Monday, November 30, 2009

Charlie and the design of the system

Last summer, a group of friends waited for the subway in Munich late in the night.  While waiting, they sang "The M.T.A." from the Kingston Trio songbook.  It's a sad story.  The municipal transit authority began to charge both when you got on the subway or local train and then you had to pay again when you were ready to get off.  Charlie famously got on and paid the initial fare but had not brought the extra nickel to get off.  "He will ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston."  Charlie couldn't get off of that train.  Luckily, his wife came down to the station each day and handed Charlie a sandwich as the train came rumbling through.

Of course, we would like to know why the heck she doesn't hand him some money so he can legally exit the train.  There are lots of times in life when we just can't think of a solution to something new and different.  Maybe his wife has never handled the money in the family.  Maybe she doesn't have any money.  Maybe she feels that Charlie has been a little too friendly with that neighbor woman and it will do him some good to ride for a couple of days.

My hero W.E. Deming did a great deal for the U.S. and for post-war Japan to show both countries ways to improve the quality of manufactured goods.   He had good insights into both statistics and theory and saw that humans have a tendency to try to find someone to blame.  Charlie could blame himself for his problem, his wife, the M.T.A., the politicians, his parents for bringing him into this world, etc.  Deming had both evidence and experience to back up his principle that when difficulties appear, such as getting stuck on the subway, 95% of the time, it is the design of the system that is causing the difficulties, not human error or frailty or sinfulness.  Deming knew and we know that sinfulness, stupidity and maliciousness exist.  But it is too easy and usually wrong to start looking for a solution by asking "Whose fault is it?  Who is to blame?"  Track down the errors and look to see if the way things are done, often required to be done, could be modified in a way that will lower the error rate.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Computers, Time and Clouds

Charles Babbage built a version of the computer in 1849.  There was an abacus much, much earlier and there have been increasingly complex and capable machines since.  Just before grad school, I read about the new wave of computers.  That was in the 60's.  During that same decade, I first "used" a computer and the Fortran computing language.  "Used" in the sense that I prepared a deck of cards that would supposedly make the machine do what I wanted.  I gave the deck to the operator and retrieved it along with a printout on paper about a day later.

I heard a little about the Texas Instrument machines, the Radio Shack machines, the Atari and the Commodore.  I was interested but the invention of the spreadsheet for math and finance and the word processor for typing lifted me beyond mild interest to the serious level.  It was the software program Appleworks that really nailed me.  I could write, calculate, and sort.  This was a program I didn't want to live without.  One way and another, I haven't had to do so since 1984.

Until email and networking, the computer was a machine that enabled me to do things I wanted to do faster and better with less error but everything was right there with me.  The World Wide Web and the browser changed the nature of what could be done and with whom.  But the history of getting the machine and the software applications to run on them continued and of course, still does. 

However, computing has gotten more cooperative and less stand-alone.  Google Docs (see the Google home page and use "More" to find the beginning of Docs) and Open Office (search for this term) provide free software to do the things we have come to associate with computers.  YouTube for vision, motion and sound and podcasts for sound show the added possibilities of sound, music, speech and vision which were not possible in the 60's for the ordinary person like me.  There is so much out "there" in space that the popular term "cloud computing" is being used to depict the services and possibilities available somewhere out there in the cloud of the internet.

Just as an example of what is available, I am typing today's post in Google Docs.  I used to using Microsoft Word but I don't want to depend on Microsoft any more and I don't want to spend money I don't need to.  I like to make my posts around 300 to 500 words.  Word has a feature that will continuously tell you how many words there are in a document or a selection.  I don't see anything like that in Google Docs.  So, to the internet! (Using Firefox of course).  I enter "word count" and get hundreds of thousands of web pages ready to help me.  I bookmarked one and made another step in moving toward cloud computing. 






 
 

Friday, November 27, 2009

Even bigger, even smaller

I have a suspicion that humans are not really built to think about or deal with any kind of infinity.  "Being present everywhere" or "going on forever" seem fairly easy to imagine but I think that is just because we can't do so and our minds just conk out.  Adults know that they weren't really happy "ever after".  They were mortal and eventually ceased to be.  There were holes in the good times where things weren't so happy.
I read a little about Georg Cantor and his work with mathematical infinities.  It would be easy to assume anything that is infinite is just that: endless.  Sometimes, it is fun to talk about the biggest number with a child who is capable of understanding.  "What is the biggest number?"  "A million."  "What about a million plus one?  Would that be bigger than a million?  Ok, a billion.  What about a billion plus one?  That would be bigger than a billion.  Eventually, we all see that given strength and attention, we could conceptually keep adding one to anything, thereby making something big even bigger.

He also showed that the counting numbers 1,2,3... can go on for as long as we are capable of listing or imagining them but that the points between any two numbers in the series make a bigger infinity than the counting numbers.  The idea is related to ideas of the ancient Greek Zeno. Once we start thinking of fractions, we see that we can always conceive of halving any segment however small.  We can see that the halving can go on forever without ever reaching the next number in the counting series.  We can think of a point halfway between 2 and 3 and then a point halfway between 2 and that point, always taking smaller and smaller bits.  There are any number of points between 2 and 3 even though there are no integers there. 

Zeno said that Achilles, a renown warrior, could not possibly beat a tortoise in a race if the tortoise got any head start.  He pointed out the infinities, that Achilles would have to cover half the distance in the tortoise's lead.  Then, he would have to cover half the remaining distance.  While the warrior was covering those distances, the tortoise would be moving on.  Poor hero!  Can't even catch a turtle!
 
 

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Day for Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving to all!  I am always impressed by this holiday.  Unlike Christmas, it is always on a Thursday and it comes with little chance to get set for it.  So, many people scramble to drive or fly to a place for family gathering.  So, the weather and the crowds and the roads and airports get a special sort of hit from the day.
 
Of course, there is usually turkey and I think that is a good thing.  It is good meat and fun to cook.  It is one holiday I have prepared for myself, when Lynn was a doctoral student and had that apartment in Madison.  I found out then and have kept in mind the value of oven turkey bags.  They take lots of the chance and sensitivity out of the procedure and make it reliable.  I am very glad I don’t have to use the wood-burning stove that Lynn’s Finnish grandmother used to cook a turkey for a large, hungry group depending on that bird.  I am nervous enough just using the bag and electric oven.
 
Personally, I like pumpkin pie and pumpkin ice cream.  I have had pumpkin cheese cake that I thought was outstanding.  I note that Mma Ramotswe of the “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series serves pumpkin in Botswana and it seems to be a popular food with her and her husband.  I am confident that I am also used to the seasonings used with the pumpkin like cinnamon and ginger.
 
Cranberry (jellied) sauce was always present on the Thanksgiving table during my childhood.  It took me years to notice that it was not a sauce in the usual sense of the word since it wasn't a flowing liquid.  I hale the use of craisins and like the acidic, fairly sharp taste.
 
No mention of this special holiday is complete without a nod to what is now being referred to in many places as “Black Friday”, the special Friday when stores everywhere in the country try to outdo each other in offering special deals on what might be a great gift for Christmas at oddly early hours.  I guess Thanksgiving is somewhat like John, the Baptist, coming ahead and heralding the approach of something much bigger and more important.
 
There are other regular add-ons and associations with Thanksgiving such as the Army-Navy football game and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. 
 
 

Thanks for limited success

I have limited funds so I can’t buy everything.  That is probably a protection for me.  Having too much money or nearly unlimited funds might temp me to get involved in deals and possessions that cause me trouble. So, I hesitate to try to be too wealthy, even though I am not totally certain what “too wealthy” is.
 
I just finished a book by a very famous modern author.  I don’t know how much he has earned by his sales but I bet if I earned that much, I would be wealthier.  However, the book was terrible.  He tries to be exciting or dramatic in the extreme.  He tries to get my blood pounding.  Then, in the next of too many chapters, he tries to get my blood pounding even harder.  Pretty soon, these efforts simply turn me off.  They become ridiculous, not exciting. 
 
So I am faced with a paper choice: would I rather be a famous author of drivel or the unknown person I am?  I often wonder if I will sometime be embarrassed by something I have written.  If I write enough, it seems likely.  Luckily, I am not trying to make lots of sales.  I am not trying to be all that exciting.  I would like to be interesting.  I find 1-3 people commenting on many of these posts.  I take that amount of comment to be a good sign.  I certainly don’t want hundreds of comments.  I don’t want the excitement level of the comments to be too great.
 
I am confident this sort of expression is not going to get me an offer from a movie maker to buy the rights to my story.  I don’t have a story, just observations.  I do want to find that readers enjoy reading my observations.  I would love it if some comments opened some mental doors for some readers, just as I used to try to reach some of my students some of the time.  I think that some of my observations do indeed strike a chord with some readers.  That is my goal and I am satisfied.
 
I don’t want to produce pornography or bloody scenes that produce nightmares.  Even if doing so would give me millions of dollars.  The writers I admire, for instance, Dale Launer and Alexander McCall Smith, write gentle but insightful work that gives me a tickle or a smile. 
 
 

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

This blog and others

This blog is now available on the Amazon Kindle.  I doubt if you want to pay $1.99 a month to read it there but you could.  You can have it for 14 days on a free trial if you want.
 
I didn’t realize that getting “Fear, Fun and Filoz” on the Kindle, you get it in a form that enables the reader to look at all 200 posts, not just that day’s.  As with all periodicals, the next day’s post will over-ride the current one unless you add it to My Clippings.
 
My blog and 70 million others are all free on the internet.  The Google blog search helps you locate current blogs on topics of interest.  But most of the ones I follow regularly came to my attention by reading others or noting links from one I liked.  The most regularly pleasurable is The Writer’s Almanac but the 8 Amazon blogs and the 12 Wired blogs have tons of interesting items.  Not every day but very often.
 
I had little interest in blogs but when I got a Kindle, my nephew Mike recommended I try getting an Amazon blog on it.  It is a lot like getting the daily newspaper delivered to your house.  Only in this case, the new paper automatically destroys the yesterday’s paper so you don’t have papers all around your house.  That could be a good thing or not, depending on how you want to handle things.
 
I got tired of paying a fee to see on the Kindle what I could have for free on my computer so I started using Google’s ability to link blogs I was interested in to my own blog page.  It makes a good place to see the latest on the blogs I am following.
 
RSS (‘real simple syndication’) and tools to “feed” the latest entry to some location such as my blog page seemed unnecessary at first.  But over time, I found that I forgot to look at some of interest and the snippet gives me a chance to decide if I want to bother looking at that blog now or not.
 
Right now, I have links to 31 blogs in addition to my own.  There are many others, no doubt, among the 70 million that would give me a laugh or a lift.  Over time, I may find some additional ones.  I am happy with myself for already removing two.  They were good ones and worth following but I can’t do, or even look at, everything.
 
 
 

Monday, November 23, 2009

Getting dressed up in Wisconsin and elsewhere

I like to say that in Wisconsin, formal dress is a sweatshirt and jeans.  My wife chides me since that is a big exaggeration.  Real formal dress here is a sweatshirt with a tie and jeans.


Just kidding.  Plenty of the Badgers own a tux or a formal gown.  People everywhere like to fit in.  For years, I wore a sports coat and button-down shirt and a tie to class.  But as I looked around, I realized that very few faculty wore such clothes.  I decided I was putting myself in a generation and group what I didn’t really want to be part of.

At one time, I could depend on looking all right for church with such clothes but again, nowadays, only the senior senior men dress that way and not all of them.

When I was in kindergarten, I walked home for lunch each day and walked back for the afternoon session.  One day, I thought I would dress up and look nice for the afternoon.  I was wearing long pants and a nice t-shirt that day.  I thought a tie would add to my appearance.  I only had pre-tied ties that fastened around the neck with a little belt and hook.  I didn’t understand that the belt and hook were typically hidden beneath the collar of one’s shirt.  I put the tie on with the t-shirt and proudly went to school.  My teacher phoned my mother to let her know about my chosen mode of fashion.  Mom had been working in the kitchen when I left by the front door.  But that was more than 60 years ago and I have forgotten all about it now.

When we attended church in Europe in 1974, we were careful to not wear jeans.  Again, I had a jacket and tie on.  When we returned in 1998, we found many of the Europeans were wearing jeans and no tie to church.

I heard of a candidate for an appointment to a southern US university who removed his jacket near the beginning of his presentation.  I was told that such a level of undress was strongly frowned on.  His move was unacceptable to the faculty he wanted to impress.

Last summer, I was in Vienna and I looked over the crowd at an outdoor cocktail party at a music concert.  Most of the European-looking men wore tuxedos but several Africans wore other kinds of clothing.
   



Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Great Conversation: Then and Now

When Robert Hutchins was 30 years old, he became the president of the University of Chicago, a respected and advanced school, in 1929.  While there, he and Mortimer Adler and others worked on the creation of “The Great Books of the Western World”.  Hutchins wrote the first of the 54 volumes in the set and called it “The Great Conversation.”  He and the other founders were convinced that the ancients and a few more moderns, up to Freud, were essential to living well and understanding the world.
 
I admired the book for its emphasis that science cannot do everything.  The essence of science is repetition.  Trying something and then trying it again, maybe with a little change, to unravel the mysteries of nature.  We cannot (yet?) live our lives more than once so we cannot experiment with going to college and the trying again, where at the same age, we don’t go to college, to see which is better for us. 
 
One of my favorite advisors had graduated from the University of Chicago and he complained about too much emphasis on the great books.  How well would you understand today’s world, he said, if your scientific knowledge stopped with Galileo (1564-1642)?
 
Today, we have a much bigger Great Conversation going on.  The internet involves people all over the world conversing with each other and not only with words, either.  Videos, including sound and color, are exchanged and viewed by millions 24 hours a day every day of the year.  Of course, music and voice and other sounds zoom around this planet all day and all night, too, as do all forms of art and photography.
 
I am not going to take time to check but I am quite confident that every author in the Great Books of the Western World series has most or all of that author’s works on the internet, often in more than one place.  In addition, great books of several non-Western worlds are also available, in both original languages and in multi-language translations. 
 
Non-Western participation in today’s Great Conversation is about to rise, I bet, since the governing body of the internet has just approved the use of non-Latin characters in the names of places on the internet.  The great books conversation was usually one way, such the great author was dead before others who lived much later matured to the point they could read and understand the writing.  Today’s great conversations are multi-way.  An email goes to many recipients who respond to each other and include additional people at lightning speed.  The email and web pages include forms of communication far beyond what was possible in Hutchins’s day.
 
Of course, it is not all peaches and cream.  Lies, fraud, nastiness and vulgarity also circle the globe and hurt and damage every second.
 
Still, the great conversation is going on and expanding. 
 
 

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thanks for the trouble

I read quite a while ago that people tend to use today’s faster brakes and better steering to drive faster and more dangerously than they used to.  Someone commented that if you want slower, more careful drivers, you should mount a very sharp bayonet on the top of the steering column in the center of the steering wheel.  Then, a slight mistake would be bad so people would be very careful to avoid dangerous moves and sudden stops.
 
I know a young lady who was born with Type I diabetes.  She seems to be taking very good care of herself and following the guidelines for exercise and eating.  I read in “Healthy Pleasures” by Robert Ornstein and David Sobel that studies have found that some people who have lost their sight or become quadriplegics say that those misfortunes were the BEST thing that ever happened to them.  They state that with those heavy handicaps, they really have to live attentively and fully.
 
The columnist Nancy Gibbs wrote in Time of Nov. 23, 2009 that the current recession is a time when many people are reporting feeling BETTER and HAPPIER than they have felt during richer, easier times.
 
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a professor of management and psychology, reports that people are in a satisfying “flow” of life or athletics or other endeavors when they experience a challenge that calls for their best but is one that just stretches them.
 
Some Buddhists state they are encouraged when they discover they are suffering.  Then, they get a chance to observe how the suffering feels and where they are dealing with it in their bodies.
 
Failures and disappointments are inevitable in this life but they, too, have value.  Notice I didn’t even mention the lessons these negatives sometime provide not to do that again.
 
 

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tom

As usual for me, another good friend that is very tall.  I am short so my tendency to make friends with quite tall men emphasizes the difference in our heights.  My college roommate was also my partner at a Scouting outpost a few years earlier.  In the woods or on the campus, we looked like Schwarzenegger and DeVito together. 
 
Whether it is Don or Perry or Tom, there is little me and big him. But Tom has been a special friend.  When I landed in this small town, he gave me a place until my family got here and our house was ready.  That was more than 40 years ago.  Off and on, since then, we have been in each other’s lives.  He again gave me a place to stay 20 years ago when I was teaching and living in two places.
 
I am very confident that there have been times when he got a little irritated with me.  Most people I know have found me bothersome one time or another.  But he has never shown any such feelings.  He is a counselor and a good one.  Despite our differences in background, outlook, habits and area of specialization, he has always seemed empathetic and understanding. 
 
Tom is a cultured and scholarly man.  He loves good art, music, jewelry and literature.  He loves languages, especially ancient ones. 
 
It is definitely not just me who finds him to be that sort of person.  Literally, hundreds of people for all walks of life and from all the decades of his life feel the same way about him. That includes people on several continents, too.
 
It is a little difficult to write a salute to Tom since the feelings of so many people about the guy are on the level called “love”.  That would not be a good description for most men but it is quite true of Tom.
 
 
 

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thoughts Flying through the Air and Smacking into Our Heads

Zen practitioners, people who keep an eye on themselves, realize that thoughts, pains, fears are temporary.  So are joys, delights and pleasures. 
 
Lynn pictured the presence of thoughts, flying unseen through the air, smacking into our brains by accident.  So, if you are suddenly taken with an unusual urge for cashews, it might be a strange thought that has flown into your brain. 
 
If you and your pastor have the same idea, it might not be that you both collided with the same thought.  It might be that similar times, locations, conversations during coffee hour and such created similar thought invitations for you both.  Arthur Koestler’s “Roots of Coincidence” describes people in a large dining hall, each drawing what comes to mind.  It was found that sections of the room tended to produce the similar drawings even though everything was conducted in silence.  You and your drawing neighbor might have seen the same horror show or romance last night or just heard the same sound.
 
Most of the time, we don’t halt thoughts at the door and denounce them as unfit for entry into our minds.  We do sometimes feel a dream has come to mind that is very unlike our usual thoughts.  But mostly, when that happens, we shrug it off as a function of dreams: to take us to places we don’t usually go and give us roles we don’t usually have. 
 
At least in my culture and family, I don’t drink from your glass.  If I knew that a flying thought was yours and not meant for me, I might cast it aside or return it to you.   Still, since I am very curious about your life and feelings, I might delight in slipping some of your ideas into my head, if doing so didn’t hurt, of course.
 
I actually don’t find myself thinking that much.  I mean figuring, wrestling with a problem to solve.  It seems that much of the time, I am off in a meadow gazing or waiting for a plane gazing or savoring my role as prime minister of Fiji.  It is definitely possible that I already spend a lot of time working with your pictures and don’t even know it.  Sort of like a bird that has an egg in its nest from another mom, feeding and nurturing a strange kid.  If you have been slipping me your images, stop it.
 
 
 

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Open Source and Thoughts from Outside the Box

The Finnish software engineer Linus Torvalds wrote a computer operating system and gave it away for free.  Of course, that is not what Microsoft was doing with Windows.  For quite a while, people seemed to basically feel that if it was free, it couldn’t be any good. 
 
Over time though, people began to be interested.  Since the system was available to all, it could be modified by anyone in any way.  Of course, some modifications did not appeal to many but those users could use the original system.  The idea of an open cooperative system spread.  Today, we have what I believe to be the best web browser in Firefox.  It is open source and free.
 
Some observers today think that any system or product that is not open will fail to evolve fast enough and in a sufficiently user-centered way to be viable in the long run.  If a private company or organization is really on its toes, it may be able to keep up with widespread needs and fashions.  Certainly, many have done so in the past.
 
One of the weaker points of open source projects is cooperation and order.  It took a while for a mass of men, all with the famous male ego and pride, to gather and talk.  Back in the days when they carried swords and daggers, it was probably difficult to get everyone to quiet down enough to proceed and to allow all to be heard.  I have read that at one time, there was reluctance to put knives and forks on a dinner table for fear they would be used as weapons in case of a disagreement.  Some of the shenanigans in our own Congress involving weapons and assault are astounding.
 
Parliament (an assembly of talkers and discussers) developed parliamentary procedure.  There was a chair or president who called on those who wished to speak, a secretary who recorded what business was transacted and a parliamentarian and/or sergeant-at-arms to assisting in keeping order.  Now, in most parts of the world, there is at least some form of open or open-ish discussion between legislators.
 
A very famous open project is Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopedia.  It is free and cooperative.  Anyone can put in an article or edit what is there.  If you wish to modify the article on A. Lincoln to say that he was born in Spain, you can, right now.  Of course, if you do, someone will change it back to Kentucky.  Several hundred people watch over the whole thing carefully and try to keep it high quality.  Some companies and other organizations have adopted the idea and use it to develop manuals and company policy.  There is great fascination with the speed, flexibility and range of imagination possible if there are many contributors, thinkers and those all-important critics.  I tried “open source furniture” and “open source car design” and both have already been begun.
 
In some classrooms where students from a previously highly restricted and controlled environment have freedom, there has been a period of adjustment before such students found ways to use the freedom to their own benefit.  For a while, the sudden release of restriction has produced a slightly drunken euphoria and sometimes disorder. 
 
When President Obama visited with Chinese students recently, he emphasized the value and importance of free speech and exchange of information.  Many societies, including our own at times, distrust empowering all.  In some cases, they have good reason to beware of greed, madness, ambition and hatred and their fruits.
 
But eventually, all societies may find the benefits of openness, coupled with civility.
 
 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My life is perfect and so is yours

That is a fundamental message of Charlotte Joko Beck, a well-known Zen teacher.  Zen is the Japanese form of Buddhism and since I was in Hawaii, I was glad to have a chance to read some of Everyday Zen by Beck.
 
Early in the book, she says if she were to tell me that my life is perfect right now, just as it is, I would think she was crazy.  “Nobody believes his or her life is perfect.”  Much of Zen practice is focusing the mind on observing our thoughts.  We come to see how we develop hopes that we could have a cuter pair of eyeglasses or a better lawn.  Usually, getting a cuter pair or zero weeds does not bring as much satisfaction as we expected.  Sometimes, we don’t even notice those new things since by then, our hopes and desires are focused on getting something else.
 
My granddaughter and her husband are reading a book assigned to him in one of his courses, Affluenza by de Graff and others. This book is about the drive toward more toys, a bigger car, a HD tv.  Zen takes the cautions against falling for marketed material goods to a higher level.  It is also a type of greed to wish to be taller, thinner, wiser, more fluent in French. 
 
Many religions try to help people achieve satisfaction with their lives, to “live by the side of the road and be a friend to man”.  Often contentment goes with helping others but neither that nor anything else guarantees satisfaction.
 
Thinking about a life that is over and the irrelevance of the criticisms of the person and others of the time may shed light on the possibility that our lives really are perfect right now.  Take Thomas Edison’s grandfather or grandmother, somebody you don’t know and have no investment in.  Look up that person’s dissatisfactions and shortcomings.  Didn’t save enough?  Didn’t dust often enough?  Maybe it was all just right or indistinguishable from the other path they kept regretting not taking.
 
Some people get help from thinking it is all part of a big plan or God’s plan.  I have these shortcomings, I got cheated this way because God needed me to.  My suffering helped some place else in some way I don’t know about.  
 
I am assisted by realizing how little I know for sure what changes I want.  One day, I tried being taller but I kept bumping my head.  Another day, I was more attractive but found no peace in barrage of invitations.  Maybe I am just right!  Maybe I can just accept my life as is.
 
 

Monday, November 16, 2009

Baby permits

If you came across a 70 year old man in a coffee shop playing with a baby rattle, you might give him a wide berth.  Mental illness can be found everywhere.  However, if there is a little baby sitting in a high chair in front of him, it is ok.  Playing with the rattle might be instructive for the baby, it might get the baby in a good mood, the smiles and goos of the old man might encourage the baby to talk.  Google had an article the other day that babies cry in their own language so maybe the old man is assisting the baby grow into society.
 
I think it is funny how babies’ mere presence gives adults permission to move, speak and act in ways that are usually not acceptable without the baby being there.  I am reminded of those kids’ days at the amusement park or the pool where an adult is not allowed in without a kid coming along.  Even in a nursing home, those who are quite elderly light up when they see a baby.  I think they are transported back to their own childhoods and to the days when they parented little kids.
 
When the baby holds its spoon out over the edge of the high chair tray, drops the spoon, and looks down at the spoon laying on the floor, we can see a mind not only learning about the constancy of gravity (yep, it happened again, just like before) but we can momentarily experience the oddity of gravity’s existence.  G.K. Chesterton wrote in “The Logic of Elfland” that a child of 7 is excited to be told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon but that a child of 3 is excited to be told that Tommy opened a door. 
 
That’s one of many things that babies do: allow us to be momentarily re-amazed that a door can be opened, that water comes out of the tap and flows across the countertop, that it snows. 
 
 

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Salute to the Jews

One figure that has a strong claim to be the most important religious figure ever is Jesus, a Jew.  Many other important figures in Western history were also Jewish, including Marx, Freud and Einstein.  The book “The Gifts of the Jews” by Thomas Cahill is a good one to see something of their contributions to human life and thought.
 
Some Jews have felt that a Middle Eastern tribe that comes to believe it has a special agreement with the lord of the universe showed lots of chutzpah or gall.  The Jews fought for their ideas and tried to free themselves of Roman rule but their tiny land was no match for the Roman Empire, the same group we studied in my Latin class.  There we read about the legions showing up, armed and experienced in killing and conquest, all over such lands as modern day Spain, France, Britain, and Germany demanding tribute on an annual basis and holding children hostage to get it.  To my 10th grade ears, that sounded very much like a mob protection racket, although it can be argued that life improved in many ways under Roman rule.
 
The Romans got tired of the pesky Jews and routed them from their homeland in the most famous diaspora.  That action was preceded hundreds of years before by the Babylonians doing the same thing.  In the Christian era, Jews were all over.  Most of the countries of Europe have a mixed history of tolerating Jewish presence some of the time and making them leave at other times. 
 
About 1492, yes. the same year as Columbus, Spain and then Portugal exiled them.  At the time, the small but powerful nation of the Netherlands accepted many of them and there, they lived as other citizens of that country.  The original idea of the covenant was a mixture of what we would call public health, military and political aspirations and religion.  The idea was that the Jewish god would protect and deliver Israel from troubles if the people kept the agreement to worship and live as told to do so.  As centuries went on, many good thinkers in the group began to review their history and ideas.  Jews have not lacked for good thinkers and good arguers.  In the middle of the 1600’s, one of their best, Baruch Spinoza, wrote a treatise claiming there was no special protection for Jews or anyone else and all had to live and think as best they could.  He was only in his 20’s and his ideas were not welcomed by the rabbis and others.  He urged his people to abandon the complex code of dietary and other regulations and live as they wanted.  However, many had grown up with their way of life and felt comfortable with it and saw no reason to abandon it. Of course, many felt that a young upstart had no grasp of the truth and shunned him.  He continued to live and think and earn his income as a lens grinder, dying at age 44 of lung disease from inhaling the glass dust.
 
His ideas, challenges and questions continue to this day to be important in religious and philosophical studies.
 
Spinoza is just one of hundreds of important thinkers, writers, scientists, physicians, musicians, artists, businessmen, and politicians in all walks of life and in many countries and centuries that have come from the Jews.
 
 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Husband is the Head of the Wife

The husband is the head of the wife -That is what it says in Ephesians 5:23.  I am not entirely sure that Paul knew just what he was talking about.  I suppose it is ok if the husband is the head of the wife, whatever that might mean exactly, so long as the wife is the head of the husband.  Maybe in the long run, it is better if two heads are used and both respected.
 
I have heard statements that the Muslim world or any other human world will not do very well until it recognizes the value and strength of women, who amount to more than half of the population over time, since they live longer at all ages.  I am a man and I like to have women do what I tell them to but I often tell them to use their own judgment.  Sometimes, I tell them something but they don’t seem to hear me.
 
The older I get, the more I understand how rarely I know what is best for anything or anyone, including myself.  Most of the time, I feel that I know what is best for me better than anyone else does.  There are times, however, when I order roast beef and my wife advises me to order the fish instead since the last time I had beef. I said I didn’t like it.  I am not sure she remembers accurately and sometimes I know for sure she doesn’t.  So, I order the roast beef but I don’t like it.  Then, I order the fish and I do like it. 
 
I am wonder if my wifey whispers suggestions in my ear while I am sleeping so that I can’t have confidence in my tendencies if they are in opposition to hers.  I doubt it.  I tend to awaken easily and I am not that good at adopting suggestions.  Besides, I tried whispering into her ear but it didn’t have any effect.
 
I respect my wife’s intelligence, her memory and her intuition.  There have been enough times when she makes some pronouncement out of the blue, such as “It is going to snow today” and I disagree.  I point to the blue sky, the weather report and ask where she got such a silly idea.  Then, 30 minutes later, it is snowing. 
 
Our minds and personalities differ.  We very often have different opinions and reactions.  Someone said recently if two people always agree, one of them is superfluous.  We are into our 50th year of marriage and we have found that we often think differently.  I often enjoy her take on colors, plans, and experiences and I always count on her brains and observations.
 
 

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Aloha People

I thought “aloha” meant both ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’.  I guess in a way, it does but it also means “love” or as one writer expressed it, “loving hello”.  Isn’t it impressive if a people greet in such a way?  Shouldn’t Christians be impressed with such a practice?
 
We learned that New England missionaries in about 1820 came to the Hawaiian islands to convert people but at the same time, assisted the ruler of the islands in beginning to write the native language for the first time.  They had to create the alphabet.  Just in comparison, Finnish was not a written language until about 1840 or 1850.
 
We also learned that Captain James Cook was the first Caucasian to visit the islands in 1778, not that long before the New England missionaries. 
 
I thought the hula was a sexy dance and no doubt it can be.  But, we learned that both men and women study hula quite seriously and that it is an expressive dance with religious and spiritual themes and purposes.
 
I had never paid much attention to Hawaiian music but we learned to appreciate its use of falsetto and open transition into and out of the falsetto voice.  We learned to enjoy its gentle rhythms and hypnotic relaxed tones.
 
From a little time in Australia and reading “The Fatal Shore” by the peppery Robert Hughes, from a little time in New Zealand with both whites and Maori and from a little time in Hawaii, I got the impression that the Australian aborigines were in Australia 60,000 years ago and seemed rather primitive and undeveloped to English eyes.  The Maori of New Zealand reached that land a comparatively short time before the Europeans and were quite fierce.  The Hawaiians came to Hawaii in two major thrusts from the south Pacific and developed a gentleness not like most other people I have heard about.
 
Both “The Seven Daughters of Eve” by Bryan Sykes and “Deep Ancestry” by Spencer Wells (he of the National Geographic’s Genographic Project using DNA analysis to map the spread of humans from central Africa) have interesting comments about all the Polynesians and their amazing navigation of the vast Pacific.
 
 
 
 

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trying to be memorable

Robert Ornstein says that it seems we humans are hard-wired from deep inside to respond to stimuli according to four variables
  • Recent
  • Bigger, brighter, softer, etc. in COMPARISON to what is usual (the mind always notes the unusual)
  • Vivid
  • Meaningful
That means that advertising and story-telling (movies, novels and tv) try to be exciting and vivid, often appealing to our fears, hopes and sex drives.  But of course these approaches are not what long-term life is about.  It is gentleness, thoughtfulness, love, patience, calm that win the day 99% of the time, not flash, death and bulging muscles.
 
We listened to a researcher once who compared Harlequin romances and Doc Savage novels.  The romances are about feelings and love, where is plenty of pain and doubt about acceptance and approval and rejection and loss and lasting relations. 
 
Meanwhile, over in Doc Savage, a he-man hits a bad guy so hard, his eyeball flies out of his head and rolls across the barroom floor. Males respond to challenges and the hope of heroics and I guess females respond to manly displays and victories. 
 
So, fiction and the media emphasize James Bond athletics, bravery, kicks and marksmanship.  Of course, in the land and age of the emergence of women, we have gorgeous female agents and officers doing the same things, only better.  We are surprised at how beautiful all the female officers are and how provocatively their d├ęcolletage is displayed in the work place and during gunfights.
 
Too bad for all that flash and display, it is the calm and steady that wins
  • Over time
  • Over problems
  • Statistically (when the marauders murder most of the village, few with calm and steady survive and grow and flourish)
  • And faces aging and changes, welcome and unwelcome
  • And allows savoring of beauty, friendship, and pleasure
Calm and steady seem more aligned with the feminine but the genuinely feminine is often quiet and avoids fireworks.  Thus Grandma isn’t an action hero.  But she should be.
 
 

Aging

I have been told that being ready to die is the secret of life.  You know, a coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man, but one. Living in constant fear limits the enjoyment of the hours, achievements, friends and loves one has.
 
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, contributor  to death studies and ideas, said that dying is easy but that living is hard.  Many friends tell me they are not afraid of dying but don’t look forward to pain of aging and decrepitude.
 
Visits to nursing homes underscore the lost of functions of the body, functions you might not realize you have.  Little kids are good instructors in the complexity of eating, in the many skills and ability to time the arrival of the spoon at the lips to the opening of the mouth.  Aging can eventually interfere with that timing and the mouth may be opened wide long before the food arrives.  That is just one of the skills that we use every day that can deteriorate on the way to total cessation.
 
Just as little kids require adjustment of our expectations, so does aging.  We don’t expect a 20 year old to turn the spoon upside down as it arrives at the mouth.  We don’t expect anyone to do that but when a 1 year old does it, we laugh in surprise and adjust our expectations.  This is a person who has not acquired the skills and experience to allow muscles to successfully allow for gravity.  Similarly, the 90 year old may be a person who has lost the skills and forgotten the experiences of how to allow for gravity, even while still realizing the need to do so to achieve momentary goals.
 
So many people have aged before us, you’d think that we clever humans would have it down to a science by now.  Yet, it is a shock to find one gets dizzy upon standing up, that  one can’t do a single push-up, or successfully out-run a nine year old.  I am adjusting what I consider the basics of my dignity and self-esteem but I have trouble keeping my inner picture accurate.
 
The story goes that Gautama was shocked at the impact on humans of sickness, aging and death.  Like faith, hope and love (or charity), the black three figure largely in our lives, too.  I am now 70 and about half of the wisdom I have picked up consists in re-framing the picture of myself and accepting (partially) the details that would have earned my disdain at 30.
 
 

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pay No Attention

My brother-in-law said that he foresees the day when silence will be sold.  I think we are already there in several ways.  Silence as in the complete absence of noise is not available and possibly not valuable.  Go inside your audiologist’s sound-proof booth and sit.  You can hear your breathing.  You can hear the sounds of tissues and tendons as you turn your head.  And, as he mentioned, we older folks can always listen to our tinnitus, the ringing in our ears.
 
The “noise” in our minds is the subject of a great deal of study and concentration.  Meditation can be used to cease thinking and merely stay at attention, as a cat watching a mouse hole.  If during such a vigil, the cat starts thinking of all the faults of dogs, it may miss the moment the mouse emerges.  So, just sit still.  Create a silence in the mind.
 
Not engaging in thought is exactly the sort of inner silence that people study in many types of yoga, Zen, and other meditative approaches.  I read of a yoga teacher who had a final activity for his students to stay calm and unengaged for a time.  As the activity began, a car alarm went off outside and it continued to blare for the whole time.  Some of the students thought that had been arranged as a test, even though it wasn’t. 
 
I have a white noise machine that is supposed to lull a person to sleep.  It has several sounds built into it, a train rattling along a track, the ocean lapping the shore and rainfall. Yet, when Lynn was in a hotel right on the ocean, she began to find the waves crashing an oppressive sound. 
 
Right along with attention control goes physical relaxation.  The act of tensing muscles, often facial, neck or shoulder muscles, sometime called “guarding”, is a common reaction to stress, worry, pain and anxiety.  All use of muscles tends to be better, smoother and easier if the opposing muscles are appropriately relaxed.  So, being aware of muscle tension is a big part of good mental and physical development.
 
The fact that gaining good awareness and control of one’s attention and muscle tension is valuable is dawning in many places.  This Christmas, toymakers are selling games aimed at using the mind to control the game.  The reviews are not all that strong so far but in a few years, strong awareness of one’s attention and body states may well be considered part of an basic elementary education.
 
 

scuffles

He was short and rather chubby, probably weighed about 50 lbs. more than me. He seemed intelligent and  rather good-natured but somehow we got off on  the wrong foot.  It might have been that he was being affectionate, friendly, in his way.  I don’t remember the exact circumstances, just that at least twice we got into it physically. 
You wouldn’t think that two educated college faculty members would wind up in a scuffle but we did.  I think the first time, he was threatening me and crowding me,  trying to push me backwards and intimidate me.  We were standing in a hallway with a marble floor.  The next time he extended his arm toward me, I arm-dragged him.  I held his arm straight and added my weight to his forward momentum.  That much weight over-balanced him and he fell forward.  As he did, I slipped to the side.  He fell directly onto his knees, his full weight crashing his kneecaps into that marble.  There was a loud bang and a cry of pain.  I thought he might have badly injured himself and I would be responsible. 
I got up and stepped away.  He got up and didn’t try anything further so I figured that was that.  I didn’t want to cause trouble but I didn’t enjoyed being trouble either.
There was a further instance.  We were outside a large classroom with about  40 students and an instructor working inside.  I can’t remember how he wound up on his back on the floor.  I do remember that  I scooped up his ankles and held each on tightly in an armpit.  He thrashed and squirmed.  I had had opponents in that position before and it can be surprisingly difficult to get out of.  He screamed, “I will kill you, you little f*cker!” 
I stepped away to see what would happen next but nothing did.  I knew it would better for both of us if we avoided physical violence.  Besides being dangerous to our bodies, it was unhealthy for our dignity, our reputations and our jobs to be getting into wrestling matches in public hallways.  We never did again.
 
 

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Riches or burdens?

I know it is a big change: paying bills online, exchanging photos, downloading movies, legal and illegal file-sharing.  In many ways, the world is emerging in a new form.  As with books bought but not read, so with songs downloaded.  Soon you have 300 CD’s of carefully chosen song tracks but when will you listen to all that?  Again songs were collected but not listened to, like the books.  We get seven or so magazines at our house but we don’t read all the issues. 
 
Chris Anderson’s book “Free” looks at the phenomenon of things being for free but that is not likely to correct the over-abundance problem.  His blog tries to stay up-to-date on developments and thoughts about things being offered for free.  But free makes it even easier, at least at first, to take more than you can use, eat, store, even remember.  A friend just wrote that only a day ago, she found two books in her library that she must have purchased herself but she can’t remember when and she isn’t sure why.
 
One of our favorite books, Clutter’s Last Stand by Don Aslett, is one of several on the problem of staying somewhat simplified and organized as time goes by.  It ain’t easy.  My favorite businessman was complaining that he knows the production cost of many items and he sees what is being charged for the thing.  He can figure the % of markup and he doesn’t want to give that much markup to the seller.  He is tempted to simply offer to “meet the seller behind the dumpster”.  He explained that ultimately everything is either sold or disposed of.  If he meets the seller behind the dumpster, he can have the item or hundreds of them for free as they are thrown out.
 
Try to dispose of your sweatshirts for cash on eBay and you find that dozens of others are already doing that.  Try to give them to the local Goodwill store or charity and they already have enough and more.  Too many calories, too many tv shows, yikes!  I have several email accounts but don’t remember to check them  all.  I might have won the Bulgarian lottery and not know it!  Lynn just found that she has a web site she forgot about.  Sure, chalk it up to our being old but give me a chance and I bet I can find you have forgotten books, clothes, cans of food, maybe bank accounts, too.
 
 

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Globalization, Schmobalization

I have been listening to Edward Fischer of Vanderbilt University talk about people and cultures of the world.  He has made it very clear that much of what we have in our minds comes from the culture we grew up in.  I doubted the extent this was true until he explained that why we think we are sick is cultural.  The idea that the physical world can be studied, sometimes understood and controlled or modified is cultural and some cultures don’t buy the idea.
 
Teachers have the experience of making a statement in front of the whole class, sometimes several times and then finding that some member of the group didn’t hear it, some forgot it, some know the statement and make use of it.  There is no way to make uniform the thinking, background, history or attention of a group of people.  That is true for a small group like 30 and much more true of a large group like the Texans or the Inuit.
 
Fischer talked about McDonald’s, often used as a symbol of globalization.  Some McDonald’s in the world serve beer, some wine.  Some serve rice and wouldn’t survive without doing so.  In some, the accepted polite practice is to spill all the orders of fries into a single pile, to be share by all at the table.  Take anything single item such as food and pass it around the world and you will see variations pop up
 
I have read that Napoleon’s minister of education swore he would get the schools of France in order.  He promised to have every child in France of the same age reading the same words at the same time.  It is a simple idea: get it right and enforce it everywhere.  At times, it works or seems to but basically over time, the uniformity will decay or be surpassed or outdated.
 
One of the strengths of American approaches has been keeping the eye on the goal and doing what is possible to achieve the goal, even by unusual or individual means.  As time goes by, we will see this all over the planet.  People are getting their confidence up and their thinking caps on!
 
 

Friday, November 6, 2009

Books Bought But Not Read

Teachers are always wondering about who read the assignment.  It happens that one student looked diligently at every word but doesn’t remember or understand what was written.  Another knows from tv or general knowledge and does well on a test without reading the assignment.  It is not always clear what "reading" is.
 
There are special wrinkles about books a person buys but doesn’t read.  Why did they pay good money if they aren’t going to read what they bought?  Maybe later.  Maybe they have been too busy.  Maybe they learned something about the book or the author that turned them off.  Very possibly, some other book, or movie, or project claimed their attention and then they forgot about the book.
 
I have certainly withdrawn books from the library and returned them later unread, sometimes unopened.  I have about 350 books on my shelves but I am not reading them since they are not in my Kindle.  The little device is easy to carry with me and it allows me to switch between books quickly and easily without taking a step.  My paper books are getting lower and lower priorities.  These are the same books that have survived culling and weeding many times.
 
I have experienced going into a bookstore, finding an interesting book and buying it.  When I get it home, I find I already have a copy on the shelf but I haven’t read it yet.  I guess if I had read it, I would remember having done so.  I have also experienced deciding I didn’t need a book I have bought and wasn’t going to read it so I donated it to the library for their money-raising sale.  Yep.  I went to the sale, found that good book, bought it and then discovered it was the book I had donated.
 
I am not inclined to find a system for preventing these purchases that don’t lead to a fully read book.  I continue to feel that having the freedom to add a book that I may read is worth the damages and waste that comes from exercising that freedom.  I have about 200 books in my Kindle and I may not ever read some of them.  But I have them if I get around to wanting to.  When I learn of the existence of an interesting book these days, I often look at its rating on the Amazon.com site.  I may read the most positive and most negative comments readers have made about the book.  I may download a free sample of the book.  I may add it to a wish list (133 items just now) and a ‘save for later’ list to try to give myself a note about a book that I ought to get around to.  But sometimes, I just buy it.  My way has worked pretty well for a long time and I think I will stick with it.
 
 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Good" or enjoyed?

People are funny about reading.  If you ask What is high level reading?, I suppose many would answer “Shakespeare”.  High level is supposed to be good.  That is why it is referred to as “high”, above the average.  My experience has been that the famous books recommended on lists of the great writers are not read much by most people and are not all that satisfying when they are read.


In my reading review course, I often picked on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”  It was unfair since I hadn’t read it and had not ever even looked at a single page.  One time, I saw that the book was available for Kindle and I downloaded it.  I have read it in several times but not found it particularly interesting or compelling.  In contrast, “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan was good reading and the non-fiction “Mindless Eating” by Brian Wansink and “The Head Trip” by Jeff Warren continue to be very worthwhile. 

There is a passage where C.S.Lewis is discussing good literature and not-so-good and he asks the reader to imagine a woman in front of a library bookshelf with her head thrown back and her gaze off in the distance.  She is trying to remember whether or not she has read the book in her hands.  He says that if she read good books, she would remember.  If she can’t remember, her reading isn’t very good.

Two different friends have told me recently that they always buy books that they don’t read, as though that is a waste and counts against them.  I do the same thing but I have a strong desire to do so even if I can’t justify it.  Maybe I’ll read them later.  Maybe they will answer a call when I am in a different mood and I can sense that fact now.  We have different moods and needs.

All the English majors have heard of Herman M. and few have head of M.C.Beaton.  Yet, I found Beaton’s character, a policeman in a small town in the north of Scotland quite memorable and readable.  When I explained my reading preference to Lynn, she said,”They fill different spaces.”  Right!  When I want a salad and a milkshake, I don’t want a 7 course meal. 

Noel Perrin, an English prof. at Dartmouth, in “A Reader’s Delight”, goes through the numbers.



Notice, a few thousand of 5 to 10 million.  No wonder we haven’t heard of many works we would love!


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mollie Katzen and Vegetables

Mollie Katzen is the author of many cookbooks and a founder of the Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca, New York.  We spent a week there in the summer of 2008 and ate at the Moosewood several times.  Katzen specializes in vegetarian cooking.  Her dishes include eggs and dairy products and are excellent.
 
The current Discover magazine says that it takes 240 gallons of fresh water to grow a pound of rice but more than 1600 gallons for a pound of beef.  The 1971 book “Diet for a Small Planet” emphasized the greater cost of meat over vegetables.  Somewhere I read that Asian rice farmers are used to growing their crop in a relatively small space, quite a bit smaller than it usual for beef or wheat.  I imagine the oil and fuel used to work rice is close to nothing as opposed to gasoline powered tractors we are familiar with.  A friend said that there are rice fields that have been in cultivation for thousands of years that are more fertile now than they were long ago.
 
Most of my friends who are older are interested in losing weight and many vegetables have fewer calories than meat.  To me, meat is a good food but it makes sense to skip it sometimes.  Of course, vegetables have no cholesterol and few additives.
 
This evening, I made a lima bean dish and a broccoli-mushroom casserole from two Katzen cookbooks we own.  The lima recipe called for both sage and savory, two spices I have never actually used before.  Katzen makes clear the value of good spices.  The casserole called for cottage cheese and sour cream, ingredients I rarely think of.
 
Recently, a friend said that restaurants could sell sawdust if they mixed it with enough seasoning and fat.  I do think that the most specialized cooking is in vegetables and not in steaks, roasts and chops.  I admit that we don’t seem to have an inner drive toward carrots, even well cooked and seasoned carrots like our response to the sight and scent of roasting meat.
 
 

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sleeping

I was mentioning my interest in the similarities and differences of trance and meditation when she said,”Have I got a book for you!”  Most of the time such a comment precedes something not so interesting but this time it was different.  The book is “The Head Trip” by Jeff Warren and in print or Kindle, it is worth taking a good look at.  Several hypnosis people have assured me that we all pass through a trance falling asleep and waking up.  The book discusses all states the mind/brain gets into and trance and sleep are two of them.
 
The most interesting part so far has been the discussion of our life now vs. the lives of those before the invention of the light bulb.  That invention has made it quite possible to have as much light at night as in the day but it used to be that night was dark.  A typical night worldwide is 12 hours and that is a long time of dark.  There is good evidence that when people went to bed when night fell, they tended to wake up after 4 or 5 hours.  People from 1500 and 1600 wrote about “second sleep” and the good feelings they experienced between the two.  They felt that sleeping, waking and returning to sleep was completely natural and not a sign of extra worry or sleep disorder.
 
Other sections discuss typical Western beds: elevated off the floor and built for one or two to sleep the whole night through.  In many parts of the world, such beds are not the norm.  Rather a group of sleepers near each other, sleeping and waking and sleeping as they wish is more typical. In a village, someone was usually awake at any hour.
 
The author researched and discusses sleep with anthropologists, who have very rarely studied sleep around the world or different conceptions of what sleep is and what it is “supposed’ to be.  He also showed that there can be complex combinations of sleeping state and waking state, sometimes in the same brain at the same time, although not for most people.
 
Edison and others have used falling asleep as a tool for creativity, as in “sleep on it” to solve a problem. 
 
 
 

Monday, November 2, 2009

How Do We Know Where is Right?

When you live in the north where it is cold and windy, you have to wonder sometimes, where is the best place to live?  Where it is warm, it can be crowded and not only with people but with other forms of life, too.  In many places, the water supply is questionable, the taxes are high, the air quality may be low.  Having giant wildfires, volcanic eruptions, mudslides, floods, tsunamis and earthquakes is only fun for a short time. 
 
When I had a course on the history of higher ed., I found the traditions of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota to be outstanding.  As the Northwest Territory was being settled, those states had a plan of laying out townships and including part of each for a school.  At the same time, those states founded universities which were explicitly aimed at research and the improvement of the lives of the citizens, not merely for instruction in ancient wisdom and languages.  That difference, that higher education was to be for research and improvement was not common throughout the world, where knowing what Aristotle had to say often ranked higher in importance.
 
It’s true that the northern latitudes can get some nasty weather, the kind that Garrison Keillor says is Nature’s attempt to kill us.  Still, we do have clothes and fuel and enclosed and heated cars.  Some people say that the cold keeps out the riff-raff. 
 
Maryland and places in the middle of the country can have great difficulty with a small amount of snow while the northern states seem to be able to handle it.  Why is that?  It is true that those who get heavy snow expect it and prepare.  They have experience dealing with it and if they let the snow disappoint them too often, they would have three or four months missing out of each year.  One surprise regarding cold is that temperatures below freezing are easier to deal with than temperatures that warm above freezing during the day, melt ice or snow and then drop back below freezing at night.
 
Recruiting for faculty members at northern colleges can be difficult.  When I moved here from Maryland, I was afraid for the house windows at temperatures of 20 or 30 below.  Wouldn’t the glass break from stress?
 
For Lynn and me, the major factor is family.  Children, grandchildren and great grandchildren are a little part of us and we of them.  Those little parts add up and matter. 
 
I think that the location where your life is in balance is the place to live.  Over time, you may figure out how to have a balanced life in any given location and that place may be a good one.  I have friends who were surprised by the difficulty of finding good doctors and dentists in a new location.  The quality of government, the work ethic, the restaurants and night life, bookstores, hospitals, gardening possibilities – there are many things that may attract or later grow to matter.
 
Pascal pitied his friends since they had so many hopes and projects that from the point of view of probability alone, there would surely be some disappointing failures in their lives.  I have come to picture our bodies and our hopes and goals as sufficiently complex that we will simply not realize everything we want when we want it. 
 
 
 

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