Monday, December 31, 2012

In the Deep End

There seem to be a lot of parents who don't just want their kids to be able to swim, but want their kids to swim competitively. Maybe it's because the parents swam on team, or they got a rush watching the Olympics, or because it offers individual competitive opportunity for the kids to score some hardware for the trophy case at home.

Whatever the reason, I've seen more than a few kids moved to competitive swimming well before they've developed good mechanics. They don't effectively transfer energy into propulsion in the water. Their flip turns have all the grace of an octopus unfolding a lawn chair. They might come out of the starting blocks well, but they fade fast. Worse, the emphasis in team on endurance over mechanics reinforces the poor muscle memory of their strokes. If they ever hope to be competitive, they'll have to un-learn a lot of poor swimming mechanics - or take up a different sport entirely.

I hope she swims on team. I hope she likes the competitive aspect just as much as she likes being in the pool. But before she goes into a competitive situation, she's got to have developed the mechanics that will allow her to compete effectively. A good swimmer can become a great swimmer with refinement and endurance. A poor swimmer will never improve without mastering the fundamentals.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Organization Girl

She's at an age when grades start to matter. That means that the stuff that needs to get done - assignments, worksheets, vocabulary words, notebooks - have to be at school when she needs them at school, and at home when she needs them at home. Frequently, they are not.

"A place for everything, and everything in its place" does not come naturally to her. We can coach her, incent her, and give her tools. We can remind her that staying on top of things is her responsibility. But as organization doesn't come naturally to her, she will have to develop the muscle memory to compensate, a defensive reaction to double check that she isn't forgetting something. As it is, she feels the disappointment borne of sloppiness, but she hasn't really experienced a major set back yet as a result. Until she does, it's likely to persist.

As a parent, own goals scored as a result of poor organization are not just irritating, they're disappointing. Of course, disappointing though they may be, they're also proof positive that the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Robust Personality

Robust is when you care more about the few who like your work than the multitude who dislike it (artists); fragile when you care more about the few who dislike your work than the multitude who like it (politicians).

- Nassim Taleb, "The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms"
May that she always have the strength - and stubbornness - to be the artist, and not the politician.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Kiddo's music recital was a duet rather than a solo this year. She played the first violin part. I transposed the 2nd violin part and accompanied her on clarinet.

Parents are usually relegated to the sidelines. We can help them train and study. We can coach and teach. We can cheer them on. But this was different: I got to step off the sidelines and be part of the action with her.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Neil Armstrong

In July 1969, Neil Armstrong stood atop the pinnacle of human achievement.

It's been said that landing on the moon was about the most audacious thing imaginable in the 1960s. We had to invent all kinds of technologies, master extra-terrestrial techniques in simulated environments, and build equipment to a level of quality such that they could withstand the harsh environment of space. We did it with scant first-hand experience, and limited component and systemic testing.

In the years following July 1969, we put another 10 people on the lunar surface, and hundreds more into low earth orbit. Humanity has produced three long-term space stations. We have a fleet of satellites orbiting the Earth, moon, and sun gathering scientific data ranging from the salinity of the oceans to fluctuations in the Van Allen belts. We've got four that are leaving the solar system, heading for interstellar space, two of which we still have contact with.

And that's not all. Since that first landing, we've launched space telescopes, developed reusable spacecraft, and landed rovers on Mars. We even launched a probe that collided with the moon so that another probe in orbit could study the chemical composition of the debris. These are no small accomplishments.

But as aggressive as these things are, the Mars Curiosity landing brings back audacious. It slowed from 13,000 mph to zero in 7 minutes in the thin Martian atmosphere. It did this using thrusters to control the approach despite reaching temperatures in excess of 1,600 degrees. It deployed a parachute at 9g to slow down, then detached the heat shield, then disposed of the parachute. It then used rockets to control the descent, changing both horizontal and vertical velocity to align with the planet's surface. But it saved the best for last: it's party piece was to cover the last 20 meters using a sky-crane to lower the rover to the surface.

And that's just the start. It crawls. It shoots photos. It vapourizes rocks to determine their chemical composition. It transmits all it learns back to the Earth.

Of course, the ultimate human experience is for people, not robots, to journey into space. And the Curiosity rover lacks the personification of the lunar missions because it's not one man, but thousands of people.

But that's how Mr. Armstrong wanted it. Much has been made about what he chose to do after his astronaut days, leading the reclusive life of academic and farmer. He didn't want the spotlight and didn't want to be a curiosity himself. But it's no accident that unlike all other missions, there are no astronaut names on the Apollo 11 mission patch. He was party to that decision, precisely because he realized before the event took place that setting foot on another celestial body was an achievement by humanity and not a single person.

Personification is why so many people today believe our scientific progress has receded when in fact it has advanced beyond our wildest dreams. We associate Mr. Armstrong with human greatness. That is justified: Mr. Armstrong, like all astronauts, is genius and guts incarnate. But our achievements today are no less remarkable. Just look at the SDO imagery if there's any doubt.

We idolize Mr. Armstrong because we get to bask in his reflected glory as fellow members of the human species.

It is selfish on our part to hero-worship.

Mr. Armstrong did not want that.

Farewell Neil Armstrong, and we thank you.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

When Sport Isn't a Metaphor for Life

We expect our kids to learn life lessons from playing sports, things like teamwork, competition, discipline and practice. But the competitive structure of sports is not representative of how most people live their lives. Sport relies on tournaments to crown a champion. Most people live their lives - and particularly their careers - in a perpetual regular season.

Either we need more workplace tournaments (good luck with that, accounting department), or being the best team day in and day out needs to count for more than awards for individual accomplishment and securing home field advantage in the tournament.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Transit of Venus

There were many stunning images of the Transit of Venus captured through Earth-bound telescopes with solar filters, by astronauts using filtered cameras on the International Space Station, and from solar imaging spacecraft.

We watched it through a more primitive apparatus: an optical projector constructed from binoculars, a tripod, cardboard and duct tape (what else?). The image from the projector, while not as crisp as a filtered lens, had the advantage of being much more fun: we projected onto cardboard, our shirts, and even our hands.

As stunning as those other images are, looking at them we still can't help but think: we did that, too.

We'll have the opportunity to do something like it again, when Mercury transits across the Sun in May, 2016.

If we do, it will not only be a humbling celestial event: it will also give us reason to reflect on the transit of our lives in the 4 years since the last planetary transit.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dreaming Through my Daughter

Possibly the greatest thing about being a parent is being able to dream of limitless possibilities again, if only vicariously. Limitless possibility defines the human experience. It is never more true than with a young person.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Gin and Poker

I taught my daughter how to play two card games the other day: gin rummy and five-card draw poker. I also taught her the basics of wagering - and therefore bluffing - in poker. I'd never thought about it before, but in gin you're playing the cards, in poker you're playing the people.

At some point, I'm sure I'll use poker as a metaphor to explain a life situation to her. For example, some day when she finds herself in a poor situation, I'll point out that although she may be holding a lot of low cards, she can do things to cause people to react in ways that create a more favourable situation for her because they don't know what cards she has. Or I might talk to her about how to recognize people's tells, and how that can inform her decision making.

That's not a particularly healthy way for us to interact as a family. Neither of us gain much from competing with each other on what amount to questions of our honesty and transparency with each other. Not a great way to define our relationship.

Fortunately, she prefers playing the cards. For now, anyway.

Saturday, March 31, 2012


There are some things that will always make you drop whatever it is you're doing and go do something else.

Being asked, "Dad, do you want to play catch?" is among them.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Weekend Scientists

We've been playing at weekend scientist, doing unusual things with everyday items like meat tenderizer, alligator clips, water, lemons, and galvanized nails. And some not-so-everyday items, like platinum-coated wire.

Some of these experiments, such as placing a white carnation in a glass of dyed water to demonstrate capillary action, make for good (if slow) theatre. There is also a straightforward explanation for the science that's taking place.

But other experiments we've done lack both clear explanation and theatre. The hydrogen fuel cell is fascinating, but the descriptions we've found for why it works aren't particularly good: the diagrams leave much to be desired, and the specificity of the narrative changes. Worse still, many of the descriptions for this experiment on the internet repackage the same original explanation: all searches effectively lead to the same place.

The experiment is also abstract. You only really know the fuel cell is working because of the reading on the multimeter. To an adult, that's real enough, but to a child, it's just a number that goes up and goes down.

We make it comprehensible by doing our homework, coming up with our own diagrams and composing our own narratives from the information we find. We make it tangible by modifying the experiment to power a low-voltage component. Walking this last mile is the best part: we understand the science better, we're not just performing it mechanically.

All this time we're spending may not give her the least bit of scientific encouragement. But if it makes her a little more aware of the things happening around her, it is time well spent.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Learning How to Practice

Some years ago, I set out to teach my daughter how to ride a bike, something I'd never had to teach anybody before. She learned a bit about riding a bike, and I learned a bit about teaching.

Earlier this month, I was listening to her play violin. She played a piece she's been playing for quite some time. Her performance has not appreciably improved since she started.

My first reaction was that she's not practicing enough. Fact is, she isn't: she doesn't practice ever day, and when she does practice, she isn't at it for very long.

But the problem wasn't how much time she was (or wasn't) spending practicing. The problem was how she was practicing. She was slogging her way through the piece, over and over. Her arm would start to sag. Her bowing would be off the mark. She tried to memorize the fingering instructions so she could look at her fingers, as opposed to the sheet music, when she played. But when she hit a wrong note or she got distracted, she'd lose her place and have to stop. When that happened, more often than not, she'd start the piece from the top.

This isn't learning how to play the violin, this is bulldozing your way through a task.

My initial diagnosis - that she needs to spend more time practicing - was incorrect. More practice like that wasn't going to improve the quality of her play, it was only going to make her dislike the violin: showing no improvement, and being assigned the same piece week after week, she'd become increasingly frustrated and simply lose interest.

She didn't know how to practice. Perhaps she hadn't been taught, perhaps she hadn't figured it out for herself, perhaps this was my responsibility all along. Whatever the case, knowing how to practice isn't something I can take for granted.

We're spending time working with her on how she practices, developing habits that will develop muscle memory for fingerings and bowing. That should lead to greater dexterity and endurance - and greater satisfaction from playing the violin. Part of this involves sitting with her while she plays and coaching her on what to do. Part of it involves me pulling out my horn and re-learning a piece long forgotten to remember what it's like to feel the frustration at a piece I have to master, to play something repetitively, to drill on a handful of measures at a time, to re-learn how to read ahead to intuitively reach for an alternate fingering. And, ultimately, to remember that feeling of satisfaction knowing that my performance is demonstrably better - something I think she's experiencing as her performance has markedly improved in a relatively short period of time.

It's easy to recognize a poor performance. It's not always so easy to recognize the poor practice habits behind a poor performance.