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 Monster.com 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 Health.com 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 khanacademy.org. 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 having 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 Health.com 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.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Cycling Spotlight - Stealth Training


The term “stealth training” has been thrown around by bike racers for decades but perhaps hasn’t ever been formally defined. At the risk of diluting the intrigue by getting overly analytical, well … here I go.

The essence of stealth training

Stealth training, most would agree, is extra riding to get a leg up. Often, it’s done by a member of a team who thinks an extra workout here and there, done solo, might help him or her improve more quickly than his or her teammates. (A fellow blogger offers this description, which suggests that riding in the dark and/or cold is an essential part of stealth training. I don’t agree that it is.)

Of course everybody trains solo at least some of the time; where stealth training comes in is when you could be riding with your pals but aren’t. I was accused of this when I rode for UC Berkeley in 1991; every week I’d see a group of teammates cruising down Pinehurst while I was on the way up. When questioned, I explained I had to ride earlier due to my class schedule. This met with a skeptical “mm-hmm,” as though skipping class was no big deal; i.e., the real explanation must have been the idea of getting higher quality training on my own. (I didn’t, and had no illusions to that effect.)

Sometimes stealth training is simply a matter of tact. When I was at UC Santa Barbara I’d skip riding with teammates once a week when I had to do intervals, as I couldn’t bear to be around anybody when I did them. At first I tried to be up front about it, but others insisted we could all do intervals together and still get the job done. That lasted exactly one ride and then I went back to stealth training (i.e., “Sorry, I can’t ride Tuesday afternoons anymore … I have to work.”)

Sometimes stealth training targets friends instead of teammates. In high school, I started riding every day with my new friend Pete (whom I’d met at a bike race). We were fairly well matched (though he was faster). The problem was, Pete had formerly ridden every day with another friend, and when he three of us rode together, this friend just couldn’t keep up. Pete could have made some excuse for breaking off their arrangement, like something to do with his schedule, and then Pete and I could have started our own ride that met somewhere else, but Pete didn’t want to lie—at least, he didn’t want to tell that particular lie. Instead, he told his friend, “You can’t ride with us anymore because Dana doesn’t like you.” This wasn’t entirely false, but it wasn’t the whole truth, and sure wasn’t very nice. (In case you feel bad for the third guy, don’t worry: a few years later he came past me in the collegiate national championship road race, whacked me upside the helmet, told me to get a haircut, attacked, and soloed to victory. I kid you not.)

The funniest accusation of stealth training I’ve had was from the leader of the UC Berkeley team. This came the day after a road race in which I’d beaten him. I hadn’t intended to beat him. We had a guy up the road in a two-man breakaway, so we weren’t chasing. Toward the end of the race I figured our star could win the field sprint for third, and I offered him a lead-out. He was still sulking about having missed the break; he was one of these guys who thinks that getting third when your teammate wins is still losing. He turned down my offer, so I got a sweet lead-out from another teammate and won the field sprint myself.

When I encountered this team leader at the next day’s criterium he said, “So, did you go out for a little stealth training ride yesterday evening?” I was taken aback. What kind of idiot did he take me for—I mean, who thinks it’s a good idea to get in extra training between two days of racing? Moreover, he seemed irked by the idea, as if after beating him in one race I decided to totally overturn our team hierarchy via secret solo rides. It was bizarre.

“No, I didn’t do any ‘stealth training’ yesterday,” I assured him. He glowered at me. “Dana, I saw you,” he said acidly. Turns out he’d seen me riding home from my girlfriend’s apartment (still in my team kit, as I’d gone there straight from the race). It was just a misunderstanding, easily cleared up when my girlfriend vouched for me.  (Yes, this guy actually fact-checked me. That’s how convinced he was of my treachery.)

Fortunately, accusations of stealth training are usually given (and taken) more lightly. Here’s an exchange from an old bike team email thread: 
Ceely:  Anybody got tomorrow (Memorial Day) off? Wanna ride?
Lucas [early the next morning]: No riding for me today, enjoy.
Kromer: Look for Lucas doing stealth training today. Probably a double Morgan [Territory].
Lucas: Today that’s Dana and Craig, I heard they were meeting at Wildcat and San Pablo Dam Road at 5:30 this morning.
Can stealth training involve more than one rider? Sure, if a few are going rogue together. Did this 5:30 ride count as stealth training? Yeah, I suppose it did. Craig and I were training for the Everest Challenge, which means riding Mount Diablo twice, so in the interests of not taking the whole day (which would piss off our wives), we needed to make our ride “surgical”—i.e., minimal time spent waiting around for stragglers, latecomers, or people who think it’s perfectly reasonable to stop in Danville for coffee. By scheduling the ride at 5:30 and notifying teammates only by word of mouth, we kept the group small (i.e., limited to a select crew of complete nutters).

My favorite stealth training technique, back when I rode more with the team, was to do tons of hard winter riding on the indoor trainer so that, during the early season, I could miss several team rides in a row, then show up saying how out of shape I was, and hope to surprise everyone in the famous Walking Man sprint. (This almost never worked, by the way.)

Modern stealth training

The email exchange quoted above was from before everybody was on Strava. I’m not actually a Strava user myself, so I’m no authority on how it fits in with stealth training, but this article suggests that some riders will withhold posting some of their workouts as a stealth training technique. I polled my road team on this topic, and right away a teammate replied, “It for sure goes on!” He even named a local team that’s apparently fairly notorious for this. Another teammate replied, “I don’t post any ride where I maintain more than 500 watts for over 60 minutes. So I throw away a lot of rides.” I think he’s kidding. (Or is he?)

Of course, a lot of the value of Strava is that you can see how fast a rider has been going, and thus how hard he’s been training, even when you’re not able to witness it firsthand. This could help you spy on your rivals, but also makes you vulnerable to being spied on yourself. I coach a high school mountain bike team, and during a recent ride, I brought up the topic of Strava and stealth training to a fellow coach. As we watched Lincoln, our fastest rider, leave us in the dust, the fellow coach said, “To really throw people off, Lincoln and I should just trade Garmins at the beginning of the ride!”

Coaching and stealth training

As a coach, I encourage extra training because I hold practice only three times a week, and the more advanced riders ought to be doing more. Not all riders are comfortable hitting the trails solo, so a couple of times I’ve loaned a trainer to a rider who is coming back from illness or injury, to help him or her return to fitness faster.

Several times I’ve had an ambitious rider email me asking if he or she can meet up with the team but then break off and do a totally different ride (perhaps even a road ride) with another teammate. I ignore these emails, and explain later, “Look, if you two want to cut practice, and go do some ride I don’t know about, that’s fine. But the moment you show up for the team ride, I’m responsible for you, so no, you can’t go off in other direction where I can’t provide supervision or assistance.” It’s surprising how hard it’s been for me to get this idea across. What part of “stealth” do these riders not understand?

At least half of my team’s riders do extra workouts on a regular basis, which begs the question, why not just add another practice? The convenient answer is that it would be hard to line up enough coaches. Beyond that, it might make it harder to recruit new riders, who might not want that much training, thank you very much.

But there’s a bigger reason not to add another practice: I love the initiative that stealth training requires. Recently, on a non-team-practice day, I headed out for a solo ride of my own. Fifteen minutes in, I encountered one of my riders at the Summit Reservoir in Berkeley, a common cyclist gathering point, waiting to meet some others. I’m not sure how she arranged this, because she wasn’t sure who these other riders even were. “Are you the riders I’m supposed to be meeting up with?” she was asking. Another five minutes into my ride, descending Central Park Drive, I encountered another of my riders, hammering up the climb towards me in a small group from a rival team. Ten minutes later I came upon a fellow coach, riding solo. He is a relative newcomer to cycling, having picked it up when his daughter joined the team, and was no doubt shoring up his fitness to better keep up with the youngsters. How cool is that … four stealth training missions, all in one evening!

My enthusiasm here doesn’t just come from the obvious fitness benefit. My main goal as a coach isn’t to get top race results from any individual rider, or even from the team as a whole. My main goal is to turn these kids into lifelong cyclists. I love seeing my riders out there stealth training, partaking of the sport without being led along by coaches and teammates.

I’m especially stoked when I encounter a former member of the high school team, who has now graduated and gone off to college, putting in some miles while home for winter or spring break, just for the pleasure of it. When I see that, I know the program has done its job. It is my earnest hope that most of our current riders will bring their bikes with them to college and keep at it, even if they don’t have a team to ride with. Today’s stealth ride becomes tomorrow’s … ride.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

More Plumbing for Dummies


This post recounts my third foray into amateur plumbing. Are we talking “heart of darkness” territory? No, more like brain of darkness. But don’t expect a thriller involving a geyser of raw sewage like last time; my 15-year-old daughter seemed bored by today’s tale. But if you think you’re more patient than she is (hint: if you’ve made it this far, you probably are), read on.

The rules

Amateur plumbing is not for the fainthearted. Fortunately I am the beneficiary of my father’s wisdom here, as he taught me some rules I should always keep in mind before diving in. Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. Of course that’s not true. That’s a nice Norman Rockwell sentiment: good ol’ pop teaching his kid the ropes. The truth is, my dad never had time to sit me down and explain anything.

This isn’t to say he was ignorant about plumbing; he could be quite clever. For example, he built a contraption that would detect when his hot water heater had failed, and would automatically drain it somehow without flooding his house. (This makes almost as much sense as periodically replacing your hot water heater.) But that was many years before I was born so I didn’t get to work alongside him, handing up wrenches and drinking in his tutelage. By the time I came along, my dad’s strategy had shifted to dodging plumbing issues for as long as possible. Eventually, his home’s master bathroom actually lacked a toilet. To be precise, he had bought a new toilet, but for years and years never got around to installing it, and the unfinished project ultimately outlived him.

I do have a set of rules around such undertakings, which come from my own observation and some lessons imparted by a bike shop boss decades ago. They aren’t specific to plumbing, but cover any kind of tricky repair. Here they are:
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Professionals (such as plumbers) charge a lot for a reason.
  • Don’t start a project when you’re tired and stressed out.
  • Leave yourself plenty of time so you don’t end up with a half-finished project.
  • Make sure you’re always working with plenty of light.
  • Don’t start a tricky job on an empty stomach.
  • Make sure you have resources lined up in case you get stuck.
I’m sure this list isn’t complete … feel free to add your own guidelines in the comments section below.

My plumbing predicament

From the standpoint of running water, my home is a minefield. The water pressure from the municipal utility district is plenty high—in fact, it’s too high, so my drip irrigation system is prone to sudden hose failures—but virtually all the pipes within the house are original, from 1929. They’re galvanized steel rather than copper, and they’re rusting inside. This means that little bits are forever flaking off and getting carried along with the water until they reach a faucet or shower head, which traps them. This causes clogs that severely hamper the flow. To solve the problem—i.e., replace all the rotting pipes—would be a major undertaking requiring many thousands of dollars. So I put up with it.

As a result, I’m on my third bathroom sink. I’ve tried to take apart the faucets and get rid of the crap clogging them up, but to no avail. Two different plumbers have insisted that there’s nothing to be done. “There’s a cartridge in there, and once it’s clogged, the whole fixture is shot,” they claim. Excuse me, but doesn’t “cartridge” imply something that can be easily replaced? Apparently not. So recently, my fairly new kitchen faucet, which I happen to really like, started to bog down. The flow has been weakening, gradually but steadily, for months. This has driven me crazy. I cannot continue to hemorrhage money on new faucets, but neither can I bear to plunk down many thousands of dollars to replace plumbing that more or less works. Meanwhile, I refuse to get another plumber in here to tell me there’s nothing to be done but replace a bunch more hardware and pay him a bunch more money.

So, with all the aforementioned rules in mind, I finally tackled the problem myself the other night. Here’s how that went, organized by my amateur plumbing rules.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew

To recap, professional plumbers have told me you can’t fix a clogged faucet. On that basis alone, my home repair attempt was arguably foolish from the get-go. The kitchen faucet is more complicated than the bathroom ones that the plumbers threw up their hands over. It’s got the hose you can pull out, and the button that switches between fill and spray. Moreover, the lines feeding it (which are built into it and non-removable) are remarkably inflexible and scrawny. There’s all kinds of room for problems here. I was well aware of all this when contemplating my repair and deciding whether to move forward.

Don’t start a project when you’re tired or stressed out

I’m tired and stressed out most of the time these days. I have two teenage daughters, a difficult job, and too many responsibilities. Moreover, when contemplating this repair I had just finished doing my taxes (which was particularly stressful due to the major changes in the tax code and their fiscally painful repercussions). What pretty much put me over the edge was that the flow from this faucet had gotten so low it was no longer possible to wash my hands. It was like the urine output from an old man with a significantly enlarged prostate. So I was beyond tired and stress out—I was livid.

Leave yourself plenty of time

It was late evening. I was supposed to be cooking dinner for my kids, as my wife was at her night class. I was also supposed to be packing for a multi-day family road trip. We’d be leaving early in the morning the next day. In no way would I have enough time to recover from difficulties associated with this repair. I almost cannot imagine a worse time to begin.

Make sure you have plenty of light

It’s actually almost impossible for me to have good light anymore, because as I age, my vision is failing. I’m so nearsighted, an object just a few feet away is too hard to see clearly without glasses, but with my glasses anything less than two feet away is blurry. I really need bifocals, but I’m just not psychologically ready to handle that, nor am I ready to start sliding my glasses down my nose and peering over them.

I do have a great work lamp I could plug in, but I get nervous using it around water sources, for two reasons: first, the electrical outlet under my sink doesn’t have GFI, and second, the lamp might heat up my work area to where I’d start sweating too much to grip my tools. At least, these are the reasons I came up with. The reality is, I was just too impatient and lazy to set up the light.

Don’t work on an empty stomach

I hadn’t had dinner, remember? I was too impatient to have a snack before getting started, so I was good and hangry. My blood sugar was surely very low, but of course my brain doesn’t work very well in this state so I was ignoring the inner voice that warned me I was being foolish.

Have appropriate resources lined up

I had no resources lined up. The hardware store would be closing soon, and I couldn’t reach my brother Bryan, the guy I usually turn to for advice. (Click here for the transcript of my last plumbing-related chat with him.) Perhaps the most important resource would have been my wife, as she would have certainly talked me out of this ill-conceived effort from the get-go. Ironically, this was one of the main reasons I did decide to go ahead with the repair: because I knew if I waited, she’d be around to talk sense into me. And I didn’t want to be sensible. I was incensed.

So how did all this pan out?

Well, first I disconnected the faucet from the main water supply to see how the flow was without it. Wow, it was great! So great it caused a minor flood in the cabinet under the sink! That was a hassle, but I was relieved I didn’t have a bigger problem. (The rusting pipes explanation was just a theory, after all.) So then I disconnected the part of the hose that goes through the faucet from the two narrow, stiff, plastic lines feeding it. I took the faucet/hose assembly out into the garage to see if forcing compressed air through it, via my soda bottle air compressor, would help.

My younger daughter helped with this part, manning the bike pump. This gave me both my hands free to try to hold the surgical tubing against the rest of the whole mess. A lot of air leaked out, but still a fair bit of water shot out everywhere, and though I was entirely dubious that any of this would make any difference, at least it felt good to be doing something. An added bonus was that the two-liter soda bottle didn’t explode, so neither my daughter nor I came away horribly disfigured or deafened. Later, with the benefit of hindsight, I would realize how crazy this entire approach had been, but of course I wasn’t thinking straight at this point in the process.

I hooked everything back up again and if anything, the flow was even worse. I was beginning to despair, because believe me, the fact of my ignoring all six of my amateur plumbing rules was not lost on me. Moreover, I was acutely aware that I really had no idea what the hell I was doing.

So I turned my attention to the head of the faucet. There was a little plastic cylinder between the hose and the head that was intriguing. It had no little flats to accept a wrench; no little arrows indicating how to twist anything; no little screws to unscrew. But there was a tiny plastic button (visible when I took off my glasses) that seemed to do nothing, but obviously existed for a reason. I pushed it in and twisted every which way at the cylinder it was embedded in, and eventually something broke free (at first I thought, horrified, that it had actually broken, based on the sound it made). Now, I was able to take the innards of the faucet head apart.

There was a ton of crap in there, tiny bits of rust like fine gravel, little jackstones and shards and whatnot, and I scraped them out with the pointy end of a chopstick. I put it all back together, struggled a bit due to the crudely made (but it must be said, thoughtfully designed) ring assembly, turned the faucet on, and—EUREKA!—the water came gushing out like a damn hydrant! Like Niagara Falls! I let out a whoop of pure joy. After the abject, willful stupidity I’d indulged in pursuing my benighted campaign against forces far greater than I, I’d somehow managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat!

I immediately poured a Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA and had my younger daughter help me create this celebratory Beck’st:

(Alas, I don’t have a “before” picture showing the faucet’s pathetic trickle of water from only half its jets. It never occurred to me to photograph it.)

I struggle to convey to you just how totally stoked I was to have won out against the rust clogging my faucet. To ignore so many warning signs and yet prevail … it was like something that only happens on TV, like in the final seven minutes of a “Star Trek” episode. Never mind that the repair itself, upon reflection, wasn’t actually ingenious or anything; the point was, I’d confronted a soul-crushing problem that had been increasingly weighing on me for months, and had kicked its ass!

For a couple minutes, with my mystified (and bored and hungry) kids looking on, I just turned that faucet on and off over and over, watching the water blast out like magic. I felt like Eeyore putting his (popped) birthday balloon into his (empty) honey pot and taking it back out again delightedly, declaring, “It goes in and out like anything.’”

The next morning, my wife was predictably astonished that I’d taken on such a foolhardy project at such an inopportune time. Examining my motivation after the fact, I was able to explain: while it’s true that I’d had half a dozen good reasons to put off my repair, I’m sure my dad had, too, with that toilet he never got around to installing. Waiting for some magic opportunity to bang out a home repair can be a slippery slope. Throughout my childhood, problems continually went unsolved or un-tackled and there was nothing I could do about it. As I make my own way through adult life, I find I’d rather crash and burn than risk continuing my dad’s legacy of procrastination.

Further reading

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Sunday, April 7, 2019

From the Archives - Studying French at UC Santa Barbara


My older daughter has been accepted by a number of colleges, among them UC Santa Barbara. I’m tempted to say, in a grave tone, “Don’t do it, kid. You don’t have to go down the same road I did.” But actually, I’d be stoked if she followed in my footsteps. Then I could lord it over her—you know, “I paved the way, I got their first,” etc. (Yes, of course I’m still joking.) Anyway, in honor of this opportunity, and of my (first) alma mater, here’s another UCSB essay from my archives.

French class at UCSB - November 14, 1988

I’m always ranting and raving about UCSB. Does that mean it’s the greatest? It could … though it could also just mean I’m just insecure about my life and am boasting about my circumstances to shore up my fragile ego. (Perhaps the real truth lies somewhere in between.)

I have a friend who would kill to attend UCSB, based solely on the abundance of gorgeous girls here, but he can’t get in because he has never taken, and in fact refused to take, a foreign language class. All the schools in the UC system require like three years of a foreign language, so he’d have to take care of this at a community college and transfer in.

I wish I could get through to this guy. Foreign languages classes are actually kind of a hoot, especially at college. You get some of the wackiest, most behaviorally bizarre instructors. A trained student can spot a foreign language instructor a mile off. First of all, they never wear normal looking clothes. I think they do all their shopping in Europe, or maybe at a special foreign language instructor boutique. It’s hard to describe these outfits. Let’s just say if every garment could be a beret, that’s what these clothes would be.

This sartorial oddness goes back, I believe, to a secret longing of each foreign language teacher to either be elsewhere, or be thought to have come from elsewhere. They’ve all cultivated this aura of longing, like they’re in exile or something. I’m not like some wild-eyed patriot or anything, but I’m sometimes tempted to say something rash, like: “America: love it or leave it!”

Another instant sign of a foreign language teacher is his or her tendency to speak English with a foreign accent. Surely some of these people are native born, or have at least been here long enough to adapt, but I can’t help but think they’re clinging to this accent as some sign of authenticity. Kind of hypocritical, isn’t it, when they lower our grades for lacking a perfect accent in the foreign tongue they’re teaching us?

Here’s another weirdness: all the foreign language instructors smoke. Every last one of them. Just cruise by Phelps Hall, where they hang out between classes, and you’ll see them, standing around puffing away. They can’t help but to look self conscious, because they know that besides your occasional “social smoker” (i.e., who only smokes when getting wasted at a party), they are the only smokers at UCSB. They are also the only instructors whose hanging out we can witness, because other instructors, who don’t have to worry about stinking up their classrooms and offices, hang out indoors where the students can’t get at them.

The foreign language curriculum is a curiosity too, well worth observing. My French textbook, for example, teaches more than grammar and conversation: it gives us insights into the differences between these cultures, and particularly into how France is basically better. My textbook, oddly, is the Teacher’s Annotated Edition, which offers some interesting insight into the pedagogical process. For example, in the section of the book teaching the comparative structure in French, using physical appearance as a model, the book offers this advice to the teacher: “In order to avoid sensitive areas of weight and height, such questions have been omitted. If students feel comfortable about it, they could also describe these aspects.”

This seems like a minefield for the instructor. Sure, he or she could try to go by body type, on the theory that if nobody in the class is overweight, they’ll all be comfortable being compared. But of course that’s absurd; distorted self-images are rampant among the college set. And it’s not like the instructor can just ask us. Who’s going to raise a hand and say, “That subject is strictly off-limits for me owing to my poor self-esteem”? Nobody, that’s who. Surprisingly, my instructor ignored the textbook’s advice and went right ahead with calling students up to the front of the room to be compared. To my great relief, nobody seemed uncomfortable. The only problem was that all the girls in my class are about the same height and weight, making comparative statements impossible. Maybe that’s why so many of us bombed the last test.

Building on my original point of the French air of superiority, the book feels safe telling the teacher how to promote French supremacy, since it knows the teacher is a French supremacist anyway. For example, next to the French translation of Cinderella is this note: “Suggestion: Point out that “Cendrillon” is from Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye by Charles Perrault (as are “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge [Little Red Riding Hood], “L’Histoire de Tom Pouce” [Tom Thumb], “Barbe Bleue” [Bluebeard], etc.).” Now this seems harmless enough at first, until you look at the “etc.” What’s that supposed to mean? Literally, it means “and the others.” As in, “Not only these three stories, but just about every other good kid’s story as well, are originally French.”

Let me interject at this point: the English version of “Little Red Riding Hood” is a lot better than the French, since in our tale both the grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood get eaten, and then the wolf gets killed, instead of the boring ending where the girl simply kills the wolf. Meanwhile, the publisher knows this note is far from innocuous, because it’s only in the Teacher’s Annotated edition. (I checked Molly’s standard edition to make sure.)  I’ll tell you what’s going on here: the publisher knows it has a receptive audience in the instructor … and it’s his or her job to figure out how to subtly inculcate the Americans.

The French supremacy theme is further promoted by the never-ending menagerie of intelligent, charming, and nice people you see in these textbooks. You’ll never get a statement like, “C’est Pierre. Pierre est un perdant [loser].” This is true across the board. I can remember a dialogue from my junior high French 1A book: “Est-ce qu’elle est intelligente? Oui! Et est-ce qu’elle est charmante? Oui! Est-ce qu’elle est belle? Mais bien sure, elle est Francaise!” [Is she smart? Yes! And is she charming? Yes! Is she pretty? But of course, she is French!] You never get, “Est-ce qu’il va mourir d’une mort horrible d’un cancer du poumon?” [Will he die a horrible death from lung cancer?] even though it’s highly likely more French people smoke than are intelligent and charming.

But cultural oddities aside, foreign language classes at the college level are actually very hi-tech. The pride and joy of the department is the Foreign Language Learning Lab. Let me take you on a tour of this outstanding facility.

Kerr Hall, home of the Learning Lab, is one of the most modern buildings on campus. I’m surprised it doesn’t have one of those scrolling digital signs. Instead there’s just this printed one: “Learning Lab upstairs.” Interestingly, the Learning Lab is the only place on the whole campus that offers signage of any kind. Up the stairs, there’s another sign: “Learning Lab down the hall.” Down the hall, there’s yet another: “Learning Lab across from this room.” Why all the signs? Well, I have my own theory: this lab is so different from anything we students have ever seen before, we wouldn’t even know what to look for!

First, you have to punch the clock, just like at a factory. Unlike me, most UCSB students have probably never been near a factory, so this is surely quite novel for them. I guess the faculty somehow doubts that we students will avail ourselves of this cutting edge learning technology on our own volition, so they have to monitor, and thus enforce, our use of the Lab. And how much usage is that? Let’s have a look at these timecards. Hmmm, Leigh Malone only put in three minutes during her last session. Must have been called away. And the one before that was similarly brief. How much can you really get done in three minutes? And look at this, Rebecca Martin forgot to punch out last week. And Don Stannage forgot to punch in, so he just wrote in the time. Oh yeah, I believe that.

What’s that? You’re wondering why I’m punching Leigh’s and Molly’s timecards in addition to my own? Well, we kind of have a deal going. We look after each other. I don’t suppose this is a purely ethical behavior, no, but the Language Lab is 10% of our grade, and we’re just trying to survive.

See that redheaded kid over there reading a magazine? Well, his name is Christopher, and I’ve seen him here before; he’s in my class. Let’s check out his card: yep! he’s on the clock! Now, this guy is a veteran of the Language Lab, and has discovered a little loophole: it doesn’t actually matter what you do in here. You could practice French, you could do your math homework … heck, you could theoretically read a comic book or even sleep. It’s kind of along the lines of a t-shirt I saw recently: “They can send me to college, but they can’t make me think!”

So here’s what you do when you’re actually learning French here. You talk into the recorder, and it tapes your voice. Then, by using the repeat feature, you can listen to your own voice spoken back to you (as long as you keep straight the “Drill” button vs. the “Play” button … that does stymie some of the students). It’s a fascinating experience because not only does your own played-back voice sound high-pitched, nasally, and weird—like your recorded voice always does—but you can tell how bad your accent is, without the instructor having to complain to you in class. That’s the beauty of this technology.

Just look out over that sea of heads, all hung low as their eyes scan their workbooks. Well, not a sea, I guess … more of a puddle. But anyway, you are looking at some seriously voracious students. Wait, that guy is bobbing his head around! He’s really getting into it! Look, his foot’s tapping, this guy’s having a great time! Let’s see what language he’s taking: oh, right. Led Zepplin … right there on his tape case. And his workbook seems to be an issue of Rolling Stone. See, at college there are a lot more languages to take than just French, German, and Spanish!

I love all the posters in this lab, locked in a bitter struggle for dominance. One arrogant French instructor probably put up the first “France” poster, and then a German instructor felt compelled to represent his country, and on down the line. That’s why there’re about fifty posters on that one wall. And they don’t go unnoticed, either; just look at the students gazing at them. Well, okay, fair enough, they’re actually gazing off into space. But what do you expect? This is college.

Over there is the Operations Desk. If you ask the clerk there how to operate the machinery, he’ll give you a tape with all the instructions recorded on it. But it’s a Catch-22, isn’t it? If you can’t work the machine, you can’t play the tape, so you won’t hear the instructions. That’s why you have to bring your Walkman the first time here. What do you mean, “What if you don’t own a Walkman?” This is California, man! Everybody owns a Walkman!

This is my favorite poster: “Learning, culture, and friendship at the Learning Lab.” Well, obviously you can learn here, and in the foreign language department, culture always comes with the learning. But friendship? I’ve never made any friends here. Is that because everybody’s plugged into a set of headphones and can’t talk? No, it must mean I’m just not outgoing enough. Standing in line at the cassette library, for example, is a great place to strike up a conversation. If only a line would ever develop.

Well, I’ve got some learning to do here, so I’ll have to leave you alone for a while. You can listen to any tapes you want. Just ask the clerk to get you started. I’ll be over here covering Chapter 13, Simon & Garfunkel.

In summary, the foreign language department is a reason why you should attend UCSB, not a reason not to. French class gives me a chance to diversify my college experience, make friends, and broaden my horizons culturally. Plus, it’s an easy “C.”

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