Sunday, June 9, 2019

From the Archives - This Is a Short Story—NOT!


When I’ve lately searched my archives for an old essay worth posting, it’s felt like I’m down to the absolute dregs. One thing I’m resolute about sparing you are the short stories I wrote during high school, which are painful to read. The following essay, which I wrote in college, examines the difficulty I had with fiction, while sharing some personal history I hope you’ll find amusing.

This Is a Short Story - October 21, 1989

This is a short story.

Actually, it’s not. It’s just another ... well, whatever you want to call it. Essay, report, letter: whatever it is, it ain’t fiction. A family member reported recently getting shivers when reading about my life, and wishing it was fiction. Hey, if my memoirs make you uneasy, you should read my short stories! Or maybe you shouldn’t.

See, I’ve always had problems with fiction. A few years back, I could write it pretty readily—but it was really, really bad. My characters were either boring, unbelievable, or undeveloped. The situations were worse. Real life provides all this for me; I just have to write it all down. The only trouble is, I have to patiently wait for characters to show up and situations to happen, which takes too long … unless I delve into my past.

I’m probably the only 20-year-old alive who’s ready to write his autobiography. I could write a new volume every twenty years until I’m dead. So instead of the story I was going to try to write this evening, here are some reminisces.

 At my high school, most students hung out in packs (I’d say “cliques” but that’s such a stupid word). Within these groups, everybody tried to look like everybody else, so most of my peers in high school could be easily categorized: jock, egghead, stoner, hic, punker, cheerleader, reject, etc. I always had a strange fascination, almost an admiration, for those who took great pains to distinguish themselves and stand aloof from everyone. Take this guy in my Russian class, Timofey. That’s not really his name, but it’s the English phonetic spelling for his Russian name. Outside of class, he probably went by “Tim” which doesn’t fit him nearly as well. Who knows, maybe he adopted “Timofey” beyond the classroom … I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

Timofey made punk rockers look like Eddie Haskell. He wore this black leather jacket with a painting on the back of a pit bull with an arm sticking out of its mouth. Big block letters spelled out, “Pit bull for sale: loves children.” As you read that, it sounds stupid. And it was. But the fact that he wore that thing, without copping any kind of rebellious attitude, was unique. Unlike punkers, he was friendly and outgoing. His hair was even wilder than his jacket: a kind of square shaped, white ‘do with little vertical curls set in epoxy. I’m not kidding, epoxy—I asked. He was really funny not just to talk to, but to look at. He might have been smart; I couldn’t tell (though it was said that he was the first Russian language student in 20 years to fail the class). 

I guess the real reason I kind of respected the guy was that he wasn’t trying to relate to the punkers—in fact, they wouldn’t go near him. Where you would expect them to look at him with awe, their expressions seemed to say something like, “Gawd, that guy’s WEIRD!” He singlehandedly made their own poses look pretty weak; after all, most of these rote punkers would have cleaned up just fine and could be installed in a church service pretty readily. But not Timofey. I mean, how do you get hardened epoxy out of a kid’s hair?

When I started high school I was as judgmental and easily shocked as the next rank-and-file member of the nerdy wannabe-elite. Having Timofey in class, and finding him harmless, helped me let my guard down. I was also led toward greater acceptance of the unusual by this punk rocker chick named (in Russian) Masha. She had this way of looking at you with a half-smile, curling her lip like Billy Idol, as though she was kind of inwardly laughing at you, except you knew she wasn’t even paying attention to you, so she must have been laughing at everyone, at this class, at this whole stupid high school scene. I had a sizeable crush on Masha, even if her bleached, gelled, and shocked-up hair wasn’t set in epoxy. My only issue with her is that she almost never came to class.

So, yeah, exchanging pleasantries with Timofey and Masha (yes, they’d actually talk to me!) really expanded my worldview, to the point that when my brothers’ friend DT began an eerie metamorphosis into an unrecognizable hybrid of comic book villain and standup comedian, I rolled with it. He stopped wearing bike race t-shirts in favor of a big long overcoat, which accentuated his 6’4” 200-pound frame (which was itself a recent thing—he seemed to suddenly grow giant overnight). DT dyed his hair red—but not a realistic redhead red, but a lustrous dark black-cherry-red right out of a color comic book. Then he wore the old-school Steve Dallas sunglasses, let a good three days of razor stubble build up on his face, and clenched a cigar in his teeth. Maybe you never saw him like that, and if not it’s probably a good thing. You would’ve hated it, probably, because this was DT, a guy we all knew, a guy we didn’t want to laugh at like a strange exhibit from the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum. How are you supposed to hang out with a guy who looks like that?

To engage with DT and his new look took some adjustment. After all, he didn’t create that image so he could blend into the woodwork. He wanted to be noticed, to call attention to himself, just like the young rebel teen punk who sports a foot high blue mohawk and a studded collar and says things like “I just wanna be left alone!” To give DT a hard time for his carefully arranged look would be no fun, as would pretending you didn’t notice. I think he wanted us, or at least me, to play along with his transformation. One time he dropped by my locker after school, even though he had graduated years before. This stands out in my high school memories as one of the finest, having been charged with real (well, fictitious) menace.

First of all, DT was obviously not a Fairview student—way too old. He came swaggering up the ramp towards the student center, this huge, creepy looking thug made even bigger by his massive overcoat, with that stubble and cigar, clearing a path of high schoolers as he went. They must’ve thought he was some kind of lunatic … they gave him plenty of space and then stood there gawking. About thirty feet from me, he called out, “Yo, DANA! Hold it!” I acted real nervous and looked around as if for an escape route, and when he reached me he said, “Tell your friend David if he calls me Mike again, he’ll wake up dead!” All the people around my locker sort of cleared out at this point, and gathered at a safe distance to see what was going on. DT looked around, and sort of put his arm around me like he was going to inflict some kind of pain if I acted up. He whispered, “Hey, Dana, what’s up? You wanna come look at that bike?” but we both knew people assumed he was saying, “It’s too late to back out now. I’ll go easy on you but you miss this next score and you’re dead meat.” I stammered out something like, “Hey, man, I don’t want any trouble.”

Then DT escorted me down the ramp towards the exit, his arm around my shoulders like we were friends but with the suggestion that this could become a headlock very suddenly. Once we were out of sight, we broke out laughing. To my delight, the next day I got some nervous questions from the guys in my honors classes, and I replied in a suitably evasive fashion. I felt like I’d made some important transition from standard nerd to somebody slightly more complicated. (Yes, it has dawned on me that my pose was about as ridiculous as DT’s, but no matter.)

So, I think I’ve known some pretty interesting people, who could be given code names and assigned roles in some totally fictitious story. Like, maybe Timofey and DT meet at a U2 concert and decide to sneak backstage or something. Except that’s dumb, they wouldn’t hit it off at all. Timofey probably wouldn’t be caught dead at U2, he’d be at a Fear concert or something, and DT would be too busy hitting on some girl in the t-shirt line to even think of sneaking backstage. And even if they did, they’d just get chucked out by security, and where’s the story in that? It’d be a really amazing memory if it actually happened to you, but stories have to be way more exciting than that, at least if they’re the type that could make me famous so I could go on “Donahue.”

So, I guess what I’m saying is, though I’d love to be a famous fiction writer, I really don’t know how, and to try to fake it makes about as much sense as changing my hair and outfit and hoping that’ll make me into an exciting, unique person. But faking it at fiction would actually be worse, because you’d read my stories and think, “This just sucks,” whereas Timofey’s hair, Masha’s tongue-in-cheek sneer, and DT’s costume were at least entertaining. So I’ll just keep reporting on that sort of thing, and hope you like it.

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Friday, May 31, 2019

Ask an English Major

Dear English Major,

Why don’t they call it Literature Major? I mean, it’s not like you’re learning to speak the language or something.

Brandy F, Phoenix, AZ

Dear Brandy,

That seems like a fair question. Of course, “literature” could be in any language, so at least “English” makes it clear. “English literature” was probably the full name of the major and was it eventually shortened. If it had been shortened to “literature,” people would further shorten it to “lit,” and there would be terrible puns around drunkenness. But the truth is, I just don’t know. The origin of “English” as the name of the major isn’t something they taught us in the major.

Dear English Major,

I have this uppity English-major friend who insists the name of the Lolita author is pronounced Nuh-BOH-kov, but we all know from the Police song that it’s NAH-bah-kov. Is my friend just putting on airs?

Jack H, Buffalo, NY

Dear Jack,

I hate to break it to you, but your friend is right. The author himself, when asked in an interview, explained that the accent falls in the middle, and says of the English pronunciation, with the accent on the first syllable, “The awful ‘Na-bah-kov’ is a despicable gutterism.” When I get the Police song in my head, I can’t resist changing it from “It’s no use/ He sees her/ He starts to shake and cough/ Just like the/ Old man in/ That book by Nabokov” to “It’s no use/ He sees her/ He’s really acting queer/ Just like the / Old man in/ That book by Vladimir.” Of course, the only works with the English pronunciation of “Vladimir.” Nabokov says it should rhyme with “redeemer.”

Dear English Major,

Why are you always correcting people’s grammar? It’s really annoying.

Lisa M, Seattle, WA

Dear Lisa,

Why do I always get accused of that? I never correct people’s grammar. People seem to lay that on me for no good reason. Maybe they’re afraid that I will correct them, because they know I could. But I don’t, and I don’t think many English majors do. Truth be told, we aren’t taught much, if any, grammar in this major. I happen to have impeccable grammar because I care about it, but that was true before I went to college.

Dear English Major,

How do you hide your smugness and air of intellectual superiority when thrown in with a bunch of Business majors?

Paul B, Iowa City, IA

Dear Paul,

I sense that your question is either sarcastic, or some kind of trap. Let’s talk about this face to face over a beer sometime.

Dear English Major,

I was a panelist at a workshop recently on building executive function in teenagers. During the meet-and-greet I introduced myself as John Morse, and then the next panelist glared at me and introduced himself as “Joe Blow, he/him/his.” What the hell was that all about?

John Morse, Oakland, CA

Dear John,

Joe Blow was surely using a shorthand for the more complete introduction, “My name is Joe Blow and my gender pronouns are he/him/his.” He was conveying his Preferred Gender Pronouns (PGPs) as described here. It is becoming more common, particularly in progressive communities, to provide these in advance so nobody needs to worry about offending you by getting your pronouns wrong due to an automatic assumption about your chosen gender identity.

I have no problem with the embrace of PGPs in language, as it’s a movement that means well, but I do think it rude of Joe Blow to glare at you. Setting somebody up to guess wrong about your chosen gender identity seems like a victimless crime to me, since it’s still statistically unlikely this panelist would need to employ a pronoun at all when referring to you. I mean, how long does the panel discussion last? Couldn’t he just say “I think John’s point is that…” rather than “I think his point is that…”? Also, is it the end of the world if he guesses wrong about your pronoun and you have to gently correct him?

Personally, I’m tempted to say, next time I’m introducing myself, “My name is Dana and my personal pronouns are she/him/their.” But of course I wouldn’t actually do this. I’d hate to offend anybody.

Dear English Major,

A degree in English? What are you going to do with that?

Ken S, Broomfield, CO

Dear Ken,

Your question would be much more appropriate if I were still in college and my future were a great unknown. But actually, I graduated long ago, but still use the label “English major.” To say “English graduate” just sounds weird, doesn’t it? Funny, isn’t it, how a law student graduates and becomes a lawyer, and a medical student graduates and becomes a doctor, but an English major graduates and doesn’t really get to call himself anything? I guess that’s kind of your point.

Anyway, I fielded this question a lot back in college, and it’s a pity the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” hadn’t come out yet because then I could have answered, “Whatever I feel like. Gosh!” Anyway, you need to learn not to ask English majors this question, because you’ll probably work for one of us someday. Myself, I own a home and drive a pretty cool car. So lay off.

Dear English Major,

What do you do when somebody corrects your grammar?

Kathleen Templeton, NYC

Dear Kathleen,

I don’t know, because that has never happened. Some advice columnists seem to enjoy falling on their swords as a show of humility, but that strikes me as irresponsible. I don’t get corrected because I don’t make mistakes. That’s why I get to dispense advice.

That being said, I have been put on the defensive by someone claiming I’ve made an error when I actually haven’t. For example, my dad was once emailing a friend of his about my blog, explaining that he (my dad) didn’t tend to read it because my posts are too long. (He reckoned that the post I was running that week would, if printed, comprise 29.3 pages.) In his email he pointed out something he construed as an error on my blog: “It would be fun to tease [Dana] about ‘That’s me’ as opposed to the grammatically correct ‘That’s I’ [in the sentence ‘That’s me with my friend Dan.’]”

Right off the bat, I have to question my dad’s use of the hypothetical subjunctive—“It would be fun”—when in fact he clearly was teasing me by copying me on this email. But my main issue was his simpleminded assumption that punctiliously correct grammar is always appropriate when communicating informally with a specific audience. I replied as follows: “Rest assured that what you took for a grammatical error was a conscious stylistic decision to use the colloquial ‘that’s me.’ I figured that particular post would get a lot of pageviews from dumb jocks, who would not realize that ‘That’s I’ is actually correct, and would be distracted by the correct construction. If you look at some of the comments readers posted, you'll see I likely guessed right.” I went on to correct my dad’s math about the length of the post. It actually ran only 6½ printed pages, not the 29.3 he erroneously calculated. Take that, Dad!

Dear English Major,

With all this emphasis on STEM, I don’t think there’s any way to convince my kid to pursue a Liberal Arts degree. When people, particularly the STEM types, ask you why you majored in English, what do you tell them?

Monique R, Portland, OR

Dear Monique,

Honestly, when faced with this question, my stock reply is, “Well, frankly, I knew it would be an easy major for me. You see, I grew up speaking English at home.”

I know this isn’t that funny, and it’s certainly evasive, but I just don’t think the STEM types can be easily convinced. You either grasp the value of the Liberal Arts, or you don’t. I feel bad for those who head for these dependably lucrative fields because they’re afraid of ending up poor and miserable. To me this indicates a pitiable lack of swagger.

If pressed on this topic, I’ll sometimes quote from the commencement address delivered by a former professor of mine, the bestselling writer Maxine Hong Kingston. (Because I went through the ceremony in May, but actually finished up that December, I was able to get a copy of the speech from Maxine herself—with her own handwritten notes in the margin.) When hassled by others for her choice of English as a major, she said something to the effect of, “Look, I didn’t treat college like a vocational school. I got the degree of an aristocrat.” (I don’t have the transcript handy so I can’t quote her directly, but you get the idea.)

I won’t deny that there are people who truly love math, engineering, or writing software. My brother was one of them, and he dove headfirst into programming because he just loved it. This was in junior high when he surely wasn’t thinking whatsoever about his future. But you’d never have had a conversation with him about STEM vs. English; he would have been too busy coding. But for those who don’t truly love math and science, to pursue a “practical” major that will “set them up to thrive in the new information economy” etc. seems like a recipe for frustration and unhappiness.

Dear English Major,

Can you recommend ten great novels for me?

Sarah Winslow, Minneapolis, MN

Dear Sarah,

I’m flattered you would ask me that, when the Internet is replete with recommended reading lists. But this is a tough request because I don’t even know you, so it’s hard to guess at what you’d enjoy. My wife, who is (well, was) also an English major, loves a lot of the same books I do, but would also hate a number of my favorites. For example, I love the relaxed pace and meandering style of T.R. Pearson’s Off for the Sweet Hereafter, but I know it would try my wife’s patience.

So, with that lengthy caveat, I will try to cobble together a list, knowing that as soon as this goes to press I’ll think of ten more books that are more deserving. I see that I already gave you one title, so here are nine others in no particular order. 
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  • Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
  • A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling
It seems ridiculous not to include Anna Karenina in that list, but it’s almost 900 pages long. Are you really going to read anything that thick?

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Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Truth About Elite College Admissions


About a year ago in these pages, I posed the question, “Is it harder to get into a top college now?” The answer I gave was essentially “No.” I cited a study by the New York Times, based on the applications of 800,000 students, which found that a well-qualified student has an 80% chance of getting into at least one of her top choices. I (rhetorically) demanded an apology from everybody who stressed out my daughter and her friends by painting a totally inaccurate doom-and-gloom picture.

Well, a year on, with my daughter’s application process complete, what was her outcome? Does my conclusion hold up empirically? In this post I share the shocking tale of how it played out. I was literally shocked. It turns out I’d been asking the wrong question all along.

The outcome, in a nutshell

In my last essay I predicted that all the Sturm und Drang would end up being unwarranted, as things would come out just fine. So was I right? Here’s how my daughter and her friends ended up faring.

My daughter’s friend N— applied to Cornell, the Naval Academy, West Point, MIT, and Berkeley. She was accepted by Cornell and Berkeley, turned down by MIT, and waitlisted and ultimately rejected by West Point. She was initially accepted by the Naval Academy, who subsequently revoked her acceptance based on a health problem closer in severity to a hangnail than an amputation.

My daughter’s friend C— was accepted by Oxford. I don’t remember who else accepted her, nor whether anybody rejected her, because it couldn’t possibly matter. I mean: Oxford.

My daughter’s friend M— applied to Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley. She was accepted by MIT and by Berkeley (who offered her a full scholarship). She was waitlisted and ultimately rejected by Harvard, who declared that her nose wasn’t cute enough. (Okay, I made up that last bit. Who knows why they turned her down.)

My daughter, a mostly-A student, applied to Cornell, Vassar, Brown, Berkeley, UCLA, Johns Hopkins, and Northwestern, along with a bunch of safety schools. Her first choice was Northwestern, to which she applied early decision to improve her odds. Northwestern deferred her, which (according to her extensive research) gave her about a 50/50 chance of later being accepted. While waiting for their final verdict, she was rejected by Brown, UCLA, and Berkeley. She was waitlisted by Johns Hopkins (and as I write this, my daughter still doesn’t have their verdict.) Over time, she was accepted at all her safety schools, rejected by Northwestern, and rejected by Cornell, but—yes!—accepted by Vassar.

Pretty good outcome across these kids, eh? It certainly supports the Times study that predicted an 80% chance of a qualified student getting at least one of her top choices. I wish my essay could end here, but I haven’t gotten to the shocking part yet.

The real truth about college admissions

For a day or two, my daughter was on cloud nine about going to Vassar. She told all her friends, drooled over all the gorgeous campus photos on their website (“Look, Dad, every dorm has a grand piano in its common area!”), and read the student reviews (which weren’t actually as glowing as I’d expected, the main two complaints being some version of “everybody is too liberal” and “everybody is too spoiled”). We were a bit nervous about the cost, but my daughter had done her research on that. Vassar is famously generous with financial aid, she said, with the average student getting like $50K a year. Vassar was even singled out in a Malcolm Gladwell podcast as a school that makes good decisions with its endowment. My daughter was really confident we’d be able to afford her tuition.

Then we got an email from Vassar saying, essentially, “Great news: you don’t need any financial aid! You will be able to afford to attend without any help … so you’re not getting any.” That’s right, not a cent.

I thought there must be some mistake. The Bay Area where we live is notoriously expensive, and my family has only one income. Vassar costs $73,000 a year, not including books, supplies, personal expenses, or transportation. I seriously entertained the notion that a simple bureaucratic mistake had been made. I consulted the financial aid page of their website. (The first sentence reads, “You do not have to be wealthy or even well off to attend Vassar.” The boldface is theirs.) I checked out their Net Price Calculator and plugged in a bunch of numbers, including my non-spectacular salary.

Well, their email was no fluke. The calculator spat out the same financial aid number: $0.00. It turns out that when Vassar says they are “committed to meeting 100% of the demonstrated financial need” of students, what they mean is, if you absolutely don’t have any savings or significant income, they’ll give you money. But if you are anything like middle class, you’ll have plenty of fiscal resources to exhaust, so you don’t qualify for financial aid. Do you own a home? Good—get a second mortgage on it. Got a rental property? Sell it. Happily married? Get a divorce. Got a 401(k)? Cash it in: your desire to have a pleasant retirement one day is an extravagant luxury you can’t afford. To Vassar, “financial need” means you completely lack any resources to draw down.

Suddenly, I felt completely naïve. When a college can choose from thousands of qualified applicants, why wouldn’t they pick the ones whose parents are willing to foot the bill themselves? Certainly there are families out there so terrified of their kids washing up that they’ll make this sacrifice … surely more than enough such families to fill Vassars’ student ranks.

So it turns out my daughter was agonizing over the wrong question. Instead of worrying about what colleges would accept her, she should have been worrying about which ones we could afford. Or better yet, not worrying at all, as we live in California, which has world class public universities.

The aftermath

I had innocently believed that, once my daughter had finally heard back from all these places, we could finally move on—that the agony would be over. But this outcome was even worse than if she’d simply been rejected by all her “reach” schools. Now she had proven she deserved a top college, but wouldn’t get to go. Instead of faulting Vassar for rejecting her, my daughter turned her disappointment on her mom and me. She didn’t say anything mean or angry—she mainly asked versions of “Are you sure you can’t afford this?”—but she might as well have. The closest she came to a direct accusation of parental incompetence was, “Didn’t you guys do a 529 college savings plan?” I felt like replying, “No, it never occurred to us that you might need money for college one day. I guess we’re not very good parents.” (My actual reply was, “To answer your direct question, no. But it’s not because we didn’t plan ahead. It’s because the 529 is a stupid plan. We did save money for your college. But we didn’t sock away $300,000.”)

It dawned on me that it was no accident Vassar delivered the acceptance ahead of the financial aid notification. It was a terrorist tactic, no different than Kellogg’s hawking sugary cereal during Saturday morning cartoons. Vassar fills these kids’ heads with dreams of this elite college experience and then when they drop the bomb about zero financial aid, the parents become the problem.

I had my daughter write a nice letter appealing Vassar’s decision, citing our family’s single income, the cost of living in the Bay Area, and the second kid we’ll need to put through college. We sent it certified mail. Vassar never responded. They did, however, continue sending us glossy brochures of their beautiful campus.

So you know what? Fuck Vassar’s grand pianos. Fuck their reputation for generous aid. And fuck the conventional wisdom of “You just worry about getting in, we’ll take care of the cost.” That’s not practical … it’s a fantasy.

Now that I’ve seen the light, I really doubt other private universities would be more generous. I went ahead and tried out the Net Price Calculator for Northwestern, and of the $85,000 per year they charge, my daughter is eligible for financial aid in the amount of (you guessed it) $0.00. Thank God she didn’t get in.

My daughter will be enrolling at a UC campus that has great weather, gorgeous beaches, and is ranked top ten in the nation among public schools. If she hadn’t been accepted by Vassar, she’d probably be really excited.

The irony

It’s ironic that the essential unaffordability, for our family, of a private university caught my daughter off guard, given the exhaustive amount of research she did into the application process. I recently lamented here how the Internet gives us vastly more information than we need, and too much of the time we’re unable to resist devouring it. I griped specifically about how the trove of college-related websites hijacked my daughter’s attention: 
My daughter started her college application process like a year in advance. She combed the Internet for every scrap of information pertaining to every college she considered applying to. She maintained a master spreadsheet tracking them. She could quote massive amounts of statistics about each one: acceptance rate, average weighted GPA of students accepted, average SAT scores, national ranking, self-reported student satisfaction levels, lifestyle ratings, you name it. Tracking all this info was like a part time job.
With so much information available, it’s a pity my daughter missed the important step of researching affordability. If she’d started there, just think of all the hours she wouldn’t have spent writing personal essays or trawling college websites. Think of all that dread, all that anxiety, and ultimately all that heartache that she’d have avoided. As for myself, I didn’t need another reason to be cynical about big business in America, but I sure got one.

Chalk this up to a lesson learned the hard way. As Henry James pointed out, “We pay more for some kinds of knowledge than those particular kinds are worth.”

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2019 Tour of California Stage 6


Sportscasters covering professional cycling have a massive challenge: how to describe the action while continuously biting their tongues. They’re not allowed to bag on dopers, so they have to pretend that it’s exciting to watch a totally lubed rider destroy everybody. The Tour of California, however, runs concurrently with the much more prestigious Giro d’Italia, where the heavy hitters are. The TofCA is bound to be a cleaner race, so the announcers have got that going for them. Which is good.

So yeah, you could watch the coverage live, using the Amgen Tour of California Tour Tracker which really is the greatest streaming video platform ever. I’m so stoked on it, I feel like supporting Amgen by buying a bunch of their EPO. But even with this great tracker, the coverage is in the middle of your workday, so you don’t have time, and if you try to watch the highlights later, they’re going to give the outcome away in the first five seconds for some reason. You don’t want that.

Besides, maybe you’re a bit disgruntled by the sport, like I am, so you like my snotty remarks. Of course you do … you wouldn’t be here otherwise. So read on for my biased blow-by-blow report of the all-important, GC-deciding Tour of CA Stage 6, which finishes atop Mount Baldy in southern California (motto: “Don’t you dare walk here, we’ll ticket your ass!”).

2019 Tour of California Stage 6 – Ontario to Mount Baldy

I join the action way, way late. I took the whole day off work, went for a bike ride, went too slow, got home late, and then had a nice lunch at a Tibetan restaurant were the service was so slow, I almost wonder if they hired the cook after taking our order. Only 14 kilometers remain in the whole race, so I’m going to have to really rush here, which means typing “km” instead of “kilometers” from here on out, and not taking time to change kms to miles for you. Also, if I need to talk about the weather, I may express the temperature in Kelvin.

There’s a breakaway. Behind, some Bora-Hansgrohe guy has attacked the peloton. He’s trying to bridge up to the break, which only has like 30 seconds on them. That’s not a lot when at least half the remaining distance is uphill. The Bora guy is Felix somebody. With a first name like that, you don’t actually need a last name … “Felix” is distinct enough. I have a pal named John and I told him his name is useless. He agreed: “It’s a fcuking disaster.”

Okay, Felix’s last name is Großschartner. I admit I was stalling just a second ago, because that’s a really hard name to type. had it as Grossschartner which I knew couldn’t be right. I mean, three Ss in a row? Nobody would have such a name. You couldn’t say it without hissing. Everyone would hate you.

Felix has a teammate in the breakaway, Maximilian Schachmann. So if Felix bridges up successfully, he’ll be able to help Schachmann win, obviously. I don’t know if there are time bonuses in this race because I was barely aware it was even happening until two days ago. Someone mentioned it was going on this week, so I looked for the Tour Tracker and happened to check out the final 10 km of the Morro Bay stage, which had apparently been super boring until the last 8 km. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Felix is on the short descent to the base of Mount Baldy. The top ten riders are all within like 30 seconds of each other in the general classification and there’s no time trial in this race, so this climb will be absolutely decisive.

The breakaway is Schachmann, Hugo Houle (Astana Pro Team), Matteo Fabbro (Katusha Alpecin), Pawel Bernas (CCC), Lennard Hofstede (Jumbo-Visma), and one other guy whom I’ll call John because hey, why not.

Schachmann is only 22 seconds off the GC lead, so this break is probably doomed. Tejay’s EF Education First team will surely reel them in, and even if they don’t, the race officials will bend the rules until Tejay comes out on top. They did that already in the Morro Bay stage, where Tejay crashed, then took a wrong turn, then blatantly drafted a support car for a really long way, and then only caught up to part of the peloton—specifically, the riders who were on the ground due to another crash—and because this was inside the final 3 km the officials gave Tejay the same time as the entire peloton: that is, as the part of the peloton that hadn’t crashed and was way, way ahead of Tejay. Meanwhile, this was actually 3.2 km from the finish, but the officials didn’t really care. I think they want a known rider, and an American one, to win the race because it looks better. I mean, if Hugo Houle won, what would that do for the sport? Everyone would remember it as “a foreigner called Huge Hole won,” and they’d shrug and go back to NASCAR. At least, that must be the thinking of the commissaires. As if this sport weren’t a big enough joke already.

Lawson Craddock is leading the chase for Tejay. He’s a great ungodly godlike domestique. I wish I could get him to work for me. Not in my races, of course, because those are few and far between. I could really use him for some light filing, maybe going through my mail and throwing out all the junk. Running errands. Things like that. I wonder of Craddock does that for Tejay during the off-season.

Wow, Schachmann has dropped the break and is trying to solo! He’s only got like 6 km to go, but also 2,000 vertical feet. And it’ll be hard to pedal effectively with such big balls crowding the crotch of his shorts. He looks like he’s pretty cool and calm, but that could just be a poker face.

Okay, the announcers just said there’s a 10-second time bonus for the win. But is that really going to happen? Tejay is really fast, obviously, and I think his teammate Rigoberto Uran Uran is in that field with him, and on a good day Uran is almost matchless on the climbs so he should pace Tejay quite effectively. (I guess I should hedge a bit though and point out that I haven’t watched a road race since last year’s Tour de France, where Uran crashed out, so for all I know he’s gotten too old to go fast.)

This stage is such a great one to watch, because there are plenty of GC hopefuls who haven’t had much opportunity to do anything in this largely flat stage race and have put all their hopes on this climb. Another rider to watch is Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), who had so many not-normal performances with Team Sky that the only thing holding him back today would be not being able to find a fresh vein to inject himself in. I guess maybe his new team is clean though. Maybe he’s a really good guy and Team Sky was just a bad influence.

Speaking of Team Ineos (née Sky), its leader Gianni Moscon, wearing bib #1, is going out the back! So I guess the peloton is already going pretty damn fast. That being said, Schachmann has increased his lead to 35 seconds with only 5 km to go.

Tejay looks pretty comfortable. That yellow jersey looks so much better than the pink ones EF riders wear. In this one instance, I wouldn’t fault Tejay for wearing a yellow helmet to match the leader’s jersey. But a black helmet would be even better.

Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) is now leading the peloton. He would be wearing the leader’s jersey today were it not for the clowns officiating this race (as described above). He must be impatient with the EF team or something, or maybe he’s trying to crack them in Merckx style instead of attacking. That worked pretty well for Merckx … everyone since him, not so much.

Shirtless idiots have arrived to run alongside the riders. I hope one of them gets smacked. Not hard or anything. Just a smack.

Whoooooah, Tejay is cracking! Dude is just getting shelled, with his own teammates ahead of him! Who’d have thought! I guess he’s getting old or something. It happens to the best of us. Heck, even Chris Horner kind of sucked toward the end, not that I blame him. I feel so old myself now, talking about riders who have retired. I confess I kind of lost track of this sport after Chris Froome was exonerated and I could no longer bear to watch.

Wow, Asgreen has been dropped! He looked so good earlier.

Now George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) makes a dig and gets a bit of a gap before anyone can react. He’s being joined now by Tejay’s teammate Sergio Higuita, and not far behind it looks like Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates). I think that’s Porte struggling along behind them.

Higuita attacks!

Higuita is hauling ass and there’s no poker-face here, he’s just drilling it, his face a pitcher of pansies. You didn’t think I was gonna say “picture of pain” did you? I would never do that. His face is a pitcher. A patchwork. A bun. A bane. And more.

Porte is having bike problems. Good.

It’s only 1.6 km to go! Higuita is still really motoring. It’s hard to tell how far behind he is from Schachmann. Do I care who wins? Not much, though I don’t like Higuita’s neon green shoes. His Pepto-Bismol-pink jersey is ugly enough without introducing neon green to the outfit. Behind Higuita, Pogacar and Bennett keep up the chase, Porte having been totally distanced.

The break has completely dissolved, every man in it for himself. Like all the rest of us. Except moms. They’re in it for their kids. But I digress.

It looks like Pogacar is catching Higuita. He looks really smooth, and started the day only 16 seconds behind Tejay on GC.

Pogacar and Higuita are together now and look like they’re kind of crawling. The camera makes these grades look way flatter than they are. It must be insanely steep. I’m so glad I’m just sitting in this armchair typing, not out biking with these fools.

OMG, there’s 100 meters to go and still no sign of Schachmann, which means they must have passed him at some point. I’ve been thinking he was up the road this whole time! Maybe he was abducted by aliens or something. Crazier things have happened in this sport, like Froome getting off the hook after testing positive.

It’s the final sprint, and Bennett is coming back! And now Higuita overcooks the final curve, taking it too wide!

Pogacar comes blasting through! He’s freakin’ flying! He’s got proper black shoes and he’s blowing Higuita out of the water!

Pogacar’s got the wine! I mean win! He’s got the win! He’ll get the wine later. See how these typos work?

And now we wait to see how far back Tejay finishes. Wow, it’s not good. He’s clearly lost the GC. And he’s so tired, his arms are all crooked.

Gosh, Pogacar is super young. He looks like he’s about 15 years old. I think he cools himself the way dogs do. Maybe all the young humans are being made this way now. Okay, they’re saying he’s actually 20 years old. Too young to buy booze, which is surely why he had that extra edge today. I love to drink beer and look how slow I am. (No, you can’t actually look. Nobody is filming me. Thank God.)

Tejay’s daughter is too young to realize just how badly her dad fcuked this up today. She still loves him. That’ll change. When she’s a teenager she’ll read this blog (like all the cool teens will), and then she’ll be like, “Dad, the beginning of the end was Mount Baldy. Speaking of which, how’d you get so bald? You’re, like, a living fossil! And your chain of auto dealerships is failing.”

So, Pogacar not only has the yellow jersey, but rumor has it he’s going to get a video game made in his honor. Here he is getting his yellow jersey. Note that the podium girl doesn’t kiss him. Maybe she’s afraid she’ll get in trouble. Or maybe they’re not doing that anymore.

Man, Pogacar is so fricking young, some thoughtful race official got him a teddy bear! That is so fitting! They’ll have cookies and milk waiting for him later. I love the thought of him snuggling with that teddy bear tonight, maybe wearing his medal over his Star Wars pajamas.

They’re interviewing him now. “I was really strong and that made me go fast. Strong means fast, I have noticed. Higuita took the turn too wide. This black stuff you see at the corners of my mouth is Oreo. I just ate like five of them really fast. In Slovenia we have no Oreos. Also I have won very many bike races back home but nobody ever gave me a bear. I love America.”

Note: as you probably already figured out, I totally made all that up. He did say something about going fast and being strong, but after that it got really boring. “Thanks to my team blah blah blah.” It’s possible that my freestyling got us closer to the real truth. Though you must not quote me on the Oreo thing. I just did some light fact-checking and discovered this blog post, all about Oreos in Slovenia. I did not make that up. Click the link.

Now they’re doing the team podium. Here are the top three teams:

Wait, how did that get in there? That’s not just the wrong race, that’s the wrong sport! What you see above is the Albany High Cougars mountain bike team celebrating their victory in the team overall for the season. How that photo made it into this report is beyond me … probably some kind of online tampering. I’m going to leave it though, because they’re even younger and more fresh-faced than Pogacar. And that’s saying a lot.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

From the Archives - Drama in Philosophy Class!


When I was a student at UC Santa Barbara, choosing classes was never easy. The most important requirement of a class was that it fit into my cycling schedule. A two-hour span between classes, followed by a one-hour class, was either a total waste of riding opportunity, or truancy waiting to happen. Beyond this, I tended to go with classes that looked interesting, or—better yet—easy. So when I came upon Philosophy 3 – Critical Thinking, a class essentially about logic, I was really intrigued.

Right off the bat, I wondered if you can actually teach somebody how to think logically. I suspected that you couldn’t—that this was a kind of talent. I also felt like I kind of had this talent, since I was pretty good at math and at writing persuasive papers. Moreover, a childhood nickname my brothers gave me was “Logic Lad.” Believe me, my brothers were not given to ever saying anything nice to me, so this nickname must have been a grudging capitulation around an undeniable trait.

This confidence was tempered by (or perhaps a delusion brought about by) an insecurity, which was that I only thought I was a rational, logical person. To have such swagger and be woefully ignorant of my own inability to think critically was a frightening proposition. So, as a hedge against being an unknowing intellectual poser, I thought I better take this class in order to validate, or possibly bring about, my (supposed) capability to think critically.

Little did I realize, when signing up, how much drama this course would occasion. Read on for the torrid tale of our first midterm exam and its aftermath.

Drama in Philosophy Class – February 8, 1989

I had high hopes right from the beginning about Philosophy 3 – Critical Thinking. The textbook is really cool. Verbal arguments are encoded with all these cool symbols, bridging the gap I always felt there must be between math and clearly written arguments. But I was kind of disappointed, right off, by the professor. She just didn’t strike me as the total braniac that I hoped she (and all my professors) would be.

How could I assess this so quickly, and who am I to declare such a thing? Well, it’s mainly due to her imprecise, unstructured delivery. She loves to ramble worthlessly during lecture, repeating herself continually in a monotonous, tiresome tone. Also, her grammar is pretty bad for a UC professor: “Does anyone else need a syllabi?” or “Another criteria we look at is…” or “While the price of gold really might have fell…”

I know grammar knowledge isn’t the same thing as intelligence, but still … I don’t think an Oxford professor would ever slip up like that. But beyond all this, my main problem with this professor is that her lectures dang near put me to sleep every time. (I know, I know … this could be me. I’ve slept through all kinds of classes, even ones I know would be interesting if I were only awake to hear them.)

But you know, the professor isn’t that bad, actually … she does impart some useful lessons. But the Teaching Assistant (T.A.) for the class bugs the hell out of me. He seems to have recently moved here from some Eastern Bloc country, which wouldn’t be a problem except that his poor grasp of English hinders his ability to clearly teach this subject, given the importance of clarity when dealing with tricky argument forms. For example, when teaching a syllogism, it’s really important not to say “In case he” instead of “In the case that he.” Consider this sentence: “In the case that he does not bring an umbrella, he will get wet.” No problem there, right? But if your T.A. says, “In case he brings an umbrella, he will get wet.” This has an entirely different meaning and makes our protagonist seem pretty deranged, wouldn’t you say? I tried to explain the difference but this T.A. absolutely could not follow me. His English skills were not up to the job. Usually after he talks for a while, everybody ends up shrugging at the futility of it all, and loses interest.

As with most T.A. discussion sections, much of the period is devoted to the Question & Answer session. There are two possible scenarios for how this goes. If the entire class is unprepared or asleep (or both), nobody will ask any questions and the T.A. will wait patiently for about ten minutes before becoming irritated. Then he quizzes the class, perhaps to try to snap us into attention. He doesn’t get any satisfactory answers, either because the students are actually clueless, or they’re toying with him (I can’t figure out which). After five or six students give unsatisfactory answers, I’ll try to end the stalemate with the correct answer. For example, if the question is, “What is a sound argument?” I will say, “It’s a valid argument that has true premises.” Then T.A. will shake his head and field five more wrong answers, growing increasingly frustrated. Finally he will announce the correct answer: “It’s an argument which has true premises and is valid.” How does he not recognize my answer as correct? Perhaps it’s his poor grasp of English … maybe he has memorized the correct answer by rote and thus requires the wording to be identical. Critical thinking indeed!

The other question and answer scenario is somewhat less common. Here, a student actually comes to class having read the material and attempted the homework, but is completely lost. Well, the T.A.’s job is to eliminate confusion, so the student has come to the right place. Or so he thinks! Invariably, the student gets nowhere. He will ask something like, “What is the difference between cogent and sound arguments?” and the T.A. will throw the question out to the class: “Anyone? Anyone?” After waiting for about five minutes for a response from another student, the T.A. will say, “Hasn’t anybody done the reading?” After another awkward pause, he lets the question die, hoping the student has given up hope. If the student repeats the question, the T.A. says, “Well, it’s in your textbook.” If the student still persists, then the T.A. says, “You’ll have to come to my office hours.” This last resort is brutally effective, as no student in the history of higher education has ever gone to a T.A.’s office hours.

But you know, the T.A. isn’t actually my main gripe with the class. After all, being surrounded by other students could lead to a stimulating discussion anyway, right? That’s the whole point of the small discussion sections. But I have yet to hear a single intelligent utterance from any of my classmates. Mostly I just hear a lot of whining. And after the midterm exam, they turned their bitching up to 11. In fact, our discussion section was so heated, it was almost like a student revolt.

Interestingly enough, we hadn’t even gotten our tests back, so the class wasn’t responding to poor grades, not exactly. But I think they highly suspected they’d augered in, based on two things: one, almost nobody finished the test (or even came close), and two, the professor had announced at the post-exam lecture that almost everybody crashed and burned. The median score was a 56%. So my classmates came to class armed with numerous reasons why the test was like, totally unfair. The T.A., arrogant  as ever, took a big risk at the beginning of the period by venturing that the students, not the test, were at fault. Instantly the jackleg spokesman for the students fired off a rebuttal: “Isn’t your argument fallacious?” Well, at least the guy had picked up a bit of the lingo.

The T.A. responded: “At my Thursday review section, before the exam, I asked how many people thought the class was easy. Almost everybody raised his hand. Then I asked how many people had done the review problems. Out of 48 students, four raised their hands. Out of that four, only one had gone to the Reserve Book Room to check his answers. If this is indicative of the whole class, we can conclude that the students did not study hard enough.”

 I have to admit, this makes some sense. But, this being a class on logic, he probably should have trod more carefully. For one thing, it’s not necessarily a given that his Thursday section was intellectually similar to ours. They might have all chosen that section (day and time) based on their athletic or party schedules, for all we know. Second, it’s possible that after his first boring question, a lot of the students lost interest and couldn’t be bothered to keep raising their hands.

Our class demanded a “recount.” I found this absurd. The T.A. hadn’t asked our section these questions, so he had counted nothing … how could he now “recount”? And if he asked our class the same questions now, what were we going to say? That we had also neglected to do the review problems? Yeah, right. Amazingly, the T.A. indulged this “recount,” and guess what? It turns out everybody in the class had done all the review problems and had gone to the Reserve Book Room to check our answers! Obviously the test was a gross miscarriage of justice! Of course all this was immaterial. It’s not the T.A.’s job to write the test, so if the test is unfair, that’s not his problem. Nor could he do anything about it.

This pointless debate went on and on, the class growing increasingly impassioned and the T.A. becoming increasingly flustered. I had no interest in the proceedings because, notwithstanding the median score, I felt pretty confident that, unless I was the most self-deluded person on the planet, I’d done fine. The test had seemed easy to me, almost eerily so, and I had finished early. I couldn’t get too worried about my grade because, if I had done poorly, the low grade would be the least of my worries. Being the most self-deluded person on the planet would be a deep, deep hole that I’d probably spend the rest of my life trying to climb out of.

Feeling a strange combination of boredom and discomfort, I began doodling. Unfortunately I am a very poor doodler. I find my doodles tiresome and annoying and end up scribbling them out. So I got sick of that and picked up a flyer advertising a Spring Break trip to Mexico. Then I read a flyer about how I, too, could earn extra income at home doing telecommunications. Before long, I decided that the discussion had to be more interesting than the flyers. Tuning back in, I realized that there was actually an educational opportunity available to me here: I could listen for, and document, the all the logical fallacies committed by the students—proof of their unpreparedness, as these same fallacies were the very subject of the exam! So here they are, taken directly from my notes:

“We did fine on the homework. But when you put a gun to a guy’s head and tell him to recite the Constitution, he won’t be able to do it. Likewise, with our time restrictions, we couldn’t perform well on the test.” WEAK ANALOGY

“We couldn’t be expected to study that long. We got so many tests right now we just don’t got time for everything. If we spent all our time studying for this class, we’d, like, fail all our others! Besides, think of the stress we’re going through!” APPEAL TO PITY

“Exams are always too long. Like this History test I had we had basically fifty minutes to write three essays. And one of them was on material we hadn’t even covered! Soooo lame!” RED HERRING

“Look: 300 students did poorly. Four T.A.’s and one professor blame us for it. Obviously, you guys must be wrong.” ACCIDENT (general rule applied incorrectly to a specific case)

“Two of my friends didn’t even finish the test and neither did I. So don’t eee-ven try to tell me you gave us enough time!” HASTY GENERALIZATION

“I saw this one dude walking up to turn in the test, and he was just filling in random dots like crazy.” RED HERRING

Some of the arguments I wrote down, while not committing specific fallacies, seemed illogical anyway. See if you can pinpoint the weaknesses in the following arguments:

“In the categorical syllogism problems, the examples were too hard. I mean, what if we don’t know the difference between reptiles and mammals?”

“When you said ‘open book,’ you set a trap for us to fall into. That’s not fair!”

“We only had a minute for each [multiple choice] problem. Maybe we’re just not fast enough readers!”

“When you have that many problems in front of you, they just all start to melt together.”

“What if the ten percent of the class that did well were just a product of chance?”

“I got ahold of last year’s midterm and it was a lot shorter. How do you explain that?”

“I tried to calculate how much time we had for each problem, but it was hard because each section had its own numbering. By the time I figured it all out, I only had half an hour left and I didn’t finish!”

“It was totally bogus. I mean, they were all the kind where you have to, like, stop and think!”

“All the examples seemed like they were from poems.”

This last statement caused me to almost burst out laughing. That would have been unwise indeed … the whole class could have turned on me! From this point forward I was focused purely on not smirking or snorting … not only would I look like a dick, but I would actually be one. For once in my college career, I wished I couldn’t stay awake.

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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

In Defense of Multitasking


It’s pretty widely acknowledged that most of us multitask. At the same time, we’re lately bombarded with warnings about how ineffective and even harmful multitasking is. Neither multitasking nor these warnings look like they’ll subside anytime soon. So what’s going on here? Are people just dense and/or stubborn, or are the naysayers full of crap? Neither, I’ll argue. Both the behavior and the warnings are partially correct.

What is multitasking?

I think this question is the crux of the matter. Those who warn against multitasking too often do so without defining what they’re even talking about. This article on declares that “Multitasking makes you less productive,” “Multitasking makes you less effective,” and “Multitasking can slow down your brain,” but doesn’t ever say what multitasking is. This article in Forbes says, “A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.” Pretty specific consequences, but again the precise multitasking behavior isn’t described whatsoever. Imagine an article saying that “drinking caused test subjects to be unable to walk in a straight line or speak clearly” without saying how much was drunk and of what. And yet “drinking” in this context is no more general than the term “multitasking.”

This article on at least gives a few examples: “We all do it: Texting while walking, sending emails during meetings, chatting on the phone while cooking dinner.” The problem is, these examples don’t add up to a specific type of behavior. Let’s apply this to my earlier example: “We all do it. Sharing a Heineken with our spouse. Having a glass of wine with dinner. Lining up eight shots on the bar and downing them one after another in the span of just a few minutes.”

In other words, I find fault with any article that implies all multitasking behaviors are equivalent. Sending emails during a meeting, I would argue, is more difficult than chatting on the phone while cooking dinner. It’s pointless to lump these activities together as a single behavior that should be avoided. To advise anybody on the effectiveness of multitasking, we need to define it better.

So what is multitasking, really?

At its most basic, multitasking is doing more than one thing at a time. I mean, duh. So, walking while chewing gum is multitasking. Singing in the shower is multitasking. Listening to music while driving is multitasking. So is knitting while watching instructive calculus videos at This last example is from real life … I caught my daughter trying to do this the other day. (I hope she did better on the test than on the scarf.)

The problem arises, I think, from the promise of modern technologies that, we believe, can endlessly increase our productivity. We can have multiple tabs open on our browsers, can play background music on our laptops, and can carry on multiple concurrent chats in separate windows. In fact, the term multitasking originated in the computer realm, according to the OED (as described here). When we use this term to describe human behavior, it’s somewhat metaphorical, as though the human brain worked just like a computer’s CPU. To the extent it doesn’t, we fall down on the job.

The temptation to do two things at once is perfectly reasonable: we don’t have time to do everything, so we need to be as efficient as possible. It doesn’t make sense to abandon this impulse entirely, just because it’s said to be ineffective and/or dangerous. Instead, we should simply be more careful about exactly what we try to double up on.

Multitasking I totally support

First off, the phone can be a great multitasking device—so long as you use it as a phone. All kinds of things can be done while have a telephone conversation. My favorite such activity is doing the dishes. This is such a brain-dead simple operation, I’m this close to being able to do it in my sleep. That’s why it’s so boring. So whenever I decide to phone up a friend or family member, I like to put on my headset and head into the kitchen. At least 99% of my brain power goes into the conversation, and at the end the dishwasher is loaded and the kitchen is clean. Should I really stop doing this just because every time someone multitasks, God kills a kitten?

I’m not saying any phone conversation can be carried out while housekeeping. When I’m on a work call, I need to concentrate more. That doesn’t mean I don’t multitask, though; I like to take notes on my laptop during the call, which not only helps me remember what was discussed, but actually increases my focus. This only works, of course, because I can touch-type. (Writing down notes actually distracts me, probably because it’s slower so I fall behind.)

Where people get in trouble, I’ve found, is when they try to sneak a peek at other incoming information during a boring conference call. First they’re just scanning their inbox, then they’re reading their email, and soon enough someone on the call asks them a question and they reply, “Could you provide a little more context around exactly what you’re asking?” which is code for “I totally didn’t hear a word you said and would like another try.”

So what about the example, chatting on the phone while cooking dinner? I’ve totally done that! If I’m just shooting the shit with my brother, while making a barebones pasta dinner for my kids, there’s almost no way I’m going to screw up. Worst case scenario, a pot boils over or I temporarily forget the spinach in the microwave. This is in no way similar to the dire consequences of trying to text while driving, even though both get lumped into this insanely generally category called multitasking.

Sure, sometimes this benign multitasking will backfire. The other day a phone conversation took an unexpectedly intense turn while I was making pour-over coffee, with this unfortunate result:

Sure, that was a bit of a mess, but does it mean going forward I should just sit in a chair with my hands in my lap every time I talk on the phone?

How to choose your multitasks

The trick to multitasking, I think, is to make sure you only pair cognitively difficult tasks with brainless ones. Singing in the shower is pretty obviously a safe pairing because neither task demands your full attention. Where things get tricky is when both activities seem simple—boring, even—but they are nonetheless too complicated to actually do simultaneously.

For example, driving isn’t particularly exciting, but it’s very demanding cognitively. Texting is such a humdrum, everyday activity, it’s tempting to think it’s brainless—but it’s not. Needless to say, texting while driving is a dangerously stupid combination. The problem is, you simply can’t watch the screen and the road at the same time. You have to go back and forth between the two, which is much harder than many people seem to think. They try to run a mental process that keeps track of how long they’ve looked away from the road, but texting draws them in and subverts this process. Next thing you know, their urgent message—”whats up lol”—has gotten them in an accident.

So to draw the line between reasonable and unreasonable multitasking, you should ask yourself whether you’re truly doing two things at once—singing and soaping, for example—or just shifting your attention back and forth between two points of focus—say, the video and your knitting, or your screen and the road. If your multitasking involves that constant shifting of focus, then you really aren’t being efficient or effective. You’re merely interleaving two tasks, and adding a third focus-management process on top of them. Your performance actually drops.

Case study

After I watched my daughter trying to knit while watching the calculus video, I had her do a little multitasking game with me. (I learned it in a class I took recently on executive function.) All you do is write out, by hand, the sentence “Multitasking is worse than a lie” and then, below this on the page, you write out all the numbers from 1 to 27. You time this activity with a stopwatch. Here’s the result my daughter and I got:

Writing the sentence and then the numbers took us 23 seconds. (Actually, I was a second or two slower than my daughter. She’s a born competitor.)

Then, you do the same task, except that you write the sentence and the number sequence simultaneously—or, to put it more accurately, you interleave the tasks. That is, you write a letter, then a number, then the next letter, then the next number, and so on until you’re done. Here’s how that came out for my daughter and me:

The end result is pretty much the same—both the sentence and the number strings are complete—but the operation took us more than twice as long, at 48 seconds. Also, I didn’t do as good a job … somewhere along the line I dropped one of the numbers and only got up to 26. As you can see, neither task is difficult, but both require your complete attention if you’re to do them efficiently.

Not so fast

It’s actually an oversimplification to divide all activities into “requires focus” and “doesn’t require focus.” For example, in general I’d say listening to an audio book while driving is a safe activity, but not always. My family enjoyed listening to Lemony Snicket while driving through rural Oregon, but I once tried and failed to listen to Wallace Shawn’s one-man play The Fever while driving southbound on I-880. Wallace Shawn is the highly intellectual guy who had dinner with Andre (and should have titled his play My Dinner Without Andre), and I-880 is a hellish stretch of freeway between Berkeley and Silicon Valley that features high-speed bumper-to-bumper traffic as early as 6:00 a.m. I didn’t crash my car, but had to save The Fever for later.

Similarly, chatting on the phone while cooking isn’t always a reasonable combination. What if it’s a delicate discussion, and/or you’re trying out some really tricky new recipe? There’s no conversation so casual that I could maintain it while trying to follow an instruction like this: “When nearing 234 degrees, there is a fine overall bubbling with, simultaneously, a coarser pattern, as though the fine bubbled areas were being pulled down for quilting into the coarser ones.” Similarly, just making toast might be too much for me if a loved one is croaking out his dying words over the phone.

I think the trick to multitasking is to pause and question yourself honestly: are you really increasing efficiency by combining these two activities, in this particular instance? Is it truly the case that nothing is lost? If you and your spouse are carrying on a conversation while walking your dog, the answer to this internal query may well be yes. But other situations should reasonably lead you to question your behavior. Does the friend who’s trying to talk to you really not care that you’re only pretending to listen while you futz with your phone? Is the angry motorist honking and flipping you the bird really the one who’s out of line? Is there actually any point in attending a conference call in which you miss 90% of what is discussed?

My conclusion: feel free to multitask … just keep yourself honest.

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