Disclaimer: I don’t know yet how my kid will eventually turn out (this has worked up through age 4). Follow tips at your own risk. Results may vary.

1. Forget button-down shirts and corduroy pants. Your (male) kid needs nothing more than sweatpants and T-shirts. Chances are they are not fashion-conscious, and the main thing is that they are comfortable while doing their main thing, which is running around. Without zippers and buttons in the way, they can dress themselves earlier (it will still take unfathomable amounts of time though). The other great thing about sweats and t-shirts is that they are comfortable enough to sleep in, which brings us to:

2. You don’t need to change your kid into pajamas. If you do change your kid into pajamas, they’ll just get yogurt or jam or whatever on them the following morning, at which point you’ll need to throw both the pajamas and whatever clothes they were wearing the day before into the wash. Instead, have them sleep in their sweats/shorts and t-shirt. This also expedites the getting-ready-for-bed process. “But my kid takes a bath every night! So we put on pajamas anyway” you say. Indeed, that brings us to:

3. Your kid does not need to bathe every day. You might take a shower every day, and no doubt people close to you appreciate that. But grown ups are stinky. We are. Young kids are not. There are really just the input/output areas to take care of. Wet wipes are a wonderful invention; keep a box by the potty. Also, when your child has ear-to-ear peanut butter because of their creative way of eating toast, a wet wipe is a good solution.

4. You can cut your kid’s hair yourself. Some parents enjoy herding their kid into the car to run little errands. If that’s not you, there is one thing you can do right at home. No matter how bad your hair-cutting skills, chances are your kid will still look better than other kids with months’-worth of grown out hair. Order a hair clipper. It might come with a DVD. This DVD will have the following instructions. Step 1: seat child in front of laptop playing a movie Step 2: cut child’s hair because child will be very still.  ”Really?” you ask. Yes, and the reason is that you can:

5. Have super-simple screen-time rules. Do you look forward to arguing with your kid about whether they can watch a movie or play with their tablet? No? Simply implement (very, very early on) a strict rule: they can watch a movie, but after dinner. Make a few, consistent exceptions in order to achieve other goals. If any desired behavior (sitting for a haircut, potty training) permits screen time, this behavior will be more readily adopted.

6. You can avoid watching kid cartoons– even avoid watching the same things over and over again. Admit it: Thomas the Train has some deep psychological issues, and Curious George needs constant adult supervision. If you emphasize watching things together, but then steer toward things you can tolerate, chances are you’ll end up having  a good time. ‘How It’s Made’ is pretty much perfect — interesting for kids and adults alike, but only ~20 minutes long. One family has even made it to Season 15.

7. Listen to Pandora exclusively. Why Pandora? You can’t pick what song is going to be played next! You can easily explain this to the kid. This takes some commitment (i.e. no playing your own playlists in the house). The ‘children’s folk music’ station is fun (once you customize it), but you’re likely to find that your child enjoys classical, classic rock, heavy metal, blues, etc. And voilà, you are not having to listen to the same kids song over and over again.

8. Tell Stories. You can tell stories in the car (in case you forgot to bring a book or a toy, which in the case of the lazy parent is likely), when your child is not cooperating (“Did I tell you story about the little boy who wanted to keep drawing and didn’t come to dinner? No? Well [abridged version] he got so hungry that without even realizing it he ate crayon after crayon until he had none left!”), or when they are really upset (your child will stop their protest because curiosity will overtake them). For lazy-parent extra bonus points, take turns with your kid telling the story, why should you do all the work?

9. Give up on trying to get your kid to eat what they don’t want to eat. Books/pediatricians’ leaflets will tell you that it can take 14-17 times for a food to be served to a child before the child starts to eat it. That statistic is probably made up and is repeated because it sounds good.  More realistically, your child might be a teenager before they eat new foods. In the meantime, do something for your sanity. Look up the nutritional info on things your child *does* eat. Did you know that chocolate is a good source of iron? Tofu alone takes care of all the amino acids and many  minerals. Marinara sauce (hello pizza and pasta!)  and miso have Vitamin K (take that green veggies!).

11. Institute chocolate time, separate from meal time. Dinner should be something your kid contemplates on its own merits, not as an obstacle to getting dessert. At chocolate time, they can pick among whatever kinds of desserts are in the house (usually chocolate).

12. Your kid isn’t behind; other kids’ parents are too forward. Do your friends’ 3 year olds count to 1000, speak 3 languages, and read Shakespeare? If your friends are too in your face about this, you could stress yourself and your kid out by working toward the same level of achievement. Instead, spend less time with these friends and more time lazing around and doing fun things with your kid.

Good luck!

 

You know when you’re looking up a place on Google Maps?

And you accidentally swipe the trackpad or the mouse slips or something, and then #@&*, you’re suddenly looking at a whole continent? And whereas the zoomed-in map showed clear next steps, the bigger picture makes those 2 blocks seem rather insignificant. And then you start to wonder why you’ve never been to Mississippi or Cuba or Baja California?

Sometimes I feel that my life zoomTM is similarly on the fritz.

All of a sudden I’m part of a an intricate system, interconnected flows, production, disposal, communication.

I never quite get to zoom out as far as Google Maps, but even looking at the most uninhabited areas of the American west out of an airplane window I notice thin lines, systems of dirt roads, or little shaved patches on the snowy mountains (which seem somehow a bit laughable or indecent in contrast to the mountains’ natural majesty).

No matter how small or insignificant one is in the entire system, one can anchor oneself with one’s loved ones, right?

And yet, here the zoom wheel can slip as well. Rolling forward it’s the little person with his life ahead of him. Rolling back it’s the unusual and distinguished lives my grandparents lived, the achievements of my parents. My father lived his earliest years in the forest with the Yugoslav partisans after his village was burned down in WWII. Which again zooms me out to “human history”, which I perceive to be strung together from different wars except for the unusually good behavior we seem to be exhibiting currently (and the odd article here or there which mentions that not all humans fought all the time in all places and the evidence of some stone-age people being sensitive souls).

And then I wonder why I’m living now and not then, and realize that it’s mundane to be living now, because you’re more likely to be living during the time when more people are living.

But the problem of population, if it is a problem (besides the aesthetic problems of criss-crossed countrysides or shaved mountains, or, OK, fresh water crises, global warming, species extinction, etc.), may again be dwarfed by the approaching singularity, which might render the number of human beings irrelevant.

Though no matter our eventual fate, it seems odd that we seem to be alone in this neighborhood of our universe,

which, if we zoom out further in some weird way, may only be one of many universes…

Fortunately I find the *&#@* life zoomTM reset button just in time.

 

The mattress

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Dec 102013
 

Parenting is fraught with uncertainty about the goodness of one’s choices, but this one so far has panned out:

It’s a mattress, a full-sized one. I first spotted one of these in a toddler bedroom of a friend. When we left all our stuff behind to rent a furnished house, we didn’t bring our son’s crib (that converted to a toddler bed, etc.) Instead, we went to IKEA and got a mattress and put it directly on the floor. We were a bit concerned about our 22-month old sleeping on a big bed, but although it was big, it wasn’t very high. So at worst, this could happen:

And if it ever did, our toddler never said. 2+ years later, bedtime stories are still comfy for all involved:

And not a play date goes by without some jumping on the bed:

The only one out of a spot is the monster under the bed:

Phone home

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Oct 292013
 

As years go by it seems more and more magical that I can phone “home”.

 

The only thing standing between me and my enjoyment of all-you-can-eat-every-day-deliciousness are people with a food conscience.

 

I would still be happily mirroring unawares if I had never read an article such as this one. Now I’m often self-conscious about it.

 

 

Sometimes while listening to talks (usually attended by computer scientists and physicists), my mind starts to wander, and… [snip, snip, snip]:

Of course I totally respect individuals’ hairstyle preferences and trust that they are better than mine and don’t mean to imply anyone should do anything with their hair (except that if your fro measures more than 2′ in diameter you probably shouldn’t sit in the front row unless it’s amphitheater seating).
But the reason I bring this up is that recently at the most excellent German-American Frontiers of Engineering meeting:

There was simply nothing to be done.

 

The story about the boy who did not want an owie

There once was a boy who tripped and fell. Just as he was about to get an owie on his knee he said

- I don’t want an owie on my knee.

- What? – said the owie – if you put your hand out, I can go on your hand instead.

- But how will I ride my bike if I can’t hold the handlebar? –  said the boy.

- Then I’ll land on your behind – said the owie.

- But I need it to sit on! – said the boy.

- Hmmm, how about your nose? Tip forward and I’ll land on your nose.

- My nose is too small, you won’t fit.

- Then how about your shoe?

- OK – said the boy.

The owie jumped on the boy’s shoe and the boy didn’t feel a thing. The owie stayed on the shoe, and eventually was given away with the shoes once the boy’s feet outgrew them.


The story about the girl who loved chocolate milk

There once was a girl who loved to drink chocolate milk.  She asked for it at breakfast, snack time, lunch, dinner, and of course at chocolate time.  She drank so much chocolate milk, that pretty soon you could hear a ‘slosh-slosh’ from her tummy whenever she moved. The neighborhood kids made fun of her for it, and she was sad.

Then one day as she was slosh-sloshing down the street to the laughter of the other kids, a music talent scout noticed her.

That, my dear girl – said the talent scout -  is music to my ears! With a little practice you could be a great performer.

The girl became a renowned musician with a unique (slosh-sloshing) sound and traveled across the country to give concerts. And instead of a tour bus, she rode on a milk truck, a chocolate milk truck.


The story about the boy who wanted to go poop but the poop would not come out

There once was a boy who wanted to go poop. He sat and sat on the potty but the poop would not come out.  Finally he pleaded with the poop:

- Poop, won’t you come out?

- No way – answered the poop – it’s nice and warm and cozy in here.

The boy thought for a moment, then he said:

- Listen. Whenever I go poop, I get 5 M&Ms. If you come out, I’ll give you two M&Ms.

PLOP! went the poop and then demanded:

- Now I want my two M&Ms.

The boy quickly flushed the poop down the toilet, washed his hands, and ate all 5 M&Ms by himself.


The story about the boy who did not want an owie and went flying instead

There once was a boy who visited his great grandfather’s grave at Punchbowl cemetery in Hawaii. As he was leaving he tripped and found himself flying through the air. He knew that if he landed he would get a big owie on his knee. So he decided to keep flying. He flew higher and higher, and pretty soon he could see the entire Punchbowl crater below him, and then he flew even higher, and he saw the ocean and the mountains.  He then turned and flew toward Waikiki’s highrises. There he saw a little old lady on one of the lanais (balconies). It was his grandma. He flew right into her arms and she set him down carefully. The boy never got the owie.


The story about the girl who loved lollipops

There once was a girl who loved lollipops. As soon as she entered the Great America amusement park, she made a beeline for the sweets shop and bought the biggest lollipop they had. Her friends ran to the different amusement rides and asked her to go with them, but she was too busy licking the lollipop: slurp, slllurp. Then they asked her to come to the water park.

- No thanks – said the little girl – my lollipop would dissolve in the water. [Slurp. Slurp].

After the water park, the kids ran to the playground and started playing in the sand pit.

- Will you play with us in the sand? – asked her friends.

- No thanks – said the little girl – I don’t want sand to get on my lollipop [Slurp. Slurp].

Eventually it was time to go home, and as the little girl and her friends piled into the car, her friends felt sorry that she didn’t get to go on any of the rides, or play in the water or in the sand. The girl didn’t mind, she just licked her lollipop: slurp, slurp. The car had driven hardly a mile when it hit a huge traffic jam. The light was out at the intersection and there was no policeman to direct traffic. The girl hopped out of the car, held out her big red lollipop and used it like a stop sign to direct traffic, first letting one direction go through, then the other. Pretty soon the whole traffic jam was cleared up. The girl took a bow with her big lollipop as her friends clapped. Then they all drove home together.


 

As the indignities of air travel pile on, I had come to view the little ‘personal entertainment device’ embedded in the seat in front of me as a welcome, optional, escape. But on a recent Delta SFO->JFK trip and back, that friendly device had been turned on me. As we were strapped in and the plane was gaining altitude, the little screen turned on by itself and started playing ads while the messages blared over the loudspeakers: ‘Buy a car. Choose a luxury hotel…’. In vain I tried to turn the screen off by pushing the nominal power button. The function had been disabled.  My headphones were not isolating enough to block out the sound of the speakers. It felt vaguely like::

 

 

There are far more education-educated minds than mine contemplating this question, and doing so scientifically. While we’re waiting for their results, I’m just jotting down a few thoughts here based on my experiences as a student, as a professor, and as a Coursera instructor.

The only thing that is more exciting than teaching on Coursera, is taking classes on Coursera. It’s been over a decade since I took my last class. I did vaguely plan to sit in on classes at U. Michigan, with world-class faculty teaching so many subjects of interest. But I never found the time. With Coursera, at least there is the possibility that I could take such classes at any time. I think this is going to be for sure one of the main target audiences for Coursera: folks like me who have gone through lots of schooling, but there are a lot of new developments in their profession that are worth learning, or they found new subject areas of interest that they didn’t think to study back when they were at school.

For example, as an undergrad I wrote a dorky, inexcusable letter to the administration at Caltech to protest the proposed reduction in required physics coursework in favor of introducing a biology requirement. I cringe when I think I may have written something to the effect of ‘Everything can be derived from physics, so why bother with other subjects’. Though I did eventually dive into many subjects beyond physics with gusto, I never did take a biology class, not since 9th grade. What Coursera course am I signed up for now? Genetics. How wonderful to be able to go back and catch up.

I have been thinking about how my Coursera course stacks up against its offline version. I didn’t skimp on much material in the Coursera version, even though it is several weeks shorter. With no one to have a discussion with but the camera, the pace is quicker. If anything, I developed more interactive online demos and data sets to be able to better convey concepts to my invisible audience. These from my perspective worked especially well with the in-video quizzes. The lecture would pause, a quiz question would pop up, and students could play with a demo to derive the answer (technical browser glitches aside). Assignments presented challenges to me. It was difficult to transform them into a multiple choice or programmatically graded format. I couldn’t ask students to stick to the rule: “Don’t just put a number down, interpret it”. Online, a number had to be sufficient. Or the interpretation had to be one of a set of pre-prepared choices. But I did it. It may have worked. I’m not sure.

Then there was the course project. In the offline version this is a multi-step affair afforded by the longer semester format. The students propose the project, I give them feedback. They turn in a mid-project report, I give them feedback. They turn in the final report, I give them feedback and for some I give advice on how to turn it into a publication. On Coursera, the students just did the project, and then graded each others’ work. The grading rubric I constructed for the peer-evaluation was very detailed and left little room for elaborate feedback. At the same time I encouraged students to post their work to the forum. The feedback there was very, very useful. Sure, my feedback is more informed by the literature, and years of my own experience and experience seeing students do such projects. But the students’ feedback had many useful tips and rather creative suggestions. It wasn’t that much worse than what I could have provided. This peer-evaluation thing just might work!

There were other interesting advantages. Since all I needed for class was my laptop, I could take it with me to visit with various researchers in industry and record sessions about the use of course material in practice. Sure, you can have invited speakers in your regular classroom, and that beats a streamed video, but… this was quite practical. The Coursera course also very kindly received technical support and instructional guidance from the creators of the software packages I was using — something that likely would have happened for my small offline course, but where I think the size of the class didn’t hurt either.

The biggest difference between the Coursera and offline versions is in how tailored the course is to the participants. In the offline version I’ll introduce material or discuss in-class applications that the students ask about. And they ask a lot. We go through the same material much more slowly, and that’s because it’s not just me talking. It’s a conversation, about the readings, concepts, knowns and unknowns. There was a lot of interesting conversation in the Coursera forum, but the lectures were pre-recorded, inflexible, and besides, I felt that if I had gone off on a tangent that one student was asking about, it wouldn’t be fair to the other several thousand. In a class of 20-30 I wouldn’t think twice about going on a tangent. One could probably interpolate between the two with Google Hangouts that could accommodate a few select detours.

As I was teaching the Coursera course I regularly received email from students about specific projects they were working on, asking for my advice. I don’t think I answered a single one. I was overwhelmed by work. But I also felt that any one of those emails would take 15-20+ minutes of my time, while I looked up the relevant literature, reviewed it, and composed my thoughts.  And I hate to say it, but my thinking was: this is free course, the students are not entitled to this much of my time individually. In contrast, at UofM students are always welcome to come talk to me during office hours and I would usually answer by email as well. It’s my job, a part of my job I usually enjoy.

Another rather big difference is in the attrition rate. I may have lost up to 1/3 of the registered students in the first week of my offline class, but it was stable thereafter. On Coursera, only 40% watched the first video, I lost many more from there on out. If I had “attended” Coursera instead of Caltech, would I have stuck with it, made it through, or would I have signed up for courses full of good intentions only to abandon them?

In many ways my college-self would have been a suitable student for Coursera. I never spoke up in class (to my students: do as I say, not as I did!). I got a pair of glasses just so that I could have better than 20/20 vision and sit in the very back of the lecture hall. I didn’t understand much of the lectures either (which were usually derivations written on the blackboard). I couldn’t write notes and listen carefully enough at the same time. I learned outside of class, by re-reading the notes and reading the textbook. I especially learned by doing the assignments. I took advantage of office hours and research opportunities. But in short, if the lectures had been recorded rather than live, it wouldn’t have made much difference to me.

But I don’t think I could have graduated without a campus. I’m a procrastinator. I took 6 classes every quarter (except the last one, when I dropped 3D photography in favor of working on my ditch-day stack). Because I knew that I wouldn’t start assignments early, I made sure I had 1 assignment to work on per night (often late into the night). It kept me busy and it kept me happy, and if I got totally stuck, I’d walk down the hall to compare notes with others working on the same assignment. Any flexibility, however, and I would unhappily procrastinate. The summer after freshman year I decided to work on the hundreds (?) of math problems needed to pass out of Math 2B (which would allow me to take Applied Math 95 sophomore year, and ultimately Kip Thorne’s general relativity senior year, which in the end I didn’t do, but anyway…). That was a miserable summer. When I wasn’t working on Math 2B I was miserable because I felt guilty, when I was working on Math 2B I was miserable and lonely. By comparison Ama95 was entertaining and I enjoyed the camaraderie of going through it with fellow students. Perhaps I would have found the same camaraderie if I had taken Math 2B through Coursera and participated on the forum, or joined a Facebook group. I don’t know. In any case, I loved my time at Caltech. Some people left it embittered. Not me though, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

But back to Coursera. It’s really promising. It needs some work (my SNA course most of all!), but it’s mind-boggling to be able to learn about anything! Anything! What a wonderful time to be human. Now I better get back to my Duolingo Spanish lessons :) .

 

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