Teacher as StoryTeller

It had not occurred to him at all that his dozen years in the classroom, he had been, all along, a storyteller. Once upon a time, there was a leaf; a pancreas; a salamander; a mountain bog. Every lecture was a kind of narrative–even Human Anatomy and Physiology–but especially in freshman survey-of-bio classes.

There were characters, settings, plots and outcomes. Not all of them were cliff-hangers, but many–if the listener had any curiosity at all about the living world around them–had a point and a relevance in the real world: Out there where a student would spend their days; their lives.

Perhaps this equivalence between learner and learned would not hold as well in an algebra class, but he was convinced that, where living things (from cells on up) were involved, subjects inhabited and enlivened objects. We are matter that lives, and that matters, he used to say.

In every instance, his stories of living things from organelles to biomes consisted of two intersecting and complementary storylines: the truth; and the consequences. Someone had once said that, in establishing the validity of any story there are two important elements: Oh Yeah? and So What? What are the facts? And why does it matter–what is the moral of the story?

The matter of the story is that a pancreas and a salamander do what WE do: they live and they die. And they are made out of the very same matter and energy on the very same Spaceship Earth. They breathe the same air, swim in the same water our cells swim in, and partake of the state of incredible order we call LIFE. Such stories were easy for him to teach with enthusiasm and joy because being alive was eternally and bewilderingly wonder-ful. And his enviable job was to tell others.

It is a shared and eternal epic, a grand tale that we live in together with all these groups of creatures he covered so briefly in a survey class–creatures by the millions with their own personalities, strangeness and superpowers. How could a student NOT be drawn into such a story? And yet, of course, most are not.

Maybe his failures to engage so many freshmen desk-occupants stemmed from the fact that he was providing answers to questions they had not yet asked. There was not much perceived “need to know” the world beyond the weekend party details. He once said of the frustration of his obligatory faculty advising that “you can’t steer a parked car.” A discouraging number of students came to college with no forward motion to shepherd and direct.

And it was also true that, in a freshman-level course, there could be an awful lot of “oh yeah” jargon and facts that would be on the test. You have to be able to handle brick by brick of fact if you are, some day, to assemble an edifice of knowledge. And bricks aren’t sexy.

But the end point of a practical and aesthetic comprehension of the ways the living world works–in an organ system, a broad-leaved forest, or the human brain–certainly makes it worth the learning of some terminology. The so-what is to have become an informed inhabitant and steward of one’s own body, of their water and soil and forest; of the planet–but also it is worth the work to not be blind every day of their young lives to the fragile beauty and poetry of the whole of life on the Blue Marble where their futures would unfold.

The end point of a full education–and especially for him, a biology education–had always been more about gaining wisdom–the Great So-What–than about accumulating more and more facts. There would always be a bigger, more universal, not-quite-graspable “so what” just beyond the edge of his comprehension, earnestly if imperfectly pieced together year by year from all the bricks he handled over a lifetime of biology watching.

Out of the incremental bricks of biological process (a realm mostly still not fully grasped even as we do the biosphere potentially terminal harm) has emerged over the millennia the unfolding Grand Ecology of a working Earth. From those building blocks of atoms and organelles arises an elegance of form fashioned from living tissue, a “poem in protoplasm” he once called the living world–the ultimate PLACE whose goodness and beauty of form and function he sought each day to more fully know.

The quest would last until the end for him, he knew, and this was perhaps one of the most satisfying assurances in an uncertain lifetime. The ring would always be just beyond reach. The mountains and their creatures were more than enough to keep him curious, eager and immersed in wonder, even when his students were not.

But there came a time when it became too painful any longer to be immersed in the realities of a beleaguered world become mere economic engine. And so in 1987 he left teaching. He left biology watching. He buried his head in the sand–for 17 years. But he never –at least in the closed room of his own mind–stopped being a storyteller.

The Conversation: Feeding your Genius and Putting it to Good Work

So there was this email thread a week or so ago with a friend. I keep coming back to it as a non-trivial exchange that could lead off in all sorts of interesting directions to dig deeper into the prompts within. Pertinent bits extracted below, plus some of the backgrounding for the morbidly curious.


Going back to your Bus Ticket article (ff: see annotations and link below) again today. I think this year is … this year. Sounds like fun. Thanks for instilling Bus Ticket values in me — not that they’ve immediately stuck, what with my high lonesome restless vocational heart.

I’ve always liked * Hamming’s famous double-barrelled question: what are the most important problems in your field, and why aren’t you working on one of them? It’s a great way to shake yourself up. But it may be overfitting a bit. It might be at least as useful to ask yourself: if you could take a year off to work on something that probably wouldn’t be important but would be really interesting, what would it be?” * ff: See links below.

What you’re working on — this is me again — is obviously actually important stuff. If you were just pursuing idle curiosity (I’m not actually convinced that’s a thing), what would you spend a year studying? What if you had to pick something that, sure, is important to the grant web of existence somehow, but you’d have to do some fancy work to explain how?

I think I’ll ask me too.


Re the big question: that is fraught with all sorts of real-world constraints. Being 71 and living in the Outback are just two of them. Another is how likely would it be– my reaching master status in any one domain of thought — to make one butterfly flap its wings harder to ripple across the actual world of ideas and things, principalities and powers? I guess I see myself in a rarified bubble, doing my own study for my own AHA moments. Sometimes I share. Often when I do I hear yawns and farts. Intentional farts. True!

So the most important problem in my world (since I don’t have a field other than our pasture) might include grappling (successfully, not likely) with these Gordion Knots.

How do we balance the scales so that those who understand how the world works (biological and economic and human worlds) and those who also really have the common good as their focus are the people in power?

which is to say: how do we overcome evil with good?

How do we shine light into the dark places—the willful arrogant lustful fearful angry dark places? What light is powerful enough to penetrate such depravity and how to reach those hearts and minds in time. We have so little time. I have even less.

It is human agency at root cause of global harm. A change of heart must precede a change of mind and then of values and actions.

What stories can we tell to make people of good will and evil lean forward and listen?

The power of language. The pen vs the sword. Write as if your life depended on it. And your children’s. And theirs.

Of course my “cultivated interest” has long been to know my place in The Web of Life, and our place as a species, and the so-what.

I would become wise after The Year at Task–at least for some one thing, and I would tell that story by way of every digital, civic and literary pulpit I could. Becoming smart is easier.

So that’s my short answer.

The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius : Paul Graham (annotations, emphasis mine fbf)

If I had to put the recipe for genius into one sentence, that might be it: to have a disinterested obsession with something that matters. http://paulgraham.com/genius.html

An obsessive interest in a topic is both a proxy for ability and a substitute for determination.

An obsessive interest will even bring you luck, to the extent anything can. Chance, as Pasteur said, favors the prepared mind, and if there’s one thing an obsessed mind is, it’s prepared.

The bus ticket theory is similar to Carlyle’s famous definition of genius as an infinite capacity for taking pains. But there are two differences. The bus ticket theory makes it clear that the source of this infinite capacity for taking pains is not infinite diligence, as Carlyle seems to have meant, but the sort of infinite interest that collectors have. It also adds an important qualification: an infinite capacity for taking pains about something that matters.

It’s not merely that the returns from following a path are hard to predict. They change dramatically over time. 1830 was a really good time to be obsessively interested in natural history. If Darwin had been born in 1709 instead of 1809, we might never have heard of him.

The other solution is to let yourself be interested in lots of different things. You don’t decrease your upside if you switch between equally genuine interests based on which seems to be working so far. But there is a danger here too: if you work on too many different projects, you might not get deeply enough into any of them.

One interesting thing about the bus ticket theory is that it may help explain why different types of people excel at different kinds of work. Interest is much more unevenly distributed than ability. If natural ability is all you need to do great work, and natural ability is evenly distributed, you have to invent elaborate theories to explain the skewed distributions we see among those who actually do great work in various fields. But it may be that much of the skew has a simpler explanation: different people are interested in different things.

If the recipe for genius is simply natural ability plus hard work, all we can do is hope we have a lot of ability, and work as hard as we can. But if interest is a critical ingredient in genius, we may be able, by cultivating interest, to cultivate genius.

Hamming’s Question

[The Hamming Question – LessWrong 2.0] (https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/P5k3PGzebd5yYrYqd/the-hamming-question) more of a summary

Richard Hamming: You and Your Research the original long “speech” by Hamming

Global Worming

May be too graphic for small children or small adults. Statement that there is nothing we can do about Jumping Worms–not so! Go to the end of this blog post for hope!

The quotes below (and the title) were extracted from a nicely-illustrated Atlantic article entitled Cancel Earthworms by Julia Rosen.

There is, and has been, a subterranean invasion going on beneath our feet here in the American Northeast; and the invaders are worming their way across the rest of the continent with nothing to stop them.

Most folks are not aware that, where the glaciers prevailed long ago, the land was scoured to bedrock, and the native earthworms were wiped out. The ones that replaced them are European imports. Chief among them, night crawlers and Jumping Worms.

The latter were “Originally from Korea and Japan, they are also known as Alabama worms, snake worms, or crazy worms. And they have the potential to remake the once wormless forests of North America.”

While we have been brought to understand that the more worms in our gardens, yards and woodlands, the better, it ain’t necessarily so:

“The earthworms are in the soil because the soil is healthy,” one authority says. “They are not necessarily doing anything for it.

“Their burrows create channels that allow nutrients and pesticides to leak from fields into nearby waterways, and carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide to escape into the atmosphere. In fact, a 2013 review of recent research found that worms likely increase greenhouse-gas emissions.”

Leaf fall that builds up under a forest of hardwood trees deposits a wealth of soil-creating minerals and organic matter.

“But when (jumping) worms show up, they devour the litter within the space of a few years. All the nutrients that have been stored up over time are released in one giant burst, too quickly for most plants to capture. And without cover, the invertebrate population in the soil collapses.

As the surface of the forest goes, so goes the neighborhood.

“With their food and shelter gone, salamanders suffer and nesting birds find themselves dangerously exposed. Plants like trillium, lady’s slipper, and Canada mayflower vanish, too. This may be because the worms disrupt the networks of symbiotic fungus that many native plants depend on, or because worms directly consume the plants’ seeds.”

“Jumping worms take out all the understory plants, leaving nothing for deer to chew on but the young trees. And that could spell trouble for the region’s prized maple syrup industry.  “In 100 years’ time, maybe it’s going to be Aunt Jemima,” he says. “That’s a real bad horror story for people in Vermont.”

The take-home: there is little to be done. Experts recommend you purchse “only mulch and compost that have been treated to kill stowaways, and to avoid city compost made of leaves collected from sites all over town. He urges them to inspect potted plants for jumping worms and to buy bare-root varieties whenever possible.”

HINT: look for coffee-grounds looking worm casts. Find the whitish clitellum near the head vs toward the middle on night crawlers. And observe the much more frantic gyrations (too much coffee?)? See this website for a (non-claymation) short video and other information.

NEWS FLASH: We have just learned that all chickens over three months of age will be drafted into the newly-formed National Poultry Patrol. Hundreds of thousands will soon be airdropped into at-risk national forests and private woodlots in an attempt to control the spread of Jumping Worms. You heard it here first.

Here is a link to the claymation video for those reading Fragments via email subscription where the header image is missing.

Contagion: Contained?

As a biologist, I’ve always been interested in epidemiology of disease, and as a zoologist, particular those that originate in wild or domestic animals. And so there has been quite a bit to keep up with regarding the zoonoses of the past few decades.

And so the Wuhan Coronavirus is something I’m following daily, more to see how the medical staff inside the ambulance are dealing with the patient than to chase the ambulance. This is a study, more than ever, of how national medical systems around the world communicate and cooperate, as well as a revelation of how a generally science-illiterate world populace adjusts their thinking and their behavior in light of the level of risk where they live.

And towards the end of keeping up, no great surprise, I have a “ledger” of facts and opinions worth noting, in my digital clipboards (plural, since I use several methods of grabbing and organizing stuff.)

Recently I’ve become interested in spaced repetition learning and tools that make that so much easier than distant-yesterday’s “flash cards.” And one tool of note is still in fairly early development. I had a video call a month or so ago with the very young and helpful developer of RemNote (take a look) and am hoping to interest the rising students in our family in this (or this kind of) tool.

I only this morning poked the button that tells me I can share the “narrative” version of my notes. I could share the “testing’ version as well, in which case every phrase on either side of : becomes question (on side one) and answer (on side two) of a “rem” card for periodic study.

So click on the Blue Button below for my “pertinent facts” gleaned from a very current very informative NYT article that you can consume in 90 seconds. You’re welcome.

Landscape, Place and Memory

This topic of recent interest holds the potential for a vastly expanded ramble, with a point and even a conclusion perhaps, in another life time. But for now…

Suffice it to say that I have been revisiting the mysteries of memory, and the various historical ways humans have possessed it, or lost it–individually and collectively.

And so, beyond the arcane details of the “Major System” of phonetic numeric memory, the Locus System of memory palaces, the Vaughn Memory Cube, the Peg System and the world of synaptic chemistry of remembering that we are just beginning to understand, I’ve come across other diversions down other rabbit trails.

Briefly, to be further explored…

At some point the Gregg Shorthand characters are apparently derived on the same basis as the major system phonetic-based number system where f and v are homonyms, as are t and d, ch and sh, hard k and hard g. The historic roots of “shorthand” go back to Tiro (who died in 4 BC), Marcus Tullius Cicero’s slave and personal secretary. Many of his scribbles persisted as letters of today’s English alphabet. Greggs came along much later (1880’s).

Gregg’s system puts down the SOUNDS of the speaker, not the English spelling. The Major memory system does the same, and accounts for the method by which memory champions remember telephone books and pi to 300 places.

This matters to me because I so often heard my mother recoiling from her memories of her shorthand teacher in high school. I was so impressed with mom’s ability to jot down phone conversations in that cryptic curlycue writing that I learned a bit myself when I went back to get the PT masters in 1987 and needed to get down as much information as my hands could master.

But what really resonated with me in this revisiting the history of memory is that in pre-literate civilizations, memory was pegged to landscape. Lacking a written language, the memory “locus” system was based on PLACE. And so the rivers and forests, birds and mammals, mountains and deserts were both landmarks and memory marks for the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation.

STONEHENGE: was it erected as a shrine to a civilization’s collective story at the highest level, with each stone being the peg upon which tribal history was hung? There is support for that notion.

Lynne Kelly (science writer) – Wikiwand

This ancient mnemonic technique builds a palace of memory | Aeon Ideas

The Indigenous memory code – All In The Mind – ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)