, due to a relatively high injury rate (as far as I can tell), there may be more sensible ways to get exercise. Take for example walking. It can take you from A to B, albeit more slowly. You can still go on rugged trails, see nature, explore neighborhoods. When you’re done, you don’t have to change clothes, shower etc., potentially it has lower environmental impact. You can do it with a friend. True, you can also go running with a friend, but I see many more people walking than running together, even taking into account the number of people doing either. Most importantly, you can walk and think. When I’m running, my thoughts are for the most part preoccupied with the burning in my lungs, the stitches in my side, the distance to finish, and pathetic pleading with myself to keep going. When I’m walking, I can think about work, about other plans, I can make up stupid blog posts about running in my head (and then write them down later). In a loose parallel I used to worry about being too slow on my bicycle when commuting. Invariably I would start thinking about something and slow down. Rather than fighting it, I’ve embraced it, the thinking. I also listen to audio books, and so have managed to get through quite a bit of serious non-fiction. I don’t think you can do that during rigorous exercise.

The past few years the New York Times has been having fun poking holes in exercise and nutrition regimens by suggesting you can exercise much less often and for shorter periods and still reap almost all the benefits. Nevertheless, there seems a kind of superiority to running. I think it’s because it is so quantifiable. You can set specific goals: X distance in under Y minutes. How would you do that for something else, e.g. basketball, tennis, hiking, parenting? With running you know exactly how much better or worse you are than anyone else, than yourself a month or year before, or yesterday. Then if you’re really disciplined and have somehow escaped injury, you can participate in competitions where it is all externally validated, and OK, I take it there is some camaraderie as well.

Then there is also the benefit of looking fit. Despite my slow biking, my calves have hardened a bit, and when I encounter them, I’m like “oooh.” I imagine there is a whole lot more self-admiration and mirror gazing going on for people who are actually fit. But in a cruel way, and as Christopher Hitchens once brilliantly wrote, exercise is for those who are already fit. Running with flab means feeling it jiggling. Biking is kinder, my fat stays mostly in place.

With statistics such as the average American spending 4 hours/day watching TV, who’s to say that spending 1/2-1 of those hours running is a bad thing? Still, like TV, running produces nothing. TV watching might actually generate some conversation, friends may become interested in watching the same show, maybe even together. Team sports or tennis might serve more of a social function, and also involve the brain more, since there is more strategy, but I wouldn’t know, I don’t play them. As I’ve been spending more time on the bike I’ve had less time, and energy, for things like woodworking. Biking doesn’t produce anything either, though it does get me to and from work. And even if I make something, and even if it has a utility for a while, is that really that different from running around in circles, in the long run?

So you can keep on running, and I’ll keep on not running; our end point is the same (though mine might come a bit later, since a bit of extra fat is supposed to help one live longer, and maybe I’ll even have my original knees still).

The unquantified self

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May 212016

It was a sunny Saturday morning in Phoenix, AZ, when I found my friend sitting in a lounge chair outside, working with a spreadsheet, while his daughters played nearby. “Sorry you have to work on a Saturday,” I said, mildly concerned that my host was not attending to me. He looked up, and explained that this was not work, but rather all his stats: exercise, calorie intake, heart rate, sleep. I may have muttered something like “Oh, interesting,” and backed away slowly.

That was about five years ago, and since then my friends have embraced quantifying themselves in increasing and alarming numbers. The other night a friend offered to walk with us to our house after dinner while his wife drove their car. He enjoys our company, I thought. “I try to keep moving since my watch counts my steps.” Ah. And the weekend before, when we had organized a group camping trip in the redwoods, on day two a dear friend exclaimed “I met my steps goal yesterday, and I wasn’t even trying!” I thought back to the previous day, sitting by the campfire with friends, kids playing among the trees, seeing flowers I’d never noticed before, grilling up a feast, and the rain, the fog, then the sun and stars. Knowing that this = 13,387 steps (or whatever) should not matter, or at least it shouldn’t make it less. But to me it does make it less.

To care about our bodies and bodily function is human, to respond to little rewards and encouragements is human too. I don’t contest that a whole lot of people are fitter, skinnier, healthier because they’ve self-quantified. I’m even glad that my friends feel good in their goal setting and self-surveillance. But we are only alive for a short while, the world is vast and mysterious, and full of interesting people to boot. Is self-quantification not narcissistic introspection that holds us back from experiencing that which is greater than we are? At least this is the excuse I have for myself for not obsessively tracking myself, for being self-oblivious if you will.

You can imagine my horror, then, when upon turning on my brand new smartwatch a few months back, I found it cheerfully counting my steps. The first day it excitedly informed me that I had met my goal. How dare it set a goal and then claim it was mine? In frantically trying to disable it, I instead managed to set it to vibrate and light up with a message “you have been inactive for 2 hours, get moving!”, every 2 hours… while I was sleeping. Enraged I gave it a 1 star Amazon review. Then someone commented on my review and explained how you can hide the steps feature. As far as I know it’s still counting, but at least I don’t have to know.

Despite my staunch resistance to self-quantification, I have succumbed in some regards.
After decades of not owning a scale, I own a scale, I weigh myself. Life was better before.

In January, the Good Reads app prompted me over and over again to set a goal for the number of books I wanted to read in 2016. I ignored it. I did not set a goal, and yet the mere act of recording the books I read is influencing my behavior. I finish books I would rather set aside, just to add them to my tally. This despite knowing that there are many, many more excellent books out there than I could ever hope to read in my lifetime. But… but… if I don’t count them, does reading them count?

One way I am upping my stats on Good Reads is by consuming books with the Audible app. The first time the app buzzed with a notification that I had earned a “badge” I pointedly ignored it. Three days ago, when I was driving back from LA it gave me a ‘night owl’ badge for having listened for more than 8 hours in a day. I decided to finally track down these stupid badge things and see if I could kill them, though I didn’t hold much hope. I found them, along with the horrifying statistic that I had spent 10 days 14 hours and 20 minutes of my life listening to audio books. As for the badges I of course noticed that some I had earned and others I had not. I tapped on just one unearned one, the watchtower. It informed me that the way to earn it is to keep checking your stats. Hah! That is one badge I will NOT be earning.

My trouble with physics

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Mar 282016

[The following are my embellished recollections of things that happened about 20 years ago, and as such may not resemble reality… much.]

“The trouble with physics”, a book about the questionable validity of and investment in string theory, did not trouble me enough. The book’s troubling claim? That the top minds in theoretical physics have been spending their time on theories that not only may never be validated, but might not have made any concrete and useful predictions. Why didn’t I care? Because I had aborted my physics education and training before reaching string theory (or general relativity, for that matter), and so it was really not my problem. But I thought the book might provide a means to catch up with all that I had missed, in a form digestible by a general audience, hence requiring none of the physics knowledge that had long since left me due to disuse.

Despite the book’s engaging narration, the suspense and drama, I was not drawn in by the question of how many dimensions were required and whether they were balled up or not, whether theories were ‘finite’ and the meaning of time. Had I ever been a proper physicists in the first place?

My “trouble” with physics had its roots before I was born. My dad initially enrolled as a political science and philosophy major at the University of Zagreb. But already during his first summer internship he was turned off by the cronyism in government and decided to pursue physics instead. Being born to a physicist does not by any means condemn one to be one. But let’s face it, physicist parents can’t help but give good answers to the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions a child might have about the natural world around them. My dad encouraged my interest in science. We worked on a couple of experiments, generated Mandelbrot sets, and practiced back-of-the-envelope calculations. Between the head start of physics exposure at home, and general lack of social life, i.e. ample time to devote to studying, I even received a “best physics student” award in high school.

However, when I was about to set off for Caltech in 1993, my dad cautioned me against becoming a physicist. He mentioned that the world will always need mechanical engineers, with the implication being, I suppose, that the world may not need more physicists.

But if you’re going to fall in love with physics anywhere in the world, it’s got to be Caltech. I had fully intended to not be a physics major. But I took a little quiz-by-mail before going there that placed me in an advanced section of Phys 1, which meant that I spent an extra hour/week contemplating even more physics with other freshmen who were geeking out on physics. My undergrad dorm (Blacker Hovse), was full of physics majors like me. How did I end up in such a physicist-infested house? At the beginning of each year, the Caltech freshmen are sorted into houses. The process is just like the Hogwarts sorting hat, only more accurate.

I had still gone in ambivalent about my chosen major. For a while, following my dad’s advice, I would say I was thinking about being a mechanical engineer. I also thought I might want to do “math”, based on cruising through high school calculus. Unaware of the difference between high school math and well, math, I took the sophomore level abstract algebra class my freshman year, and my first quarter progress report (at the time Caltech did not give freshmen letter grades) said only ‘Lada is getting used to the level of abstraction’. Truth be told, I wasn’t getting used to the abstraction. Writing math proofs was a maddening exercise. To my linear thinking (you start with some assumptions, e.g. spherical cows, and work from there), it was frustrating to have to fit the pieces of the puzzle (different lemmas, theorems, whatever) together in unexpected ways to arrive at a result. When I next encountered group theory, in physics, a couple of years later, I was maybe a bit better prepared, but not that delighted.

As the leaves dropped that fall (oh, wait, it was LA, so maybe as the smog lifted a little), I fell into the cult of physics. I befriended Real Genius (a made-up name to scantily cloak his identity), a particularly intense, geeky senior physics major who took me under his wing. He told me about Caltech legends, faculty past and present: students such as Real Real Genius (RRG) whose physics genius may have driven them to madness, though RG was quite the mad-scientist character himself.

One morning, Kip Thorne (science advisor to the movie Interstellar), gave a guest lecture in Phys 1, and being a Caltech alum himself, and a generally cool guy, he had a huge fan base, and many upperclassmen showed up to this freshman lecture. The lecture did not disappoint. He jumped onto and from the desk at the front of the class, bouncing around a medicine ball which he wanted us to imagine was a wormhole. I understood little but the experience was memorable because the moment that Kip Thorne opened his can of Dr. Pepper, 100 cans of Dr. Pepper fizzed (we had each covertly brought our own).

If I understood RG correctly, the goal of a Caltech physics education appeared to be to take general relativity with Kip Thorne. RG drafted a course plan (which I briefly found among the piles of papers from Caltech which I can’t bring myself to throw away, only to lose track of it again). In tiny handwriting he had listed all the courses, and brief comments about the professors. Over the top of it, I had written in red ink ‘Lada’s dreams ruined by Aschbacher’. Aschbacher was the Math 1 instructor, and whatever he did, he did not ruin my dreams, for in the first 3 years I did follow RG’s plan. I doubled up 1c/2a, and spent a summer solving endless problems for Math 2b, to be able to take Applied Math 95 sophomore year. This would enable me to take mathematical methods for physics junior year, which would be helpful in general relativity. For the first three years I took every possible physics class: optics, thermodynamics, 6 classes (usually 5 of them physics) a quarter, without exception. I delayed taking the required chemistry lab, I selected the easiest of the mandatory humanities and social science classes to not be distracted from taking more physics classes. As a result I missed the economics classes taught by some of the best experimental economists in the country.
I was too busy overdosing on physics and math to notice.

At some point the Caltech administration decided to cut back on the full 2 years of physics required for all undergrads in order to add a single quarter of freshman biology. Though this change would not affect me, my indignation was immediate. I sent the administration email arguing that physics is the more fundamental science, and that therefore one should not waste freshmen’s time with biology. Mercifully, no one in the Caltech administration replied to my idiotic opinions.

In my junior year I did not realize (even though we sat together with graduate students…), that I was taking 3 or 4 graduate level courses concurrently. It was intense.
I started frequenting Millikan library and its physics stacks even more than before. Millikan library is an architectural atrocity in the middle of the Caltech campus, where I hoped to find among the dark stacks of physics books some hint to the start of a solution to the horrendous problem sets. One of the main challenges was dodging “Millikan man”, a tutu-wearing Edward E. Simmons who had been cheated out of his share for a strain gauge patent by Caltech, and decided to haunt its library. Here is a picture of him (though he was more in a pink phase back in the days we both hung out at Millikan).
Dr Edward E Simmons

After all this coursework, when I finally had the opportunity to take general relativity from Kip Thorne, I didn’t. My friends (let’s call one of them I’m-loving-it, IMLI) were claiming that they really enjoyed staying up all night trying to solve problems they were told had no known solutions only after submitting their attempts. Senior year, while IMLI was taking the notoriously difficult solid state physics class, I realized that, having taken a max courseload of physics for 3 years, I already had enough for the degree. So I started to branch out. I took the physics class on electrical circuits, I took the digital electronics weed-out class with the EE majors, I took a class on physical oceanography because I wanted to understand the physics of waves. I had fun with courses on neural nets and machine learning, artificial life, CAD, 3D photography, etc. I got a second major in E&AS (Engineering and Applied Science, a convenient catch-all).

At the same time as my interest in physics was waning, I also had to apply for grad programs. I thought of applying to both computer science and physics programs, hoping that I would get the chance to switch to computer science. However, my dad said that I shouldn’t delay a decision, that I should decide before applying. I listened to him, and chose the more familiar, safer bet: physics. I applied to a lot of different programs. I didn’t think I had much of a chance. My GPA wasn’t stellar: 3.5 or 3.6 or something like that. My undergrad research didn’t shine: the first two summers I spent developing Runge-Kutta simulations to design a parabolic mirror that would focus solar wind onto a collection substrate. A decade later, this project (Genesis), together with its precious solar wind cargo crashed into the Utah desert, having failed to deploy a parachute. Another summer I tried (and mostly failed) to use pulsed laser ablation to deposit germanium on silicon wafers.

Only Berkeley had the sense to reject me (or rather failed to send any sort of response), while MIT, Stanford, Cornell, etc. were willing to take me in. Unlike visits at other schools, which involved dark offices and even darker labs with shiny metal vacuum chambers, my meeting with my future advisor, Bernardo Huberman, was on a sunny balcony on Stanford campus. He gave me copies of several of his papers, including a Scientific American article featuring an agent based model of social dilemmas. I still remember the cover photo of one person eating a lobster while the others were looking sadly at the hotdogs they had ordered. My thought was ‘This is fascinating. But it’s not physics…’.

I picked Stanford, maybe with Bernardo in the back of my mind, but that summer I headed to a condensed-matter physics lab to get started at Stanford early. My task was to babysit a scanning tunneling microscope, in the basement of Ginzton Lab (since justifiably demolished). There was nothing else in the basement of this building, just the one room that had been dug out seemingly just for this microscope. The microscope and I did not get along. Highlights included the 8+-year PhD student who had previously worked with it showing up and rolling liquid nitrogen on his tongue. However, beyond that he seemed to be on only marginally better terms with the microscope than I was. Near the end of the summer he told me that the instrument was a prototype, with no documentation, and had been temperamental from the start. At that point I called Bernardo and asked if I could join his research group at Xerox PARC (he had a consulting appointment at Stanford).

The 4 years of my PhD at Stanford were great. I worked in Bernardo’s small group at Xerox PARC and biked to nearby Stanford campus to take classes and attend seminars. I was excused from most graduate physics courses (having already taken them at Caltech), but did take statistical mechanics, which was enjoyable, and quantum field theory, which was intimidating. It was taught by an ex-boyfriend’s mother (who was also briefly RRGs PhD advisor) who may or may not have recognized me hiding in the back of class. The class involved lengthy calculations with what seemed like hundreds of terms (and that was just electron-electron scattering). At some point I found (or was given) a Mathematica library that actually did all of this for you. Somehow my enjoyment of any particular physics problem had a lot to do with whether Mathematica could help. I loved Mathematica. In the end I looked at the A- with great (undeserved) relief and kissed theoretical physics goodbye.

I also took a required astronomy lab, which meant going many summer nights to the telescope in the Stanford hills, hoping against hope that the summer fog would not roll in before you took your photo of some very distant object. I felt largely indifferent toward Jupiter, nearby stars, and faraway galaxies. I think I had always felt this way. I must have been the only physics major to not take an astronomy class at Caltech. I can’t explain it. I was just much more interested in explaining easily observable things, things closer down to earth. But I think it does bring into question how genuine my love of physics was. The rest of my Stanford coursework was filled with stats, computer science, operations research, photography, sailing, and tennis. There was so much more to learn outside of physics.

My research career blossomed. Thanks to Bernardo’s good sense of things that were about to become big, I was working on complex networks right before a lot of other people were. I wrote a couple of papers just at the right time, only occasionally worrying how this work was going to become an applied physics thesis. I can’t tell whether anyone on my committee read my thesis (and discovered that it was in fact not physics) before signing. My outside chair, a computer scientist, said that mine was the first thesis defense he understood entirely.

As I drifted farther and farther away from physics, I kept telling myself that I was going to keep it fresh. I’d re-read Feynman’s lectures, bound volumes which I had shelled out my pocket money for while attending Caltech. Maybe I would re-read Cohen-Tannoudji, quantum mechanics was one of my favorite subjects. But this never happened, and my physics knowledge atrophied, in favor of new ground in statistics and sociology (though I’m not the most diligent in reading up on these either). At some point I stopped mentioning having been a physicist, and when explicitly asked, I would fess up to having been a very, very applied physicist (my PhD was in Applied Physics). ‘The Trouble with Physics’ was pretty much the first “physics” book I had picked up in well over a decade.

A couple of years back I got into audio books, and driving down to LA to give a talk, decided to listen to Feynman’s ‘Surely you’re joking…’. I got a very eerie sense of déjà vu, or rather déjà entendu. The way that Feynman wrote: how he had been stumped by a problem, or curious about some aspect of culture, and how he decided to see whether he could figure out how to do something, and kept practicing until he was decent at it, it was exactly the manner in which some of my physicist friends had spoken. There were two possible explanations: a) they had read Feynman back then, probably in high school, and had been emulating him or b) they were true physicists like Feynman was, and I was not. Either way, what kind of a young physicist doesn’t read Feynman?

Though I’m not sure I ever really loved physics, I loved physicists. I was so consistent in this that when I stepped out with a computer scientist at a party my junior year, a tipsy housemate asked him: ‘You’re a physicist, right? No? But you must secretly be a physicist!’ What was it about physicists? There is something romantic about hurtling into the unknown, seeking truth… Dating physicists also made for good stories: upon first encountering the upper parts of my female anatomy, one physicist did what any physicist would do – he checked out their vibrational modes! No doubt part of dating physicists was liking the guys I wanted to be like. Probably mostly it was that these were just the guys I was already hanging out with.

Except… the one time I fell for someone I had just met (a Calvin Klein model-type hanging around on the same beach), he also turned out to be a physicist. We happily chatted about our favorite journals and preference for LaTeX for writing papers, but my heart beat fastest when he brought up a physics problem from a class he had taken and I desperately tried to remember how to solve it.

In the end I married a computer scientist, which I highly recommend, especially if they work in systems or networking. Physicists may like solving difficult problems, but they prefer finding simple, elegant solutions. A systems person puts in the time to build something and debugs it until it works. Marriage, I think, is more amenable to the latter approach.

My departure from physics may not seem that surprising, especially now that I’ve told you the full story, but if I had formulated any expectations back then about others’ career paths, what happened next would have been the opposite of such expectations. The very people who flaunted their physics prowess or were just so genius that others noted it for them — they most quickly turned to other disciplines. The quieter, more modest physicists are the ones who stuck with it longer — through their PhDs, and on to faculty or industry positions. My quiet Ph77 lab partner? He’s a tenured professor at MIT with a dazzling list of publications. My grad school friend whose lab-mates plastered her nitrogen tank and vacuum chamber with smiley stickers? She’s a physics professor with papers in Science and Nature Physics. A friend who sometimes asked me for help on problem sets? She’s a rocket scientist. Two other women from my dorm are astronomers.

IMLI landed a super-selective quant job after getting a Physics PhD. I saw him a year or two after he had started on Wall Street and he talked about accounting for something like phases of the moon (just kidding) in black box algorithms. He seemed happy. In fact, I think IMLI’s happiness was always somewhat proportional to the difficulty of the challenge.

An ex who had published physics papers even before enrolling at Caltech also went the quant route, right after college. He also talked about enjoying the challenges of problems such as predicting whiskey prices using weather data or guiding x-rays to zap tumors. He turned in his birkenstocks for dancing shoes and to my bemusement (OK, astonishment) started dating gorgeous women on the ballroom dance circuit.
Among my physicist exes (I had to have a few for sampling purposes, OK?), just one, a quiet, modest one, became a professor of physics.

Google absorbed several other physicists I knew. GG (Geekiest Geek, a new character in this story) was one of those nerds in high school who delighted in anything math and physics. I ran into GG again at Stanford where he was getting a PhD working on string theory and playing Magic. Next I saw him at Google architecting some systems. Another Caltech physicist from my year stayed in academia for 15 years, working on quantum computing, before also becoming a Googler. Another, a modest-physicist friend of IMLI’s, is also there, leading an engineering team to beam internet from the sky.

RG, being 3 years ahead of me, graduated my freshman year and continued studying theory in grad school, but the problems given to him by his advisor to try to solve were leading nowhere (perhaps this was just a symptom of the entire field going nowhere, ala The Trouble with Physics?). He finished his PhD in (somewhat) more applied physics, and works as a physicist/engineer in industry.

For years I would occasionally google RRG to see whether his real, real genius theories had finally been recognized and published. I still have a binder with a grainy printout of his picture on the spine (this has more to do with my inability to throw away my physics notes and problem sets than any sort of continued reverence for RRG). LinkedIn has a couple of people who shared RRG’s name, all employed as non-physicists. In the right-hand column, LinkedIn helpfully informed me that people who searched for RRG had also searched for another person from Blacker Hovse. Who else was looking for RRG? In any case, the trail had gone cold.

Speaking of googling, ironically (in the Alanis Morissette way, not a truly ironic way), the Calvin Klein Physicist went on to model. He became a physical oceanographer, not just of the deep-ocean waves that I had to be content with in my undergrad course, but modeling surface waves and wind, just the stuff I had dreamed of learning about before meeting him. In his spare time he translated Einstein’s Relativity. No, he couldn’t just have taken a course on the subject that I shied away from, he had to write a book. And then among the book-related interviews I found while doing “research” for this post, was his interview in a women’s magazine on “the beauty of physics”. A few brooding portraits of him graced the article, and in it he explained applications of special and general relativity, how advances in physics are made, and what makes a theory beautiful. The sidebar advertised articles on the secrets of youthful looks and how challenges can make a relationship stronger. CKP was modeling… physics.

So that’s where we all are now. As we work at our quant jobs, or software jobs, or OK, actual physics jobs, I don’t know how many of us think back to those heady times, when we were intoxicated with our own bravado and the beauty of physics. Several of my current colleagues at Facebook are former physicists like me, something we sheepishly admit on occasion. I’m sort of glad to have their company, but sort of nervous too that they might mention some actual physics.

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