03 May 2009


Children are safe, and should be outside

School Walk 5Lenore Skenazy's Free-Range Kids sounds like a fascinating book (she has an accompanying blog too). Her argument, essentially, is that the crime rate today is equal to what it was back in 1970, and kids should go outside alone, as they always did in human history. "If you try to prevent every possible danger or difficulty in your child's everyday life," she says, "that child never gets a chance to grow up."

Our daughters have been walking to school by themselves for awhile now, but they're not wandering the neighbourhood all day as I used to 30 years ago. They probably should, but I don't think the idea has even occurred to them. That despite the likelihood that today's environment has probably made our kids safer than any kids have ever been, particularly when you take disease prevention into account.

In Vancouver, though, we can blame this new parental paranoia on Clifford Olson, and it has spread across much of the Western world. I think Skenazy's instinct to let her nine-year-old son explore New York City alone last April—with a transit pass and some quarters for a pay phone if he needed them (he didn't)—is a good one. He wanted to try, and he was ready.

"We become so bent out of shape over something as simple as letting your children out of sight on the playground that it starts seeming on par with letting them play on the railroad tracks at night. In the rain. In dark non-reflective coats," writes Skenazy. "The problem with this everything-is-dangerous outlook is that over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can't do anything on his own eventually can't."

Our experience bears this out, in an odd way. The only injuries my daughters have ever suffered that required hospital visits happened, (a) stepping out of our bathtub, (b) bouncing on a bed, (c) being rear-ended in a crash in our car, and (d) scraping a chin at a swimming pool. In all cases, we were right there, and we didn't make them any safer. There are dangers in all of our lives, but they're not generally the ones we fear.

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29 March 2009


Long lost friends

Derek and RandIn 1974, on my first day of kindergarten, I made some friends. One of my earliest memories of school that year was three of us working on an art project. Rand, one of my friends, had a huge (huge for five-year-olds, at least) bottle of white glue turned upside down, but like a ketchup bottle, it was jammed.

Brent, my other friend, sang out, "There's no more gluuuuuue!" And then a huge glop of it fell onto the paper, completely covering up what we were working on.

I stayed friends with Rand and Brent for many years afterward. When Brent's family took a year away to go sailing around the Caribbean, we borrowed their TRS-80 Model I personal computer, the first one we had in our house. Rand and I spent hours at each other's homes, or with his family at their cabin on Keats Island, playing with Star Wars action figures.

Even when Rand changed to a West Side private school and his family moved out that way, we kept in touch, and a couple of years later I went to that school too. We lost touch with Brent slowly after that, though he was in my Boy Scout troop until 1982, and I have seen him from time to time in the interim.

Rand and I once tried making smoke bombs at his place, and drying them in the microwave. Not a smart move. We had to open all the windows and pull out the smoke alarm battery, hoping things would clear before his parents got home.

Eventually, he moved to yet another school and, as happens, we drifted away from one another. He emigrated to New York City almost 20 years ago, got married, and had a son. I stayed here in Vancouver, got married, and had two daughters. My daughters started kindergarten at the same school where Rand and I met a few years ago. They're still going there.

Recently Rand and I got in touch again on Facebook. He and his wife and son were in town last week to visit his family, and on Friday night my girls and I met them downtown for dinner. It was a short visit, but fun—the first time Rand and I had seen each other for more than 25 years. Long enough that he had time to grow taller than me.

We were both pretty big nerds back in the '70s and early '80s. Our nerdiness has mellowed, and it's also cooler to be geeky these days than it used to be. So we're different, yet not. Just like Vancouver.

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31 May 2008


The NYT, Dr. Seuss, and The Fonz

Did you know that Dr. Seuss apparently invented the word nerd in 1950, and that it was popularized by The Fonz on Happy Days in the 1970s? David Brooks revealed that in his New York Times column last week, which is otherwise an entertaining but largely fact-free celebration of the ascendency of the geek.

What Brooks wrote—that nerds and geeks have some cachet of cool now that a lot of them make lots of money—is nothing new, but he did summarize his point in a couple of interesting phrases relating nerdism to U.S. politics, which have caught on around the blogosphere:

George Bush plays an interesting role in the tale of nerd ascent. With his professed disdain for intellectual things, he’s energized and alienated the entire geek cohort...

On the other hand:

Barack Obama has become the Prince Caspian of the iPhone hordes.

I have no idea what the second one even means.

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08 May 2008


Einstein may have been inevitable, but the Beatles probably weren't

Gladwell and Einstein, men of big hairIn a recent CBC podcast, writer Malcolm Gladwell noted that "those of you who are familiar with my writing will know that this practice of talking about X by discussing Y is my only rhetorical move." His recent excellent article in The New Yorker, about scientists who independently discovered or invented things at the same time (via Angela Gunn), is a prime example.

The article is about 7000 words long. Here is Gladwell's thesis statement:

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call "multiples"—turns out to be extremely common.

You don't get to read that until more than 3500 words have passed: if you skip the title of the piece ("In the Air: Who Says Big Ideas Are Rare?"), Gladwell doesn't tell you what his essay is about until it's more than half over. It's nevertheless fascinating, but even (or perhaps especially) if you have read the title, you might be like me. As you read the first half, you may very well keep thinking, "Yeah, Malcolm, so what's your point?"

When the time is right

His main one is that many inventions and scientific discoveries happen because the time is right. Many people are working on certain types of ideas (the mathematics of changing systems, the relationships of fossil organisms after discovering that the earth is very old, the next step of electrical communications after the telegraph), so it's very likely that someone—maybe several someones—will come up with a key new concept based on those ideas (calculus, evolution by natural selection, the telephone).

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's wonderful 2007 biography of Albert Einstein, the first published after the release of many of Einstein's private letters and writings. Einstein was so remarkable that his last name has become a noun, a synonym for genius around the world.

Yet of course he didn't generate his world-changing ideas out of the ether (nor, since he disproved the existence of the ether, out of a vacuum). Einstein's synthesis of the ideas of Planck and Mach and Maxwell and others with the experimental results of Faraday, Curie, Michelson and Morley, and still others would have happened eventually. But it might have taken a few decades, and probably a number of eminent scientists, to reveal that atoms actually existed, that light is a wave-particle duality, that gravity can be thought of as the warping of space-time, and the dozens of other ideas that Einstein figured out largely on his own during feverish bursts of creativity in between 1905 and 1917.

So what is genius?

Gladwell doesn't talk about Einstein at all, but he also doesn't diminish genius in his article. Rather, he reframes it: someone like Einstein (or Newton, or Kelvin) is brilliant enough to make a wide range of discoveries. To get a similar range of insights or inventions, you'd need a brainstorming session, or a committee, or an "invention session" of smart, but not genius-level, people. And they might not come up with genius-level ideas all at once.

In other words, in science and technology, a genius can do the work of a big group of regular people. And so geniuses often contribute to "multiples," but also do more. Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus, but Leibniz didn't come up with anything like Newton's discoveries in optics or gravity.

Gladwell also has a third point, one that helps distinguish science from art. Namely, that a scientific genius and an artistic genius are different things, even though we use the same word:

You can't pool the talents of a dozen Salieris and get Mozart's Requiem. You can’t put together a committee of really talented art students and get Matisse's "La Danse." A work of artistic genius is singular.

Creating and discovering

That makes intuitive sense—there is a difference between creating something and discovering something. Einstein himself was profoundly uncomfortable with quantum theory and wave mechanics, even though he established that field of study. He spent the last half of his life fighting against their probabilistic implications. Yet quantum theory was still there, whether Einstein was involved or not.

Conversely, let's take another example that Gladwell doesn't use. Sure, without the Beatles there would still have been some kind of rock and roll after Elvis, and maybe even psychedelia in the '60s. But there wouldn't have been Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, nor maybe any record quite like it. (I doubt the Rolling Stones would have made Their Satanic Majesties Request, for instance.)

Similarly, the work of Watson, Crick, and Franklin in discovering DNA was part of a feverish mid-century effort throughout biology to determine what genes might be made of. Somebody was going to find the double helix. But nobody made paintings exactly like Picasso, or sang just like Ella. Without them, maybe no one ever would.

We are social creatures, so the twining influences and effects of our creativity can be hard to tease out. That's part of what's so cool about them.

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21 September 2007



I love this recently discovered photograph (via Kottke) of painters on the Brooklyn Bridge by Eugene de Salignac. It's almost like a Dali painting.

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