Thursday, February 01, 2018

Word of the day: cognate

The word of the day is cognate:

1. related by birth; of the same parentage, descent, etc.
2. Linguistics. descended from the same language or form.
3. allied or similar in nature or quality.

c.1645, from L. cognatus "of common descent," from com- "together" + gnatus, pp. of gnasci, older form of nasci "to be born" (see genus). Words that are cognates are cousins, not siblings.


"It was plain to see that these three religions all share historical antecedents with Nigerian Yoruba and Beninese Fon religions. They are clearly cognate religions."

- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Black in Latin America

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Letter to the Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Sun published a letter I wrote to them:

Text reproduced here:

Dear Baltimore Sun,

Do you ever ask yourself what might have happened if, in the very early days of the 2016 presidential election, you hadn't breathlessly reported every movement and tweet of a celebrity whose only qualifications for running for national office were wealth and fame? Have you soberly reflected on’s word of the year for 2017, "complicit," and asked yourself to what extent you too are complicit in the current state of the world?

If you have, then, why, after everything we have all learned, did you choose to publish, "Oprah 2020: She can run, but will she?" (Jan. 9)? Before publishing this article, did you ask yourself to what extent does it report what actually happened (Oprah Winfrey gave a speech as she accepted an award at the Golden Globes), and to what extent does it fan the flames of wild speculation that a celebrity whose only qualifications are wealth and fame might run for national office?

Did you hope that reporting on Ms. Winfrey's presidential run would make the idea sound as plausible as "Icebreakers called out as cold weather persists" (also on page 6), and that two wrongs would somehow make a right?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Today I'm thankful for: that time I went to that talk about the Core

Today and every day I'm thankful for that time I visited the University of Chicago as a prospective student and went to that talk about the Core.

I could go on and on about the Core, and how much it means that a member of the faculty took time to speak to prospective students about it, but for the purpose of today's moment of thankfulness, I'll just recount what the professor said.

He said that physics is not the study of nature. Physics is a mathematical model of nature.

And he said that history is not the study of the past. The past is gone; you can't study it. You can only study evidence that the past has left behind. And so history is a model of the past that we build based on this evidence.

That has stuck with me, and now, more than fifteen years later, I am thankful.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Today I'm thankful for: Jim Horn

Today and every day I'm thankful for Jim Horn.

Jim was a postdoc in Tony Kossiakoff's lab when I did my undergraduate research there.  Prof. Kossiakoff was ostensibly the mentor, but Jim did all the mentoring.

Jim was (and I'm sure still is) smart, knowledgeable, accomplished, and affable, all at the same time.  He was ceaselessly patient: if I ever said or did anything to irritate him, he never once let it show.  He was unfailingly generous with his time and his expertise.  He was quick with a smile and a lighthearted joke, which was never, ever mean or at anyone's expense.

He did good work and was an accomplished scientist.  He was also a devoted husband and father.  He set an excellent example for professionalism and work-life balance: he worked Monday through Friday, eight to five, with zero exceptions.  He did not stay late when something did not go as planned.  He did not come in on weekends if he felt like he was behind.  I believe he read scientific papers on the train during his commute, but other than that, work was strictly at work, during work time.  At work, he was focused, but also accessible and friendly.

So much of my idea of what it means to be a professional was formed from observing Jim Horn.  I am extremely fortunate that he was there as a model during that impressionable stage of my life.  It strikes me that I am older now than Jim was when I worked with him, and it is up to me now to set the example.  Fortunately, I can remember what turned out to be a blessed time in the Kossiakoff lab, and keep looking to Jim as a role model, and I am thankful.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Today I'm thankful for: Henry James

Today (and every day) I'm thankful for Henry James, who is said to have said, "There are three things of importance in human life: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind."

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Today I'm thankful for: the way Mr. Bruemmer asked questions

Today (and every day) I'm thankful for the way Mr. Bruemmer asked questions.

My high school had assembly every day.  (Well, some days we had something else in that timeslot, like advising or class meetings, but the entire high school convened a few times a week.)  During assembly, we often had a guest speaker, and Q&A aftwerwards.  Mr. Bruemmer, my ninth grade Non-Western world history teacher, twelfth grade War and Peace in the 19th and 20th Centuries teacher, and twelfth grade advisor (after Mr. Horlivy left), took detailed notes during every assembly.  (Something else for which I am thankful: one day I overheard someone ask him why he took such detailed notes, and he said it was to help him pay attention.  I started doing that, too.)  At the end of every assembly, he asked a question.  It's not that he didn't give students a chance to ask questions.  At the beginning of almost every Q&A, there's an awkward silence as people are formulating their questions.  Mr. Bruemmer filled that silence by asking good questions.  By the time the speaker was done with the question, someone else usually had thought of something to say.

I always wondered how he did it, asking a good question at every single assembly.

In eleventh grade, I went to Close Up (  There was a group from my school and a number of other schools, for a total of perhaps a couple hundred tenth- and eleventh-graders.  We went to all different parts of DC, and met with all kinds of different people, learning about the inner workings inside the Beltway.  Every time we met someone, there was an opportunity for Q&A.  At every single Q&A (and we had perhaps a half-dozen each day we were there), there were exactly two people who asked questions: Colleston, and some kid from one of the other high schools.

By the end of the first day, I thought, this is ridiculous.  There are perhaps a couple hundred of us, and I'm painfully shy, but what is everyone else's excuse?  Here we are on the educational opportunity of a lifetime: why aren't people making the most of it and asking questions?

And then I decided I would start asking questions.  If Mr. Bruemmer could ask a question at every assembly, I can ask a question at every Q&A at CloseUp.

And that is how I became That Kid at Close Up.  You know That Kid: every class has one.  I had hoped that by asking questions I would inspire other students into also raising their hands and questions, but it didn't work out that way.  For the rest of Close Up, it was Colleston, me, and that other kid from that other school raising our hands and asking a question each, at each Q&A.

What amazed me is that it worked.  Merely deciding that I was going to ask a question was enough to make me come up with one.  The power was within me the whole time.

Isidor Rabi, the Nobel prize winning physicist, famously attributed his success to the fact that instead of asking him what he learned at school that day, his mother always asked him whether he asked a good question today (  Today I firmly believe in the importance of asking good questions.  The way you get good at asking questions is the same way you get good at anything else: you practice by asking questions.  It's a terrifying prospect for introverts like me, but it can be done.  Mr. Bruemmer showed me I could, and I am thankful.