Thursday, November 21, 2013

Death in the Family

There was a tragic death in my family today. An unexpected passing that has brought my own mortality into sharp relief against the expressionless march of time. As children we live with a sense of immortality, lent to us by the steadfast constancy of the people and places around us. We live in the only house we have every lived in. We are surrounded by the only people we have every lived with. We eat the only food we have every eaten. There is no sense of change, no sense for any real passage of time.

Then, as we say, life happens. When we say that, what we are really saying is that things change. We move to a new city. General Mills stops making French Toast Crunch. Our parents add more siblings. Time begins to inch along and as it creeps along our periphery like a gentle moss. But the changes of child are usually additive. More siblings, more friends, more spelling words, a bigger bike, a driver's license, a first kiss. Life is gathering like a storm surge and the momentum is intoxicating.

The rush of progress and learning fortify our determination. We might have no idea what we are doing but that doesn't matter because we are doing it. The foam and the spray blind us. As independent and powerful as we feel it's like an amusement park ride. The thrill is controlled, the danger is only simulated, and the harnesses are neatly constructed of the constants that have bolstered our sense of immortality since the day we were born.

Occasionally we lose things. A friend my die tragically young, the house we grew up in may now be the stage for another's start, a significant-other might find someone else more significant. The ebb is only temporary. As we flash into young adulthood we are still adding more things than we are losing. We get married, we get a job, we have kids, we buy a house. Yes. we have hit terminal velocity on our moonshot to eternity.

I'm not really sure when it happens but eventually we start losing more things. Many things. Eventually we start losing more things than we gain. That's when it's over. That's when the wave washes harmlessly across the sand. The cliche joke for any milestone birthday is that you are over the hill. But when is that really. Is it 40? 50? 60? No, it's when you stop building. I hope I never reach the top.

Well, I digress. Today I lost something and it's a tragedy it couldn't last forever. I don't think there will be a memorial service but I will observe a solemn moment of silence for my parent's SONY SPORTS MEGA BASS CFS-914 BOOMBOX with AM/FM radio and a cassette player. It bit the dust today and my world is collapsing around me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Don't Be Confusing

Here is a note I got from an undergraduate studying physics and my response:

On 11/11/13, Nicholas H. wrote:
I read one of your posts about the usefulness of writing skills and even graphic design skills in physics and I've been thinking about what I would need to improve in those areas.  Could you elaborate any more about how you use those skills or what you must be able to do to excel in those areas?

On 11/12/13 Tyler wrote:
In my opinion the ability to solve hard problems is almost as important as knowing how to weave a story that describes why those problems are interesting and how your solutions solve them. Richard Feynman might be the ultimate example of a Physicist that mastered the art of communicating technical information in a very elegant and accessible way. There are several of his lectures and interviews on YouTube. I would recommend watching/listening to some of them. You don't need to copy him just pay attention to how he goes about crafting his explanations.

As a Physicist doing R&D for a large company, I am under constant pressure to get results very quickly. I run many experiments on a daily basis that generate piles of data. Much of my time is spent grooming that data. Whittling it down to some nugget of critical information. Typically I'll need to fit a week's worth of work into a single PowerPoint slide and the only explanation I can provide may be a 5 minute presentation to a room full of people that have no idea what I'm talking about. In that situation it's all about being concise and direct and, above all, not confusing people. Our goal is ultimately to make decisions; confused people don't make good decisions.

Obviously writing is critical to your ability to communicate but learning some simple elements of design could really help you understand how to guide someones eye in your presentation and avoid slides cluttered with text or incomprehensible graphs. I'm not saying you should become a graphic designer but it's a crime for people to miss the point of your presentation because they were battling with your graphics. A great reference is a guy named Edward Tufte ( He's written a few books on the subject.

On a grander scale I often catch myself falling victim to what I call the Harry Potter syndrome. This syndrome is the idea that people will be able to see my true potential in spite of any apparent disorganization or ignorance. Unfortunately, it's a delusion. People will only see what you present. If it's confusing they will have very little confidence in what you are saying, Your career will be built on the confidence that other people have in you.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Science Class

The two least pleasant years of life are probably the last two but the second must be junior high. Preteens are awful. Like pubescent packs of awkward wolves, they starve for attention and are just as likely to turn on each other as they are weaker prey. Yes, they smell fear but what really works them into a feeding frenzy is vulnerability. Their ferocity is born out of fear. Fear of not being cool. Everyone lives their life from a position of vulnerability, preteens are terrified because they have just realized they are but have no idea that everyone else is too. 

It was into this terrifying right of passage that I unsuspectingly entered the 7th grade. I naively envisioned myself effortlessly rocketing up through the popularity ranks, becoming a cross between Ferris Bueller and A.C. Slater.

My grand visions were short lived. The day they came crashing down was a Wednesday and it was Science class. In retrospect, I seem to recall drinking a lot of orange juice at breakfast but who knows. What I do know is that about 5 minutes into class I had to pee. The urge came abruptly, my body forgoing its customarily polite one-hour warning. No sir, the train was at the station and it was time to go. I wasn't exactly one of the quiet kids so the teacher wasn't surprised when I raised my hand and asked to go to the bathroom. Her response, "No, you can wait."

I really had to go but I wasn't at defcon 4 quite yet so I tried to focus on the lesson just to distract me from the mounting pressure in my bladder. The thing about bladder pressure is that you can't ignore it. In fact, it begins to eclipse all other sensory information and, like trying to catch a fly ball while looking directly into a July sun, it's simply impossible to maintain focus. So, when ignoring the impending deluge wasn't working any more I humbly raised my hand again and asked to go. Turned down once again, I resorted to the only thing left to my disposal, short of a full blown potty dance, wiggling my toes.

One of the great scientific mysteries is why wiggling your toes should have any affect on bladder pressure but it does and when the situation is dire it can buy a good fifteen minutes. So there I was, exercising every sphincter in my urinary tract and furiously wriggling my toes. I thought I was doing okay until I looked at the clock. Fifteen more minutes! I was never going to make it. Now timidly, but with a splash of urgency, I raised my hand and asked to go a third time. If the teach could have seen my toes she would have known how serious the situation really was but all she saw was a smart alec 7th grader asking to go to the bathroom for the third time that hour with just a few minutes until the end of class, clearly my motives were nefarious.

As young, hip teachers are wont to do, I guess she figured she would fight fire with fire and combat my "jokes" with a few of her own. So, instead of letting me go to the bathroom she walked around the room turning on all of the faucets. Science classrooms always have a lot of sinks. The class thought it was funny, the teacher thought it was funny, they all thought I was funny, and all I could think was, "don't pee, don't pee, don't pee, don't pee, don't pee..." My greatest moment as a class clown was shaping up to be the worst moment of my life.

Wiggling toes be damned, there is nothing short of a tourniquet that can stand up to the sound of rushing water when you have to pee so bad your eyes start turning yellow. I was in absolute dismay but I my determination was absolute. William Wallace would have been inspired by my resolve. 3 min! Holy crap, I was going to make it. Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle. Don't pee don't pee don't pee. 2 min!? I think I can I think I can I think I can. 1 min! I'm going to make it I'm going to make it I'm going to make it! RIIIIIINGGGGGG!

To this day that bell was the sweetest sound I have ever heard. Freedom. It was so beautiful and I was so relieved that for one millisecond I let my guard down. And, like the defeated villain lunging at the back of the benevolent protagonist at the end of the movie, it got me. That fleeting moment of relaxation sprung the leak that broke the damn. The next thirty seconds were as liberating as they were terrifying as the entire contents of my exhausted bladder rushed for the exits.

I sat, frozen in disbelief. I had actually peed my pants in 7th grade. My aspirations were dead in the water, my water.

Change the World

We just might be able to save the world from the slow deadly spiral of economic decay if we can bring the universe to its knees and rearrange IKEA stores so people can walk from one end to the other in a straight line. The labyrinth of impulse-buys is ruining the world and my Saturdays. Not only is it impossible to get in and out of the store in less than an hour, assuming you keep a good pace, but the meandering path systematically breaks down my wife's focus and we end up looking at a bunch of crap we suddenly realized we absolutely needed. Sure there are "shortcuts". But they're not really shortcuts. They are like the green tubes on Mario Bros. that just warp you to another part of the level with no idea of how close you are to your goal. That being said, if I had to exit the store by jumping off a flight of stairs and sliding down a flag pole I might feel like the whole ordeal was actually worth it. You'd think it would be better if you just went straight to the first floor. But it's not. In fact it's worse. There's even more stuff and you can almost here the "bada bada bada" of the dungeon level.

In fairness there are two parts of Ikea that I do enjoy. The first is the moment I emerge from the twisted maze of shopping ADHD that is the first floor into the open warehouse area. All of a sudden I feel a little bit like I'm in Costco (without the mosaic of giant TV's) and I'm suddenly interested in all the neat stuff nestled in the forest of green and orange industrial racks that tower above me. The second is the cinnamon rolls. They're pretty good.

So really, what I'm trying to say is, Costco should sell hot cinnamon rolls.