Sunday, October 31, 2010

Link shortening service

Twitter's tweets must be 140 characters or less.  That means that the first link in the numbered list below cannot be transmitted as a tweet but all the characters are needed to get directly to the target book at  Also, anyone trying to enter a link into a mobile phone really appreciates a link with only a few characters.  Aha!  A new service, a new market, a new way to get a few coins.  The first link shortening service was founded in 2002 but now there are 180 of them.

Here is an interesting and educational article from O'Reilly Radar blog on the subject of link shortening services and some of the pros and cons of them today. The basic idea is that one pastes a long link to be shortened into a window on the shortening service's site and uses the short form created by the service as a substitute for the original link. 

Google has a shortening service:

3 links to the same book on look like this:

  2. The above is a link to Mark Epstein's book "Psychotherapy Without the Self".  Here is a buried or masked link to the same book.
  3. Here is a link to the same book that has been shortened by Google's link shortening service,
As made clear in the O'Reilly Radar post, the link will only work as long the Google link shortening service is "up", that is functioning and connected to the Internet.  Being Google, they try hard to fix things so that their service is always up.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The wise fool

Every now and then, I run into a Nasrudin story that stays with me.  He is the wise fool of Islamic culture and has had some memorable (fictional) adventures.

1) Nasrudin was getting older.  A friend asked if he had ever considered getting married.  Nasrudin said that he had patiently searched out the perfect woman and found her.  "What happened?", asked the friend.  "She was patiently searching for the perfect man."

2) Once Nasrudin heard that Death was in town, looking for him.  In fear, he immediately fled to the city.  A friend, looking for Nasrudin, asked Death if he had seen him around.  Death replied," I doubt if you will find him in town.  I have an appointment with him in the city this afternoon."

Looking up "Nasrudin", I found plenty of sites, from writings by Idries Shah to this one and this one.  Here is one that seemed to get more laughs:

The hay wagon had upset in the road and the young driver, Mulla Nasrudin, was terribly worried about it. A kindhearted farmer told the young fellow to forget his troubles and come in and have some supper with his family. "Then we will straighten up the wagon," the farmer said. The Mulla said he didn't think his father would like it. "Oh, don't worry about that," said the farmer. "Everything will be all right." So Nasrudin stayed for supper. Afterwards he said he felt better and thanked the farmer. "But," he said, "I still don't think my father will like it." "Forget it," said the farmer. "By the way," he added, "Where is your father?" "He's under the hay!" said Nasrudin.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Where did I get that idea?

I keep finding that I pull fast ones on myself.  I believe in the idea of looking at my thoughts and giving them the once over before accepting them as true, correct.  Yet, I find I get a thought about something that scares or repels me and I don't take the time to consider if the notion that has popped up is a good one, a true one.  I just take it and run with it as though it has been verified and scrutinized.  I can almost expect that the stronger the emotion I have about an idea, the more doubtful is its truth.

I like to think that I stay aware of how I feel as well as what I think.  But I don't notice how quickly and unconditionally I admit hot-button thoughts/feelings into myself.  It's like the hot and fast-moving ones slip in under the fence.  What good is it to learn how to question, how to see things from different angles if I don't apply the methods?  Not making use of my abilities gets me into a stew or a fret that is totally unnecessary but it takes a day or two for the possibility of side-stepping or re-thinking to quietly make itself known.

But Charlotte Beck (and Byron Katie) have made an impression on me with their emphasis on seeing that it is easy to demand of myself to be "better".  Gritting my teeth and growling at myself when I find I have not done what I wanted to can be a quick and easy substitute for gently, knowingly, firmly but appreciatively accepting my thoughts/actions for what they are but modifying them or editing them.  A polite, respectful review can apply my energy, mental and physical, where it will do some good with less of an assault on my wiring and habits
. "Mea culpa" and "my bad" can be a cop-out.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Modification of TV

Last night, I had some time to settle in front of the tv.  I quickly unsettled.  True, I am older and crankier than many members of other segments of the population so I am not surprised that many programs get a following while turning me off.  I like good humor but much of what is available seems obvious and predictable and not funny.  I like a good mystery but maybe I have already seen and read too many to get engaged in much.  I definitely don't like what seems like an effort to arouse horror, or thankfulness for life, or some deep emotional response in me by showing scenes of deliberately intricate mayhem, torture and evil. 

It has been clear to me since I found out that many tv's are now connected to some sort of device to allow direct downloading that change is afoot.  The main heading in my mind is "movies".  Getting discs in the main from a queue that we decide on together is fun but slow.  We pay lots of attention to AARP's Movies for Grownups for ideas of what to watch.  Even so,  we often find that we are not in the mood for something serious and compelling.  Or, the disc arrives scratched and won't play properly.  There are episodes of NCIS, Scrubs, maybe even 3rd Rock from the Sun that we haven't seen.  I have heard of Hulu and I think there are alternatives, too, that allow downloading of tv episodes.

This morning, Google's main page includes a link to information about the emerging Google TV.  I know there is a product and service called Apple TV.  I am getting in mood to get a new tv with a direct connection from a computer or other device such as the WII game console or the Apple device for tv downloading.  As the information about Google TV makes clear, tv has more users than cell phones or computers.  There is a collection of photos in The Material World of people all over the world watching tv in their homes.  The text says something like people may not be able to get clean water or enough food but they will often find a way to have tv.

Not long ago, Wired magazine ran a story on the modification of tv.  Now, the  first link above shows Google's rollout on their next step.  Here is an article on the Wired site about the coming fight for the air.  I remember that the Time article on 10 hot ideas included the notion that for much of the world, the new thing is tv.  So, what tv can do is just beginning to expand.

The term "broadcasting" is a good one for general atmospheric signals.  Add in the current network of fat, fast cables that can move lots of electrons at once and you are talking about a domain of great value.  Cell phone companies, the older broadcasting companies like CBS and NBC, the movie industry, the entire advertising industry and no doubt governments and many others are just beginning to get into a colossal competition.  Hope we all benefit in the end.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lust and libraries

I listened to The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett.  The man in question was a book thief who stole valuable rare books.  The story explains his psychology and motive, which is very much involved with being an admirable person, an educated and wealthy man.  He felt that he would be that person if he possessed books that are considered great, such as the Modern Library collection.  But he wanted first editions or some other copy of the work that was especially valuable.  But get this: he didn't plan to read them!  Once in a while he did but it was possessing the book that felt right and uplifting to him.  

That he had stolen the books did not matter, as far as he was concerned.  He stole a valuable post card from a rare book dealer.  When the police tracked down who was taking the books and searched his house, they found the post card and confiscated it along with other books they knew or suspected were stolen property.  But they returned everything to him that they could not document as stolen and the post card was one of the returned items.  As far as he was concerned, the fact that the police returned the post card meant that he now owned it legally!

Being interested in the language and ideas of books, I have wanted very much to read them.  I preferred an inexpensive copy, a clean used copy, a library copy.  It seems to me that having a book and not reading it is like having a beautiful painting and keeping it where it cannot be seen.

I have been thinking about what is often called "possessing" a woman, a euphemism for going to bed with her.  Having sex with her may or may not result in her wanting to be with that partner but she is not actually possessed, owned.  Having the book on your shelf in any edition, in any format, doesn't really give you much possession of the book.  Strong passions may be slaked by the act of bedding or shelving (or reading for that matter) but it is clear that the satisfaction is a concept and a feeling.

Deeply enjoying a book, its language or its plot, can feel somewhat like having, but it is, like most things, temporary and basically illusory.  One month later, see if you can recall the plot.  You may forget that you read the book or forget how the hero escapes.  Yet, over time, we may form a conviction that we "have" the book if we still have a copy on our shelf, or somewhere.  Now, where did that book get to, anyhow?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Much to try to ignore

The other day, I referred to an article in The Atlantic about this man, John Ioannidis, a professor at a university in Greece.  Here is the main article he has published on the subject of most medical research results being wrong, especially the highly publicized ones.  The end of the Atlantic article has a nice summary of the reasons for so much error in studies and contradiction between them.  The most outstanding factors seem to be
  • the competition for headlines,
  • attempts to get exciting publishable results,
  • the attempt to conduct research that will be funded and re-funded, and
  • commercial support for research that pushes a given product or medicine.
It is definitely possible to run a large study which finds a "statistically significant" result that is almost certainly not mere chance but which is actually so small as to be insignificant in any practical sense.  Sort of like winning the lottery and then finding the pot is only 1 cent.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Slowly getting in over our heads

Timing is an interesting subject.  From the regular beat of my heart to the daily light and dark to the annual passages through the equinoxes and back, we have many rhythms going on in our bodies and our lives. 

When I first heard of The Wonderful One Horse Shay by Oliver Wendell Holmes, I paid no attention.  Over the years, references to the poem kept popping up.  Finally (still without actually reading the poem), I gathered that the carriage had difficulty, we might say, wearing out.   The deacon who built it had been meticulous in building it so that there was no weakest point, no place for break-down to start.  It lasted wonderfully long but like everything, it did age and eventually wore out, collapsing all at once.

So what?  Isn't good engineering and careful workmanship to be desired?  Don't we teach the young to strive to do an excellent job?  Yes and yes, but such a strategy can make slow and steady replacement and repair impossible.  On the day, 100 years later, when the bill came due, the entire vehicle turned to a heap of junk, all at once.

Simultaneity is different from one step at a time.  This is quite apparent when our refrigerator, our stove, our patio door and other important parts of our house and goods fail together.  We paid for them one at a time but unless we want to sacrifice (horrors!!) and do without something we are used to having (horrors!!), we pile up several hefty deductions in our savings.  It is a bit refreshing really, to be reminded that the world goes along, that we and all we know are part of the processes of existence, slowly changing into something else, often a simple pile of odds and ends.  But our wallets, account balances and our minds get a little shaken up by it all.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


An article in Time this week seems to have a valuable perspective on the economic situation for the American middle class.  Two forces seem to be at the bottom of pressure the middle class is feeling: globalization and technology.  In a sense, those two forces might be considered to be just one: technology. 

I have heard about technology for about 40 years.  I know roughly some of the steps in the progression from being nude, shivering and starving in the forest, to being comfortably clothed, warm and well-fed in a house with electric lights and a car in the garage.  For a while, I taught a course on what the future might be like.  Many of the students would took the course were majors in the College of Natural Resources, people that in today's world might be called "green", that is, interested in preserving the purity of the earth's water and the species of plants and animals.  Quite a few of them dreamed of a life as a forest ranger, possibly in Alaska or Montana or some wilderness area, where everything was going to be quiet, pristine and lovely.

It is true that humans, and especially Europeans, have a tendency to try to solve problems or even little bothers and irritants, with systems and machines.  Along with later Europeans transplanted to the Americas (by means of several technical inventions that enabled navigation on the seas and flight through the air), they invented faster looms to make clothes and central heating to avoid winter.  They spread the use of automobiles and steam ships and planes and railroads to move goods all over the country.  They built school systems for all children, extended the years of publicly supported education to 12, founded universities for both advanced schooling and every sort of research.  Whether it was dominating India, manipulating China, colonizing the Americas and Africa, they have been quite successful in establishing themselves and arranging matters through various means to their advantage.

But through the natural course of events, countries all over the world have learned how they too can make, sell and ship things, from cars and steel to HD tv's and iPods and movies.

What can Americans do?  The article above mentions some steps to take but they are not the sort Americans have had to focus on for a long time.  First and foremost, we need to focus on investment instead of consumption.  Many of us are not very sure of what that would even mean.  How about spending on research, technology and development?  Not ways to make better toys out of cheaper materials.  Infrastructure and education are not as sexy and exciting as fast boats or second houses but they are needed and will pay off better.

The article's author grew up in India and visits there still.  In Mumbai, he finds an upbeat feeling, a can-do feeling which contrasts sharply to the downcast attitude he finds in New York.  It will be interesting to see what we do over the next 10 to 15 years.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Deeper Minds

We don't ask to be deeper.  But, whether we want to or not, we automatically get deeper, just from experiencing life.  When we are 20 or 30, we don't have quite as many questions spring to mind as when we are older.  A new product?  Another candidate?  A repair needed?  How about this?  Why?  Who?  What if?

When I found that older students, let's say past 30 or 40, often showed up in college classrooms a little nervous, a little doubtful they could understand fully and rapidly enough to keep up, I was surprised.  It was clear from just a few hours in classes containing such students that they were the best in the room.  It seemed to be because of that greater depth.  A typical undergraduate wants to know what you want learned and learns it.  Few questions asked.  The typical older student wants to know why you focus on these learnings and skills and not some others.  How long have you required these projects?  When did you last change?  Do the conditions supporting these assignments and requirements still hold?  Are you thinking of any changes? 

The younger students often react in a mildly negative way to questions and interruptions from the older ones.  It seems as though they are afraid this thinking business might be contagious and spread to them.  That would be unpleasant.  For one thing, it is clear that most of the young ones are silent, much as a typical American adolescent.  So, if I start using those little gray cells and begin popping out questions and comments, I will stand out.  Could be dangerous.  Could negatively affect my social standing, something I don't want, especially with members of the opposite sex.

The older students pay little attention to social signals from the younger ones, much as parents often have to learn to pay little attention to the huffs and puffs of older kids at home, often emitted as signals that requests to help clean or cook or do the laundry are silly and out of place. The older students have little interest in being popular with the mass of the class.  They want to know and they shell out good money for answers.  They aren't about to waste their chance to question somebody who probably knows.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Now, while I can

Several of my friends have lost their mate.  That event is the biggest hit one takes in this life, according to the Holmes-Rahe stress scale.  To put the loss of a mate in some perspective, if the typical stressful event equals an American man of average height of 5'10", losing your spouse is equivalent to a man of 6'7".

I have heard of different sorts of reactions to this event.  I gather that men and women tend to have different sorts of reactions to deep grief.  I have not lost my wife and I don't want to.  But in losing my parents and my daughter, it seemed helpful for me to think about their death, their absence and their meaning to me often and to do so before their death, in their company and face-to-face.

We have been married for several decades.  That means there are many wonderful moments we have had.  I like to take a moment to remember them, at some time each day.  When we sit down for a meal, when we have a drink, when we take a walk.  Sometime, I will be doing those things alone, or she will.  It is a good practice to look at her and appreciate what she does and what she has become.  It wasn't easy, all that putting up with me, all that understanding me, all that listening to my problems and my fears.  It wasn't quick and lots of it was repetitious.

Talking to my mother once a week, I realized that sometime, I might call to talk and find that she was not available and never would be again.  I didn't want to be taken by surprise so I told her I didn't want to lose her without having told her that I loved her and thanked her and admired her.  It helped that we had taken the time to say those things.  We had more than one chance because we tried ahead of time.  The same thing holds for my wife and I.  We realize that we may live for 20 years more, maybe even longer.  But we may not.  During our 50th high school reunions, we saw lists of deceased classmates, people our same age that we knew and had gone to school with.  We never know about a stroke or a heart attack.  We might be struck by something completely by surprise. 

I admit that the first time I composed a statement on paper about how much I loved her and living with her, it scared my wife deeply.  Was there something I hadn't told her?  Had the doctor found something?  Once I made clear that I wanted to be appreciative while I could and she could receive my thoughts, it was fine.

It is good to express thankfulness and appreciation right now.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The thrill (and the fear as well) always fades

I read once that Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) said that a man could get used to being hung if he were able to hang long enough.  I learned in psychophysics class that all our senses require updating all the time, refreshing to reload so to speak.

I have found that I get used to things.  We lived on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico for a month and the view was attention-getting.  The sky changed, the surface of the waves changed, the Gulf was always changing.  Then, the following year, the very same view was hardly noticeable.  I never consciously decided it was less gripping.  I never tried to grasp the details of the view so that I would stare at it less.  Some part of my mind or brain or eyes or all or something else got used to the view.  I tried to get excited about it but it was just deep water.

I think hummingbirds are fascinating little things.  But the vine by our window has valuable and delicious flowers on it and the little birds are there quite often.  Over time, the thrill of a visit, right up at the window, less than an inch from my face, has dropped.  Oh yeah, another hummingbird.

We repaint a room and it looks great.  Six months later, I don't see the paint job.  I'm unaware of it.  It didn't change.  I did.

Computers push me further along the trail of recency.  Most of my lists (email, file use, etc.) tend to be left in order by time, with the newest first.  When I start a diary, I begin at the top of page 1.  The most recent entry is at some point in the book.  But electronic gear allows me to see the latest breaking news first while yesterday fades from my memory.

Just like a jolt of caffeine which becomes less and less powerful with repeats, everything I do becomes part of my expectations and what I am used to.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A stochastic art

Listening to Matthew Crawford's Shop Class As Soul Craft, I learned that Aristotle made a distinction between some arts and some others.  Crawford used as an example building construction vs. physician.  The building construction is supposed to be an example of certainty.  The competent builder knows what is needed to make a good building and he performs his art in a way that results in just that, a good building.  The physician or mechanic tries to fix situations not of his own making, which may have unknown or even unprecedented causes.  Aristotle used the term "stochastic" (stow 'kas tic) for the chance-y arts.  This is the same word used in mathematics to describe a probabilistic process such as moving through the lines at a supermarket.

The more I think about it, the more I see that all arts are stochastic at some level.  In fact, one way of looking at the arts is that they are chance-y from start to finish.  Roughly speaking, math is pretty firmly fixed or algorithmic, at least the already invented and codified part.  Then science, which explores but also tries for certainty.  Finally, the arts, where the 'feel' and the 'gut' and the intuition are very important.

You might think that the typical professor knows the subject to be taught and teaches it, in a cut-and-dried way.  Not so.  All subjects are constantly changing, especially in this age of instant communication and many academics, organizations, writers and thinkers.  But if you want a chancey-art, try teacher training.  Usually, the student seriously interested in becoming a teacher either starts with a strong desire to be with children or a love of an academic subject.  Neither of these is really a poor motivation to become a teacher but both are far from sufficient.  Generally, a college student aged 18 to 22 has not had much opportunity to work with the vagaries of younger people's natures.  Guiding would-be teachers to just the right blend of an appreciation for the talent and future of pupils and a stern stand for steady work and standards is quite stochastic.  Getting the right blend and learning to use it effectively requires knowledge of one's self.  As actors sometimes say, the teacher needs to know how to use his or her "instrument" (one's body, voice, facial expression, ability to read and empathize with emotions, etc.).  It often takes four or five years of teaching to begin to know what one is doing and to enjoy it, too.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Running an experiment

"Try it!" "Test it!"  These are cries of modernity.  Today, we often have an impulse to check out things, ideas, hypotheses, beliefs, theories. The first idea is to run an experiment.  Buy an X car and buy a y car and run them over the same routes with the same driver and see which one performs better.  Getting that idea is very modern.  We don't tend to think that it is an offense against God to test things. 

If you do that and X performs better on all counts, there can be still be problems with concluding that X is the better car and buying that car from now on.  What if you happened to get a flawed Y car, a lemon, when most of the y cars are actually better than the X kind?  That is, suppose the two tested cars are not really "representative" of the mass of their type?  The mass or 'run' of each type of car is envisioned as identical or very similar to each other but that vision is a concept and it might not reflect reality.

The theory of experiments figures that you can get a better handle on the performance of each type of car (or whatever you are researching) if you have several of each kind.  The first more or less cut-and-dried procedure in experimental statistics to be invented is called Student's t-test and it was invented to compare the average of a group (of cars or bottles of beer in his case) to another figure, either the average of a different group or the desired figure.  If you look at the typical t-test table, you can see the value of having 5 or 10 X cars and 5 or 10 Y cars instead of just one of each.  You can also see why research is expensive.

The basic idea of such an experiment is to keep the performance and the driving of the two sets of cars as identical as possible.  But time begins to rear its head here.  We might have the same driver cover the same course with all ten cars, hoping the driver will drive "the same" each time.  Besides the factors of boredom, we can see that the same driver cannot drive all ten cars at the same time.  But doing them in succession, the last car will be driven AFTER SOME TIME lapse.  The driver will be older, more experienced, etc.  The road will be a little older.  Most importantly, time might effect the representativeness of the cars.  If they are all manufactured as identically as possible and no new model or run of products is introduced, that will not be a problem.

All of these problems arise in a corresponding way with any experimental comparison, even when we try to compare this year's harvest with an earlier year or this year's state of our marriage with last year's.  We cannot get two years to be identical, no matter how hard we try.  Put another way, we cannot live our lives "as they are" more than once.  Many important parts of our lives are beyond experimentation.  We cannot duplicate nor eliminate time.

To read a good article on current problems in medical research from the current issue of The Atlantic, click on this link.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Research with one group

If we want to see if blondes have more fun, we could get 5 or 10 blondes and the same number of non-blondes, record their fun and see who has more.  But it may be cheaper and more informative to just get one group of blondes and record how much fun they have.  Then, after a while, darken their hair or give them non-blonde wigs and see how much fun they have then.  When we run an experiment by introducing an intervention such as wigs, it is important to look at the before-and-after picture.  The famous Campbell and Stanley book first alerted me to the meaning of time series experiments.  They present a chart like my simplified version below.  If the readings for fun show a pattern such as lines A or B, we can conclude that fun has been dropping in general and the wigs didn't disturb the fall.  But line C implies the darker hair dropped fun precipitously.  You can see how much more complex judging the effect would become with real data, such as US wheat production.  Again, the real world is complex and tricky.  Time and conditions matter.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Looking for faster, cheaper, better education and training

When students begin a course, they have a range of knowledge or skills related to it.  Some may be more advanced than the teacher.  Some may know nothing about the content of the course.  Trying to better accommodate this situation, some teachers try a pre-test. 

It is surprising how difficult it can be to give a pre-test and make use of the results, even though it is a good idea.  There is no cut-and-dried method for determining what a student should gain from a course.  But if an experienced teacher looks at what have been goals of the course and what has been tested or required, it is possible to make up a test which genuinely equates to mastering the course.  However, I can tell that many professors have been very reluctant to make up a test and simply give a passing grade for the course if a test-taker passes it.  The problem usually boils down to the professor's feeling that sitting in class and listening to the presentation and any discussion provides insight or atmosphere that cannot be tested but that is fundamental to the experience of taking the course.  In other words, there has been much reluctance to pass students on the basis of a test.

Another difficulty arises with the nature of a pre-test.  To my mind, it would be good if the test was authentic enough that passing it really did mean that a student need not take the course.  That would mean that the test needs to contain questions and ask for skills and answers that most people with little knowledge of the subject are unfamiliar with.  Therefore, a student hoping to learn from the course, which of course is the purpose of offering it, would be faced with test question after test question the student simply had no idea about.  It is not a pleasant experience to have to repeatedly admit that the answer is unknown, that the student has no idea as to the answer.

There many formal tests in our schools and colleges that have multiple-choice items.  Test theorists and mathematicians know a great deal about the probability that random guessing will yield a respectable score but it is still better for pre-tests to require short hand-written answers instead of filling in little circles.

Does all this matter?  It does and here is why: From 10th grade or so right on up to master's and doctor's degrees, we could educate more people with less pain and much less expense if we eliminated educational requirements that are out-of-date or redundant.  There are political and conceptual problems, though.  All education is for the future, a time that we can't really know much about.  That is the main problem and it is usually skirted by talking about educating to be a critical thinker and about providing a "background" in a subject.  Good ideas but vague and leading to wasted minutes, hours, years and dollars.

Besides, there is the problem pointed out by the famous education book The Saber-Tooth Curriculum, which is that teachers of Latin or horse-shoeing or some passe subject or activity fight hard to defeat the importance of the knowledge they have and the need for students to learn it.

It is often a good test of the basics of any subject to find 5 or 10 competent teachers of a subject and ask them to pass each other's pre-tests.  I've tried it and the results ain't pretty.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Time use in retirement

Provided a retired person has an adequate income, they are in independently wealthy in a mild way. 

That sentence refers to wealth but I actually meant money, which is just one kind of wealth.  It is important, sure, but not the only kind and maybe not the most important.  When that figure in a black hooded gown holding a scythe appears, my time as a living human being will be up.  That may be the ultimately important type of earthly wealth: time left to live.

Many retired people I know express surprise at how busy they are.  I think I can understand why.  When I was employed, I had a large chunk of my weekly time committed.  I knew where I would be each workday morning and what I would be doing each working day.  Being retired with that financial independence, I can select my location and use my time with a very broad array of choices. That broad array is attractive.  It contains many interesting possibilities that I've never tried.  All sorts of travel, of course but also thousands of possible hobby activities.  I know a potter, a jeweler, a woodworker.  I have a fascination with line drawing.  Just think of being able to have a country scene or a comic robot or a sexy babe appear on a white sheet of paper from your hand.  All my life, I have been convinced that an educated person can think, read, speak and write in another language besides the one he was born into.  I think there are something on the order of 150 languages and I knew I couldn't master them all.  I heard a guide in Switzerland say that English, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian and Arabic are the great languages, as far as number of users.  Three of those use alphabets that differ from English and learning one would probably be good for my brain.  Over time, though, I developed a special respect for the histories and achievements of the Italians, the Finns and the Japanese.  So, one of those tongues might be good for me to work on.

Of course, I like reading.  But I don't do much with reading other than English books and web pages.  I don't look at the 3000 journals that come into my campus library monthly.  I don't look at the world's newspapers or the 200 million blogs of independent writers and thinkers.

Clearly, I am not going to get to all the interesting places on just this one planet, engage in all the interesting and satisfying hobbies there are, learn all the musical instruments, write all the poems I could, master line drawing, learn even the languages I am especially interested in.  You can see that these possibilities plus housework, exercise and body work, seeing doctors and dentists for my bod, paying my bills and taxes, visiting with family and friends...No wonder, retired people are very busy!

When I was working, I could see why I didn't take advantage of all these opportunities.   In retirement, it is very tempting to try to run after them all.

Friday, October 15, 2010


It can be a shock to suddenly find time on your hands.  Sometimes, a store opens half an hour later than I thought.  I arrive and find the door locked.  The opening comes too soon to do anything much but wait.  So, I suddenly have time.  What to do with it?  

This is a good Zen moment.  I could meditate.  Sometimes, I do.  But often it pays to simply sit or walk or stand.  It can be interesting to see what comes to mind.  
  1. Body sensations: does that shoulder hurt?  Are my ears ringing?  
  2. Memory: what was I thinking of looking at in the store?  What did I see on tv yesterday?
  3. Emotions: Am I surprised that I am suddenly in neutral, doing nothing?  Am I annoyed?  Am I pleased with the chance to see what comes to mind and feelings?  This is an unexpected moment, with unexpected contents and it will never come again, just this way at just this time.
  4. Plans: what should I write about on my next post?
  5. My senses: what do I see?  Could I draw something on paper what would have enough detail to indicate the scene in front of me?  What sounds can I hear at the moment?
  6. Emptiness: Can I simply sit or stand and put thought of all kinds on hold?  Am I able to just BE for a little while?

It can be a shock to come to a sudden pause but such a moment can be a gift, a refresher, a viewpoint into myself and my life and the lives around me, from here to the Chilean mines.

Leaving a comment on the blog

Leaving a comment on the blog

Kathy said she has tried several times to leave comments but they don't show up.  I have slightly refigured the comment section.  It is simplified. If you want to leave a comment, click right on the link that is a number and the word "comments".  It will open to a comment page.  You can choose "Anonymous" or leave a name.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lag time

I think 'lag time' is a very interesting variable.  We could call it "interval time" or "interval length".  When you ask, "What color is the sky?" and I respond,"Blue", there is a little time gap between your question and my answer.  That little gap is the lag between question and response.  Some of our phones catch that lag of silence and transmit it as silence.  Some don't and keep you on the line until I begin speaking.  If you keep on talking and talking, I never get a chance.  That lag is important.  Too long and you think I didn't hear you or am ignoring your inquiry.  Too short and I am being pushy or abrupt or impolite.  Just as the socially approved distance to stand from a person in conversation varies among societies, so, I suspect, does the approved lag time between utterances.

I really notice lags in computing.  I go to save a document but how long does the machine take to do the saving?  I appreciate that the programmers built a little graphic indicator to give me an idea when the saving has begun and when it is complete.  If either the saving or the indication of saving is super-quick, I might not notice or believe it has happened.  Getting used to the lag time between command and completion is part of getting accustomed to a given program.

I have worked with two different people who routinely used conversational lag time that was noticeably longer than most of the rest of us.  Taking your time to respond can add gravity and the feeling of careful consideration to a talk, provided the lag isn't too great.  With either of these two, their lag between getting a question and stating as answer was so long that others often go out of sync, like this:
    A: What's your name?
    (long time lapse)
    A: Eh, where are you from?
    B: Dallas
    A: Oh, a Texan.
    B: No, my name is Dallas.

Often, my computer coupled with some software on another part of the web does what I want but so long after, I have forgotten what I did or grown prematurely angry at some sort of computer failure.  When news traveled by pony express or crossed the Atlantic on sailing ships, the lag was tremendous.  That would be difficult for me to get used to.

One of the longest lags I ever heard about (not counting the birth and death of stars or extinction of a species) was sending in a job application in October and getting an invitation to an interview in May.  The applicant had to scrabble to find documents that re-informed him as to what the job was all about.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

reading and the brain

As a teen, I could see that most adults I saw during a day were out of shape.  I can understand that some physical limitations prevent much exercise.  But, since I like to read, which takes me into places, times and realms of ideas that cannot be visited in any other way (or so quickly and inexpensively), in high school I figured that walking, running, stretching, yoga, lifting weights and other forms of exercise such as swimming and biking, are needed to keep what is actually an ape's body working well while spending plenty of time in front of a page or a computer.

It is something of a mystery why people are so reluctant to exercise.  I spoke to a woman that I see in the weight room often about her own motivation.  Why does she regularly exercise when some of her own relatives don't?  She said it was because she is a nurse working with kidney failure and sees what regular exercise can do. 

Today's news item comparing steps per day in the US, Europe, Japan and Australia shows that Americans do about half the recommended ten thousand steps per day while the other nations average much closer to the recommendation. 

As I age, my desire to be able to read, write and watch tv and movies requires that I get my walking or jogging, weights and stretching/yoga/core tensing and moving.  That is the cost of the activities I want to be able to do. Eventually, I willl be unable to maintain my body but until then, I keep on.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

10 moms who write champion blogs

Waiting in the doctor's office, I saw that Parenting magazine and others featured 10 bloggers who have stood out as moms and writers.  My own site officially links to 40 blogs.  I can't keep adding forever.  So, exploring the very large ( close to 200 million worldwide and growing) "blogosphere", I expect to find blogs worth occasional or steady viewing.  Just as any name you pick for a product including a blog may already be in use, so any subject you can think of may already be the focus of a blog. 

I have not sampled the blogs much in the Parenting selection but I intend to over time. Their article with links to the ten is here;

Here are the blogs chosen.  I went to the trouble of making a separate list since I want it to last:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Not "more" but "how much more"

It is easy to read that this vitamin is associated with "more" of something good than that one.  In today's world of propaganda and actual research mixed all together, it can be helpful to train yourself when finding one thing is better than an alternative, to immediately ask "How much?"  How much better, how much more?  Very often the answer is not available.  If it is at all, it may well be hidden in complicated statistical language deep within the academic article being summarized. 

Take daytime running lights on cars while driving, for instance.  I have read that having lights on has been shown to be helpful to avoid collisions.  My car does not have lights specifically designed for daytime driving so I use the low beam headlights.  That use results in headlamps burned out more often than if I saved them for night time.  How much benefit is likely from lights on in the day, anyhow?  An Australian web site says this:
It is estimated that well-designed DRLs could prevent a quarter of all fatal daytime collisions and more than a quarter of fatal daytime pedestrian accidents. Cyclists and motorcyclists would also benefit from being better able to see approaching vehicles.
Note the passive voice "It is estimated" but by whom?  How did they arrive at this figure?

The information stated, though, is a far better estimate than the very common assertion that been found to be safer or better without any measure at all as to how much better.  As soon as we turn our critical faculties onto an assertion, we can see all sorts of loopholes that might be connected to it.  I still like to stay alert to the question of how much better something is than merely accepting all "better" statements unquestioningly. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Drugs and feelings

I have read in several places that alcohol consumption per person was much higher than it is today.  Something on the order of twice today's level.  Today's level could be lower for better health of the nation.  Something like 1/3 third of all arrests throughout the country are related to alcohol consumption. 

It is often stated that alcohol leads to crime, marital violence and wasted or lost lives.  It clearly contributes to such things and could reasonably be said to be the cause or a cause in a number of cases.  However, I find it more helpful to think of the more basic cause as being human ignorance about what to do with one's own, personal emotional state.  The first impulse of most people is to act out, that is, react to anger, fear, boredom, etc.  So, one has a drink to change one's state or one strikes another in anger or one registers a complaint with earthly authorities or in a prayer. 

The second-level reaction is often to exhort one's self not to be the way one is, not to feel jealous or angry or whatever.  In mature adults, such self-admonitions can be effective.  However, they are often actually submersions.  Not bad in themselves but the emotional state may still need to be addressed later or in some other form.  Zen practitioners and other Buddhists and Western psychotherapists advise squarely facing the emotion at its arising or soon after.  Accepting that one is human and that emotions are part of one's gifts and that they can be entertained and acknowledged without letting habit or primitive first reactions be the avenue of expression is healthier and actually way more fun.

I have not used heroin or marijuana or other drugs.  I imagine they have a place.  In today's world, the most widely used drug is probably caffeine and I use that every morning and every noon.  I would be terrified to simply swallow some random pill I found in someone's medicine cabinet.  I have not found vicodin or strong medicines helpful, although the woozy state I experienced is probably way better than steady pain. 

I can see that many citizens are frightened of the present and worried about the future.  They would probably not take kindly to the schools trying even more to be sure that kids in schools are familiar with various concepts and practices that are much more helpful in handling strong emotions.  Concepts such as clear statements to oneself about the nature, the range of known human emotions, various instances of strong emotions in history, literature and one's own story, quietly telling one's feelings to others can all serve as basic emotional literacy.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Better than squashed trees

Paper is still mighty convenient, no doubt about it.  Light, marked in long-lasting pencil or ink, inexpensive, silent and needing no electricity.  It's been a leading technology for a very long time and likely to stay that way.

However, getting information in a computer file has big advantages.  Making a copy of something on paper requires special machinery and time and ink.  Sending a copy of this message to 50 or 5000 people is instantaneous and is always available without depending on ink supply or blank paper supply.

More importantly, in a computer file, the information is searchable. It is quick to look back over of a page of paper but computers (and Kindles) can search hundreds of pages very quickly.

In Excel and many spreadsheets, information can be arranged in rows and columns, typically using the columns for different attributes and the rows for the examples, such as names, addresses, phone numbers.  They all can sort so that all the citizens of Utah are listed together temporarily or permanently.  Excel also can leave the information in a set form and sample it instantly, so that just the citizens of Utah are plucked out of the list for examination or copying and then returned correctly.  Instant filing!

The instant copying and dispersing applies to such organized information, too.  That is why it is often better to get information in electronic files than stable, old, unmodifiable paper.

Friday, October 8, 2010

three ring circus in class

Why it is sometimes better when students talk to each other during the lecture, don't attend class and play games during their work?  The picture of all students sitting nicely in individual seats, facing the same way with hands folded in front of them is a picture of poor education, poor development

The old idea and the widespread idea around the world is that school is for learning obedience.  It is true that being able to listen to instructions and follow them fully is a valuable, maybe even essential thing, in modern life.  It may well have been a matter of life and death in previous ages.  Make the lord of the manor or the samurai angry and you might immediately lose your head.  (See Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett to get the idea.)  But in today's world, the individual and the nation depend very much on both good cooperation and also on good standing alone, doing independent thinking. 

As teachers and parents find out, the bright, inquisitive mind is a pain in the a**.  Too much asking "Why?", too much questioning every little thing and then arguing with the explanations.  Of course, some such is not really questioning as it is attempting to get one's own way by other means.  However, it is important for those who wish to lead, to be in positions of power and security to be able and willing to think and act on their own.  I was very happy when I discovered what is often meant by "initiative".  A list of important traits in some Boy Scout literature first alerted me to the importance of watching for good opportunities and then taking advantage of them.

My mother used to say that the main goal in parenting and teaching was equipping the young to do without the parents and teacher, to enable them to face the future and work it to produce a happy and productive life.  Many organizations and schools today are working to strike a balance in leading the student to be able to participate and cooperate but also to be able to criticize and doubt, to ponder and to check facts and assertions.

In the modern classroom, there needs to be order and there needs to be safety for all.  But many upper grade teachers, instructors and professors seem to have a conviction that their job is to talk.  This is an old preoccupation and it is often called something like "imparting information."  In truth, there are times when an experienced person can say a few words which can put a subject in perspective quickly and succinctly.  The trouble is that just about no one can manage to say a few words, especially a few that are both grasped and pay off.  Many schools around the world steadily send messages to students that the teacher or the text knows the answer while most of the important problems we face are sloppy and ill-formed.  Most of them are murky and have unknown or multiple answers.  Problem-solving of all sorts is the name of an big part of our lives today.  It is completely true that character, persistence and awareness are important parts of working through things with oneself and others.

With secondary and higher students, the internet, their own brains and memories and experiences and their libraries combine into a much more powerful source than just the mind of the teacher.  They can often learn more outside of class and by talking, cooperating and gaming inside.  The teacher can function as leader, guider and checker but not the only source of knowledge.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

tracking ourselves for fun and profit

By the age of 50 or more, I have lived enough years in enough places, made enough errors and committed enough sins that it can be a hobby in itself to track my own development, ideas, etc.  There are lots of tools to work with.  Letters saved, photos in shoeboxes, old computer disks, diaries and journals. 

Part of thinking about our 50 year marriage was making a timeline with the aim of at least one event for each year.  With a little effort, we could be clear for any year, our own ages, the ages of our children, where we lived at the time.  We could remember what job we had, what our income was, what church we attended.  We have found that the properties of digital photos stored on a computer often give us a clue as to when a picture was taken and we find that most of the time, we can recognize the people or the place it was taken.  Still, we did have a few years that seemed to leave no memories or markers, although we doubt that a year went by without several notable shockers or pleasers coming our way.

One of the nice things about the Kindle is that Amazon can tell us the date and contents of every order we ever placed with them.  Knowing when we bought a book or a gift often gets us thinking about our situation around the item in time and space.  We find memories buried in associations with giving a certain gift or reading a given book.

Of course, just as with Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in "Oh, Yes, I Remember It Well", the two of us sometimes remember events differently.  As with many husbands, I have found that if there is simply no way to judge who is right, the odds are she is.  There have been occasions when one or the other gets dogged and eventually finds a way to unambiguously establish what the facts are.  Although we have a running agreement that in cases of dispute, 2/3 of the time she is correct, the actual fact is that she is right more than 90% of the time.  All the more reason to tap her memories and write them down while you can.  Of course, your kids and grandkids are too busy now for reading or watching your records, eventually they or their own great grandkids will be appreciative of the fun you had collecting, collating and writing.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How stuff creates stuff today

We have had a few experiences with relatives or friends dying and leaving a house full of objects and materials.  When you live in a house or an office, you need stuff, you use it and you know what is where and why.  It is, of course, quite different when you walk into a place that was recently inhabited by someone else.  Especially an older person, who has had years and money to develop some complicated hobbies and activities.

Sometimes, the entire Western world (roughly Europe and the Americas) are said to be based on a materialist culture while, in the past at least, the East has been more spiritually and mentally oriented.  C.S. Lewis says somewhere that "God loves matter, having invented it."  I suspect that both directions are improving, evolving and becoming more aware of the other side. 

The accumulation of matter and materials and goods and property is interesting.  The excellent book "Clutter's Last Stand" is just one of many on the subject of trying to have stuff without being conquered by it.

Right now, I am listening to Matthew B. Crawford talking about manual work vs. symbolic, white collar or intellectual work.  We have, and need, plenty of both.  But modern marketing, manipulation of desires and crafty invention conspire to make it very easy to acquire a little something every day, if not every hour.  The first link above shows how acquiring stuff, storing stuff, and then trying to get to bits of it on demand can easily lead to acquiring more.  The cartoon shows that the father wants to get his screwdriver so that Mom doesn't have to use the butter knife to open a screw.  However, there is too much junk in the way to the tool.  He may use the butter knife yet but he may stop by the dollar store on some errand and pick up another screwdriver.

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