Update from A609

My host family in NYC went camping a few times over the summer, so I sent them updates about what has been going on in Apartment A609. The family consists of Mom, Dad, their nine year old daughter and five year old son. I was pleased to find that we had a lot in common. The kids and me, that is. (Mom and Dad, too, for that matter.) For one thing, we are all fans of Captain Underpants. While they were away, they asked me to take care of their fish. I took care of their robotic vacuum cleaner, as well.



Update from A609: We tried to have a Captain Underpants dance party last night, but even though I invited all the neighbors while wearing my Captain Underpants costume they all said they had other things to do. So it was just the fish and I laughing at the vacuum cleaner getting stuck. Now the fish and I are having a disagreement over whose turn it is to wash the dishes. I say the fish has to do it on odd numbered days. That seems fair. Later, the fish (does it have a name?) wants to go skating, so we turned all the air conditioners down as far as they would go, to see if we can get a layer of ice on top of the tank. Otherwise things are good here. Have fun camping!



Update from A609: Our skating plan was a bust. Although it is very, very cold in here, we did not get any ice on the fish tank, and the fish started to complain about how cold he was, so we turned off the air conditioners. I then accidentally mentioned the swimming pool to the fish, and he said that he would like to go, and that he was a very good swimmer. I told him that, although I did not doubt that he was a good swimmer, that probably the pool was to deep for him, because he is used to swimming in shallow water. So we went to Target to try to find some floaties for him, but they didn’t have any in his size. While we were in the pool gear section, he saw an inflatable pool, and said that that wouldn’t be too deep for him. We set up the pool in the living room, and it seemed like it might take a long time for it to fill up with water (by the way, fish are really bad at blowing up pools – no lung capacity at all). The fish said he was hungry, so we went out for brunch. By the time we got back, the fish was sleepy from eating too much, so now he is taking a nap. I have put away the pool, hoping he will forget that that was the plan. I don’t think fish have good memories, but I am not sure. Have a safe trip back!


When they got back, I learned the Betta fish’s name is Blue Dragon.



Update from A609: By the time I arrived back in Queens last night, it was almost dark.  The vacuum cleaner was missing from its post, and Blue Dragon look worried and a bit hungry. I fed him (not bigger than his eyeball), and asked him what was the matter. He said that the vacuum cleaner went out and hadn’t come back yet. I decided to search the apartment while BD finished his food. I looked all around, but couldn’t find VC anywhere. BD and I decided to look further.  We looked all around the hallway, trash compactor room and laundry, but didn’t find it anywhere, so we began to look outside. We started out small, just looking in the bushes and areas around the building, but still no sign of VC. We thought we might have trouble finding it, because the workers here are very good at cleaning up dust and dirt from the ramps leading to and from the front door, and we were right. We searched in ever widening circles until finally BD spotted a section on 75th street which looked cleaner than the other parts. The clean section formed a sort of pathway, so we followed it. It led us to PS69, where we found VC whose orange light was blinking, and it was  mumbling something about no parking 8-8:30am Tuesdays. We think it might’ve been worried that it was going to get towed away if it didn’t finish cleaning the street there by Tuesday. We brought it home and put it back on its charger, and it seems to be doing better now. That’s all from A609!


I got a message back indicating the vacuum cleaner’s name was Neato.



Update from A609: So, BD got it in his head that he wanted to try sleeping in a bed last night. He said he heard it in a story, and he wanted to try it. First, he tried to sleep in my bed, but it was too hard. He was sleeping on the metal rail of the bed. Then he tried sleeping in mom and dad’s bed, but it was too soft. He was sleeping on the pillow. Finally, he slept in the kids’ room, and it was just right, except he kinda got lonely (you know how it is when you are sleeping far from home), so I had to sleep on the floor next to him. I don’t know where he gets his ideas. I must say, though, that he snores rather loudly.

This afternoon I needed to make a trip to Staples to get some copies made. Neato wanted to come along and see a different part of Queens. When we got down to the lobby, and Neato said that it had forgotten something and needed to go back to A609, so I waited in the lobby while it went upstairs. I was wondering what it was going to get, because I thought it had all its parts. It came back down in a few minutes, ready to go. I’m still not sure how it pushed the buttons on the elevator. I’m pretty sure it didn’t take the stairs.

We eventually made it to Staples, but it took a really long time because every time Neato saw a pile of dirt, it felt that it had to go and clean it up. There are a lot more piles of dirt on Broadway than I imagined. When we got to the store, Neato said it had never been to a store before. It was very pleased to go up and down the aisles. And up and down. And up and down. And up and down. It took us quite a long time to see everything. My advice is not to go to the store with a robot vacuum cleaner. Finally, its orange light started to blink, and I knew Neato was tired. I picked it up and carried it home, and set it in its charger port for a good night’s rest.



Update from A609: Well, the main fun today was the burping contest I had with BD. He wasn’t very good at it at first, having never tried it, but he got good really fast!  I can still burp longer than he can, but he is definitely the loudest!

We had our burping contest first thing in the morning, which turned out to be a good thing, because that was when the painters arrived. I wasn’t sure why they were here, but BD explained to me that he called the painters (who left the phone so close to him? and who gave him the credit card number?) because he thought the apartment would look nicer if it more closely resembled his native habitat. Do you remember what that is? Rice paddies and slow moving streams with lots of plants and roots. He asked the painters to recreate that on the walls. I must say, it looked very nice, although the living room seemed smaller.

If I thought it seemed smaller then, I was wrong. Right after the painters left, a whole troop of people came by with sticks and plants and tree roots. They filled the whole living room. It looked a lot like South East Asia then.

If I thought it looked a lot like South East Asia then, I was wrong. Right after the tree root people left, the mud people showed up, and left a nice thick layer of gooey mud in the living room. It definitely was beginning to smell like a rice paddy in there.

If I thought it smelled like a rice paddy in there then, I was wrong. Right after the mud people left, the plumbers showed up to install the slow moving stream. I think BD is happy with it now. He is happily floating about making bubble nests.

You may be worried about a muddy living room, but fear not! Neato has been complaining about not getting enough exercise without everybody at home, which is why I’ve been taking it on walks around the block. I think it will get to know the neighborhood better, and not get lost so easily. It especially likes the fire hydrant and going the wrong way down a one way street. Anyway, it looked especially happy at having a chance to clean up all the mud, sticks and debris, although it might take a while to get around all the tree roots.



Update from A609: I’ve been trying to get BD’s mind off pool parties and food, so I taught him how to play cards. It was a bit of a struggle at first, because he couldn’t hold the cards – his fins don’t stretch far enough in front of him. Finally, we hit upon the idea of taping the cards to the side of his tank, and he bumps his nose on the one he wants to play. Once we had that figured out, I had to teach him the rules of the game. This also took kind of a long time because he’s a fish, and fish don’t have very good memory, except when it comes to food and pool parties.

After our first real game (I won), it was BD’s turn to shuffle the cards. That took a long time, too. I put the cards in his tank, and he pushes them around until he thinks they are shuffled. Then you have to take them out and let them dry. He talked about pool parties the whole time. He wants to get a slide for the party.

We played a bunch of games in the afternoon, and at long last, he began to win a few!  Now he wins most of the time. He thinks he’s some kind of card shark or something. Naturally, his favorite game is Go Fish. We must’ve played it a million times. Neato has a favorite game too – it’s called 52 pickup, and if you don’t know how to play, I’ll show you when you get back, that is, if you have cards.



Update from A609: I went to a yoga class this morning, and BD wanted to go too, so I brought him. Neato wasn’t interested in going, because “there was laundry to do”, whatever that means. We were almost late to class because we took a wrong turn when we got off the subway. I saw a sign that said 34, and I knew we were headed to 33rd St, so we went in that direction, but then the next one said 35, so we had to turn around, and then I saw it was 33rd AVENUE, so we still had another 10 minutes of walking to do. I carried BD instead of letting him walk himself, so we wouldn’t be late. When we got there, we found out that it was a donation based class, so I put in 25 cents for BD, because he doesn’t take up that much room. Plus, he says he never carries cash. He quite enjoyed the class, and especially liked when we did fish pose at the end, except he kept insisting that we did it all wrong, and he should know.

Other than that, the only big adventure we had today was taking the compost out. We have been taking it out every day this week. Usually we just go around the block, but if the weather is nice, we might go to the park. At first, we couldn’t make it that far because BD was just getting used to sidewalks. We have to walk in the shady parts for him. It was kind of a pain to carry BD AND the compost, but Neato was kind and offered to carry the compost. That goes pretty well, except it falls off when Neato sees a lamp post to go around. Or a street sign. Or a tree. Or a fire hydrant. Or when there’s a coin on the ground. Neato really enjoys finding money and scooping it up.

Well, that was our day. I hope yours was good too!



W7D4 – My three most unforgettable characters

Well, this is the first post I’ve ever written in transit. Normally, I wait until I’m home and write them, but it’s going to be pretty late when I get there, and I want to get the ideas down while they’re still fresh.

I’m just coming from a GWC graduation, my first this year. Unfortunately, the way the schedule works, I have four classes graduation simultaneously tonight, and the travel distances between them preclude me from attending more than one. I’m glad I chose the one I did.

It’s a great site, and they do wonderful things for the girls. The teaching team was a strong one. Sites are like children, you love them all, but sometimes there’s one you just get along with better. This was that site this year. Part of what made it great was the presence of three incredible young women, each of which gave me a story to carry away from the summer.

First, Anna. I spent some time during week two helping her to get her Hangman coding project to work. Hangman is a challenging project for even an experienced coder. When I first saw it in the curriculum, I thought, “Gee, I have to think about how to do that.” So, in the hands of a student who is new to programming, and even newer to a text based programming language, it’s a big deal. When I looked around the room, I could see that Anna was stuck, and asked her if she could use some help getting unstuck. She said yes, so I sat down next to her, and we spent about forty five minutes getting her program to work, and more importantly, her to understand what the code was doing.

When we finished, I issued her same challenge I often do: “Now that your code is working, you should help Casey (the girl she was sitting next to, and clearly was friends with) get hers going.”

“No, I can’t do that, I don’t know enough.”

“But you have working code, and you understand what it’s doing. You can work through her code and get it to do the same thing.”

“No, I can’t do that.”


I won’t push. She’s from a country eight time zones away, and English is not her first language (she speaks six). So, I moved on to help another girl.

Ten minutes later, I glanced around the room, and there was Anna, helping Casey get her code working. Whoop!

Second is Michelle. I support about one hundred eighty girls in all my classrooms. I rarely get to meet any of them more than once or twice, and to many of them I’m probably just that weird guy who comes in once a week, who knows why. It’s part of the job – I don’t get to make the connections with students that I’d like to.

Michelle, though, more than any other girl in the program, made me feel welcome in that classroom. She ALWAYS took time to say hello and ask how things were going, and ALWAYS gave her full attention to the answer. When you’re an outsider, that makes a huge difference.

Finally, Love. When I met her a week before the program at the Meet and Greet event, I’d have told you that Love wasn’t going to make it through the program. I didn’t even think she’d make it through the first week. She had that “I don’t want to be here” look that is frequently the kiss of death – the kind that says any small obstacle is going to derail this. At the same time, there was another girl who very much wanted to be in the program, who even came the first day willing to do just about anything to participate, even remotely. At the time I thought, but didn’t say, that we’d have an opening for her by day three.

You see, I already knew what Love’s obstacle was, her excuse for not participating – a three hour commute in each direction. In order to be on time, she had to be in a train at 5:45 am, every day, and she wouldn’t get home until after 7 pm. That’s a hell of an obstacle.

Still, she stuck it out, one day at a time. Every day, when I checked the attendance, there she was: present. Even in week two, when I saw her, she was still pretty still disengaged, and I thought she might leave. Week three though, she started to change – she joined with the other girls more, and stood a little straighter. I was awestruck tonight as she took the stage, tall and proud, with her project group and graduated. With perfect attendance.

Three characters, three lessons – you can do more than you think you can; be kind to outsiders; no obstacle is too big if you stick it out. I couldn’t be prouder of these fine young women, and the rest of the classes graduating tonight. Fine job, girls, fine job.

W0D3 – Melter Skelter

The Rubin Museum

I visited today. My mind is blown. It is simply the most mind expanding “art” museum I’ve ever been to. I stayed about two hours, and didn’t make it off the top floor, and it is not a large museum. In a few words, Tibetan art given a theme: The Future is Fluid.

So many things. As you enter, you receive a letter from a previous guest to guide you through the museum. I waited to open mine, and headed right straight to the place that prompted me to become a member of the museum, the Om Room. I wrote about that last year. Now I knew the room wasn’t there anymore because the museum changed exhibitions just before the new year. I headed there anyway, and was not disappointed. The Om Room was gone, but in its place in a darkened corner where you wouldn’t wander was an image of Vajrakilaya (whose practice is designed to remove obstacles to compassion) which revealed itself as you approached. The light came on steadily brightening just enough to reveal the image.

They had a couple of really cool augmented reality exhibits where you point an iPad camera at an artwork, and it highlight portions of the artwork that you can click on to learn more. It’s like having a tour guide point and say, “By the way, did you notice this?”

There was also a beautiful video that I caught only the last 10 minutes of, but even that snippet was moving. The whole video is 81 minutes long, and I plan to go back to see the rest of it soon. There was a credit for “the late, great Dolly the dog”, who I must absolutely see.

Union Square Farmers Market

I walked back to the farmers market after the museum. Yes, back. I didn’t want to carry the food into the museum. Also back because sometimes you run into a farmers market when you guess what subway stop your supposed to get off at to get to the museum then wander around the area looking for the museum and find the farmers market first. I could’ve summoned Google maps at any time, but where’s the adventure in THAT?

I bought cheese, apples to go with my cheese and popcorn. I just need to mention one of the cheeses. I was waiting to buy Melter Skelter by Valley Shepherd Creamery, when the person in front of me bought half the remaining supply of “Valley Thunder”, which the proprietor described as the “sharpest cheddar you’ll ever taste”, and when the chunk kicked off a little piece of itself, I knew I had to have some (the rest, as it turns out).

I grabbed (purchased, I don’t steal) some Empire apples at the next stand over, and some unpopped popcorn (I’m a glutton for good popcorn – perhaps gourmand is a gentler term), and found the first open park bench to feast on my booty. I paused momentarily to take this picture of Valley Thunder for you. Well, that’s not quite true – I distracted myself with a piece of Melter Skelter (I love cheese names) so I could take this picture for you.

*OK, I THOUGHT I took a picture. Sorry about that. Here, I’ll take a picture of the remaining piece.*


I know. You’re thinking, “That’s not even cheese. That looks like it USED TO BE cheese.” I promise you, a year in a cave wrapped in a cloth line drum works magic. Really. Can a cheese be smooth and creamy and boldly sharp at the same time? Yes. Fortunately, I had just experienced an exhibition about Padmasambhava and how he enabled Buddhic traditions to transcend time, so time was feeling a bit relative right then.

B & H photo

Stomach satiated, I hiked up to B and H photo, to replace my phone screen protector, which had valiantly given its life to protect my cell phone screen. (The brand was GadgetGuard. I’ll never buy any other brand.) B&H was amazing. Just amazing. To say it was frenetic is an understatement – I felt I needed to go to Times Square just to unwind a bit from the sensory overload at B&H. Frenetic, but ultra efficient. Person 1 pointed me to the right part of the store where person 2 used a computer to internally order the part. I recognized the font – a real old school font:



I think their inventory system is still running on an old IBM PC. Anyway, he printed a receipt for me, which I took to the cashier (there were 7, but the area could accommodate up to twenty five cashiers) who stapled my payment information to the receipt which I took over to the order fulfillment station, where someone filled it in about 30 seconds. There was an elaborate conveyor bucket system backing the whole thing up. Holy cow. Then the nice employees in the customer lounge installed the protector for me. Boom. Done.

So I headed home, 22,585 steps richer.

W0D2 – The Truffle Shuffle that wasn’t

For reasons I shall not go into here, except to say, Beverley, why did you poke the Kraken? What did the Kraken ever do?, I needed a worthy destination to walk to this evening. In dog training, they would call this a “high value reward”, because if you want your dog to really do something that’s what you use. My high value reward was Mikey Likes It Ice Cream. Now sure, Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs are closer, and Baskin-Robbins are practically ubiquitous in this neighborhood (Hamilton Heights – Broadway and 151st), but why would I want to give my money to a national chain rather than setting it free here in Harlem?

So, I set off into the heart of Harlem at about 8 o’clock. I know, you’re thinking, “Umm, Joe?” Really, though, Harlem is not the place it once had the reputation of. There are people out all over the place here. As I did in Chicago, I assess the safety of a neighborhood by the number of people who appear to be more vulnerable than I am, and I saw a lot of them along the length of my walk. I did have some doubt, based on the website, whether Mikey Likes It (you get the reference, right?) was a wholesale or retail establishment. Thank you Google Street View for the heads up: retail; so I headed out.

The picture of the place is here (you can even see someone standing behind the counter), but WordPress does not support the file type.

As I walked, I came across a few street names which don’t conform to the Manhattan standard streets and avenues: Amsterdam and Convent, in particular, but I spent the most time on Saint Nicholas Avenue, and began wondering why old St Nick had his own street in Manhattan when so few other streets are named after people, and the ones that are (Frederick Douglass Blvd, Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, and Malcolm X Blvd) are relatively recent (except for Lenox Ave 1887). I mean, people know more about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln than they do about St Nicholas, but he got his own street. Turns out (I had forgotten this) that jolly old St Nick was Dutch, and they did a whole lot of stuff around here back when this island was young.

I crossed the street toward the shop and was thinking of making a joke about how the ice cream had better be good because I had just walked 3,325 steps to get here. Instead, I looked at the flavor menu and did a private “Uh oh”. As I read up from the bottom of the list (because the bottom was at eye level) I noticed that one flavor after the next had some sort of baked good swirled in: brownies, cookies, cheesecake, you get the idea. A year ago, I’d have had my pick of flavors, but now, due to a recently uncovered gluten allergy, those flavors are a no go. Even the small amount of wheat in them will set off my allergy, leaving me weak and achy for a several days. Even though the ingredient list on the Truffle Shuffle (chocolate ice cream with chocolate chips and chocolate covered mini marshmallows) seemed safe, I asked (I do that now), but it was not safe for some reason. Finally I reached the top of the list: Triple Vanilla. That one was safe. And creamy and subtle and delicious.

So, I’m getting the lay of the land (literally, actually), and it’s shaping up to be a great summer.

W-4D5 Atlanta

I arrived a little early for GWC training yesterday, so I had a little bit of time to poke around the environs of Atlanta which were within easy travel, by which I mean walking distance, or maybe an easy public transit ride away. I had no particular destination, so I set out in the direction of the biggest green thing on the map – Centennial Olympic Park, which was about half a mile away. There are a few attractions there – I visited the Georgia Aquarium last year – and I thought there might be some other interesting things in the area I hadn’t seen on my previous trip.

I arrived at the park to find it hot, bright and largely under construction. I glanced around the perimeter noting a couple of hotels, but not many “points of interest”. My better self saw the College Football Hall of Fame and offered me one of my personal axioms: “Any museum is interesting to a curious person”. (I know I’m using “museum” in an unconventional sense there, but technically, a hall of fame fits the definition.) Given how little I know about college football history, this would be a good test of that rule. Alas, that plan was foiled as I turned around in response to a bell (#bellringernation) and saw the Atlanta Streetcar pull away from a station just about a hundred yards away. The thought of sitting down in an air conditioned vehicle which would take me who knows where was immediately appealing, thus my baser self won out. It was a pyrrhic victory at best.

I quickly crossed the street (not wanting to miss the next streetcar), and mounted the station platform. Now, I’m a fairly technically savvy person. As you may already know, my superpower is that technology tends to work better when I stand next to it. In fact, just this past Monday I went into a local filling station to use the ATM. After I put my card in, the person behind the counter told me that the ATM wasn’t working, and hadn’t been for two days. Some kind of “communication error”. Great, thanks. I put my hand on the ATM and joked that I was going to do a Vulcan Mind Meld on it, and maybe that would work. It did. I retrieved my cash and left.

In spite of that technical prowess, standing before the ticket vending machine I couldn’t figure out how to actually purchase a ticket, which the signs explicitly said was necessary to ride. The screen on the machine gave me only two choices, “F” – “Check the balance on your MARTA card” (I had one ride left, which I plan to use to get me back to the airport on Sunday) and “J” – “Help”, which didn’t. The other nine choices (A-E and G-I) were all blank. As a last resort, I read all the instructions and signs, but to no avail; I was not getting a ticket here. I glanced at the map and saw that the next stop was about two blocks away, and in the general direction of my hotel, so I began walking in that direction.

If you’ve been keeping up with this blog, then you’ll not be surprised that I never made it to that stop. I got to the end of the first block, took a slight right following the streetcar tracks, glanced up and “SQUIRREL!” OK, not an actual squirrel, but a sign that said “Atlanta-Fulton Library”, which translates as “squirrel” in my mind. As a touristic (that’s a real word) veteran of the main branch of the New York Public Library and Chicago’s Harold Washington Library (blogged here), I know the value of big city libraries as “points of interest”, and was easily diverted from my original plan. I saw the next sign, and took a right where it indicated, but that’s where the signs ran out. I wandered around a bit, looking for the library, when I heard the bell again. The streetcar was coming up the road behind me. OK, no library – back on the train. I began to follow the tracks again toward the next station. I walked about two block when I saw signs again – Atlanta-Fulton Library, only now the signs were pointing in the opposite direction. I had walked right past the library! Subsequent research has uncovered what happened: I was following signs designed for cars – they can’t go the wrong way down a one way street, so I had turned right a block before the library.

I finally spotted the front entrance and jaywalked – jaywalked I tell you – right across the street up to the entrance. I walked in, and was immediately struck by the rows and rows of empty book shelves. There were no books on the first floor. None. I thought, “Maybe they’re remodeling, and storing the empty shelves here”. I wasn’t sure where to start exploring, but thought that in order to see the whole library, I should start at the top (the 7th floor) and work my way down. Previous experiences in library spelunking have suggested that this is a good strategy. The most interesting stuff is sometimes on the top floor.

I’m not sure what was on the seventh floor of the A-FL, except blue carpeting and white hallway walls. There were no signs or pictures or anything to suggest that this was an area open to the public, so I ducked back into the elevator, and rode it down to six: Library Administration Offices. Back into the elevator. There was a poster inside the elevator indicating what was on each floor, but I refused to read it. What’s the sense of exploring if you have a map?

I almost got off at five, which I have subsequently learned is the Special Collections floor. I wish I had taken time to explore it, but it didn’t have the feel of a public space, so I popped back into the elevator and down to four, which was a floor dedicated to computing, although it seemed to have only about twenty or thirty computers, almost all being used by patrons. No books. Down to three, where I saw mostly CDs, DVDs and best sellers. (Books! At last! Though not a lot of new looking ones.) I walked down to two and browsed the periodicals. Current Anthropology is current as of 1996. Business Week is up to date though. Back down to one and out.

I left feeling disappointed and rather sad. And thirsty. Very thirsty – the flight and walking around in the sun had taken their toll.

I found the next streetcar stop (the vending machine’s letter buttons ALL had menu items on this one), bought a ticket,  and waited about ten minutes for the next one, which I didn’t notice approaching, because it wasn’t ringing its bell. I rode it round trip, stopping off only at the Sweet Auburn Market in search of a beverage. I didn’t find any to my liking – most were commercial bottled beverages. I’d have gotten a smoothie, but the proprietor at the smoothie shop seemed to be smoothly wooing a customer, so I didn’t interrupt him.

The streetcar loops out to the east as far as the Martin Luther King National Historic Site, which will be a destination (hey, maybe I’ll even make it to a destination some day) during my next undesignated time in Atlanta. I rode back to the the stop closest to my hotel, but not without noticing the high quality and number of murals throughout the Sweet Auburn neighborhood.

Next time, I’ll come more prepared for adventure.

We need a mom.

“101.8. You must be feeling pretty awful right now.” In all honesty, I was feeling a little better than I had been just half an hour earlier, and pretty good in general, considering the circumstances.

Half an hour earlier my wife, Jean, and I got into the car as she drove me about 10 minutes to see my physician. Although it doesn’t seem to be, that last sentence is a little loaded. Jean had suggested that I drive down to my appointment while she went to pick up supplies for home. I said, “No. Could you drive me?” That is pretty unusual – I can only think of a few times when I was in my car not as the driver. All the times in recent memory involved driving practice with my daughters. However, I felt that even the short drive to the doctor’s was too risky – when I lay down I coughed incessantly, when I stood up, I felt dizzy. Too sick to drive.

We took Jean’s car, Stormcloud(1), since that is the one she is more comfortable driving. But not today. Today, she was very uncomfortable, primarily because the heater was not working – at all. As the drizzle turned to sleet, the windshield fogged up, and Jean’s hands started to freeze on the wheel. We closed the vents to keep the cold air out, but there was no warmth to be found anywhere. Except. Except under the hood of the car. About a half mile from our destination, Jean said, “The temperature gauge is higher than it’s ever been in Stormcloud’s life!” I thought maybe we could make to the doctor’s, but no – we pulled into a gas station about a tenth of a mile short of the office.

The overheating engine was a little surprising, but not totally. Two days earlier, the “check battery” light went on when Jean took a client to the gym. I had the day off, so we swapped cars, and I took Stormcloud to the garage. His water pump had seized, shredding a belt, which dangled from his undercarriage, and draining the cooling system. Two hours and five hundred dollars later, we were on our way again. Given that past repair, and the current behavior of the heater, I thought there may be a bubble in the coolant lines. That, ultimately, turned out to be that case. But we’re not there yet. Right now, I am walking the rest of the way to the doctor’s office, in the sleet, while Jean is entering the gas station convenience store to call the garage.

So, by the time the nurse said, “You must be feeling pretty awful right now,” I wasn’t. I was glad to be in a warm office, sitting down, and out of the sleet and wind. About ten minutes later, the doctor told me I had the flu (Type A), prescribed some meds, and sent me on my way. I thought I’d have to walk all the way back to the gas station, but when I got back to the waiting room, Jean was already there. She had called the garage, which was about to close (it was close to 5pm), and they said they could look at Stormcloud in the morning. Right now, we needed to have the car towed – we didn’t want to risk overheating the engine and damaging it. Fortunately, we belong to AAA. We called and requested service – they said would be no more than 45 minutes. I quickly googled the hours of the doctor’s office – open until 7pm. Awesome, at least we had a warm, dry spot to sit and wait for the truck.

Only, no. The same nice nurse that was so sympathetic to my plight came into the waiting room and said that the office was closing, and they needed to lock the doors. Crap. Back out into the damp and sleet and wind, and back to the gas station to stand around until the truck arrived.

As newlyweds, Jean and I made a vow to each other nearly a quarter century ago, and we were just about to break it for the first time. That vow stemmed from an incident back in early 1993 that we promised never to repeat. We’ve kept that promise through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, but now we were face to face with a calamity: in sickness and in sickness. Back in 1993, Jean was pregnant with Jennie, and we both came down with sinus infections simultaneously. I distinctly remember sitting on the couch, unable to breath except through my mouth, shivering, with quilts wrapped around me, looking over at Jean in the same perilous condition. We couldn’t even climb the stairs to our bedrooms, much less cook and feed ourselves. As we looked at each other, we both said, “We need a mom.” Since that day, we vowed never to be sick at the same time, and we kept that promise until this moment.

Jean woke up this morning coughing, just as I had 24 hours earlier. She didn’t have a fever yet, so she couldn’t be diagnosed with the flu. Still, our fate seemed inevitable: two sick partners in need of a mom, only none was available. My mom was 400 miles away, coming down with the flu herself, no doubt as a result of my visit the weekend before, and Jean’s mom had passed away at the end of last year.

We hung out in the gas station convenience store for about 40 minutes, festooned in our surgical masks, coughing, wheezing, and constantly checking the AAA website to see how long until the truck arrived (they have a real-time web site for that). Eventually it came (10 minutes early – yay!), and the mechanic checked for coolant in the radiator – there was none. I had checked earlier and come to the same conclusion. He also checked for things that could be fixed easily, like a loose or missing clamps, so he could repair it and get us on our way, but to no avail. He cleared off the passenger seat in the cab of his flatbed, and invited us to stay in there while he loaded the car. It was warm and we could finally sit down again, so we climbed in.

At this point, we had considered, but not solved, the problem of how we would get home from the garage. We asked if he could stop by our house so one of us could bring our other car (“Boxy”), but “we don’t usually do things like that”. OK, plan B. Take a cab? Is the number 666-6666 or 777-7777 or 888-8888? I can never remember. Maybe it’s 222-2222. As it turns out, 6, 7, and 2 all work, but how long until they get there? We had only a 15 minute drive before we were at the garage. It actually took us 16 minutes, having been delayed by a Wesleyan student wearing dark clothing crossing in front of us without the benefit of a crosswalk, looking before they crossed, or common sense. Years ago, Jean and I used to call Wes kids “The Immortals” for exactly this reason. I mentioned this to our driver, and discovered that the mechanic had a similar disdain for their judgement, “the common sense of a pickle”. I’ll just say that we had different ideas about the cause of that lack of common sense, and leave it at that.

Jean, fortunately, had the common sense to call our neighbor Collen, and ask her for a ride. In spite of the fact that she had already changed into her pajamas and settled into her warm house on an increasingly chilly night, Colleen came and picked us up and brought us home. Yay, Colleen! Once we got home, Jean turned right around and went to pick up my meds. I took the first dose and hit the sack.

When Jean woke up this morning, the grippe had her in its grip: 102.3. Mercifully, my meds worked their magic overnight, and I was able to take over as “mom”. Is there a lesson I can take from this? Possibly. Maybe sometimes it’s useful to overlook minor transgressions, after all we did technically break our promise to each other, all the time keeping in mind the long term, because twenty-five years ain’t nothing.

(1) We name all our vehicles, including rentals. My thinking is, if something may have to give up its life to save yours, shouldn’t you at least know its name?

License tags

Changing license tags in reality is never as easy as it is in theory. In theory, you go out, pop out a couple of bolts, switch the plates, and pop the bolts back in, and go home. Easy peasy.
Today was the day to say goodbye to 920-HLV, which I’ve held for almost 30 years, and say hello to SCALLOP, a reference to Jean’s misspent youth on, and love affair with, Nantucket.
I’ve delayed this job as long as possible. I’m a quick learner (sometimes), and I learned my lesson about DIY car repairs on March 20, 2003. I was pulled that evening over by a Madison police officer for having a headlight out. Fortunately, I was able to escape the ticket by showing him the replacement lamp I had with me, and promising to change it when I got where I was going. True to my word, as soon as we arrived at Jean’s mom’s house, I proceeded to remedy the situation. I remember that it was about 33 degrees, pitch dark, and raining. The driveway was icy and slippery, and Jean was holding a flashlight on my work and an umbrella over my head. I was grateful for this, but in my stooped position, the whole setup simply caused cold water to pour off the umbrella onto my back, run into my pants, and ultimately to dribble down my leg into my shoe. Further, it is a universally known fact that flashlights never shine on the place you want them to, because what you really want is for the light to come out of your eyes – nothing else will suffice. As I strained that night to remove the snuffed lantern, my hand slipped again and again, battering itself against some cold, unseeable, jaggy protrusion. Why are all headlights so cleverly designed so that you can discover how to remove them easily only after you’ve ribboned your skin and broken several irreplaceable parts? After many mumbled cuss words, I finished up and we went inside to warm up and witness the first flashes of shock and awe in Baghdad.
Today at least promised warmer temperatures, daylight, and only a 46% chance of rain. I grabbed the new plates and headed out. I took a look at the two metal bolts holding the front plate on – Phillips head. I opened the garage door, grabbed a screwdriver out of my toolbox, and in about 2 minutes had the front plate replaced. Awesome. Then I headed around back. I looked at the bolts holding that plate on: they were white(ish), plastic and flat headed. I should’ve stopped there, declared victory and gone home, but for some reason, the State of Connecticut frowns on having two different license plates on your car, so I pressed on.
I went back to my toolbox and grabbed a new screwdriver. Yesterday at school we played “Human Bingo” as a bonding activity (find people who match descriptions on your bingo card until you get enough to declare victory and go home). One of the boxes on my card was “Is a collector”. I briskly answered no when someone asked me that, but my reply was untrue – I collect tools, all kinds of tools: hardware, software, whatever. Tools I don’t have, I make. That’s why I like computer programming. I’ve made some really awesome tools. Consequently, I have a tool for just about everything, or can make one.
I set about unscrewing the first bolt; it was one of those nylon ones that won’t rust into place. A handy touch for a license plate holder. With no more than moderate effort, I was able to pop the head right off that bolt, leaving the rest of the bolt embedded in the hatch back. Side glance.
Ok, ok, a minor set back. I’ll just be more cautious with the other one. I carefully set the screwdriver in place, gently turned it, and POP, off flew half the head. Yes, half. Side glance. Luckily for me, I have tools to deal with these nuisances. In this case, I grabbed my locking pliers (vise grips). I have often thought that if I had only two tools in the world, they would be vise grips and a hammer. You could do a lot with just those two things.
I seated the pliers onto the remaining bolt head, and in a matter of seconds had cleanly removed that too, efficiently removing the plate and leaving behind two partial nylon bolts inaccessibly buried just below the surface of the car.
The car had no back license plate at this point, and I could sense the brow of Connecticut furrowing even deeper, so I couldn’t stop there. I knew, at a minimum, I needed new bolts at this point, so I headed to the local auto parts place where I was also able to pick up a screw extractor to help me get those dang pieces out.
As I drove up the final hill as I headed home, I noticed a splat on the windshield. Then a second, and a third. Dang. Rain. It wasn’t raining too hard when I got back to work, so I grabbed my electric drill and pre-drilled 5/32” holes in the lodged bolts, allowing the extractor to do its work. The drill easily passed through the nylon, so I was done in a jiffy. I held the extractor (it looks like a funky screw) in my vise grips and proceeded to extract the first bolt. I discovered that the extractor (which is made to extract metal bolts) works very efficiently as a drill when used on nylon, and soon found myself with two bolts perforated with larger holes, but still stuck in the car. Side glance. The rain was starting to pick up, as my neighbors helpfully pointed out, walking by and curious about what I was doing to my car in the rain.
What I needed now was a new tool, capable of removing the rest of the nylon bolts without damaging the metal bolt threads which were manufactured into the car. I am a tool maker. That’s what separates me from the apes. Though I do like a banana. (Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.) I cleverly took my vise grips and grabbed a larger drill bit and hand drilled larger holes in the bolts. A good plan, except for the fact that it didn’t work, so I grabbed the next bit size up and hand drilled again. This time I met with success – the last remnants of the nylon bolts wedged themselves onto the drill bit, and I was able to pull them out. Whew. See, I told you I had something the apes don’t have. As soon as I figure out what it is, I’ll let you know.
I was in the final phase now – all I needed to do was put the new nylon bolts in to secure the plates on the car. I grabbed my Phillips head and made short work of the first one. By short work, I mean I got it about half way in and turned it slightly, ever so slightly, harder to finish the job, and the head popped right off the bolt. Really?!?! Side glance. I was really careful with the second one, and got that one in OK. Now back to the first one. I tried to unscrew the remaining piece of bolt with my vise grips, but it broke off below the surface. Side glance. At this point I noticed that I always glance off to the right. Interesting.
By this time, I had become a pro at drilling out nylon bolts, so I had the third one out in no time. I also cleverly realized that I could open the hatchback to keep me dry in the rain. Score one for me. Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but setting aside tools is the last refuge of the uber-ape, and that’s where I headed. I hand screwed that last bolt in as far as I could, then barely tightened it with the screwdriver. I hope it holds. I’m declaring victory and going home.



W8D1 End of the summer

I’m pretty sure this will be the last post for the summer. It is a week until school and I have a number of projects I’d like to get done before then. I need to get them done since that first week of school I’ll still be finishing up this job, and starting my regular job.

Right now, I’m at a site near Times Square. The classroom is quiet, just the hum of the air conditioners and the sunlight is coming in behind me over my right shoulder. Occasionally, I can hear the beep of a horn, but it is distant. I like this room in the afternoon. It is reasonably comfortable, and the windows are tinted in a way that makes it seem like the sun is setting for two hours. It seems an appropriate place to write this particular entry. That, plus it’s an hour plus to get home, and I still have to shop for dinner.

I’ve been reflecting back over the summer a lot during the past week or two. Clearly, this summer was different than last summer in Chicago. In many of the ways it was different, it was harder. New York is a harder city than Chicago: a harder place to live, a harder place to get around (especially the way the trains have been), and the people seem a little harder, too. I feel as though I struck up with more strangers in Chicago than here. (Research from last year’s blog: “Do you get the sense that I talk to a lot of people here in Chicago? I really do. I talk to three or four strangers a day. More on weekends. People are really nice here and like to talk.”) In New York, I’ve probably struck up three or four conversations total. Three turned out to be teachers.

Being a scientist, I realize that it could be Chicago, or it could be me. The jury is still out.

The main question is “Would I do it again?” Yes, yes I would. Though some things have been hard, there are things I can do to mitigate them next time (assuming GWC will have me). First, I’d find a better place to live. Though the apartment I have is nice, reasonably priced, and in a nice neighborhood, the commute is difficult. It’s not so bad in the mornings, but it can take between an hour and an hour and forty minutes in the evening. Also, once I get home, I am loathe to go back out to the grocery store or to buy things. Eleven stories down, then eleven back up again, with bags. I have gotten better at them, but it is a lot. There is a farmers market once a week about fifteen minutes away, but there is just one vendor, and the produce is mainly not local, and of similar type that I can buy in a grocery store. The closest full sized (more than 10 vendors) farmers markets are more than one hundred blocks away, and require a two plus hour round trip (including about fourteen flights of stairs each way). Food gets heavy. So, a better living situation is necessary.

This is also my first year in the job. I’ll do a lot better next year. There were many challenges that were new to me this year: self-harming students, students whose siblings were killed, students whose friends attempted to take their own lives, students who had difficulty adjusting to group work. Now that I’ve handled those things, and more importantly, seen how GWC handles them, I have confidence that I could do this again.

I suppose, though, the biggest factor in deciding whether to do this again goes much deeper than that. I think that my work here helped me not get washed away by all that happened this summer. I had a profound sense that I was doing here is deeply meaningful work. I wasn’t just busy, but busy doing something that really mattered, something that was going to change people’s lives for the better, and further, something that few other people have the combination of skills to do.

A lot of what I’ve been thinking about this summer goes back to a course I took in college, called something like “Self-Determination Theory”. I had no idea what it meant either, which is why I took it. (If you take a course where you don’t know what the title means, you are bound to learn something.) If you know what it is, you may have read about it in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink. Essentially, the idea is that we are intrinsically motivated by three things: autonomy – the sense that we can choose what we do; competence – (or mastery) the sense that we are good at something and getting better; and connectedness – (the desire to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others, sometimes called purpose). Studies show that these work way better than money, fear and rewards for getting people to do things. Think about it. I know many of you are (or were (but really still are – sorry, it never leaves you)) teachers. If you were identified for being a great teacher, which would you rather have, a bigger paycheck, or administration getting out of your way so you could do your work? I know what I’d go for (and they do). If you want to lure good teachers to troubled schools, develop a culture at them where a teacher can feel like they are doing a good job, connecting with students and colleagues, and the bureaucracy doesn’t get in the way. It would work better than raising salaries, I bet. (If you understood the meaning of and , you have what it takes to be a coder, by the way.)

Anyway, I get those things in droves in this job;

Autonomy – Everyday, I wake up and I decide where to go, where I am most needed, go there and do what I need to do. Headquarters discontinued weekly check-ins after week three. I choose what I do.

Competence – I feel like I have what it takes to do this job. I am still working on some skills, like be a better listener. Heck, I’m still working on all the skills – I am trying to become a better coder and a better leader, too. I don’t think I had sufficient skills before this year, though.

Relatedness – I have a real sense of purpose here. I’ve also made good connections with the majority of my teaching staff, as well as many of the students. Granted, the connections with students aren’t as numerable, or as deep, but the teaching staff were my new kids – I’m old enough to be a parent to any of them.

That’s where I stand. Yes to do it again. Only time will tell.

W7D2 I think I got a code in my node.

First, I want to say that although I haven’t been writing in this blog as often as usual, I have still been writing; writing computer code. I have had a project on my mind for three years (I actually started it once or twice), and I am starting it again. I’ve gotten a bit further this time. It is taking me longer than it might for two reasons:

  1. I am doing what is called test driven development. You’ve heard of teaching to the test? This is coding to the test. You write the tests first; if I put this into the program, I should get this other thing out. Then you write the computer code that passes the test(s). So far, I have 274 tests (and code that passes 273 of them). It takes longer initially, but ultimately, you save a lot of time debugging. If I make a change in my code, then I can quickly run all the tests (it takes about 0.8 seconds) to make sure I didn’t break something else. When my code does break unexpectedly, as it did just before I stopped coding today (hence the 273), I can find the problem, add that input as a test, and be confident that it will not fail the same way again. It’s really hard to think up all the test cases ahead of time – you are looking for ways to break the code, so you add them as you go along.
  2. I am learning a new computer language, Python. It’s not nearly as hard as learning a new human language, which is why I don’t agree with replacing human languages with computer languages in school, as has been done or is under consideration in four states. Computer languages have many fewer words that human languages – typically around a hundred or so, but you only need a working vocabulary of about thirty to thirty-five to write even very complicated programs. The code I am writing is pretty complicated – it doesn’t break down into simpler tasks easily. In my case, each task affects the others, so it’s kind of tangly. Further, with a computer language, you are asking the computer to do a smaller set of things, and while there is code that you can look at and say “Gee, that’s beautiful code”, it’s not nearly as expressive as human language. There are never double entendres, for example, whereas I only ever write in double entendres. Get it?

There are parallels between human and computer languages, though. One that has been slowing me down is idioms. Each time I code something new, I look up the Pythonic way of doing it – i.e. speaking like a native. In my head I know what I want to do, and can do it easily in a number of computer languages I know. However, learning the idioms helps produce code that is both more efficient and more robust.

I’ve really been meaning to write about this whole “Google Manifesto” thing (on Fox News, they never use “manifesto” – it is the “anti-diversity memo”) . I’ve read it, twice. I’ve read most of the references as well, and a number of articles rebuffing it. I even listened to most of an interview between James Damore (who wrote the document) and Stefan Molyneux, a podcaster associated with the alt-right movement. I stopped listening because most of it was Molyneux trying to get Damore to agree with alt-right ideas, but Damore is a self-described centrist, so it didn’t really work.

Although the tone it is written in is reasonable, the reasoning is not. Overall, he uses statistics from a general (worldwide) population to describe the women who work at Google (which is not a random sampling of women in the world), and even I could see holes in the paper he cited. If you are interested in a well reasoned and researched refutation of the memo, look here. A Girls Who Code spokesperson responded to the memo today. There’s a good video at the end of this article, which shows what women in tech experience regularly. This article has a good description of the current science around the topic of gender differences and the different issues women face compared to men. It is clear from his memo that Damore is not aware of the uneven playing field that women (and other minorities – heaven help you if you are a woman of color)  face.

I think, though, that Damore’s memo is a specific case of something much more pervasive, and something I think we’ll see much more of, especially during the next three and a half years, possibly longer. The general case is this: a privileged class of people (often, but not always white, middle class and mostly male) is not doing as well as they think they ought. They see oppressed classes getting a helping hand to level the playing field and think, “Hey, I made it here myself, and it’s not fair that they’re getting help I never got,” not seeing their own privilege. If you are in the privileged class, it is easy too look around and think everybody has the same playing field. You simply don’t see that other people have different experiences.  I know this, because I used to think it. The video I mentioned above shows it perfectly.

Once I became aware that this might not be true (via many discussions with Jennie, my daughter who has studied gender extensively), I held the idea in my head, and began to look for evidence. Slowly, I began to see it – I listened to the experiences of women (and others in non-dominant groups) around me – in tech and out, and it became clear that there really was an unlevel playing field. It’s why I do what I do, both with GWC and at school, and it has meaning for me. I use my privilege to give others a boost.

There’s been some debate (if you ingest a wide enough swath of news) about whether Damore should’ve been fired. From the tone and content of the memo itself, maybe, maybe not. From the implications of the memo, it simply doesn’t make sense to keep him around, even for political spectrum diversity (which was part of his stated goal). It’s hard to imagine how someone who thinks the people (and so many of them) around him are inferior in some unfixable way (i.e. biological) can be a team player. There’s going to be a lot of resentment on that team, from both sides. And teamwork is where things are in the tech industry today. Gone are the days of the lone coder genius sitting in a semi darkened room (a la 1980’s movies – apparently that’s when women stopped coding) (thanks to Katie T. for the reference to the NYT article on loner nerds – “I don’t know what made her send it to me,” he says as he codes in a semidarkened room).

I don’t know if I’ll write tomorrow – I have a friend (JKL) visiting, after which I’m going to see The Great Comet of 1812. I splurged and got a seat on the stage, over in the pit on the left of this picture, but I won’t be home until late.


W7D0 You are not as smart as you think.

You can’t walk around midtown very long, especially in the morning, without seeing one (or two) of the latest additions to the NYPD fleet: Smart Cars. THEY ARE ADORABLE! You have to see these things. OK, here (source:NY Daily News):


How cute is that? In midtown, they are mostly used for parking enforcement. (Side note: What is it about New Yorkers and double parking? (I have a feeling I’m stepping into Seinfeld territory here). It makes bike riding exceptionally hazardous, since I have to frequently ride in the driving lane of roads where cars are going pretty fast. I hate zooming in and out of traffic.)

But the Smart Car is really good at zooming in and out. It is excellent for parking enforcement because it can do a U-ey (I had to look up how to spell that) on an avenue, and can fit into tight spaces, so it doesn’t have to double park to issue tickets.

That being said, I do not have full confidence in them. I was walking home from the train the other day, and there was one responding to an emergency (even using its Rumbler siren). It zoomed (because that’s what they do) around a corner, weaved through some traffic (they are really good at that), and was on its way. All I could think was, “Where are you going little car? What do you think you will do when you get there? Don’t you think you should wait for some of the big cars?” I feared for its safety. I saw it today, though, safely parked behind the police station.

I had planned to write something about the “Google manifesto”. Not surprisingly, it’s making waves in the circles I am traveling with these days. I’ve read the document closely, including most of the references. I am going through it one more time and still have to double check some of the references. I think this is part of a larger cultural thing that is happening, and is related to the White Supremacy protest in Charlottesville, the recent presidential election, and to some things that have been going on in Europe around the refugees there. I still have more work to do, including re-finding where I got my working hypothesis. That’ll be the hard part.