Thursday, August 25, 2016

Me Right, You Wrong!

I do health research, and I spend a lot of time thinking about conditions like infallibilitis. It's an adult-onset (or at least teen-onset) disease where a person can't admit they're wrong. I'm working on a study where a couple of survey items just didn't appear on a web-based survey altogether. Obvious and weirdly understandable botch (you've hopefully made it to my website, so I can let you in on the dirty secret that it took a buckload of time to make sure the site presents nicely on different browsers and handheld devices). The vendor refuses to admit that they screwed up, though, and more heinously, didn't do anything about the problem when it was first identified. The issue has probably reduced my quality of life, although it is hard to demonstrate that empirically because the QOL items are the ones that got omitted from the survey.

I first noticed how common infallibilitis (henceforth, "IF") is during my first job out of college at a company called MBI. I would inherit spreadsheets where numbers were hardcoded into cells that should have auto-calculated, and it wasn't hard to realize that the explanation for doing that of "well, there were some shipping delays that cause blah blah blah" was IF-speak for "I don't know, but it made everything balance out." It wasn't long before I started seeing it everywhere, from budgeting errors to payment problems, and it started to feel like a game where you'd subtly try to get someone with IF to tell you the truth. I spent a good two years trying to get some programmers to admit that the "months of coding work" they did to change the frequency of some shipments was actually nothing more than writing a few dates on a calendar (note: I never did get them to admit anything).

Doctors often suffer from IF.

Academia has been way more frustrating on this front, mainly because IF is more common and the problems are harder to fix. In business, screw-ups equal lost money, so whatever problem the IF guy causes gets fixed, often by someone further up the food chain. In academia, though, the consequences are more intangible; and the loss of prestige from admitting a mistake is hard to balance against the (ethical?) obligation to do the highest-quality work. I have never seen an important research-related problem go unresolved, but it almost always feels like pulling teeth to reach a resolution. I once spent a week trying to convince someone that 3179/5915 = 54%, not 47%. I'm glad I finally won that debate.

I've reached the conclusion that the only solution to IF is to ascend the food chain and yell at people. The original survey problem I discussed above was identified a year ago by someone who recently received her BA, which explains why the programmers essentially ignored her complaint. Sadly, her boss (who is very, very respected) barely got better treatment from the programmers; so my suggested solution one is an imperfect one, at best. As I close this post, I'll list what I've observed as risk factors for IF, and I invite you to add more.

  • Increased education
  • Male gender
  • Computer programming training
  • Desire to be President of US

Monday, August 31, 2015

James Joyce-less' Ulysses

It took me nearly a decade, but I finally finished James Joyce's Ulysses. I started it back in 2006 because Ulysses has topped numerous lists (e.g.,, NY Times). When I told my dad, an English major, that I was reading it because it was supposedly "the greatest book ever written," he looked at me as if I'd grown a second head and responded, "Greatest book? I wouldn't list the goddamn thing in my top thousand books!" I would agree, and I'm sure I'm not the only person who's relieved that I finally got to the end. I have bitched and moaned to nearly every literary-minded person I know about how much I disliked reading Ulysses. I learned a few things, though.

1. Don't read Ulysses. Some people enjoy Ulysses for the same reason that some people enjoy running marathons: it's hard, and there's something self-flagellatingly appealing about accomplishing the harmful and pointless. I get this rationale, even if I hate it. Others are literary snobs, the kind of people who measure their worth by what other people can't do, like read 650-page monstrosities. My hunch is that these are the people who put Ulysses at the top of the aforementioned lists. Finally, there are the crazies, who tend to love and resonate with stream-of-consciousness writing and creativity, regardless of its accessibility. If that’s you, I’d suggest David Foster Wallace or someone who is less self-indulgent.

What it felt like to read Ulysses

2. If you ignore point 1, read it on a tablet. I started the book in hard copy, and quickly had a pile on my bed stand that included a dictionary and Cliff’s Notes. Ulysses is impressive in its profligate use of sophisticated and inaccessible language. At some point, I just got tired of looking up the words I didn't know. With a tablet, you can just highlight the word and have it spit out a convenient definition. Not only that, but you can quickly look up all the esoteric references that are essential for understanding the book (e.g., who was Parnell? What happened in the Odyssey again?). I was able to vastly improve my pace in the book once I went digital.


After nearly a decade reading the "greatest book ever written," shouldn't I be able to list more than two things I learned about myself or the world? There was exactly one line that I highlighted as an elegant statement (i.e., Leopold Bloom attributes his equanimity toward his wife's philandering partly to the "apathy of the stars"). I also resonated with the way Bloom mentally made puns and freewheeling associations after hearing certain words, regardless of how somber the situation was. That’s it, though. And yes, you scolds, I did suffer my way through Joyce’s other tedious books.

Anyway, I feel liberated. I celebrated by watching a couple episodes of Robotech with my son and writing this blog entry, and I’ll probably read Prodigal Summer next. It can only get better from here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

"40 and life you got it..."

... "40 and life to goooo!"

I am about to turn 40. "The big four oh." My soon-to-be 40 friends want to celebrate. Debauchery in Vegas, a comfortable cruise through the Caribbean... "something big!!! We're officially old!!!!" I feel like I should be more excited.

I guess I'd be a lot more excited about partying if we were really celebrating being older. I feel like "turning 40" is a strange pejorative to those who are about to experience the event. There's always too much talk about the stuff we used to be able to do. The fun we used to have. The games we used to win. About how we didn't have to worry about getting hurt or sick or what the kids ate. Talking about turning 40 resembles funeral planning. Let's put together a poster board of all the good times we had, play some old songs, and pour out a 40 for the "fallen," defined as dating psychos or blockading the road with garbage cans or whatever. A couple of friends have had the juevos to tell me that I've "lost something" as I've gotten older. I suppose on the surface, it's true: I won a lot of awards through my 20s that I don't win any more, and I know a lot of people admired me then that don't today.

Look on my works before I turned 40, ye mighty, and despair!

But the truth is that I'm excited to be turning 40. Really excited. I enjoy being older. It's unbelievably gratifying having your toddler bum rush you when you get home from work. I have open, honest conversations with my friends. I say fewer dumb things, and I'm a better human being. I complain about work and I really complain about familial responsibilities like taking care of my parents, but these things have also validated my existence. I've impacted real lives in real ways. I'm authentically happy.

And really, it's that last point that matters the most. I respect who I was when I was young, but I was chronically miserable in my youth. Home was a scary place, and I never talked about it. Just wore a smile and moved on (side note: as I've gotten older and more open, I've learned that the "dysfunctional family" is what most people call "family." Why that makes me feel better about everything and embarrassed to complain about my upbringing is strange, but it does). For all the sad and hard things that have happened recently, from the death of my parents to starting a new career, I am overwhelmingly optimistic about the future. There's so much to accomplish in my career, so many fun things to do with the kids. How can the future be anything but good?

On my 40th birthday, I'll be in Baltimore for the ASHG Annual Meeting, presenting some research I did about how primary care physicians respond to the disclosure of incidental findings from whole genome sequencing. As for a blowout party, let's pass on the Motley Crue, crime-is-time thing. I'm game for anything that involves my kids, anything that involves plastic lightsabers or robots or other future-minded fantasies. Onward ho!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Fantasy, Sci Fi, and Drama: Let's Nominate a GOP Candidate!

I'm excited! The 2016 presidential field is starting to emerge and the race to satisfy party bases has begun, especially among the Republicans. It makes for remarkable theater. In 2012, the GOP nominating process came down to Romney vs...anyone. Bachman, Santorum, Cain, Gingrich. They all seemed to have realistic chances. Now, we already officially have Cruz, Rubio, Paul, Huckabee, Carson, Fiorina, and there's still a year and a half and one Bush brother remaining. There will certainly be whack-a-mole feel to the whole process like in 2012. In addition, I’m eagerly awaiting the following subplots:

  • No GOP in Evidence.” When you’re trying to be the GOP presidential nominee, it’s really important to claim that any sort evidence, whether it relates to evolution, climate change, or the economy, is generated by some sort of vast conspiracy. I hope to watch more of those debate moments where someone asks the candidates to raise their hands if they believe in science. You’ll visibly see candidates struggle with, “Am I the one who's going to be shown in history books as the guy who believed in Snuffaluffagus?” before shooting their arms up.

  • Science Fiction.” As a candidate in either party, it is helpful to make some extravagant claims about what you’ll be able to accomplish as president, whether it’s creating a bazillion jobs, instilling peace in the Middle East, or establishing colonies on Pluto. I quite honestly like this. A president should have some vision about the how good the future can be, even if it’s a little unrealistic. Every now and then, though, candidates release their inner crazy in a way that feels particularly whacko, like pontificating about Darth Vader implementing Obamacare. What would happen if God suddenly granted Mike Huckabee's wish to be able to rain down the fires of heaven during one of those awkward 12-person GOP debates? I can only imagine Mitt Romney staring at a dozen ash piles on his TV screen and lamenting, “I can’t believe I didn’t run!”

President Hulk smash radical Islamists!
Senator Hulk think America no meddle in overseas disputes!

However it pans out, the GOP nomination race will certainly be way more interesting and satisfying than the Democratic coronation of Hillary. Release the hounds! I’m waiting!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

End of the DOOF Project

At long last, the Digitization Of Old Fotos project, is complete! One year and eight months after my dad passed away, I finished scanning all the prints, negatives, and slides that were in the Christensen house. The 4,593 photos cover a five decade span, from 1950 to 2006. Even more than the DAle's Numerous Genealogy Binders (DANG) project, DOOF is a tale of meticulousness and persistence. It involved removing pictures from whatever album or box they had melted into, sending them off to a digitization company (or just scanning them myself if they were particularly tricky), figuring out what event/year the picture captured, organizing the file accordingly, and typing whatever was written on the back into the filename (I don't trust tags or comments). The last three steps were the most tedious, because I'd have to find the picture associated with a specific scan and create an awfully-long filename. I usually did those steps on my train rides to work (an hour that's best spent doing something time-intensive and mindless). It feels great to be done. For those of you with similar needs, ScanDigital was my favorite service provider due to their excellent customer service and the little extra things they’d do, like proactively organizing the scans into folders named for the package they came in (e.g. “Flower Box #1”). This is unbelievably helpful when you are trying to locate a particular photo among the 900 you sent the company in no particular order. Southtree and PeggyBank did good work, too. The scans look great, and it was fun to go through them all with my wife.

Dale loved to fish...
As did my grandfather.
I found pictures from my parents' wedding.
Pictures from our search for my great-grandfather's home in China, too!
Now that the DOOF is done, I'm left with one nagging question:


Why did I spend so much time digitizing photos I may never look at again?

Let me clear: I am super-glad I took the time to go through them all. It brought back good memories of my mom and dad, and reminded me how they were more than just parents. They were people with good friends and interesting hobbies (there are probably a thousand photos of my dad fishing) and dreams of their own. It was fun to see my parents when they were really young, before I knew them, without their revisionist commentary about who they were and what they were thinking.

I could have just looked at them all, though, sent half the pictures to my brother, and been done with all of this 18 months sooner. I'm unlikely to look at the pictures much more, though, and I knew that when I began the DOOF. Why spend over a year and a half cataloguing everything?

The first reason is that the DOOF made things simpler with my brother. As the executor of my dad’s estate, I had an obligation to divvy up the pictures. Nine times out of ten, I'll choose working harder if it means I won't have to worry about something in the future. I'm sure my brother would have been fine with whatever selection I'd sent him, but would I? My dad went genealogy crazy in middle age. What if I did the same? I think I would have always had a lingering concern that I sent away something I’d really want in my 60s, and I didn't want to run the risk.

Probably just as important, though, was the colossalness of the DOOF itself. Some people climb mountains. Some people do jigsaw puzzles. I catalog old photographs. The DOOF had value for me precisely because it was a pain in the ass. You know how Pillsbury makes you add an egg to their boxed cake mix because it makes people feel like they did something and motivates them to buy more cake mix? That’s what cataloging photographs was for me. Incidentally, I also make cakes from scratch, and recently gave a jigsaw puzzle to my wife as a gift. Maybe my kids will look at all those old photos someday and say, “Wow! It’s a good thing you saved all those photos, dad!” More likely, they’ll seem them and ask, “Um, is that why you didn’t fix the snowblower?”

Now what?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Mea Culpa

2014 is almost in the rear-view mirror, and I’ll miss it. My daughter and two nieces were born. We bought a house. The kids/career/upkeep combination kept me from being as engaged with my friends as I would have liked, but that’s a forgivable and rectifiable offense. My daughter even served the role as Baby Jesus during services at the local Methodist church, putting the Christ back into Christensen.

From a political and policy perspective, though, I had to eat crow in 2014. Obamacare has contained costs better than I expected. I learned that ‘stimulating’ is stunningly more effective at fixing an economy and reducing deficits than austerity, thanks to the European experiment. I wasn’t all-out against either Obamacare or the stimulus, but I certainly thought both would perform much worse than they did. We all get a few predictions wrong, but those two issues fit into the really important stuff category, and I doubt that older, wiser 2014 Kurt would have made better predictions than younger, na├»ve 2008-2010 Kurt. After all, 2014 me voted for Evan Falchuk for Massachusetts governor, which I don’t regret; but I do regret proclaiming profusely, “Martha Coakley’s going to win anyway.” Whoops.

Which brings me to my main 2015 resolution: become smarter politically. It’s a tricky resolution given that it can take a lot of time before a particular policy or electoral decision turns out well or badly; but truth be told, a lot of my policy predictions are formed by a combination of gut-level thinking and regurgitation of NY Times columns, in addition to This Week and Fox News Sunday roundtable discussions. I should have invested time to understand the Obamacare provisions better. I should have read a little more about historical responses to major recessions. I should have simply looked at a few gubernatorial polls. Despite a healthy disdain for people who prefer opinion over evidence, I listened to pundits a lot. Shame on me.

Live and learn. I wish many experts and “news outlets” would do the same, but I digress. Sorry to those of you hoping for a funnier end-of-the-year post or a more explicit lesson for living. Instead, I’ll link you to something that’s both funny and relevant (if you grew up in the '70s or '80s, anyway, and saw Schoolhouse Rock!). Enjoy, and may 2015 be a hoot!

"... and I pretty much just happen"

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Looming Parent Syndrome

About three weeks ago, my son started playing soccer on Saturday mornings. The kids don't actually play games, but Emmett gets to burn energy dribbling the ball around with his best friend, Ethan. And despite the fact that Ethan seems to have a lot more interest in flirting with the instructors than kicking balls around, the socializing is probably the most important part of the whole activity – Emmett is cavorting with other kids in a way that really has nothing to do with me or his mom. It's important to me, anyway. I'm not sure if some of the other parents would agree given how they loom over their kids the whole session.

Let me describe the typical Saturday morning. The kids run around on the turf for a while kicking balls randomly until the session officially begins at 9:05. The instructors then gather the kids together into a circle, where they talk about something. I can't tell you what the topics of discussion are because I am usually sitting in the stands with my wife and Ethan's parents talking about work problems or where to find a good corn maze or whatever. There are boards and a net around the field to keep the balls in and, in my opinion, the parents out. If you haven't seen an indoor soccer field or a high school hockey rink, think cattle pen. One species on the inside, a different species on the outside, and a few ranch hands coordinating the whole affair. The boundaries are anything but blurry...

Except a lot of parents seem to feel an obligation to serve as sentinels throughout these sessions. It's always most pronounced when the kids are sitting Indian-style in a circle listening to the instructors. Six to eight parents (always guys who looked like they played football or hockey in their youth and got soft as they aged) loom over the affair like guards standing over their prisoners. It's creepy. It reminds me of those scenes out of fantasy books where the orcs are deciding which humans to eat. Why?

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" was inspired by Saturday morning soccer

I suppose there are probably three reasons for Looming Parent Syndrome (LPS). Reason number one is to make the kids feel safe. Ceding responsibilities for your kids' wellbeing is terrifying, particularly when they're tiny. I remember the first day we dropped Emmett off at daycare, feeling like a failure because, long ago, I'd quit a job where I was making enough money for my wife to stay at home with the kids. It was shocking how quickly those feelings morphed into a different type of inferiority complex: that I couldn't provide the level of engagement daycare did on a daily basis. But I digress. I think it's safe to say that hovering over your kid like a vulture looming over a dying cow is a bad way to nurture independence, particularly if there's an area 20 yards away that's specifically designed for looming. My gut reaction is that this is 75% responsible for LPS.

Reason number two: one don't trust the instructors. This is the most common explanation offered up when I discuss LPS with others. I suppose there are probably a few parents who home school their kids and pass on the whole Halloween thing because they're afraid that teachers or peers or whoever are going to convince their kids that God doesn't exist or that heroin is a good substitute for candy. I don't buy it, though, especially when you can stand 20 yards away accomplish the same kind of micromanagement. I'm guessing this is 5% responsible for LPS.

Reason number three is to fill some void in one's own existence. I sympathize with this explanation because it urges me to hop onto the field myself. I sneak out of the house at 5am during the week, and creep back in at 7 in the evening. I don't think my kids miss me a quarter as much as I miss them. Now, imagine you're a divorced parent or have to work two jobs or whatever. You probably want your kid to play soccer not just because he/she will have a hoot, but because it's a way to publicly show the world, “Hey, I'm a good dad, too!” I think there are better ways to feel connected with your kids and to demonstrate good-dadness than awkwardly encroaching on a play area where yours is just one of many kids who deserve their own space, but maybe I'll change my tune when my kids abandon me after I go blind and incontinent. My hunch is that personal voids account for 20% of LPS.

Whatever the reason, I hate it. I haven't asked him, but I wonder what Emmett things about LPS and whether it makes him nervous. I've kept my mouth shut because there's nothing more annoying than someone interfering with your parenting style, no matter how awful it may be. If you suffer from LPS and are reading this blog, though, please seek help!

Maybe your kid feels safer when you're nearby, but I don't think mine does...