Thursday, October 31, 2013

From the Archives - I Enter the Computer Age


A whole lot of what I wrote in college now embarrasses me, due to its poor quality. (I’m glad it didn’t embarrass me then, or I’d never have written anything, and I’m glad that what I’m writing now doesn’t yet embarrass me.) But some stuff gains in value over time because it captures a real-time personal response to the culture of the day. This is particularly handy when the culture in question has changed radically.

In 1989, personal computers didn’t do much other than creating documents. Nothing was networked. Computers were only a social tool if you widely shared those documents and got a lot of feedback about them. I did the first half of this—writing essays I thought my friends and family would enjoy, and mailing around photocopies—but of course I almost never heard anything back. It was a bit like blogging, but to a small actual audience instead of a practically infinite hypothetical one.

This essay captures the state of personal computing in 1989 as viewed through my young eyes. I think this may be the only essay you’ll find that talks about fax machines as a cool technology, rather than as outdated old crap. (Disclaimer: in this essay I cast aspersions on Apple computers. Forgive me. I was young and foolish, and I thought DOS prompts were pretty cool, and anyway I couldn’t afford a new computer.)

I Enter the Computer Age - November 9, 1989

I have entered the computer age: an age of processing and transferring information in ways never before possible. The question is, is today’s information really worth the new and improved technology?

We could either assume it is, or else take the really cynical view that our information has never amounted to a hill of beans anyway so we might as well transfer it as quickly and as slickly as possible. Heck, if you’ve got nothing to say, you can at least fire it across the nation at a million miles per second, so maybe it comes out on a fax machine.

Ooh, fax. I hit a nerve there, huh? It’s the cool, groovy new way to say, “Hey, I’m hip, I’m hop, I’m a digitally connected happenin’ type of guy. Yo, babe, let’s do lunch. I’ll fax you three martinis and a rice cake.” Okay, I don’t have a fax machine, but some of you out there know I was faxing all the way back when a transcriber was called a Dictaphone. Fax is nothing new to me.

But what are people faxing now? Charts? Yeah, that’s it. “Here, I’ve made a pie chart of how my day is divided up.” How could I use a fax machine? My writing isn’t timely enough to warrant being sent out to waiting hands in half a microsecond.

Phones: now there’s a rapid data transfer we can all use. It’s just a matter of knowing how to master the technology. I’m all over that game like a cheap suit. Not only do I have a GTE calling card, but I’ve got an AT&T card. (These days, it’s a kind of status to have as many magnetic‑strip‑bearing cards in your wallet as possible. I’ve got five, and two UPC‑code cards which can be read by computer laser. I’m trying to get up the guts to ask myself for an autograph.) I can call anywhere from a block away to the other side of the world—and I can even choose the company that gets my money! So what if I can’t afford long distance?

But wait, this phone thing gets even better. The other day, I was at the library and I decided to see if a certain someone had called my apartment and left a message on my phone answering machine. I cruised to the nearest phone booth and entered my super‑special secret calling card code so I wouldn’t have to deposit a quarter like all those mere mortals. Had I chosen to use the Toll‑Saver function on my machine, I would have known after only one ring whether or not there was a message. After four rings I got my machine. My outgoing message is worse than I thought—but we’re a high-tech nation, we all know how to leave a message anyway. After my outgoing message was over, I entered another secret code to play back my messages. Had there been any, I could have saved them with the push of a button.

Okay, I guess you probably caught that: there weren’t any messages. Oh well, at least I verified my fluency with the latest technological wonders. “But wait a second,” I could ask myself, “what good does all that technology do if I still don’t get any messages?” Aw, hell, let’s not answer that. I’m having fun here.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Where do I sign up?” Yeah, you want in on this. You, too, want to be a master in the art of manipulating little digital bits and bytes, wielding electronic data like a Greek god hurling lightning bolts. Well don’t worry, there are companies out there that specialize in quenching the little man’s thirst for digital glory.

Apple has jumped on this one. As if “Macintosh” weren’t bad enough, now everybody is past the first name basis and calls them “Macs.” And these computers have gained widespread praise. Why? Does this reflect some cool new technology? Can they do the phase‑lock‑loop in 0.027 microseconds? Does the new 80‑86 Hyper‑Detonator Processor put you in direct contact with a higher order of electronic entity?

Of course not. They’re popular for the same reason as Care Bears and Suzuki Samurais: they’re cute, and they’re fun. Oh, look at this cute little keyboard! And this here, this is called a mouse. Just aim and point! Oh! Look at that precious little screen! There’s even a garbage can to dump your unneeded files into. It’s spiffy!

Okay, I’ll concede that the Mac has some legitimate boons. Yeah, it can graph anything, right on the page, so when you write your research paper on Homer’s “The Iliad” you can graph Achilles’ daily rate of slaughter as compared to Hector’s to truly illustrate his dominance on the battlefield. Of course, for this you’ll need a $5,000 laser printer, unless you want to fight for the one in the Microcomputer Lab on campus. (I got cold feet about that place after I jammed theirs.) Most of you will settle for a cheesy dot‑matrix printer, which is all you’ll be able to afford after blowing your whole savings on MacCool and MacStatus.

But now you’re going to protest: “The Mac is user‑friendly!” Yes, just like a picture book. Nothing seems very complex anymore when the computer draws a smiley face to indicate that you’ve logged on correctly, and makes a little picture of a watch instead of making you decipher the word “Wait” like I have to do. And then there’s that nifty mouse. You can move your cursor anywhere just by leaving the home row to grab the little mouse and drag it across your desk, eventually running off the end (at least if your desk is as small as mine) so that you can simply pick the mouse up, move it, set it down again, and keep dragging. It’s so simple, so uncomplicated. Heck, I had to memorize about five hundred control-characters sequences instead. So what if now I can instantly place my cursor anywhere in the document without interrupting my typing? It’s too hard, it’s not worth it! I’d rather be spoon‑fed, even if it will cost me hours in mousing around in the future.

I’ve got one big beef with the Big Mac. It eats your files. A document you were working on is suddenly destroyed.  You don’t just lose your changes—the entire file is corrupted and thus lost forever.  I know, I know, that’s just the software, the machine really had nothing to do with it. I’ve heard this a million times. But what are you supposed to do, write your own foolproof software? If you can’t get reliable software for your hardware, what good is it? I think those who rush to the Mac’s defense must be the ones who haven’t seen it draw a little bomb on the screen to accompany an error message that is one version or another of “You’re doomed!”  How did this come about? Some software engineer told his boss, “There’s a glitch in our software that eats files. What should I do?” His boss must have said, “Deal with it,” so the guy shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, if we’re gonna destroy people’s documents, we might as well be cute about it. After all, we are user‑friendly!”

My computer is more mature, more direct. Today I was screwing around, trying to make the computer do something it clearly didn’t want to do. (Don’t worry, I was using an unimportant document—a letter to an insurance company.) It kept saying, “Disc Failure in Drive B: Abort, Retry, Ignore?” and I kept saying, “Ignore!” until finally it got sick of me and said, “*** FATAL ERROR F27.” I like that. Cold, impersonal, digital. Just like a computer should be. You want personality? You want warmth? You want something truly expressive? That’s up to the person using the computer.

Uh, wait a second. On second thought, who uses these computers? What do they really have to say? On second thought, maybe we ought to go ahead and use the Mac. Yeah, get some of those graphs in here. Dress it up, make it slick. As Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the massage.” Not “message” (although he said that, too) but “massage.” Think about it.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Strava By Night - The Next Killer App?


Everybody knows about the upcoming launch of Strava By Night, ever since news of this top secret project was leaked to the Daily Peloton.  I had to wonder, though:  why all the secrecy?  On a hunch that Strava has been quietly working with other companies to offer tie-in products, timed to hit the market together, I began making inquiries within the cycling industry.  Surprisingly, my Rolodex served me well, and now—though I missed the big scoop that the Daily Peloton got—I can offer some small scoops on related products in the works.

But first, my questions for Strava

The first company I wanted to talk to was, of course, Strava.  They’ve been famously tight-lipped with the mainstream media about Strava By Night, but we bloggers have our ways.  To my luck, an employee with knowledge of the initiative opened up to me, cagily at first but ultimately with enough enthusiasm that I have started to wonder if media leakage isn’t just part of Strava’s marketing plan.

First, I asked the predictable question, why Strava By Night?  Why open up a special KOM category that requires a segment to be ridden after dark, when conditions are much more perilous?  The employee replied, “Right off the bat, this seemed like a compelling idea just because it’s so easy to implement.  We’re already getting very precise GPS data about these workouts, and it’s trivial to index a user’s longitude and latitude, and the ride date and time, to a static table of civil twilight data.  So the eligibility for the SBN leader board is easy to establish, and we can just as easily publish the SBN eligibility timeframes on the website, with daily updates, for each user’s profile.”

“Beyond that,” he continued, “we obviously needed a reason to do it.  We talk a lot in this company about KOM saturation.  If you live in Cat Butt, Wyoming it’s probably not hard to get some KOMs, for segments of just about any [elevation] profile.  In popular Strava markets like the Bay Area, though, high KOM rankings are very difficult, particularly for older athletes—who are our key demographic, by the way, because of their income.  There are too many pros snapping up all the KOMs and these less seasoned cyclists are starting to get frustrated.  So, downhill segments, rewarding cajones  and drive over pure ability, have served that clientele very well for awhile.  But even those KOMs are becoming harder to get as Strava users improve their bike handling.  Essentially we have a problem of a finite number of KOMs needing to satisfy what we hope is a practically infinite pool of users.  SBN opens up a whole new realm, where boldness is even more highly rewarded.”

But what about safety and liability, I asked.  His response was emphatic:  “Look, the law is very clear on this point.  Strava is not a content provider.  We provide the framework for the competition, but that framework isn’t egging people on:  it’s the end users throwing down the gauntlet by putting up those KOMs.  They are the content providers, not us.  It’s not our job to provide a working prefrontal cortex for these people.”

But wait, I protested:  won’t users  just label most downhill nighttime segments as hazardous?  “Yes, that can happen, and that’s nothing new, but obviously there’s a built-in fix for that:  somebody else will just create a new segment with slightly different beginning and end points, like they already do.  Of course too much of that can frustrate people, but the social stigma of ruining everybody’s fun is generally enough to keep these segments open.  It’s worth pointing out that traditional cyclists, the kind who get their jollies going fast uphill and on flats and only during daytime, will probably be big boosters of SBN even though they themselves won’t use it.  With SBN, these daylight guys won’t have as many Strava downhillers barreling past them all the time.”

Light and Motion

Next I checked in with various makers of bike lights, and hit pay dirt with Light and Motion.  A member of their product development group, Burt McClure, spoke candidly with me about an SBN offering.  “Yeah, we’re doing a new light.  We’ve done a lot of R&D on this and have actually ended up revamping our approach, for this one model.  Instead of a very small bulb designed to balance high lumen output with great battery life, we’ve gone in a kind of gonzo direction with a bulb more like what you’d get in a photocopier.  Burn time is only about five to ten minutes, and the battery is a four-pound beast, but we think most of these Strava By Night segments will be short, and since they’re predominantly downhill, weight won’t matter.  And the brightness?  This puppy puts out 5000 lumens.  You could see the shadow cast by a grain of sand.  It’s a very exciting product for a niche market.” 

Google Glass

Next I made the rounds of all the young dudes in Mission Street lofts and Palo Alto tree houses who create Glassware—third party apps for Google Glass—to see if they were doing anything.  (I’d started with Google but they blew me off completely.)  Mike “Mudguts” Brack, head of a startup called GlassGnar, has been working closely with Strava on a descent-themed app.  “It’s an amazing tie-in.  With our app, Glass syncs up more or less continuously with the Strava or SBN KOM leader board.  When it detects you’re on an established segment it begins tracking your speed and time and comparing them dynamically with leaders’ metrics throughout that segment.  It locates your leader board position and displays it in real time on the Glass (all nicely backlit, of course).  When your KOM position starts to slip, the display number flashes red.  When your placing improves it flashes green.  The app may even give verbal encouragement through a Bluetooth earbud, like quotes from great movies—you know, ‘Metal damage … brain damage … YOU SHOULD SEE THE DAMAGE, BRONZE!’  It will help these athletes identify the weaknesses in their descending so they can step up their game.  And psychologically—man, it’s like nitro in your air/fuel mix.” 

I asked Mudguts if he was worried about danger and liability, and he just snorted.  “But I’m glad you asked,” he said, “because you’ve got to talk to my brother-in-law.  When he heard of my app he started working on something of his own.”


Mudguts’ brother-in-law, Don Bruce, Jr., works for a boutique life insurance company called The S Group.  “We’re working on a new policy,” he explained, “that is like secondary life insurance.  As you know, life insurance companies don’t like to pay out policies for accidental deaths that might not be accidental.  There’s a widespread belief out there, right or wrong, that when a head of household wants to commit suicide, but doesn’t want to leave his family penniless, he gets his pilot’s license and flies a little Cessna into the side of a cliff.  Such deaths get a lot of scrutiny, and Strava By Night may end up slotting right into that profile.  This new policy will only kick in when a traditional life insurance provider refuses to pay.  So if your husband dies doing Strava By Night, you don’t have to worry:  your family will be covered.”  I asked if this policy will actually be called “Strava insurance,” and he said, “I’d like to do that but obviously I can’t.”  Besides, he said, he’s imagining the target market will be slightly broader than just Strava or SBN users.


And what about Garmin?  After all, cycling-specific GPS instruments are what made Strava possible in the first place.  Will they be building an SBN-specific device?  Not exactly.  A member of the product development team at Garmin, who spoke with me on condition of anonymity, described a new product, codenamed the Edge 910 SBN, that will serve what he described as the “nocturnal market.”  Though he was coy about the exact design intent of this model, he allowed that, in addition to a backlight that can be easily turned on and off, the device features a breathalyzer.  “This is simply to help the cyclist ride responsibly,” he said.  “There’s no indication at this time that Strava has intentions of creating any more new KOM categories.”  (He spoke carefully, but I think I saw him wink.)


I truly hope you’ve grasped that this is a work of fiction.  No, there is no Strava By Night, and every single product, person, and concept mentioned in this blog post is purely a product of my imagination.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Teaching Multiplication to Kids


When I was a kid, learning to multiply in our heads was called “learning our times tables.”  Perhaps British kids have to “learn off” their times tables.  At my kid’s school everybody calls them “math facts.”  Whatever you call them, they’re a drag for kids.  I suffered learning them, and my brothers suffered, and my kids have suffered.  I’m just finishing up helping my younger daughter Lindsay master them.

Lately, I’ve stopped to really think about this process, using my adult, educated mind, and have come to a couple of conclusions:  one, the most difficult thing about learning times tables is the intimidation factor; and two, this intimidation factor can be greatly reduced.  In this post I’ll share my brothers’ and my childhood experience with times tables (mainly so you can laugh at us), and some tips—complete with visual aids—for lessening the anxiety of your kid (or your nephew or niece or whomever).

My times tables ordeal

Ages ago, my third grade teacher gave our class a lecture about how multiplication works, or is supposed to work.  I remember nothing about the lecture, other than the fact of it and its having been very brief.  Then we were given a test.  I crashed and burned on the first problem, 3 x 2, because I didn’t know the first thing about multiplication.  (If somebody had said, “‘Three times two’ basically means ‘two three times, or 2+2+2,’” I’d have gotten it.  But either nobody said this, or I wasn’t listening.)  So I simply added the two numbers instead.  Maybe I was hoping for partial credit but probably I had no plan.  (I was actually executing advice on writing which I’d get decades later:  “Write what you know.”  Needless to say this doesn’t apply to math.)

Eventually I figured out this was just a memorization game.  Of course I knew my 2s, and for some reason had had no problem, in kindergarten or first grade, memorizing (probably through some kind of eerie chant), “5 , 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50!”  (Stephen King could do something horrifying with this, I’m sure.)  But when it came time to memorize my 3s, I felt I was in the grip of an invincible foe.  Quiz after quiz after quiz I failed.  (“Fail” meant getting at least one problem wrong, or not finishing the quiz in the short time allotted.)

My elementary school was of the “Child Left Behind” philosophy.  No kid was going to be slowed down just because he’d outpaced his stupid classmates.  As soon as a kid aced his multiply-by-3s quiz, he moved on to his 4s, and so forth, so a slow kid like me could feel the full brunt of being stuck in the 3s while some other kid (maybe even—gasp—a girl!) was on her 7s.  It was essentially a shame-based system.

I well remember the day, weeks into this struggle, when I finally aced my 3s quiz.  My friend John walked over, put his hand out, and said, “Welcome to the 4s!”  I was so dazed I didn’t realize he was talking about math.  I thought he said “Welcome to The Force” (i.e.,  a “Star Wars” reference, this being 1978).  Then I realized I’d joined him in the 4s, where he’d been stuck for a good while.  Recalling how much harder the 3s had been than the 2s, I naturally assumed the 4s would be that much harder than the 3s, and I still had the 6s, 7s, 8s, and 9s to go.  I almost died of despair.

Notably, nobody explained to me that the 4s are easier than the 3s, and that far from having just started, I was actually close to a third of the way done.  (More on this later.)  All I got was the implicit message, “You better pull your head out of the grease bucket, you dunce.”  But I have no recollection of struggling in the 4s, nor of the process of learning the rest of my times tables.  It was like finishing the 3s was the real battle, and the rest was just gravy.  Only recently have I discovered why this was the case.

My brothers’ times tables ordeal

I think I was actually done with my times tables more or less on time, because otherwise I’d have been chewed out by my dad, which I’d certainly remember, just like I remember my dad chewing out my brothers.  Our failure must have been hard for our old man, who was so good at math he memorized all the logarithm tables.  (Remember that giant table, squeezed so small it was practically microfiche, in the back of your math book?  No, probably you don’t, and you may not even remember or have heard of microfiche.  Suffice to say, times tables are a grain of sand compared to the endless beach of log tables.)  My dad memorized these tables so he could multiply giant, multi-digit numbers in his head (according to some arcane trick I may have learned once but forgot almost instantly).  For my dad’s worthless children to fail to memorize their lowly times tables must have been a real blow to him.

My brother Bryan remembers “the [verbal] beat-down from Dad” this way: 
“Dad, can I have a bicycle?”
“Do you know your times tables yet?”
“What’s six times seven?”
“Um... 43?”

I take issue with this recollection, for a couple of reasons.  One, none of us would have dared ask our dad for so much as a mechanical pencil, much less a bike.  Two, it implies that had we answered correctly, we could be rewarded with something cool like a bike, which is false (though our dad did buy us awesome ten-speeds for our ninth birthdays).  But I well remember my dad quizzing my brothers and being visibly disgusted when they answered incorrectly, as they always did.  And I remember him complaining to our mom, “These boys don’t even know their times tables!”

Our dad became so desperate, he finally resorted to something that he almost never did:  he threw money at the problem.  He went out and bought the QuizKid Racers.  These were calculator-like devices made by National Semiconductor.  (As a parent, I feel humbled by this.  I’ve never bought anything for my kids made by National Semiconductor.)  The QuizKids could drill a kid on his arithmetic, but even better, they could be linked together so two kids could race.  Where the educational system and my brothers had failed, sibling rivalry succeeded.  It probably helped that I could go toe-to-toe with my older brothers, a humiliation they were determined to put behind them.  It seems like we all had those times tables down in no time.  (It couldn’t have been long, because the QuizKid Racers actually outlived their usefulness instead of being lost or destroyed.  That’s saying a lot.)

The intimidation factor

How could the QuizKids have so suddenly broken this a logjam?  I think it’s simply because they focused us.  The feedback loop was very tight:  a good beep and a green light rewarded us, and a bad beep and a red light punished us.  We became as lockstep with the QuizKid as a hamster hammering a paddle to get a pellet of food or cocaine.  For once, we were just doing the work instead of gnashing our teeth, rending our garments, and having fits of despair over the futility of the enterprise.

So is the answer simply to bring back the QuizKid?  No; as I’ll discuss later, that method of focusing a kid has its own problems.  I think before you even start quizzing your kid, you should explain a few things that will—right off the bat—reduce some of the anxiety.

To start, you can explain that the 3s are actually the hardest set of times tables to learn.  Why?  Well, for one thing, some of the 3s multiplication problems have some answers that are even, but others are odd.  This isn’t true for the 4s, 6s, or 8s.  For another thing, to learn your 3s you have to memorize six math facts, but the 4s require memorizing only 5 math facts; the 5s you already know; and the 6s only comprise 4 math facts, the 7s only comprise 3 math facts, and so on.

To illustrate this to my younger daughter, I created some tables.  To start, here’s the full table of times tables from one through ten, which suggests that 100 (i.e., 10 x 10) facts must be memorized:

But of course every kid already knows his or her 1s, which wipes out 19 math facts right off the bat:

And the 10s are totally self-evident, as every kid knows you just add a zero to the number.  So that eliminates another 17 math facts.  See, we’re down what looks like 64 facts and we haven’t even started multiplying yet!

The facts keep tumbling down because by third grade every kid alive already knows his 2s; after all, counting by 2s is easy and fun.  Boom, another 15 math facts are gone.

And remember the 5s, with Stephen King and the spooky chanting?  We can knock off another 13 math facts.  That’s right, 13 fewer things to memorize, leaving us with a total of what looks like just 36 total math facts, and we still haven’t done our first multiplication problem.

Above, we can count the non-shaded values in the 3s column, which is how you show your kid there are really only six math facts to memorize before the 3s are done.  Sure, learning the 3s is still hard, but six facts doesn’t seem like an insurmountable task.  When the 3s are (finally!) done, the remaining table looks like this:

Point out to your kid how cool it is that mastering the 3s knocked out not just a column, but a row of the table as well.  So you’ve got only five math facts to go before the 4s are complete.  And then, after the 4s, you’re down to what looks like just 16 math facts left.  It’s like magic!  Look at what remains after the 4s are done:

Your kid already knew the 5s, and to master the 6s requires just four more math facts.  Now, what’s that business with the color-coded cells?  Well, it shows the phenomenon that makes each series of math facts less cumbersome than the one before it:  most math facts are repeated.  Look at the result of 6 x 7, the 42 shown in yellow.  It’s the same as 7 x 6, also a yellow 42 in the next column.  So when you learn 6 x 7, you’ve automatically learned 7 x 6, which is why learning the 7s is only three new math facts.  And when you learned 6 x 8, in orange, you knocked off 8 x 6 as well, which is why learning the 8s is only two new math facts, and when you memorized 6 x 9, that pale green 54 did double duty as 9 x 6 later.

Above you can easily see how the 7s is just 3 new math facts, two of which (the blue 56 and the pink 63) kill off future memorization tasks.  Learning your 9s means memorizing exactly one new math fact:  9 x 9.  All the other 9s were picked up along the way.

You know what’s really encouraging for your kid?  Step him or her through the actual number of total math facts that must be learned.  At first it looks like 100:  you know, 10 x 10.  After helping Lindsay grasp that the 1s, 10s, 2s, and 5s are “free” (i.e., she already knew them), I asked her how many math facts that left.  She did some crunching and came up with 8 x 6:  that is, eight facts each for the 3s, 4s, 6s, 7s, 8s, and 9s.  Seems like a good guess (since she didn’t know to account for the replication of facts).  And if you thought you had 100 facts to learn, getting it down to 48 seems pretty cool.  But the actual number is far less, as Lindsay was delighted to learn.  That actual total number of discrete math facts?  Only 21.  Seems impossible, doesn’t it?

Here’s how it works.  Learning the 3s is six math facts, as I’ve discussed.  The 4s is only five facts, the 5s every kid already knows, the 6s is only four facts, the 7s is three, the 8s two, and the 9s only one.  The actual number of discrete math facts to memorize is therefore 6+5+4+3+2+1 = 21.  A far cry from 100, or from the 48 my daughter thought she had to learn.

This is even more exciting when you show the momentum that seems to build up.  After you’ve managed to memorize the six math facts you need for the 3s, you have just fifteen math facts left, total.  Once you’ve mastered the 4s (which aren’t so bad because the answers are always even, and there are only five facts to memorize), you have just ten math facts left!  With all this in mind, it’s no long any wonder I don’t remember learning my 4s through 10s.  It went fast, with each series shorter than the last.

In short, the seemingly vast array of math facts appears much less intimidating when your kid grasps that there are only 21 facts total, and that the process of memorizing each set gets easier as you go along.  Without all that anxiety, the actual learning can be more easily carried out.

How to drill your kid

Okay, so the anxiety has been mitigated and the kid is ready to learn.  Now is it time to look for some QuizKids on eBay?  I’ll argue not.  In the case of my family, I’m not sure the QuizKid technique was purely for the good.  For one thing, sibling rivalry—though a powerful motivator—can be toxic to families when used recklessly.  Giving my older brothers a run for their money, via the QuizKids, might have ended up bringing much trouble down on me later.  (Something sure did.)  For many years, the rivalry among my brothers and me was so intense it was like we were all on different teams.  It was almost unheard of for one brother to support the other in anything.  Was the modest achievement of finally learning our times tables worth this much rivalry?  Perhaps not.

Meanwhile, once my brother Bryan had achieved dominance on the QuizKid, he challenged his friend, whom we’ll call John, to a competition.  John was better looking than any of us, a better athlete, more popular, and more confident, and above all he was a rich kid.  He couldn’t resist the impressive technology of the QuizKid, and probably overestimated his chances in the competition, so he accepted the challenge.  And Bryan straight-out whupped him!  It was a glorious moment for Bryan, the achievement of “the holy grail of intelligence!” as he put it.  Naturally, this gave John some serious sour grapes; Bryan recalls, “Of course after his whupping, [John] declared that times tables were stupid.”  Being beaten by somebody as historically unimpressive as my brother surely took a toll, and years later I heard John was arrested for driving around in his muscle car with a dirtbag friend shooting horses with a BB gun.  Was this a result of QuizKid-induced trauma?  Hard to say, but I’m not going to take any chances with competition-based learning methods.

So with Lindsay I tried good old fashioned flash cards, but as it turns out these have a serious Achilles’ heel:   they’re too easy to lose, especially in the hands of a child.  By the second time I used them, a third of the cards were missing.  Where do they go?  It’s like with socks in the laundry … I have no idea!  But each card lost is like two math facts your child might never learn.  (Well, with duplicates, maybe not that many … but you get the idea.)

So I tried this PC game where there’s a stick of dynamite and you have to enter the math answer before the fuse runs out.  Get the answer right, and some wacky cartoon face pops up saying “Right on!” or “Amazing!”  But this game proved very stressful for Lindsay, what with the hissing of the fuse and occasional explosions, and it had the additional irritation of not working right after the first few games.  It stopped accepting mouse input so I had to type in the answers, which spoiled the dream of outsourcing the process to my kid so I could go do something else.  (I think I was supposed to fork out some money to maintain the full functionality, but I refuse to give money to terrorists.)  What’s worse, the website cartoon art was really lame and I got good and sick of looking at it.  If the images had some style (along the lines of an Edward Gorey or Roz Chast drawing) maybe I wouldn’t have gotten so sick of them.  Besides, my kid will be sitting in front of screens all her adult life … why rush her into it?

So I ended up creating simple one-page quizzes, double-sided with complete facts (e.g., 3 x 7 = 21) on one side and problems only (e.g., 3 x 7 = ?) on the other.  They’re just to  look at, flash card style, since writing answers wastes time.  Lindsay can study the facts for awhile, then drill herself, and then have me drill her verbally. 

What’s really notable is that when I drill her verbally, she invariably walks around in a circle while answering.  During one session she rolled around on an exercise ball.  The physical activity seems to help her think.  Educators are studying the link between motion and learning; one classroom at my kids’ elementary school swapped out half their chairs for exercise balls to study this.  I’m reminded of something I read about Bill Gates years ago:  “While he is working, he rocks … his upper body rocks down to an almost forty-five-degree angle, rocks back up, rocks down again….  He rocks at different levels of intensity according to his mood.  Sometimes people who are in the meetings begin to rock with him.”  Just in case this kind of motion helps my daughter learn her math, I’ll stick to the oral drills instead of sitting her in front of a computer or asking her to manipulate a QuizKid-type app on the smartphone or tablet she doesn’t own.


I’d be happy to e-mail my quiz sheets to anybody who wants them.  They’re nothing fancy but I could save you the time of creating your own.  Just e-mail me.  Exercise ball not included.

A final note:  if you’d like to read about how I tutored a fifth-grader on his math, click here.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Plumbing Emergencies for Dummies

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for pervasive crude humor and mild strong language.


This post is about how to handle a simple plumbing emergency if you’re a dummy.  Actually, you could be a really smart person who just doesn’t know anything about plumbing and this might still be helpful.  Or, you could be really smart and knowledgeable about plumbing and might just enjoy surveying the hapless coping techniques that a dummy has stumbled upon.  Or, you could just be anybody with a taste for schadenfreude who would enjoy a story containing the phrase “geyser of raw sewage.”

 Rule #1:  Figure out where the unwanted water is coming from

Shortly after buying our first home, my wife and I went on vacation.  We were touring Bay Area B&Bs, and on the way from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco decided to stop at the house.  (I know, it’s not really on the way, but we were giddy new homeowners.)  I was in the garage, perhaps for no other reason than to bask in its existence, when a crazy thing happened.  There is a open-ended pipe near the far wall, where the washing machine would have been had we gotten around to buying it, and the purpose of this pipe is to carry wastewater away from a washing machine.  For no apparent reason, raw sewage suddenly began gushing out of this pipe.

(Why is it always “raw” sewage?  Isn’t sewage always raw?  Who ever heard of boiling sewage?  “Don't worry, this sewage is potable.  It’s been boiled.”  I don’t know the answer to this question.  You’d have to ask somebody more knowledgeable about plumbing.)

So, back to the garage plumbing crisis.  My first impulse was to yell “NO!” and reach toward it, but of course all of this happened in super-slow-motion so my “NO” was several octaves lower than my real voice and really slow, to match my movements, so it was more of a “NOOOOOOOOOOOO......”

Now, that water could have been coming from anywhere, but the sewage factor led me to a lucky guess that the toilet was involved.  Fortunately (in this case and this case only) we have only one bathroom, so I ran up there.  Sure enough, there was a terrible hissing noise coming from that room.  I can’t remember if it was from the toilet itself or the related plumbing—it could have been coming from my wife or even myself, I mean this was a long time ago—but the toilet-related plumbing was the culprit.  At least I was in the right room.

Rule #2:  Don’t panic

I know, “don’t panic” is easy enough to say, but something about a plumbing emergency makes it really tempting to panic.  If you were to tell somebody, “The entire house was flooded and I—I panicked!” they probably wouldn’t hold it against you.  But still, you shouldn’t panic.  Take something as simple as a toilet on its way to overflowing the rim.  If this isn’t happening in a motel room where a previous guy’s digestive output could be in play, you’re a coward if you don’t keep your wits about you and take immediate action.  One action of course would be to grab a plunger if it’s handy, but the better action is to quickly remove the toilet tank lid and lift the floating thingy in there.  (I could call it a “floater,” but in the toilet context that term has already been taken.)  Sometimes this floating thingy is a big ball, sometimes it’s a hollow cylinder, but the point is, as the water level rises in the toilet tank, the thingy floats upward until it maxes out and shuts off the flow.  So if you grab that bad boy and lift it, the toilet will instantly stop overflowing.  Then you can yell your head off for somebody to run in with a plunger, towels, etc. before anything has hit the floor.

In the case of the garage sewage spew, I looked for the line that feeds water into the toilet.  These lines have little handles on them and if you crank down the handle (clockwise) it’ll shut off the water supply.  This is what I did to stop the gushing sewage in the garage (but not before several of my bicycles were covered in putrid water with flecks of half-dissolved toilet paper and lots of other gross stuff).

Rule #3:  Get help

Getting help isn’t the first step.  It’s something that should be done concurrently with getting the water flow to stop.  Unless your next door neighbor is a plumber who telecommutes, you want to first do what you yourself can do, as soon and as fast as you can.  When the immediate crisis is averted (i.e., no more water going where it doesn’t belong) that’s when you bring in the plumber and whoever else is needed to put your life back together.

My brother Max lives in Boulder, Colorado and during their recent nightmarish flood was in the process of baling water out of his flooded basement when the next-door neighbor came running over.  This guy presumably did a great job with Rule #1 (he astutely observed that the water was coming from FRICKING EVERYWHERE), but he completely fell down on #2.  He came running into Max’s house yelling his head off.  “Oh my god, you gotta help me!” he cried.  I mean, think about this.  The entire city is flooded, roads have been demolished, creeks overflowing, cars washed away, thousands of souls are in great danger and turmoil, and “you gotta help me”?  He went on, “I got thirty gallons a second comin’ into my house!”  I can’t help but wonder, did he just make up this statistic somehow, to use as a rallying cry, or did he actually make some crude measurement of water volume and do the math?  Is that the first order of business, calculating the flow rate?  So having announced his crisis to my nonplussed brother, he whipped out his cell phone and started calling plumbers.  As if every plumber in the state isn’t already addressing a crisis, perhaps his own.  As if the National Guard hasn’t already been deployed.  This neighbor is yelling into the phone, “I’m payin’ cash!

In this particular case, however, the guy happened to stumble on the right neighbor.  Max is a great big manly man, could easily kick my ass (in fact, he has, multiple times) and he knows his way around homes and plumbing and crises.  In fact, he has an honest-to-god construction worker’s hardhat, and not only that, he’s got this big badass spelunker’s light mounted to it.  All this and he’s a helpful enough guy, or at least morbidly curious enough, that he headed right over to the guy’s house, temporarily abandoning his own crisis.  As Max gleefully related to me afterward, this guy’s toilet was doing the weirdest thing.  Every few seconds it would projectile-vomit a massive gush of raw sewage.  Like, ten gallons at a shot, with this menacing regularity.  So Max ran out to the yard and found the clean-out. 

Now, I’m not entirely sure what a clean-out even is, beyond it being related to the sewage system.  I know that “clean-out” is a term that manly men throw around when they’re describing their weekend projects.  (Sure, I could look it up in Wikipedia, but that’s cheating.  You’re supposed to learn about these things first-hand, in the field.)  Max found this clean-out because it had a big metal lid or cap on it.  Maybe they always do.  Anyway, he used some giant tool that he happened to be carrying, a big old monkey wrench or crowbar or something, and pried that lid off.  He said there was instantly this unbelievably massive—wait for it—geyser of raw sewage, going way high up there into the air, almost like Old Faithful.  And it was endless, like it was feeding right off the entire sewer system of the city, an endless foul fountain.  Max booked it back into the neighbor’s house, confirmed that nothing was coming out of the toilet anymore, and then hustled on home to work some more on his basement.  So, this neighbor?  Yeah, he got real lucky! 

(This phrase “real lucky” is one my brothers and I throw around a lot.  It hearkens to something my dad once said to me, when I was parking my car and got too close to a broken concrete curb outcropping, and it stripped the trim right off the side of my ’84 Volvo.  This freak accident made a terrible noise, like the car was shrieking, and when my dad got out he was shocked—almost disappointed, it seemed—that my comeuppance involved so little damage.  I zipped the trim right back on to the car, and my dad said, “You are real lucky you didn’t do more damage.”  For him to use the adjective “real,” where the adverb “really” is called for, is tantamount to the harshest profanity, given his normally gentle, professorial syntax.)

 Rule #5:  get that water shut down!

I guess this rule is kind of implicit in what I’ve already said, but this is a guide for dummies.  So, assuming you’re not involved in a catastrophic flash flood, or even if you are, see if you can’t get that flow shut off.  Sometimes this can be tricky even when your plumbing disaster is localized.  For example, the other day I was in the kitchen when I heard this hissing noise coming from upstairs.  I ran up there and the floor was completely flooded.  There was a strong blast of water coming from below the bathroom sink.  Remember what I said earlier, about finding the line that carries the water, and looking for the little handle that turns it off?  Well, the little handle was lying on the floor.  Dead.  The cylinder that it attaches to, that ends in a rubber plug that closes off the water, was made of plastic, and had spontaneously failed.  It broke in half, so the handle part went shooting off and there was nothing to stop the water from spraying out like a high pressure hose.

Here’s where I made my first mistake.  I paused, staring at the cheap piece of treasonous plastic, and I took a moment to marvel at the pure, unalloyed venality that caused somebody to decide to make this thing out of plastic.  I mean, what if I’d been on vacation when this thing broke?  That could be thousands and thousands of dollars in damage to my home.  How much did that company save skimping on materials?  Maybe a cent?  So I took a moment to curse whoever chose plastic as the material.  My curse was this:  May you be waterboarded to death in a campground outhouse.  (I know, that’s pretty harsh, but I was in the middle of a crisis and trying not to panic.  I’ve since rescinded my curse, though perhaps too late, who knows.)

Okay, wasting time pausing to curse persons unknown wasn’t actually my first mistake.  My first mistake was not knowing in advance how to shut down the water supply to my entire house.  Everybody should know how to do this.  In modern homes there’s usually a very large pipe in the garage with a big handle on it, so it’s really easy.  (In the state of Washington, my brother Bryan tells me, there’s a giant knob in every garage, and it’s painted red and white so it’s especially easy to find.)  In my home, built in 1929, there is no obvious way to shut off the water.  I’ve long assumed it has something to do with the pipe under a plastic lid in my yard where the water meter is.  There are weird, crude steel thingies down in there, at ninety degrees to each other, and I reckon if you could line them up, the water would stop. 

So, my bathroom still actively flooding, I raced down there to the yard, pried that lid off, and tried to budge the machinery down in there.  I did this using a weird quasi-wrench, long and totally rusted and of the cheapest imaginable quality, that my wife had suddenly handed me.  She had found it near the guts of our drip irrigation system and figured it must be the thing.  Well, I did manage to get a purchase on the weird clunky metal doohickeys down in the ground near the water meter, but I couldn’t budge them.  The crude tool was flexing so much I thought it’d break in half.  The next obvious step was to panic.

But, I didn’t panic, since I always keep Rule #2 in mind.  I asked myself, “What would Captain Kirk do?”  So I thought hard for about two seconds and then it hit me:  “Spock ... the water coming out of that sink line ... it’s hot!”  Meaning:  it came from the hot water heater!  I raced into the garage, found the pipes coming off the hot water heater, and cranked them closed.  I ran to the bathroom:  no more gushing.  Whew!  (I know what you’re thinking:  what if it had been the other cheap plastic valve that had broken, the cold water side?  I know.  You could say that I’m real lucky.)

Rule #6:  After the crisis, see what you can fix yourself

I went back downstairs.  My wife was on the phone, trying to get help.  “Who are you talking to?” I asked.  (You can tell I was still a bit frazzled because I said “who” where “whom” is called for.)  She said she was on hold.  “Hang up,” I said.  (It’s possible I said “Hang up on that fool!” but this is probably the embroidery of memory.  I know I didn’t say “Hang up ... I got this,” because that would have been pure hubris.)  I showed her what broke and announced my intention to head over to the hardware store.  She immediately shot down this idea and starting researching plumbing supply outfits online.

I initially bristled at this—I mean, browsing in a hardware store is one of life’s great joys, especially (perhaps) for men.  When my dad used to go to McGuckin’s, the totally kickass hardware store in Boulder, he’d always ask if we kids wanted to go along.  We always did.  That place was amazing.  Absolutely giant, and there was nothing they didn’t have.  It was like a hardware cathedral.  A friend of my brothers ended up working there, and let us in on a little trade secret.  Whenever a particularly gorgeous woman was spotted by an employee, he’d immediately get on the PA system and announce her location using the code name “Larry.”  For example, if she were in the Bolts section, he’d get on and say, “Larry to Bolts, Larry to Bolts.”  All the male employees would immediately head over to the Bolts section to check her out.  This went on for ages until some manager suddenly realized, “Hey, we don’t have any employees here named Larry!”  He put an end to the practice, though I’m sure they developed a work-around.

Anyway, I looked over my wife’s shoulder and saw on her screen photos of the entire valve assembly, which I’ve come to learn is called an “angle supply stop.”  They were priced at like $40 or $50, which seemed pretty high when all I really needed was the little internal cylinder doohickey.  She got on the phone to some local place and explained the issue in such a way that I was completely lost, even though I knew exactly what she was trying to say.  (Not that I’m complaining, having recently used the term “doohickey” myself.)  Eventually she handed the phone to me and I explained it in my own words.  The guy said the thing I needed was called a “nipple” and could be had in various non-plastic materials.  I don’t know how my wife chose the place she did, but when I looked at it with Google Maps Street View I realized this wasn’t exactly a boutique.

I went down there and showed them the broken piece, mentioned that the guy on the phone said it was a nipple, of which he had many, and they looked at me like I was crazy.  I showed them the handle that attached to it, and then pulled up a photo of the whole assembly that I’d taken on my smartphone.  They said I’d have to replace the entire assembly.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the fact of my flashy smartphone had led to this diagnosis.  You know, kind of a luxury tax.  If I’d flashed a gold iPhone 5S, maybe they’d have said I needed a whole new sink!

So this guy got a new angle supply stop, and I could see right off that its internal cylinder was made of plastic.  I complained about this.  “That’s the only way they make them,” the guy said.  I was about to reply that I’d rather go without a bathroom sink than to pay good money for another plumbing time bomb when another guy said, “I think that’s the wrong size.”  He stared at my photo.  I realized I should have put a ruler in the frame before snapping the photo.  This second guy went and found the right size angle supply stop, which was fancier and had no plastic in it.  It’s chrome-plated brass, and lead-free (though the box says “lead-free*,” and the asterisk might mean “sort of”).

The good news is, the angle supply stops were only $7 (apparently these things are much cheaper at the Blair Witch Plumbing Emporium than online) and a cinch to install.  (Well, the hot water side was a cinch.  I bought two of them, needless to say, so I can preemptively replace the other side, just as soon as I can figure out how to shut off the water supply to the entire house.  Still working on that.)

Rule #7:  Figure out how to shut off your water BEFORE you have a plumbing emergency

See above.  Maybe this should actually be Rule #1....