If you’d told me a year ago that I would be listening to Debussy’s Clair de Lune with my eleven-year-old son’s head resting on my shoulder while we learn about music theory, I wouldn’t believe you. That we’d be laughing doing chemistry experiments in the kitchen? I’d skeptically point out that a DIY kitchen chemistry kit had sat unopened for nearly five years. That my son would be speaking Croatian (a few words at least) to me? I’d say that would have to be a parallel universe.

Yet we switched to this parallel universe when COVID hit and schools closed unexpectedly. In the instruction vacuum that appeared, my husband and I cobbled together a few learning activities: he taught coding and PE, I taught math and art. For the rest we relied on independent study with Khan Academy, Duolingo, and books. When the school started back up remotely 3-4 weeks later,  our son surprised us a bit by saying he preferred his routine with us. His teacher was wonderfully flexible. She allowed him to participate in the best of the school (e.g. a writing workshop), and continue learning at his own pace under our guidance.

As it happens, shortly before COVID hit, a friend of our son’s started homeschooling. Their example (and eventually practical advice on how to set things up) showed us this possibility. By the fall, when we asked our son whether he wanted to “return” to remote school, he chose homeschooling.

First what made this possible:

  • Our son is an eager and cooperative learner, something we’d also heard from his teachers.
  • 5th grade is relatively low stakes (at least we hope!)
  • My husband and I both have flexibility in our jobs, and are working from home.
  • My in-laws, seasoned teachers, readily jumped in to help teach remotely.
  • We could set up remote language lessons with tutors.

Things that I appreciate about homeschooling:

  • Free courses from top universities and elsewhere that are suitable for a general audience (and therefore an 11 year old + parent)
  • The student’s interest can be the guide
  • The ability to tie-in with other experiences
  • Extracurriculars can become part of the school day.

Let me start with the last point first. Pre-COVID, our son’s schedule was really packed. We’d pick him after work at the school’s aftercare, often to take him to a karate, tennis, or music lesson. The Mandarin lesson was on Sundays. The evenings and weekends also had to accommodate practicing for said music and karate lessons. Even though our son expressed curiosity in many things, including learning to code and astronomy, there was no way to fit anything else in. The school dictated his learning ~7 hours a day (plus homework). Any extra-curricular interests he had (or we had hoped he might develop) would have to fit in the slim evening or weekend hours.

His fascination with astronomy picked up early in 2020. In our busy pre-COVID schedules, we made a best effort, and went to a Silicon Valley Astronomy lecture about the recent imaging of a black hole. He then grew even more interested. He wanted to learn about relativity. “Special relativity?” I asked hopefully. “No. General relativity,” he replied. I bought a few books thinking we’d go through them together, but you can imagine how far I got with that.

But once we started homeschooling, my son was able to learn about black holes, and special and general relativity, through Astro 101: Black Holes on Coursera. He enthusiastically watched the videos and completed the quizzes. His young brain followed the curves of spacetime more flexibly than mine did. He asked a lot of questions and kept wanting to discuss more. The conversations spilled over into his video calls with his grandfather, an astrophysicist. I don’t know how much of the material he’ll retain, but the cool thing is: he was interested in learning astrophysics, and… he could! As a bonus, it was easy for me: we could both learn together, without my having to prepare material. I could roll out of bed, open my laptop, and presto: we’d be ready to learn. 

Black holes may have gotten us started, but there was a lot more to enjoy. How Things Work: An Introduction to Physics, was full of the classical mechanics demonstrations that make freshman physics courses fun. The instructor mentioned how some of his students were kids taking the course with their grandparents. And why not? These grandparents must have realized, like me, that there’s no reason to put off understanding the physics underlying  everyday experiences. We tried a couple of the simple experiments ourselves. To not be so single-subjected about it, we also took Mountains 101, a course combining geology, climate, ecology, culture… even tips for hiking and surviving in the mountains. We struggled through (having to reset deadlines at least three times, over the course of 6+ months) the Science of the Solar System, but we learned the latest (or up to 5 years ago latest) about other planets, which puts our little blue home planet in stark perspective. 

Some subjects, my son learns mostly independently. He always liked Khan Academy for math, and has been going through it at his own pace. We supplement here and there when there is opportunity. I’m “coaching” him and a few of his friends who are in learning arrangements without a school math team, to meet weekly to practice for and compete in Math Olympiad and Math Madness. It’s mostly oodles of silliness, but sometimes we solve a problem or two.

I had mentioned that learning along with your kid allows you to tie in more experiences. Normally I don’t have all that much awareness of what my son has learned in school.  But now, for example, when we go on hikes in the Sierras, we talk about what we learned of glaciers in Mountains 101. Our son opted to write about mountain formation for one of the writing assignments he worked on with his grandparents. He also wrote another essay about the possibility of extraterrestrial life based on the planetary science course. And since the course spent several weeks on Mars, we read “The Martian” together (I managed to filter out only some of the swearing). We also watched “The Planets” series made by BBC/Nova, which covered the space missions that had continued since the Coursera course was filmed. We used a multimeter to measure how much current a mylar balloon could carry, to check whether Mark Watney frying the Pathfinder electronics by resting a drill in the wrong spot was plausible (we got very little current, but perhaps our mylar balloon was different). This might seem a bit much all at once, but it actually stretches over months. Since there are no deadlines, “Mars” doesn’t have to be done during a certain week. We can revisit it when the fancy strikes us or an opportunity arises.

Sometimes the tie-in is not even the subject matter. On a road trip (to the above mentioned Sierras), we had listened to Terry Pratchett’s Lost Continent, which was partly narrated in a brilliant Australian accent. Our son had a lot of fun practicing this accent, and so it was a delight that we could find more books and nature shows on Australia, but also find coding courses delivered in the same accent, and one of his short art classes as well. Because: Why not? There are so many wonderful things out there (now I’m even hearing the “out there” in an Australian accent in my head 🙂 ), from different continents.

Speaking of Australia, as we started homeschooling, I was startled to discover that our son could not identify the continents on a map, not even the ones he had been to. I assumed they’d learn about them in school, but maybe not? Not that we had done better at home. I had optimistically bought a plastic globe that I think we had pulled out once or twice when he was still in preschool. It sat next to the unopened box of DIY kitchen experiments. A nice thing about homeschooling is that as soon as you identify a gap, you can fill it. It only took a few hours on a geo-quizzes site and he could identify most countries on the globe, and even some mountains, deserts and rivers too (which tied into the mountains 101 course). 

While it remains to be seen whether this year of homeschooling will ultimately have been a benefit or a setback for our one student, it has without a doubt been very enriching for me. I really enjoy the opportunity to learn again, to have time to dedicate to it. It seems indulgent, and normally I would be pretty tired and/or busy, but scheduling homeschooling first thing in the morning means I start the day fresh and ready to learn. Whether it is revisiting the physics I once knew, or learning the physics I had stopped short of (general relativity), or learning the new developments since I last took a course on something, all of these are really interesting — yet hard to justify as something I should be doing for work or for home life. I think sometimes to public lectures that are attended by a bunch of older people — people still so curious, at a stage in their lives where they realize how incredible our world is, how fleeting our time in it, how much there is to learn. I’m one of those people. 

For example, my music education was sparse: no music theory, no music history. I had listened to classical music in high school and college, but not much since. Last summer, when I played some classical music for my son on an old record player, he recognized it as “Charlie Chaplin” music, because that was where he had last heard it!  When he was younger I had dragged him to a few concerts and ballets, and he even took a liking to Mozart’s Requiem in kindergarten or first grade. But then, just as with the plastic globe, our music adventures paused as everything got busier. We started back up in homeschooling with Introduction to classical music. Taking this online course with my son was one of the most beautiful experiences. Being there as he listened, sometimes for the first time, to works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, …Tarrega, … Philip Glass. All while Prof. Craig Wright of Yale explained the music theory and the cultural context around each piece. Watching the movie Amadeus, telling him about the Caltech traditions around the Ride of the Valkyries, laughing at my son’s jokes about atonal music and Schoenberg, all was fun. 

My sorrow is that my mom is not here to take the music course with us. She’ll also never know that we are learning chemistry (her field) and are experimenting in the kitchen (a favorite lab of hers) thanks to the Harvard EdX course “The Science of Cooking“. She doesn’t know that we pulled out the microscope she had gotten for him several years earlier, and are doing experiments of our devising (e.g. looking at paper under the microscope when reading Stuff Matters, or figuring out the permeability of face masks (to water)). My dad I’m sure would have set up some experiments to complement the classical mechanics course, like he did with me when I was little. Fortunately, my son has his other set of grandparents now more involved than ever in his learning. I am grateful that my father-in-law, an astrophysicist and physics teacher, was game to talk about quantum mechanics and general relativity with his grandson. While my mother-in-law, a french teacher, consults on both French and English. My son meets weekly online with both grandparents for his reading and writing lessons. As my mother-in-law would say: “How cool is that?” It is very, very cool. 

I started by mentioning how we are able to move extracurriculars to school hours. Mandarin is now on Mondays at 2pm, and Sundays are for playing or hiking. Coding is a class, but also spills over into fun time as my son writes games and Minecraft mods. Pre-COVID, guitar and ukulele practice required nagging. But now, right on the minute, as my Zoom meeting starts, I’ll hear CCR or the Rolling Stones being enthusiastically practiced in the next room. Perhaps the most unexpected of all developments was my son’s learning Croatian. I had missed my chance to teach him when he was very little. Truth be told, I struggle with Croatian myself, having moved to the States when I was a kid. Yet every time we go to Croatia, people there frown in disapproval/disbelief that I hadn’t taught him the language. On our last trip, my son replied that he’d like to learn. In normal times, there would be no way to fit another class in. But with a flexible schedule, my son started lessons with a teacher remotely in Zagreb. We’re already counting on all the sladoled he’ll be ordering on his own, next time we’re there, after the pandemic…



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.


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!

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)

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.

What to expect when you’re expecting and you don’t particularly like kids

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Jan 242015

I come from a not-very-reproductive family: no siblings, no cousins. As a kid, to hang out with kids, I had to try, and I didn’t try too hard.

As a teenager, I babysat twice. The first time didn’t really count, as my charge slept the entire time. The second time, two toddlers alternated getting exactly what they wanted with screaming exactly what they wanted. I turned to dog-sitting and avoided any child-supervision tasks for the next 20 years.

In those 20 years I don’t think any kids missed out. My interactions with them consisted mostly of eyeing them nervously whilst trying to back away. In contrast, my husband can have a kid in stitches (the good kind) in a blink. We had a kid because of his parenting potential — not mine.

The helpful messaging I received about having a kid was (1) it’s different when they’re yours (+1 for having kids), (2) childless people have time and resources to do nice things like travel (-1 for having kids). Eventually I was getting less excited about (2), so I figured I’d test (1). There was a bit more thought to it than that, mostly revolving around overpopulation, the singularity, global warming, nuclear war, pandemics and in general how many happy years a child born now could have before humanity collapsed.

Being pregnant was not that exciting. When the oppressive malaise of the first trimester finally passed, I could have forgotten about the pregnancy except for having to stay away from things known to the state of California to cause birth defects (i.e. any paints or other toys I liked to play with), having to submit to check-ups, and finding that turning sideways did not help in squeezing through tight spaces.

The quirks passed me by. I did not have any interesting food cravings. I mistook the first N weeks of kicks for intestinal activity. Once I did finally recognize the kicks, I identified this more with “Total Recall” than some miraculous process of creating new life. I thought I’d never experience the things you are supposed to experience, when finally in the last night of pregnancy I got the nesting instinct: after constructing an outdoor storage rack for firewood (no paint applied!) and in the middle of scrubbing the shower at 10pm, I went into labor.

The next day was not the most joyful day of my life. It was highly unpleasant. After, I was holding my son, trying to get the breastfeeding thing figured out, and for lack of a clue was patting my son on the head, because that’s what you’d do if you had, say, a dog or a cat in your lap. The lactation nurse said ‘Stop doing that! You are distracting him.’ It took a few days for my son and me to figure out breastfeeding, but we did. The best thing about breastfeeding is that it wasn’t pumping, though of course you are pumping because you are breastfeeding. In any case, I found myself eagerly awaiting the 6 month mark, only to find out that the probably-pulled-out-of-thin-air guidelines were to breastfeed for a full year. We made it through to 9 months, and when we stopped, neither my son nor I really looked back.

The tabloids are filled with celebs-turned-first-time-parents gushing how being with their baby is the most amazing thing. Yes, the first smiles and other milestones were cute. But having failed to contain our son in a playpen, we were left holding/watching him nonstop instead. It was exhausting, and though at times interesting, most of the time it was not that interesting. Once, when my son was still a wee baby and I had surrendered him to full-time daycare, a colleague at work asked if I thought about my child all the time, and I admitted that no, in fact, I pretty much didn’t think about him while at work. The colleague said I was lucky, because he was never able to put his children out of his mind. I wondered if I was somehow heartless. Trying to get at the extent of my heartlessness, I would ask myself how distraught I would be if something happened to my son. Lest you think that this was some especially macabre train of thought, I have to say that my child’s carseat alone had 5 different tags in yellow and white warning about death or serious injury, followed by his highchair, his stroller, multiple toys, not to mention that things like blankets and plastic bags and blinds and outlets have posed a serious threat to his life throughout. Though I convinced myself I would experience unbearable pain should such a thing occur, my guilty thought was that it would be a waste of insane amounts of effort.

At my son’s 2-year-old doctor’s visit, the doctor cautioned: ‘Never be in a different room than your son. They can easily get hurt at this age. Even just taking a big step, they could break their leg’. I’m still not sure how exactly a kid is supposed to break their leg thus, but we obediently stood watch continuously, just in case. While not witnessing any leg breakage, we did witness ear-busting tantrums. Age 2 is not a time of harmonious joy with one’s child. There is a lot of frustration on the part of the young one who can’t express or understand many things. I tried desperately to occupy the time. We went to all the local zoos, museums, and construction sites many times over. Despite my efforts, my son much preferred his dad who could make any situation fun and silly. My slow progress made me wonder how I was expected to become this very significant person, a “mother”, to my son.

At the ‘3 year’ annual visit, the doctor stayed mum about our having to keep watch on our son all the time. Wisely, we did not specifically ask either. Upon returning home, my son did not all of sudden self-entertain in the other room, but I could attempt to do so. Somewhere between age 3 and 4, things got very interesting. We loved making up stories together, exploring, playing, laughing and laughing and laughing. We are friends. It is good. He’s 5 now. He is a delight. If I ever stay late at work or travel, I miss him, genuinely miss him with a physical ache. I finally know what all the hoopla is about with having kids (though I’ve been warned that this phase ends all too soon and then you have a stinky, complicated teenager on your hands).

This does not translate into wanting another. A while ago a friend asked me to hold her baby while she looked for something in her bag. Awkwardly I held the baby in my lap as if I had never held one before.

Stories told to a 4-year old boy who likes to listen to stories

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Oct 102014

The little prince and the magic naptime book

There once was a little prince who went to royal preschool. After every royal lunch at royal preschool, all the princes and princesses were supposed to take a royal nap. However, the little prince had not been able to nap a wink since he had turned 2, and now he was already 4. Seeing the poor little prince lay awake naptime after naptime, the teachers allowed him to bring a book to read while the other princes and princesses were napping. The prince would place the book in his cubby and retrieve it right at naptime. But sometimes the sneaky princess Camilla would snatch his naptime book and read it herself, making the little prince very sad. One day, the little prince brought a new book, with a shiny gold cover, one he had found hidden away in the back of his parents’ bookshelf. Sure enough, at naptime Camilla snatched the book and took it to her bed to read under the sheets. When the little prince got the book back, he thought he could feel its pages ruffle. The little prince joked:

‘You seem to be as upset that Princess Camilla snatched you as I am.’

To his surprise, the book seemed to tilt back and forth in agreement. The next day the prince brought the same book to preschool, and again princess Camilla took the book. She opened it under her sheets, but immediately started shrieking.

‘There are snakes and dragons in that book, and they are moving! Get it away from me!’.

The prince took the book and opened it to see what princess Camilla was talking about. There he saw a smiling dragon wink at him. From that day on, the prince brought the same book every day, but every time he opened the magical book, a different and wonderful story would unfold. And princess Camilla never tried to take his naptime book ever again.


The wizard who hated light

There once was a dark wizard who liked only the dark. He despised the light. He spent his whole life plotting how to get rid of the sun. One day, he used a powerful spell to summon the biggest, darkest clouds to cover his castle and the entire village below. The whole village grew very dark. However, the children of the village knew of a counter-spell. The counter-spell was a simple joyful song and dance, and as the children of the village raised their voices and danced, the clouds dispersed, and the sun shone once again.

Many happy, sunny days ensued, but the wizard was not idle in his dark castle. He was busy thinking up a plan that could not fail. He cast a spell on the earth to slow it down, to slow it down so much that the village and castle would always be on the opposite end of the earth from the sun, and it would be eternal night. The children came together and tried their song and dance, but it was no use. They dispelled the clouds, but beyond lay only the stars and the moon, no sun. They would have to make the earth spin faster again, but how?

Then a little boy had an idea. He called Santa Claus on the North Pole:
‘Santa, I need to ask you for something’.
‘Have you been good, my boy?’
‘Well… No, not exactly.’
‘But I’m not asking for me. I’m asking for all the kids living on my side of the planet’.
‘OK, go ahead then, what would you like?’
‘Santa, your reindeer fly at night, right?’
‘Yes, Rudolf leads the way’
‘Could I.. borrow them?’
Then the boy told Santa his plan. Santa and his reindeer flew straight down to the village. The boy tied Santa’s sled to a big tree, and told the reindeer ‘Giddyap’. As the reindeer pulled, the earth started spinning again. Slowly at first, but then faster and faster, until it was spinning just as it had before. As the earth spun back into sunrise, the wizard was caught in its rays, and crouched in pain:
‘No! No!’ he shouted, ‘The light, I can’t stand it’.
The children of the village saw their chance, they seized the wizard and threw him in the deepest and darkest dungeon. He never saw the light of day again — and actually, this suited him just fine.

Superhero preschool: Triangle Boy and Impervious Man
In the city of Zappow, where a lot of superheroes liked to live, there was a preschool for their superhero kids. In this special preschool, they could hone their skills in a safe and nurturing environment. Ice Girl had ice powers, just like Elsa in ‘Frozen’. Storm Boy could whip up a tornado. Lightning Girl could zap just about anything. And then there was Triangle Boy. He could… make things into triangles. Nobody was impressed by his powers, especially not the other kids at preschool. Then one day a a new villain, Impervious Man, arrived in town. The grown-up superheroes tried to stop him, but failed. Now Impervious Man was at the preschool gates. The kids knew they had to stop him themselves. Storm Boy summoned a tornado. It swirled around Impervious Man but did not sway him one bit. Ice Girl shot ice at Impervious Man. Impervious Man had skin so slick, the ice simply slid off of him. Finally, Lightning Girl zapped bolts of lightning at Impervious Man, but he merely laughed, as if they had tickled him. After his friends had run away, Triangle Boy faced Impervious Man alone. He didn’t quite know where to look, so he stared at Impervious’ shoes… and, being very anxious, accidentally turned them into triangles.

‘Ow! Ow! Ow! My Toes!’, Impervious Man cried and fell over.

Triangle Boy quickly summoned all his power and turned Impervious Man into a triangle. The police truck came and hauled Impervious Man to a high security villain holding cell. Back at preschool, all the other kids crowded around Triangle Boy:

‘How did you turn his shoes into triangles?’
‘Did you have to practice a lot? ‘
‘What else can you do?’
‘Can you show us?’

No one ever thought his powers were lame again.

The little boy and the boing-boing bike
There once was a little boy who loved to skip and hop. He would not walk, he would leap and bound, so high, that the top of his head would nearly touch the tree branches above the sidewalk. This came in handy when, for example, there was a kitten who got stuck in a tree. Its owners could call the fire department, OR, they could call the boy, who with one big jump, would snatch the kitten from the branch and deliver it safely into the thankful owners’ hands. However, as skilled as the boy was in jumping, he was terrible at biking. He couldn’t help wanting to skip and hop, often launching himself off of his bike, and SPLAT, face-first onto the pavement. After a few such mishaps, his parents permitted him to ride only a lowly tricycle. All his friends had long given up their training wheels on their big-boy- and big-girl bikes. They couldn’t help but tease the little boy on his tricycle and this made him sad. So one day, he decided to make a bike that he could pedal AND bounce around with. Instead of regular bicycle wheels, he installed the springiest, bounciest exercise balls on his bike. He took the bike for a spin. When he pedaled, the bike wasn’t the speediest, but when he added a bounce, SPROINK, BOINK, BOING, his bike made great big leaps, bouncing over other kids on their bikes. Whaaa? – the other kids exclaimed. Pretty soon everyone wanted a boing-boing bike. The little boy forgave his friends for teasing him, and made boing-boing bikes for all of them — for a fee :).

The runaway shorts
There once was a little boy who had a pair of shorts. Or rather, he had this pair of shorts most of the time. The shorts, they liked to sneak off whenever they got a chance, for example, when the little boy took them off to go splash in the sprinklers at a friend’s house. Unhappy about having to go home in just his underwear, the little boy came up with a solution. When the shorts sneaked back into his room in the middle of the night, he quickly put a collar (belt) on them, attached a leash, and held on tightly to the leash. Now, whenever he went to school, he’d loop the leash around his wrist. At home, he would tie the leash to his dresser.
No longer having to worry about losing his shorts, the little boy was happy. But the shorts grew droopier and droopier with sadness, until one day, the boy could not even walk any more, the shorts had sagged all the way to the ground. The boy decided it was time to have a serious conversation with his shorts. He said:

‘Shorts, I can see you are sad, but I cannot let you off the leash, because it is quite embarrassing to have to walk around in public in my underwear.’

The shorts thought for a moment and then replied:

‘I know my disappearances had caused you grief. But I cannot change my nature, I feel that I will die in captivity.’

Suddenly, the boy had an idea. He proposed:

‘Let’s make a deal. Every night you are free to go wherever you like, but you have to be back in the dresser every morning and you can’t leave me in the middle of the day when I need you.’

The shorts replied:
‘Throw in some Ocean Breeze detergent into my regular wash, and you’ve got yourself a deal. I hear the lady shorts are crazy about that scent.’

‘I’ll talk to my parents and see if that can be arranged.’

And the boy and the shorts lived happily, smelling of ocean breezes, until the boy outgrew them. Before putting the shorts in the giveaway bag the now not-so-little-boy sewed in a special tag: Let run free at night. Prefers Ocean Breeze detergent.

The explorers who go toot
There once were two young explorers who had not a lot of money but really liked adventure. Because they spent the little money they had paying their way around the world, they could afford to buy nothing but canned beans to eat. Which meant that they went toot. A LOT.

On one of their adventures they stumbled upon a pyramid in the middle of the desert. They stepped inside and as their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they noticed a sphinx guarding a passageway. They were sure that great treasure lay beyond, but as they eyed the passageway, the sphinx spoke in a deep, ancient voice:

‘No one can pass who does not know the secret password’.

The explorers looked at one another. They consulted their notebooks. They tried all the secret passwords they had written down:

‘Gimmeyogold?’ stuttered the first explorer.

‘NO’ said the sphinx.

‘Steppasayd?’, tried the other.


‘Entramos nos’?


As time went on, and password after password failed to satisfy the sphinx, the two explorers found they could hardly contain their toots any more. TOOT went the first explorer. TOOT-TOOT, went the second. Suddenly, the sphinx rose on its front paws and said:

‘You are correct. King Toot’s secret password was toot-toot-toot! You may now enter his secret treasure chambers.’

Loaded with treasure beyond their wildest dreams, the two explorers resolved to never give up what had gotten them rich in the first place: eating beans. Hence they always remained the explorers who went toot, only going on much better funded expeditions.

Extra: Superhero preschool: Vivian
A few months after Triangle Boy defeated Impervious Man, a new girl started attending superhero preschool in the town of Zappow. Her name was Vivian.
‘Vivian? What kind of an ordinary name is that?’, asked Ice Girl.
‘What powers do you have?’ questioned Storm Boy.
But Vivian would not say. Sometimes Vivian would try to join the games the other kids played – like hide-and-seek. However, she was too good at finding where others were hiding.
‘Do you have x-ray vision?’ Lighting Girl asked. ‘Kids with x-ray vision are not allowed to play hide-and-seek!’
But Vivian was also really good at beating everyone at checkers and chess. It did not help her popularity. So she played on her own for the most part.

One day, a new threat came to Zappow. It was a giant octopus. With its huge tentacles it grabbed hold of skyscraper after skyscraper, lifting them up and slamming them back to the ground. The grown-up superheroes could do nothing to stop the giant octopus. The preschool kids tried their best too, but the octopus was so huge, that it only slightly recoiled at the ice/lightning and other powers the kids threw at it. Triangle boy tried his best, summoned all his power, and turned the octopus into a triangle. But the octopus’ body was so pliable, that it just squished back into its normal shape.

Everyone decided to run, except Vivian, who hid behind a wall, as if she was listening to something. She called after the other preschool kids:
‘Wait! I think I know why the octopus is destroying everything!’
‘Do you remember the new and unusual octopus we saw during our field trip to the aquarium yesterday?’
‘Yes? Why are you talking about field trips now?!’
‘I think it’s this monster’s baby. She’s looking for it and smashing everything in her way! Let’s bring the baby octopus back to her’.

So Storm Boy whipped up a fierce wind to bring them all to the aquarium in a jiffy. Ice Girl broke open the tank the baby octopus was in, while Vivian took the octopus into a bucket. Storm Boy took them back to where the monster octopus was turning over building and uprooting trees. Lightning girl threw a bolt nearby to get the monster’s attention. As the octopus turned to face the kids, Vivian held up the bucket with the baby octopus. The monster immediately grabbed the bucket, cradling its baby and disappeared as quickly as it had come.
‘How did you know what the monster wanted?’ Ice Girl turned to Vivian.
‘She’s a mind-reader, of course!’ Triangle Boy exclaimed, finally realizing Vivian’s secret.
And so, the preschool kids now understood why Vivian had not wanted to reveal her power. And they started to accept her more, gradually.
‘Well, that’s a cool power’, admitted Storm Boy, ‘But I’m still not playing chess with her’, he concluded.

Extra: The little boy and the boing-boing bike and the explorers who go toot on a cruise ship
There once was a cruise ship. It was the BIGGEST, HUGEST, most ENORMOUS cruise ship, at least the captain claimed so. On its maiden voyage, it was to set out to the arctic, for a tour of icy wonders. As the passengers were boarding, a little boy came pushing along a strange bike — instead of regular wheels, it had exercise balls. The captain said:
‘Halt! No vehicles allowed aboard the cruise ship.’
‘But is this not the biggest, most vast cruise ship ever built?’ – asked the boy.
‘Yes, so what of it?’ – replied the captain.
‘Well, how could the most awesome cruise ship ever not accommodate a little boy’s bike?’
‘Oh, all right, bring it aboard’ – the captain gave in.

It was already on the first day at sea that the little boy took out his boing-boing bike for a spin on the ship’s vast decks. Sproiiiing-boing-boing-wheeee….. SPLOOOSH. The ship’s rails, which were perfectly adequate for keeping passengers and strollers in, were easily hopped over by the boing-boing bike. The alarm horn sounded, and life rings were thrown from the deck down into the ocean. In the meantime, the little boy had discovered that his boing-boing bike… floated! Its big exercise ball wheels gave it enough buoyancy, and by pedaling, the little boy was able to cruise along the water’s surface. In his excitement, the little boy started shouting:
‘Hey, look what my bike can…’.
But the angry captain cast a net over the little boy and his bike and unceremoniously reeled them in. He sent the dripping boy back to his cabin and confiscated the boing-boing bike.
A few nights later, off the coast of Newfoundland, when no one expected it (least of all the captain who had fallen asleep at the helm), the cruise ship struck an iceberg. It started to slowly sink. Everyone piled into the life rafts, it seemed that everyone was safe, except… for one little girl who had somehow fallen into the ocean and was quite a distance away from the life rafts. The little boy saw his confiscated boing-boing bike floating nearby. He jumped on it with one of his big leaps and quickly pedaled over to the girl, pulled her onto his boing-boing bike, and brought her back to safety.

Just as the captain was commending the little boy on his bravery, a crewman exclaimed:
‘Captain, sir, there are still 2 passengers missing!’.
The cruise ship was now almost completely under water, and the brave captain donned his scuba diving gear to search for the missing passengers. But how could he find them? The ship *was* vast, after all. The two missing passengers, we know them well, were the explorers who go toot, on a mission to find the legendary diamond-haired polar bear. They had eaten too many canned beans for dinner and were fast asleep when the ship started to sink. Now they found themselves under water and in big trouble. They nodded to each other, and with their last strength, let out two giant toots. The toot bubbles rose faithfully exactly above their location. The captain noticed the bubbles immediately, and dove down, rescuing the two explorers. He was wearing his scuba gear and so did not smell or suspect anything (fortunately).
‘How smart of you to save your breath and signal to me with air bubbles!’ he told the 2 rescued explorers.
‘Eeerrrm, yes.’ stuttered the explorers who go toot, happy that they were alive to continue their adventures… on another trip.

The 4 stages of vacation

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Sep 202014

Week 1: [Still in an excited state, best for adventure/exploration travel] Where shall we go today? Bike tour? Explore the old ruins? What if I just go to the beach? Look at me I’m on the beach. I’m relaxing. I’m reading a book. Should I post about reading a book on the beach? If I go online, will I need to deal with work? Maybe I’ll do just a bit of work? Or maybe I’ll distract myself with some fun activity [repeat].

Week 2: [Work worries have receded, with secondary worries flooding in] What have I done with my life? Am I the person I want to be? What is that spot on my shoulder. Should I have it checked out? I resolve to be better. Resolve to do X,Y,Z when I get back, have had years to do X,Y,Z.

Week 3: [Secondary worries have receded, complete relaxation has set in] What should I have for breakfast? Which beach do I go to? Which book do I read? If I go kayaking will I still have time to finish reading my book? I’ll just bring it in the kayak. Yeah.

Last week: [Desperate attempt to really enjoy the remaining days] Today is the nth day until the vacation is over, gotta enjoy it. But it will be over soon. But I gotta enjoy it. Remember this. It will be over soon.

Sadly, any vacation < 4 weeks does not contain a proper week 3.

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