Saturday, October 30, 2010

Jeremy Denk recital

After a couple of years’ worth of anticipation, I finally got to see Jeremy Denk in a solo recital last weekend. The Real Doctor and I have seen him a couple of times in his capacity as accompanist to Joshua Bell, and both times I was really impressed. The star of the show was the violinist, of course. But going to a Joshua Bell recital and being impressed by the pianist is like being dazzled by the moon on a sunny day. From the first, Denk’s playing made me want to see him solo. Reading his excellent blog only made me want to see him the more.

Finally, Denk has made a recital appearance in Berkeley. Unfortunately, the Real Doctor couldn’t make it—she was in Michigan—so I went with my piano technician, who is a pretty brilliant pianist and a composer to boot. The advertised program was intimidating: the Ligeti Etudes (nearly an hour of avant-garde puzzles and brain-games, conveyed through finger-breaking keyboard pyrotechnics) and the Bach “Goldberg Variations” (same, only read “Baroque” for “avant-garde”). It was almost a relief that there was an announced program change. Book two of the Etudes would be replaced by the meaty (but less mental) “Dante Sonata” by Liszt.

The Ligeti Etudes are avant-garde music that you can love. They are not easy listening, minimalism or neoromanticism; these are mid-century Mitteleuropean modernism. Nonetheless, they give even the first-time listener enough to hold onto that one can follow through each piece—in some places, there are even things reminiscent of melodies. Most of the etudes are clearly about one thing—relentless upward scales, an overall downward motion, a constant, pushing eccentric rhythm. They tend not to be massively written, and in some the texture becomes transparent to the point of nothingness. However, these are not “pink bonbons stuffed with snow” (as Debussy described the music of Grieg). These etudes are precise, spiky, but strangely elegant blooming cactuses. Denk delivered these bristling packages cleanly, highlighting the hooks that rescue the first-time listener. His touch was sure, and he found an astonishing number of shades of “piano” in the quietest passages. I came away from the performance hoping that at least half of what we heard become standards in the repertoire.

Announcing the Liszt from the stage, Denk highlighted the parallels between the diabolical theme in the “Dante” sonata and the descending motif in the last etude; this was perhaps a stretch, but no matter. Despite the title (“Fantasy-Sonata after a Reading of Dante”) it’s not the deepest stuff that Liszt ever wrote. It’s programmatic to the point that it requires little imagination, and chockablock with Lisztian pianism. After the rigors of Ligeti, listening to the Liszt was like reading a satisfyingly pulpy piece of genre fiction after plowing through imagist poetry. However, it was not really Denk’s strong suit. It was not badly played, but nor was it especially memorable. For example, things could get muddy in the sections of greatest turmoil. However, it must be said that the quieter sections of “Heaven” showed some absolutely lovely playing and tone.

It’s audacious to program the Goldberg Variations in a recital. According to legend, the piece was designed to put its insomniac dedicatee to sleep. It’s a very long piece, and also a substantial mental challenge. Every third variation is a canon, each on a different interval. Sometimes the canons are inverted, sometimes they are dilated, or augmented—Bach plays every trick he can. The ending is a double quodlibet, in which two different tunes are superimposed over the ground of the theme. The paths of least resistance are to turn the piece into a dry exercise, or treat it with so much solemnity that it really does work as a soporific. Given Denk’s intellectual bent, I almost expected this.

However, Denk also has a wickedly sharp sense of humor. His was a very fleet Goldberg Variations. Some of the spaces between contrasting variations were pressed a little, as if to keep the listener off-balance; sometimes repeats were omitted to keep proceedings moving right along. The playing was always transparent and articulated, and when solemnity was called for, it was delivered. On the whole, though, the Bach who wrote Denk’s version of the Goldberg Variations was a keen wit who was not above pointing out that he was a keen wit—when the quodlibet rolled around, the two rather earthy folksongs were really punched out. Denk’s Goldberg Variations will stay in my memory as one of my favorite perfomances of this piece, but reflecting on it the next day, I felt almost as though I had heard the Goldberg Variations written by the smart, sardonically funny Beethoven who wrote the Diabelli Variations.

It’s nice when things live up to the anticipation. This wasn’t the greatest concert ever, and Denk’s mannerisms can be a bit distracting. But, as expected, the recital was stimulating and rewarding. So, now I am anticipating the next time this pianist comes out west. And, I am hoping he plays some Beethoven, maybe the Diabelli Variations.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Reasoned Political Discourse

I was driving home, and the radio was tuned between stations--now it would pick up one, now it would pick up another. I turned left, out of the parking structure, and it picked up some conservative gasbag saying that the only way to avoid death panels and turning Granny into Soylent Green was to go back to the fiscal responsibility of the Bush era. Before I could get angry, I turned right into the street. The gasbag faded out in a buzz of static and was replaced by a charming pop ditty from this summer.

Sometimes, the universe saves you the trouble of even having to think.

Philosophical Question

Our neighbors up the street and around the corner have built an enclosure in their yard for their pets to roam around. We have such an enclosure for our animals, and it is a "chicken run". Our neighbors across the way have one for their animal, and it is a "dog run". However, our neighbors up the street and around the corner have turtles...

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Back in Wisconsin, there was a farm stand that I'd go by while on my usual bike ride. They had a sign out front advertising what was for sale, "PUmPKins" or "BEAN PEA applES." One time, they were trying to convey that they had raspberries and sweet corn for sale, but they didn't have enough room on the sign. What I saw as I rode past was
No thanks, I get enough scorn and raspberries for free.

Today I was driving home from work, and there's a slightly more upscale farm stand on the route. However, their sign maker seems to be a relative of the one in Wisconsin. They were trying to sell


But some recent windy weather has edited the sign. They are now selling


No thanks, I get enough of that for free too.

Reminds me of this oldie but goodie (starts at 2:30)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hints of Greatness?

I went to see a recital by Jeremy Denk on Sunday, about which more later (in brief--it was very good). Denk has an excellent, if infrequently updated, blog. It is here that I saw the common thread that unites the pianism of Denk, Glenn Gould,


Yours truly:

Monday, October 25, 2010

Monday Musical Offering

The last of the Eight Humoresques, Op. 101, by Dvorak.

I have to say that this was my least favorite of the set, and it also didn't really dazzle my teacher. The initial statement of the melody is buried, and the middle section (which appears unrelated to the beginning and end) has some of the kludgiest writing I've ever played. As for the ending, to quote my teacher, "what's with that?!"

However, it's been mostly fun to play these, and some of them are real gems. I have even come to sort of like #7.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bracing for Winter

I was walking the dog the other night and I saw somebody, other than me or the Real Doctor, rollerskiing up M street. So, there's at least three of us in this town.

I mentioned that rollerskiing put me on the bleeding edge of the avant-garde; however, it appears that I've been outdone.

I will have to somehow work out a rollersnowboard. Maybe a skateboard with bindings and the wheels on pivots.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

More minimalism

The recent trip to Chicago had more than just one irritating bit of minimalism.

The nature of the Real Doctor's meetings is that they take place in fairly swanky hotels, and the nature of my attendance at these affairs is that I spend some time waiting for the Real Doctor in the lobbies of these swanky hotels. While I am not the ultimate connoisseur of swanky hotel lobbies, I recognize the different types and I have my preferences.

There is the old-money swanky lobby, which I favor. This has rugs on top of carpet or marble, overstuffed chairs and sofas, and large urns of flowers. There are probably formal side tables, some nice marble, maybe even a grandfather clock; the dominant color scheme is reds, pinks, and yellows. These lobbies tend not to have muzak, or if they do, it is quiet and classical.
Then, there is the moderne chic lobby, which where I passed time in Chicago. This has no rugs, dramatic low-lying brown and black leather sofas and oddly-shaped chairs. No flowers, but boldly-shaped ceramic or glass vessels of artsy twigs or cactuses. Tables are lower than the sofas, and there is lots of glass. The dominant color scheme is earth tones. These lobbies invariably have a weird, more-minimal-than-minimalist muzak that is just a smidge too loud.
The muzak imitates "smooth jazz"--a pulsing beat, ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch...with some dreary repeating sax figure on top, perfectly in synch. This goes on without change for a while, then some new figure gets added, replacing one of the nauseam. There's nothing that could be called a melody--it's essentially a backing track for some infinitely long, one-chord solo. The music is absolutely static for minutes at a time. It is modern(ish), sophisticated (sounding), upbeat and unctuous, the perfect audio backdrop for a soulless lobby.

Brice Marden's "Rodeo" is minimalist, and I don't like it. However, both it and the lobby music made me wonder why it is that I do like some minimalist music. So, I went home and listened to some Steve Reich and some John Adams and Terry Riley and even some Philip Glass. Comparing these composers to that hotel lobby music made me realize just how much is going on in a "minimalist" composition. When you listen to "In C" or "Music for Eighteen Musicians", there is always something going on--and in fact, like any good piece of music, it engages you, and keeps you aware and slightly off-balance for what will happen next.

This is not what you want in your lobby music. The key to the lobby music is that nothing happens. Nothing will disturb you. And despite the bulls#!t about Marden's "Rodeo," there's even less happening there than there is in the hotel lobby music. The visual equivalent of listening to the lobby music is staring at plaid upholstery; the aural equivalent of viewing "Rodeo" is a being subjected to a vast, blaring, E-flat major chord and nothing more.

One last blast on the subject later.

Of course, one of the "tags" for this post is "vexations." See here, and here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Flora

Another from my Mom's garden. It's not that there's nothing here that is pictureworthy. However, the camera seems to be in Michigan, so I have to dip into the archives. Anyway, a Fuchsia.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

First Midterm

The first midterm for my Mic102 class was yesterday. The magic word was "Roseobacter," a family of bacteria that was unknown twenty years ago but that we now appreciate makes up about a fifth of all marine bacteria (and thanks to Kou-san Ju for inadvertently suggesting them. If any of my students are reading this, you can blame him). Not to be confused with "Rosie O'Bacter," the national microbe of Ireland.

I finally have a grader to help with this class. D_______ is a former student of mine, probably smarter than I am and definitely more driven. The last time I was in the Microbiology office, Millie and Sharon were curious as to whether I had a grader. I replied that I did, and I was delighted it was D______. Their eyes both widened in shock and visible horror, as if I'd said that my scantrons would be run by Lord Voldemort. There is a "problem student" named D______, and this student makes their life hard with a need for constant hand-holding and prodding and nudging. They keep urging D________ to consider majoring in drama, since she's much more fit for it. Fortunately, D________ the grader is not D________ the problem student.

So, tomorrow, D_______ and I go over to what used to be the "Teaching Resource Center" to run the scantron machine. It's now known as the "Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning." The name change was because they kept being confused with the adjacent "Center for Mediocrity in Teaching and in Learning." I think it would be excellent if the word "Excellence" were eliminated from the language; it has reached the point where it doesn't mean anything.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It's art cuz I say it's art

It seems that somewhere along the line I signed a contract binding me to visit the Art Institute of Chicago whenever I am in that town. This last visit to Chicago was no exception; though I was tired and had a lot of work to do, the Real Doctor and I carved out an afternoon to wander among the collections. It is always time well spent; I still have not exhausted the place, and every time I go I discover something new that will grab. This time it was the room with Sargents and Cassats and Whistlers.

However, it’s good to push one’s self a bit, so the Real Doctor and I wandered over to the brand new contemporary wing of the museum. It did not work for us.

Here’s a particularly memorable work.

It’s two 8’ by 4’ canvases, one brown and one yellow, butted up against each other. It’s called (for reasons totally unknown) “Rodeo,” and it represents the work of the American artist Brice Marden*.

No, really, it’s supposed to be art. It may be “art,” but I think that calling it art highlights the total inadequacy of the word “art.” It may be “art,” but it’s definitely not at all the same thing as this, which is also called “art”:

Or even this:

After spending a couple of hours browsing among pieces like those last two, then washing up against some of the stuff in the contemporary wing, I actually felt angry. I felt as if I’d been feasting on the finest delicacies, then served a s#*t sandwich. It didn’t help when I read the helpful explanatory note, which you must read in full:

During the past four decades, Brice Marden has played a key role in maintaining the vitality of abstract paining. Rodeo, a work of imposing scale and stark presence, represents a high point of his early career. Two rectangular canvas panels, one yellow, the other gray, are joined to form an eight-foot square. Each canvas is pulled across a deep stretcher and painted with a medium that combines oil paint and beeswax. The stretcher and thick, opaque pigment give to Rodeo a sense of weight and a sculptural presence, qualities complemented by the iconic simplicity of the painintng’s composition. The oil-and-beeswax surface absorbs light and inhibits reflections; it is remarkably even in tone, material, matter of fact. And yet this very materiality and insistence also suggest depth. There seems the possibility that, beneath the impassive surface of Rodeo, something lies hidden.

The line joining the two panels may suggest a horizon line, and thus a landscape. The juxtaposition of two rectangular fields also recalls the work of Mark Rothko. However, whereas Rothko’s floating, horizontal fields are transparent, shimmering, and evanescent, Marden’s twin panels seem determinedly earthbound, presented as physical facts rather than as expressions of spiritual aspiration. Still, something of the mystery so powerfully expressed in Rothko’s work is also present in Rodeo. This results partly from Marden’s colors, rendered vaguely unfamiliar by the paint-and-wax mediu. The word “yellow” for example hardly captures the color or tone of the top panel of Rodeo, even though no other word, or combination of words, can easily describe it. Moreover, the medium affects the relation between the two colors: the yellow and gray panels, which we would expect to advance and recede, remain uncannily suspended on the same plane.

Marden’s paintings of the 1960’s and 1970’s, with their joined monochrome panels, repeated shapes, and hard-edged colors, are often linked to the tenets of Minimalism. However, Marden’s practice cannot be adequately contained by the painter Frank Stella’s famous dictum, “What you see is what you see.” Like all of Marden’s paintings, Rodeo is handmade. Its composition, two equal panels that form a square, reveals a clear and rational a priori structure, while its surface is the product of an unusually laborious process. Keeping his paint-and-wax mixture warm in a pot on the stove, Marden laid layer upon layer of the medium over his canvas panels to achieve a virtually uniform surface. Because it is largely unaccented, that surface displays little of the process of its making. Neither, however, does it suggest pure logic nor does it offer a moment of unmediated perception. Rodeo is among the most bold and striking of Marden’s paintings; it is also subtle and mysterious. The work’s even, dully glowing yellow and gray surfaces, the apparent weight of the painting, and its physicality all sugest that something unseen, but nevertheless felt, operates upon the viewer’s perceptions. With Rodeo, what you see is also what you do not see. –J.S.

That is art. That is stunning, majestic, inspiring, laborious, learned, practiced, heart-stopping art. The ability to produce such dazzling flights of literary bulls#*t—“something lies hidden,” “the word ‘yellow’…hardly captures the color…of the top panel of Rodeo, even though no other word or combination of words can easily describe it”…”What you see is also what you do not see.”—is the product of pure genius. I have made my own modest efforts at producing bulls#*t, but I may as well just pack up and go home. There is some great art in the contemporary wing, and to be sure some of it hangs on the walls and is worth a lot of money (Richter, Bacon, Freud, Close, and more), but the most stunning art is typed on little pieces of paper next to the displays.

More on Chicago and minimalism later.

*You can tell he’s an artist because he dresses in black and always wears a black stocking cap.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

It could be worse

So, I'm writing my introductory microbiology exam, looking for an interesting organism to make the focus of the exam. I can't divulge what organism I chose, in the 1/10,000,000,000 chance that one of my students is reading this, but I can say what I didn't choose: an Archaeal cell called the "ANME organism." This is a critter that makes a living by oxidizing methane under anaerobic conditions, usually in ocean sediments. It's ecologically significant, turning over petagrams of methane every year, and metabolically cool, since no-one really understands how it makes any energy at all. The reactions it uses shouldn't be enough to allow it to live, just like you couldn't live on a diet of one sugar cube per day. But, live it does, just very slowly.

I worked with Escherichia coli, the "standard" laboratory organism. Give it good food, and a single E. coli cell becomes two cells in about 20 minutes. If you had an E. coli cell that was asleep, and tried to get it to start growing, the time before it started metabolizing--its lag time--would be about ten to fifteen minutes. I did some experiments where I gave it really bad food, and it took about two hours to double, and had a lag time of half an hour--and I hated those experiments, because they took an entire 24-hour day to do.

But, it could be worse. I could study the ANME organism--or try to. The estimated doubling time for ANME is seven months, and while nobody has done the experiment, the calculated lag time is sixty years! The work I did for my PhD, if done in ANME instead of E. coli, would take the better part of millennium.

I should tell my PhD advisor. He wanted me to graduate sooner.

Carnivory and Memory

I had an odd fragrance-induced flashback on Friday. It’s pretty well accepted that aromas are linked to memory—in literature, from Proust to Primo Levi, and in neuroscience, which shows us the very direct wiring between the parts of our brains that handle scent and memory.

I was in Chicago, accompanying the Real Doctor at the AAO meeting. Chicago is large enough and immigrant enough that it still has a relatively thriving kosher deli scene. I say “relatively thriving”, not absolutely thriving like the markets catering to the more recent waves of immigrants from southeast Asia or Latin America. “Relatively thriving” means not dead. There’s actually a half-dozen, so you can see competition, and people have favorites. The Real Doctor and I eat meat rarely, even though Trader Joe’s has kosher chicken and the like—we tend to save carnivory for a treat, when we’re in a place where we can get really, really good kosher pastrami.

So, my mission was to go and get the pastrami while the Real Doctor did Real Doctor stuff. It was quite a schlep. We are staying at a B&B that is south, in the heart of White Sox territory. All the surviving kosher delis are way up north, beyond Cubs territory. I walked with the Real Doctor the three miles to her convention at McCormick Place, then the seven blocks to the Red Line, then rode the Red Line to its last stop, then walked the six more blocks to Romanian Kosher Sausage Company. I filled a bag with some delicious traditional pastrami, some Romanian style pastrami (when in Romanian Sausage Company, do as the Romanians…), roast beef and dry salami, then started the trudge back. This was around two PM.

After a brief ride on the Red Line carrying my bag of delicatessen, I met the Real Doctor downtown. We visited Michael Darnton at his workshop, and chatted for a bit. We had to kill a bit of time—the Real Doctor had a fancy dinner to go to at six—so we wandered around a bit, and washed up at a Starbucks, as much for the wireless access and a restroom as for the liquids. Refreshed (and up-to-date), we decided to hoof it the two miles to the fancy restaurant. Having dropped the Real Doctor off in the care of drug reps, I decided to hoof it back to the train, still carrying the increasingly fragrant bag of delicatessen. I got a bit muddled by the arrangement of stations in The Loop area downtown, so I probably trudged a mile more than necessary, but I did eventually find the southbound Orange line. From the final station, it was less than a mile back to our rooms. By this time, the bag of food was fragrant indeed; I was surprised that I was not accompanied from the station by a train of neighborhood dogs and cats.

This all reminded me of a similar fragrant trudge through a strange city, back when I was 13. I can’t remember if it was Kuala Lumpur, Penang, or Singapore, but if you go to a hotel in any one of those cities, you’ll see signs politely asking visitors to refrain from taking durians on the elevators. Our Malaysian host told us about durians, remarkable fruit the size of a rugby ball completely covered in stocky green thorns. They are famous for their intense odor, reminiscent of a sack of onions that have been left to rot in a football team’s laundry. The fruit, though, is enough to send Malays into ecstasy. So we had to try one, despite our host’s admonitions and the fact that the season had just barely started.

We left the hotel, and set out for a day’s walking around the city. Early on, we spotted a market that had durians, so we bought a small one. With the skin intact, it was still pretty aromatic. So, we popped into a plastic bag. After walking around a while, the smell was quite noticeable. So, my dad wrapped the plastic bag containing the durian in a newspaper, then put that in a plastic bag. After a little more walking around, the smell was getting noticeable, so another newspaper and another plastic bag were deployed. It was not long before the situation was out of hand—so rather than taking the fruit back to the hotel, we found a park, and my dad did his best to dismember the fruit with a penknife.

The smell of the durian is memorable, practically leaving a scar on the nose. Walking around an Asian city with a smelly durian leaves memories easily brought up by walking around Chicago with a bag of fragrant pastrami. But sadly, I have no memory whatsoever of the taste of durian—none of us tried more than a nibble, then we wrapped it up in layers of newspaper and plastic, and deposited it in a garbage bin.

Happily, though, I am about to sit down to a delicious pastrami sandwich, the memory of which is probably going to have to hold me for a year.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Friday Flora Jet Lag Edition

I just flew back from Chicago, so I am a bit jet-lagged. That's why Friday's post is today, and there probably won't be a Monday Musical Offering this week (again. I know, I must practice some more).

It’s fall, so the Real Doctor and I have been riding our bikes in dimmer and darker conditions. Last week we had our first ride entirely with lights on. As many years as we’ve been riding in the fall twilight, we have smelled a lovely fragrance at certain places in the bike trail—but the source of the perfume remained a mystery. The scented area was rough, the residue of a time when the American River was dredged for gold. When we stopped to try to find the scent one evening, the only thing we saw blooming was buckwheat, which makes no fragrance.

A couple of Octobers ago we visited my folks in Pacific Palisades. On a hike up Temescal Canyon, we smelled the same smell in the dusk—but this time, there was no doubt as to what the responsible plant was, and no question why we’d missed it before.

If you wanted to design an invisible plant, you would struggle to make a less noticeable plant than Brickellbrush (Brickellia californica). The plant is not exactly ugly, but the eye does not want to linger upon it. It tends to be scraggly, its foliage small and a dusty drab color. Even though it can get pretty big, forming a shrub a meter tall, it’s just so plain that it’s hardly noticeable. Worse, the flowers are so tiny and plain that they’re practically unnoticeable—except for the scent. This picture is hugely enlarged.

You can buy Brickellbrush from some native plant specialists (the above photo is from one of them, Annie's Annuals--highly recommended). One of them advised planting it in some hidden part of the garden where you wouldn’t have to see it. The smell will still fill the entire garden.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"Wild" Turkey update

The turkeys are still roaming the neighborhood. They paused in their strolling in the shade of our side yard, so I took some pictures out of our kitchen window. One of the young un's is a Tom, and has started to gobble. A wild turkey is about 10% majestic and 90% ridiculous. An adolescent turkey learning to gobble but sounding like a teenager with his voice breaking pushes this to about 98% ridiculous.

These birds are making me wonder where people draw the line between charming urban denizen and bloody annoyance. Squirrels are cute and nobody minds them. Rats are about the same size, but utterly detested (both carry plague, so that's not the explanation). Urban raccoons and possums are tolerated but not loved, and skunks are definitely animalia non grata. Birds pretty much get a free pass. It doesn't seem to matter whether they are predators or herbivores, hummingbird sized or ravens, the only bird I've seen people get bothered by is pigeons. But these turkeys may be different. They are much higher impact than other birds--they're big, they're not cute, they can rip up a garden, and terrorize pets. The other day they almost caused an accident as they decided to linger in the middle of the street in front of the elementary school during the height of kiddie-drop-off-by-frenzied-parent-on-the-way-to-work hour. So I wonder how the neighborhood will deal with a flock of these guys prowling around.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


The 1/16th violin has arrived in our niece's tiny little hands, and she is not letting go of it. According to her parents, she practices three times a day, putting me to shame. She has also given it an official name: Teensy. The name fits.

I remember reading a book about musical instruments when I was a kid, and it said that many of the great violins have names. Some, it said, were named for the quality of their sound, such as the Del Gesu "Cannon," while others were named after distinguished owners, such as "Vieuxtemps," "Kreisler," and "Messiah."


Friday, October 8, 2010

Friday Flora

Another gem from the subtropical paradise of my Mom's garden. Dunno what it is, and I forgot to ask, but it sure is nice.

There are a couple of gardens in our neighborhood that aspire to be better than the average--the lawn has been replaced with a tasteful cactus garden or shrubbery and flowers--but they simply don't hold a candle to my Mom's garden.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Zombies among us?

Approaching the UCDavis campus, one often sees signs directing befuddled visitors to this or that meeting. They all look similar: big white arrow on an Aggie Blue background, and some truncated form of the group name. "Summer Cheerleading Institute" or "Horse Breeders Seminar" or such like. Today's was a winner: "Med School Body Donation." Come as you are, I guess.

Some good, some bad, net zero

Next quarter I'll be team teaching a couple of classes with Scott Dawson. It will be a new class for me, "Microbial Diversity," and I'm looking forward to it for a couple of reasons. One is that I like the subject matter a great deal, so it will give me an excuse to dig into the literature a bit more. The other is that I like Scott, and he is of a like mind on how to approach teaching.

When I started teaching, I had very little formal education on how to teach--I spent a term TAing for Jo Handelsman at Madison, and she takes the time to train her TAs. I then went to Kalamazoo, where there was an optional afternoon seminar that I attended before teaching undergrads for a year. Here at Davis, I sat in on a ten-week seminar on college teaching while I was postdocking. When I started doing classes here, there was no need for a demonstration of any skills before I started lecturing before a class of 400 undergrads. Every single bit of training that I had was optional, and nobody ever really probed my ability to teach. For all that, I had vastly more training than the average junior faculty looking into the eyes of her first class. Faculty are trained for, and hired for, and promoted and tenured for one thing--research.

This is true of Dr. Dawson. However, he is serious about teaching. He has taken the time to learn something about what works and what does not, and he's attended the HHMI summer science teaching institute. As part of this commitment, he's teaching a graduate class in Microbiology for TAs on how to be a teacher. Because of his relative inexperience, he's asked me to sit in and provide sage advice. There's about a dozen grad students (and one postdoc) in the class, and it is positively refreshing to see them taking the subject seriously. They are going through some of the latest work on the subject, and they will be designing lessons aimed at teaching lower division students tricky concepts. Gratifyingly, they'll actually get to teach a classroom full of students, who will evaluate their efforts, before they are given the responsibility of teaching a class for real. You would be surprised at just how radical the notion of TAs and lecturers who know how to teach is on the average college campus. So, a few steps forward.

But there are steps back too. I also talked with Dr. G this week; like me, she is a lecturer, and the university considers her efforts (teaching 1500 undergraduates introductory biology every year) "part time work". Like me and Dr. Dawson, she's committed to modern notions of scientific teaching, and she has done incredible work here to update the teaching of introductory biology; she's even written her own textbook for the class.

To the university, her salary is an unsustainable expense. Her contract won't be renewed at the end of this academic year. It's not clear just how introductory biology will be taught in her absence. No sane faculty member wants to pick this up, and the university has essentially decreed that there will be no more lecturers. Worse for the students, there is intense reactionary pressure to abandon the more effective teaching techniques she has introduced, and go back to memorizing every atom of the Krebs cycle. It is really, really hard to be optimistic about undergraduate biology education here.

To avoid ending on a down note, I'll mention that--three weeks into the quarter--I finally have an office. Well, it's not all mine really, it belongs to an emeritus faculty and it's full of his books and files. But the desk is nicely cleared off.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A surprise party for a laureate

The other day the Real Doctor and I attended a surprise party held in honor of the retirement of Dr. Ivan Schwab of the Department of Ophthalmology here at the UC. Though the party was in the works for months and was attended by many dozens of people (and many others phoned in tributes) and the honoree almost did not fall for the bait, secrecy was maintained. When Dr. Schwab showed up, he was surprised. Not speechless, for that's not in his character, but surprised.

The evening unfolded as would be expected for such an event--encomiums from the department chair, co-workers, colleagues, and students past and present, amusing pictures of a younger (and much hairier) honoree, laughter and a little choking up, an impromptu speech from the guest of honor, all accompanied by wine and beer from the bar and food that one is supposed to eat with one hand while holding the plate in the other hand and your drink your other other hand.

The rule at these affairs is "nil nisi bonum,"(don't say anything unless it's good) but I think it's hard to say anything but good about Dr. Schwab. Everybody seemed to agree that he's a caring doctor, an excellent mentor, and so on. He is also the recipient of an Ig Nobel Prize for his work on why woodpeckers don't get brain damage. To me, the Ig Nobel can be a prize purer than the "real" Nobel. The Nobels reward brilliant work that changes the landscape of human knowledge. The Ig Nobels reward pure, focused curiosity--do dog fleas or cat fleas jump higher? what sort of odors do frogs produce when they're stressed? are herring communicating when they fart? The answers to these questions won't change many lives, like this year's Nobels for IVF or graphene, but they do scratch the itch of curiosity.

It's this curiosity that everybody at Schwab's party noted. Each speaker marveled at how Dr. Schwab was interested enough in this or that to actually study it--and how Dr. Schwab was surprised that one would not be interested. After a while, what stood out was not Dr. Schwab's curiosity but the fact that most ophthalmologists apparently view having serious outside interests as eccentric in the extreme. I found this a little troubling, but it falls in line with other observations I've made about many M.D.s. Perhaps it is owing to the extreme complexity and responsibility of their job, and the depth of knowledge required, but very few have intellectual pursuits outside their trade. There's also the issue of time--the Real Doctor has very little time for her interests. As the Real Doctor has noted, medicine is becoming less of an intellectual and social calling and more of an all-consuming business. So, here's my toast to you, Dr. Schwab, and may there be many more like you.

Friday Flora

Well, the picture was taken on Friday. It's a couple of Astrophytum specimens from my Mom's garden--a garden that consistently makes me feel very, very humble. There's not much scale here, but these guys are about the size of a football that's 1/3 buried in the soil. Most impressive, but entirely typical of her garden.