Sunday, May 30, 2010

Our lives in cars

When I was a little kid, we sometimes went to visit my aunt and her family, who lived 100 miles away!  It was considered a big deal by my parents to travel such a distance.  During WW II, there was rationing of gasoline but auto travel has changed in many other ways, too.  We had never heard of seat belts.  Gas stations or "service stations" were much less common than today but each one was prepared to handle more car repairs that many are today.  That was the era before self-service and each station has one or more attendants who rushed outside (most of the time) when you pulled up.  They filled the tank, cleaned the windshield, put air in the tires if needed.

The vehicles and the tires were not as well designed as today's.  Flat tires were much more common. There were no superhighways or interstates.  I recall very clearly that my father shouted out one time, "We are traveling at 60 miles an hour!  That's a mile a minute!"  Now sixty can seem pretty slow. 

We can make phone calls while the car is in motion and in some cases, search the web, too.  We have on-board DVD players to show movies and individualized players and sound for different passengers to watch and listen to different programs simultaneously.

There are some small towns now with no motels but most of the time, a variety of accommodations and prices are available for lodging and a variety of places to eat, too.  Credit cards make paying easy, sometimes too easy.  ATM machines are everywhere and it is easy to withdraw money and to check your account balance. 

When places like Holiday Inn began to be national brands so that travelers felt they knew what they would be getting for a room, a new reliability in auto travel emerged.  Of course, we had no compact refrigerators and microwaves so having such accommodations right in our room was unheard of. And we are quite used to having dozens of channels of television to watch as well as the latest movies.

Figures, numbers as standards

One of the heroes and guiding influences of the last decades of my working life was W. Edwards Deming.  He is one, often considered the main, person in the quality movement, sometimes called Total Quality Management or Total Quality Control.  From him and other sources, I came to suspect numbers where they are given as constants to guide people.  When I look at a set of rules or expectations or results, I suspect the numbers.

I guess it all started in my junior or senior year of college.  The math department or somebody sponsored a visiting lecturer from Bell Labs.  He said that we should keep our eye on the fast lane in supermarkets.  He had noted that the number of items which was stated as the upper limit one could have going through that lane to be checked out varied too much.  Some stores say 10 and some state 15. 

I am a fan of meditation, sitting quietly and being still.  I keep my eyes on a single spot while attending to the thoughts that come to my mind.  When I realize that I have become involved with a line of thinking, I break it off gently, shelving it until sometime after the session.  I keep clearing and re-clearing my mind until the end of the session.  I learned to do this from the 1972 book by Herbert Benson M.D., "The Relaxation Response".  I have been meditating regularly for about 15 years.

I started with his recommendation to do meditation for 10 to 20 minutes once or twice a day.  I considered 10 minutes once a day to be within his recommendation and although I tried slightly longer periods, I found that 10 minutes once a day had an effect on my thinking and awareness of where I was doing with my thinking.  That mindfulness is what I was after and I liked that standard for duration, which I still use.

But I have found a surprising variation in the recommended duration.  8 hours (an friend who is expert in the literature of India), a weekend with repeated 45 or 90 minute sessions (many meditation retreats), 6 seconds (Dr. Charles Stroebel, "The Quieting Reflex"), 10 to 20 minutes once or twice a day (Benson's book) , 24 minutes (B. Alan Wallace), and 8 minutes (Victor Davich). Tolle says it is possible, perhaps better even, to work at increasing self-awareness of one's mind flow by simply taking a moment at various points in one's day to pay close, relaxed attention to some activity such as washing the dishes or getting into the car.

I am confident that all these people know what they are talking about and that various durations can all be quite valuable.  I still like to keep an eye on numerical standards and recommendations.  I have even seen two different references lately to research that implies having a body-mass index of between 25 and 30 is healthy for those of us fatties who are over 70.  The longtime standard has been 25.




Saturday, May 29, 2010

idolatry and brie

Over time, I have gotten the idea that a rough summary of the ancient Greek thought on how to live can be summed up in the principle "Everything in moderation".  In a similar way, the Judeo/Christian ideas focus on the principle "Only worship the one true God -- no idolatry, of golden calves or anything else".  At times, it seems to me that these two principles from the Greeks and the Hebrews are close to meaning the same thing: don't get too involved with worldly things and diversions.  It is possible to worship money, to think that money is everything and is a supreme good that will solve any and all problems.  The same is true of learning or health or anything at all.

Once a day, I have a drink.  Alcohol can increase my interest in snacks to the point where I eat something.  My favorite snack is brie, the soft French cheese covered with a characteristic layer of a type of penicillin.  The brie from France sold in my local Sam's Club is fairly expensive and sold in a large wedge but it is good.  The brie sold in the local Wal-Mart was clearly inferior until recently, when it started to be as good as the French version to my taste.  Now, in the morning and afternoon, I look forward to the drink hour [4 PM in our house, not 5] and I picture savoring the brie.  The savoring has grown so strong that I am idolizing the taste, the moment when I have some.  Invariably, the first bit is really excellent but later bits are decidedly less wonderful. 

This believing that something is very precious can include old photos or other keepsakes.  I wrote of my shock after I felt terrible about losing some files in a computer error that I made.  I found that what I had thought was precious and wonderful wasn't even valuable. 

They say that we can't take our precious possessions with us into the next world.  That is probably a very good thing since we would might find they were an encumbrance and a bother, anyhow.



Friday, May 28, 2010

be an instant millionaire

My friend, Prof. Weiser, is an economist.  One day he gave a presentation that demonstrated to all present what is meant by the importance of trade to everyone.  He gave each of us a card with a picture of an object on it.  My card showed a snow shovel.  He instructed us to decide how much we would sell that object for if we really had it.  I have three snow shovels and decided this one looked good but I would part with it for $5.  Meanwhile, everyone else made the same sort of decision about the object their card showed.  Weiser asked each person in the group what their price was and recorded all the answers on the board.  Then, he added them all up to show the total value of all the objects shown. 

Next, he had us circulate around the room, looking at other people's cards and offering to trade what we "had" for what somebody else "had".  If we liked what we had so much that we didn't want to shop around, that was ok.  We were to just sit and wait.  A few people did that.  The majority circulated and made a mutually satisfactory trade.  After all shopping and trading were complete, he again asked for the value the new "owner" placed on the newly acquired object.  He recorded all the answers and summed them.

We saw that the total value of all the same goods was now something on the order of 1.8 times the original value.  It was quite clear that trading had given many people something they treasured more than their original acquisition.  Without trade, we would be poorer in our own estimation. 

The whole experience reminds me of a book I read about wealth and of "The Road Show," the well-known PBS tv show, where experts appraise many different sorts of objects.  Often, the owner of a rug or a painting or a silver teapot is surprised to find that the expert reports their object is worth several thousand dollars or more.  Sometimes, they had no idea that others might value their object for that much money.  The book said that when evaluating one's own wealth, one should decide on the asking price for objects one has and treasures.  A stamp collector or a painter might not want to part with something for the usual amount but might place a much higher price on something for one reason or another.

This has made me realize that I am actually a millionaire.  I have a cap from the Cornell Ornithology Lab that I treasure very highly.  In fact, I am placing its value to me at one million, for one reason or another.  So, be prepared to pay that figure if you want it.  I will not bargain.  The hat means too much.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fidget toys and compression for anyone

Probably around 10 years ago, I first heard of pressuring kids.  I mean actual physical squeezing.  I was working with some professors of special education, the branch of education that reminds me of the U.S. Marines.  When the regular teachers like me are totally flummoxed and at a loss, send in the special educators!  These professors described how some children, often those who really flinch from hugs or bodily contact with people enjoy, request and benefit from being squeezed by such things as being rolled in a gym mat and having someone sit on the mat with them in it.  While lecturing, they mentioned that the famous woman autistic professor and scientist Temple Grandin, a specialist in animal behavior, built herself a machine designed like one used on cattle.  It enabled her to get in a sort of press and give herself a squeeze with the amount of tension she desired, enabling her to de-stress and calm herself. 

That was the first time I had ever heard of Temple Grandin.  I still have not read any of her books but I did just download "Thinking in Pictures", probably her best known popular book.  During the last two evenings, we watched the HBO movie "Temple Grandin" about her.  It was moving, exciting and informative.  It is easy to hear about a woman, now in her 50's, I think, and not grasp the difficulties she had growing up, getting an education including a PhD and simultaneously changing the world's understanding of autistic people and also changing the cattle handling industry.  It was while watching cattle that the young Temple got the idea for her personal squeezing machine.

Knowing that as an elementary school teacher and an education PhD and professor who had never received any training in the growing field of special education, I did a little reading and listening to my colleagues in the field over the years.  I read some of "A Mind at a Time" by a professor of pediatric medicine Mel Levine.  He lays out the several types of mental difficulties or differences that are being detected in children by those who have the knowledge and insight to detect them.  I have a book by Tyler Cowen, an economist, and Grandin about the economic value of autistics and those who think like them.  As time goes by, I imagine that parents, teachers, physicians and governments are going to find more people who have what was once considered impossible ways of thinking, seeing and using other senses and that their powers can be a big benefit to themselves and others.

I have heard of an educated and patient grandmother who sat in a meeting, knitting.  The chair asked her to put her knitting away and pay attention to the discussion.  She replied that she could pay attention or put the knitting away but not both.  In current classroom parlance, she was saying her knitting was a "fidget toy", something she needed for her fingers to do when attending to the business going on.  Whether it is a body press or fidget toys or a body sock,

more tools to better and economically accommodate more types of people in more situations are going to be found and accepted.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

us older kids are ok, too

Michael Merzenich is one of the major scientists behind the Brain Fitness Program.  From seeing him on public tv and looking at his picture, I infer that Karen is his daughter.  Regardless, I thought the blog post below was worth sending out.  I have a good friend who often says wise things.  She is older than I am and the other day, she said to me,"If you live long enough, there is nothing to worry about."  I am only beginning my 70's but I find that is true for me.  All of the regular readers of this blog are 50 or over or are planning to be.  The blog post below is from the Posit Science blog.

Life Gets Better After Age 50 (Really!)

By Karen Merzenich on May 24, 2010

Titling this post "Life Gets Better After Age 50″ is not just an observation I made or an anecdote I heard- it's the result of a recent study of global well-being and emotional states involving hundreds of thousands of Americans. The study confirmed that "people tend to be happier, less anxious, and less worried once they pass the half-century mark." Results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To get the data, researcher Arthur Stone of Stony Brook University enlisted the help of the Gallup Organization to create a survey that got responses from over 350,000 people throughout the U.S. He found that negative feelings, worry, anger, and stress decline with age and drop off after age 50. Men and women had similar profiles throughout the years. For a more in-depth read about the study, check out this article from ScienceNOW.

Reading about this study reminded me of a review I wrote recently on Barbara Strauch's new book The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind. The book, like this study, provides examples of the positive side of aging and reasons to rejoice about growing older, wiser, and happier.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

try a broader view

I know a lovely person who had a miserable time in high school because of problems with reading, with decoding letters into meaning.  As I learned about that experience, I could feel and see the desperation and pain.  They had been a burden, no doubt a costly one, since it not only hurt but damaged the internal view of self worth and future value and all that had to be borne, too, and repaired as much as possible.  Then, I heard about a much younger person, a college student, again with a fine mind but decoding difficulties, dyslexia.  That student was in the registrar's office and needed to fill out a form.  Knowing that he might misspell the name of his major, he asked the clerk how to spell it.  With a show of disgust, she told him and then said,"Don't forget to write your name on the form.  You know how to spell that, don't you?"  I think she meant her remark as an insult, maybe also an admonition that the spelling of everything important should be memorized as a matter of course and whoever fails to do that, is a dumb animal, far below genuine human level. 

Since I know people who haven't learned to stand up yet, much less write their name or anything else, I realize that writing your name is not always so easy.  As we get more globalized and the world shrinks, it is increasingly likely that others we run into will not speak English well, or even at all.  Since they may be tomorrow's billionaire or our state's next governor, it is not only good manners and good humanity but simple caution to use a broader view that just maybe a person having difficulty with directions or a map or a machine or currency has a language problem that we can't see.  When you find yourself in a country that doesn't even use the familiar Roman alphabet, let alone our words, you be will ever so thankful for the patient insightful person who reads your troubles and assists you politely.  There is no way to tell with some obstacles and handicaps that a person can't see or hear or is stunned by recent very bad news or got no sleep or just ate something that doesn't agree. 

As Mma Ramotswe told her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, you don't change people by yelling at them.  Use the right tools for the job, which, as usual, are often the ones specified by Jesus and Buddha.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Intelligence and intellectuals

I speak to and read messages from people every day who show high levels of intelligence.  Their use of language, their imagination, their knowledge and memories all show brains working well.  About 45 years ago, I took a graduate psych course on "psychometrics" or maybe it was called "individual psychometrics".  It was about getting familiar with two of the leading individualized intelligence tests and practicing giving them to children, the Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler.  That experience and subsequent work with tests of intelligence and school knowledge left me with low levels of respect for such tests. 

My most common experience with people calling someone "smart" is finding that the person knows many facts.  Wechsler thought that an intelligent child would have picked up many facts from school, reading and general living so one of the questions in his test is "How far is it from New York to Paris?"  Binet and his later American co-workers thought that an intelligent child would be able to use logic well so in their test, one of the questions is "Scientists have found the skull of a 10 year old boy in a graveyard in Spain.  They think it is the skull of Christopher Columbus.  What is funny about that?"  I have met many people, children or adults, who might be confused or simply silent in the face of either question while still being intelligent.

When a person gets a good idea, one that helps herself and others, I consider that person intelligent, whether or not they answer a question with what someone else thought was the 'correct' answer.  Most days, I see or hear something that seems notably intelligent to me from all sorts and ages of people, many of whom have the distinct impression that they aren't very "smart".

But aside from intelligence, there is a related but separate property of people: intellectual hunger, much the same thing as curiosity.  The person is much like the heroine of "Main Street" by Upton Sinclair.  Such a person may lead any sort of life in any era and do any sort of work but if given a chance, they will usually attract books to them.  They will wonder about the world.  They think, they ponder, they reflect and they wonder, that is, question.  Since knowledge is expressed in words, they will be interested in talking and reading.  A good word in my opinion for such a hungry mind is "intellectual". 
I have tried to talk with college students about the possibility of their being intellectuals and many of them do not seem to have an idea of what has sometimes been called "the life of the mind."  Being a person of letters has often been connected with the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) since these religions of the Bible have often expected their followers to develop literacy so that they could read that book.

But mechanics, actors, politicians and artists often have excellent memories and imaginations and use them to perform difficult or complex actions and feats, mental, physical and social. So, high levels of intelligence do exist in people who are not concerned with symbols or so-called book learning. 
As far as I am concerned, someone who watches tv news or listens to broadcasts or podcasts might have an ongoing curiousity and internal involvement with world developments or scientific issues without even being able to read in any language at all.  Such a person would still be an intellectual.
(Improved by Dr. L.S. Kirby)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Let's hear it for the human hand!

Just about everything we have comes from human hands one way or another.  Think of all the food, typing, writing, phoning, driving and tool use that hands do somewhere on the globe each day.

Many people think of the thumb as the main finger and the part of the hand that serves humans so well.  In many ways, it is, I suppose, but I have read in multiple places that the truly important part of the hand is the "ulnar opposition", ability of the ring and little fingers to roll toward the thumb.  Other animal hands can't do that and our grip, especially the way we grip a golf club or a sword, makes us much handier with tools and weapons.

Various maps of the homunculus brain show that the fingers have a great portion of the brain devoted to them.  I have read in several places that the sensitivity of the finger tips is among the best touch sensitivity in the entire animal kingdom.  We can sense extremely small things with our fingers. 

Of course, we gesture with our hands and we can use American Sign Language or other ways to sharpen the precision of our communication using hands.  I have had chances to experience the fact that gestures and signs can be communicated over spaces in noisy wrestling match atmospheres that limit the use of the voice.

Watching my baby great-grandson look at his hands in wonder and spend time slobbering over them and trying to cram them into his mouth makes clear to me how much work it is for us to learn to use our hands.  In junior high, I took a typing class and did poorly.  I listed myself mentally as a non-typist so I was very surprised when about 25 years later, it was clearly demonstrated to me that I knew the QWERTY keyboard way better than I thought, even after all that time.  For the last 30 years, I have typed nearly every day.  Not all that well by the typing class standards but in direct composition, my head and my hands cooperate better and more effectively than with longhand. 

Hurray for hands!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Attempts to sort people usefully

Typologies and classification systems can be a big help but they can also be a hindrance.  Without Linnaeus's classification system, science would be quite different.  I am often taken with the Dewey decimal system and the Library of Congress system since both are attempts to find a place for all subjects, all topics, including those not yet invented.  But as we know, the most important aspect of our lives is people, the intelligent bi-ped apes.  What about classifying them?

We have many ways.  The Genographic project at the National Geographic Society uses DNA markers to sort people by the pathways taken by their ancestors from central Africa to their traditional location.  Once it was thought that blood types indicate more than just structure of the blood.  Bumps on the head and months of birth have gotten attention.  The most basic classification of humans is probably their sex and we have endless research, discussion and even laws relating to that division.  It is not a 100% absolutely totally complete division since there are individuals of ambiguous sex but for many purposes, it works pretty well to pretend that all humans are female or male. 

I wrote the other day of my surprise at reading Huston Smith's mention of a ancient Hindu system of human personality classification.  A close friend wrote this morning about having seen references in my writing about my interest in and use of personality classification several times over the years.  In the 1980's, a friend told me to attend some lectures with him about the Myers-Briggs/Keirsey/True Colors system of recognizing and collaborating with people's habitual way of seeing the world.  It was quite helpful and we used it from then on.

The most common complaint about classification of people is probably about pigeon-holing, a practice that nothing to do with birds.  It is deciding that since I am a man, I must like hot dogs and beer, or sports.  I want to maintain the freedom to be what I want to be and not be told what I can and can't do, or should or shouldn't do, because of my gender, age, educational level, Zip code, etc.

But I and others have found it helpful to learn that people with a strong emotional component often get angry with others they perceive to be uncaring.  Without that abstract learning, I might be quite perplexed as to why a given individual seems to dislike me. Or, to use another example, the Myers-Briggs classification of people into quick, firm deciders and the other group of information gatherers who mull over a choice opened my eyes to tendencies in myself and relatives that showed similarities and differences that could be accommodated better if noted and understood.

It is very common in discussing people's tendencies to emphasize that people change and may suddenly develop a new tendency or drop a habitual one.  It is true that generally we can all employ all kinds of views and approaches to life.  Not only is there change everywhere in the larger world, there is also plenty inside each of us.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Every book is a script

The thing that is great about books is that they are about everything and they are free!  True, you have to go to a library to get them without paying but that is easy.  It also makes it handy to look over a collection and find others you don't know about.

But there's more.  TV and movies are great when they are good but they often aren't.  Besides, you have the ads to deal with.  Lately, we have been watching taped re-runs of NCIS, Cheers, and Wings.  We have been doing that for about 6 months and are getting a little tired of them.  But every book is a script, to be read aloud.  Just yesterday, the eleventh novel in our long-running romance with Alexander McCall Smith's series about the traditionally-built lady detective in Botswana, Africa arrived on CD.  That means we have 8 and 1/2 hours of listening to Lisette Lecat (le-'cah) read to us.  I recently finished listening to "The Bad Samaritans" and am now listening to "Buddhism for Busy People".  I have a tape player and a CD player in my car and each time, I run an errand or we take a trip, there is some expert narrator waiting to deliver the words of an author chosen by experts and by popularity for the value of the writing, fiction or non-fiction. Now that we have switched to iPods for things audio, it is even easier to continue with  a downloaded audio book on the road or at home.


It pays to note who the narrators are when you find an audio book you like.  We have listened to and admired that Lisette Lecat is a name we have both memorized.  But I realize while hearing what the Korean economist who teaches at Cambridge University in "The Bad Samaritans" has to say, that some of the clarity and emphasis, some of the retention that seems to comes naturally and easily is actually due to the timing, and expressive voice of the narrator, Jim Bond.  Similarly, learning about the trials and decisions that lead David Michie to practice Buddhism to save his life and spirit is more colorful and satisfying because of the skills and qualities of that narrator, Nicholas Bell.  On the web sites for Audible.com and RecordedBooks.com, you can find that works any narrator has produced. 

This post is later in the day than usual because last night, my wife's personal narrator and his listener simply could not bear to leave less than 10% of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson to be read aloud later.  We had to finish the book then, regardless of the hour.  We enjoy reading aloud to each other.  We found out about 50 years ago that if we both want to be there at the moment of hearing the joke, the answer, the surprise, reading aloud it a good way to make that happen.  So, make a note if you aren't already spending some time doing to so.  Listen together or read aloud to each other.  It is not just for children.  It is too much fun to leave to kiddies.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Who?

I think it is odd that I have so many names.  My wife calls me by one but my daughter calls me by another.  My family of origin used the name "Grandad" for grandfather.  I knew my great grandchildren would find it too long to say "Great grandad" so we just used "Grandad" for all generations.  My great grandson said in the foyer of a business that we were there for "my grandad's" order.  

My wife called one of her grandmothers "Grandma" and the other "Nana".  The one woman was friendlier than the second so my wife was surprised to find herself deciding that "Nana" was the best name she could give to her great grandchildren as her own name.

I was surprised when I learned that in some parts of the British Isles, father is called "Da", much like "Ma" for mother.  I was familiar with Ma but I only used "Mom".  I liked the sound better and I was never corrected.  I had a stepfather whom I loved and admired and he was "Dad".  My sister and I agreed that our father was "Daddy", often with the accent on the last syllable to be sure it was heard and used to differentiate one man from the other.

Three of our four great grandchildren are still too young for school but the oldest is not.  We get many comments from the teachers about the surprising number of individuals who show up to take him home from school.  There are at least 7 people who pick him up on different days.  In these times of heightened security and privacy concerns and practices, it is not easy for busy teachers to know who is showing up and if that person is legitimately empowered to go off with our great grandson.

I think it is impressive that several people of different generations can have a conversation and all use different names to refer to each other without anyone getting confused or misunderstanding a reference. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

news from Urbana Elementary School

My friends are the grandparents of the lead announcer of today's news at Urbana Elementary school.
http://wildandwonderfulwills.blogspot.com/2010/05/kate-wills-makes-her-tv-debut.html

Four basic kinds of people

I read the Hindu section of Huston Smith's The World's Religions.  I had the impression that the Hindu religion was fairly savvy and in accord with the ways of the world, despite knowing very little about it.

One of the features that Smith discusses is the Hindu idea that that there are four sorts of people, those who focus on service, on love, on thought  or on experience.  He states that Jung based his "Psychological Types" on the Hindu approach.  That is of strong interest to me since Lynn and I and several of our friends spent lots of time and effort in the classes we taught and with our families using a modification of Jung's work trying to understand those we work with, teach and are related to.  We used the work by Keirsey, by the daughter-mother team of Myers and Briggs and the most recent work done under the title True Colors

Because we have had quite a lot of experience using, explaining, defending and criticizing the work at the three links, hearing Smith's explanation of the Hindu background of Jung's work got my attention.  In finding the link locations just now, I read this from the Wikipedia
That wording seems good to me since we may try to attach all sorts of concurrent characteristics to being right-handed or left-handed but most of the time, the tendency just seems to exist.  I have heard references to Jung's book "Psychological Types" many times and in reading background material from the linked works.  There are often references to the "four humors", evidently originally a Greek medical/psychological theory of personality, body types and the mechanisms of the body and mind.  But other than Smith and his exploration of Hindu theory, I never heard of a connection to the ancient Indians before.  It doesn't surprise me too much since "Influences" by my friend Prof. A.L. Herman makes clear the very strong similarity between what emerged as Christian ideas and earlier parts of Greek and Indian religious notions.

The classification system Lynn, some of our friends and family and I have worked with uses four parts too, but they are a little different from what the reported Hindu categories.  We use
  1. Focus on rules and obligations - roughly 50% of the population
  2. Focus on feelings and emotional sensitivity - roughly 25% of the population
  3. Focus on physical body action and immediacy - roughly 15% of the population
  4. Preoccupation with thinking, theory and logic - roughly 10% of the population
We tried to get those training to be teachers to be aware of these categories in getting to know their students.  One student summarized these proclivities with four responses that students might make to the question: "Is the glass half full or half empty?"

By an education student learning about personality:

Is the glass half full or half empty?

 (responsible, rules) - Is this going to be on the test?  We weren't told this was going to be on the test!

 (feelings, social awareness) - That is a lovely glass!  Did your mother give it to you?

(physical action) Are we going to piss around with glasses all day?  I have a softball game to go to.

(thinker) - That is an interesting question.  We should pour the contents into another glass and carefully mark the meniscus to show how much there was.  Then, we will pour the water into a holding pitcher.  Then we will fill the marked glass to the mark and pour the contents into the original glass.  Finally, we will add the original water to the glass and see it if fits, overflows or what.



Tuesday, May 18, 2010

complaints about Western economic ways

Ha-Joon Chang was born in Korea, at a time when that country was extremely poor.  During his lifetime, that country changed from quite poor to quite prosperous, all the while being next door to North Korea that had remained in the grip of very severe poverty.  While that was happening, Prof. Chang grew up and became an economist.  He teaches economics at Cambridge, one of Britain's two great old universities.  He has written several books.  One of them was featured in a sale by Audible.com and it caught my eye: "The Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism."  

Ever since I studied statistics in the early 60's, I have been aware that economics can show things that are not easy for the average person to see by himself.  Over the years, I learned that economists are quite skilled at logic, argument and data acquisition and analysis.  I know that statistics can be fascinating and fun, even though I have always maneuvered my life to be able to step away from the subject when I wanted to.  My first brush with economics was probably "The Great Ascent" by Robert Heilbroner.  I grew up when the main opponent of the US was the Soviet system and I knew that theoretically, the difference between us and them was our approach to economics.  Over time, I ran into titles such as "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man", which I see has some highly negative reviews.  But as I read about Britain's economic tricks and rules against the American colonies, as I realized that the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and such organizations were based in the US, I suspected that maybe our millions and our wealth was not always created in highly moral or pristine ways.  

But Ha-Joon Chang is a British-educated economist and a Korean native who specializes in developing countries and their best path toward greater prosperity.  He writes with arresting clarity and he attacks very convincingly many of the ideas I have heard about all my life.  I didn't realize that the idea that open, free, unrestricted markets was so fundamental to the prevailing Western economic gospelbut the "Bad Samaritans" makes clear that such markets are only a good idea between equals.  He compares very poor countries' likely experience in an open market to what happens to children under the age of ten who try to earn a living, as many do in poor countries.  They just don't have the resources and the knowledge of how to use them.

I have not finished the book and I am not eager to have it end.  He has explained the lengthened and tightened patents, copyrights and trademarks the West, especially the US, have lately been using to extend their dominance and profits, a sore point with another intellectual property student and teacher I know.  Chang states there has been a questionable correlation between low-levels of corruption in government and that a country's prosperity, a relation that the Western forces have drummed as a holy truth.  He explains the history of inflation, another bogey man the Westerners repeatedly name as a deep evil and over-use as a measure that poor countries must work on.

In all three areas of patents, corruption and inflation, he shows that Western aid to poor countries has had more and more strings and conditions all the time, reducing the country's ability to work flexibly on its individual problems.  These conditions and interference on a growing scale seem the very opposite of the holy free market and individual freedoms to me.

(Improved by L.S. Kirby)

Monday, May 17, 2010

blog called Mother Reader

The list of blog previews that is fed to my own blog page can bring some good reading, ideas and language.  Following one of the links just now, I came to the blog Mother Reader.  I am pretty sure that dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles as well as older brothers and sisters might get something from it at times.  As a graduate student, I often wondered about the worth of getting hold of a good children's book to be read in a few minutes for a quick grown-up grasp of a subject, whether it was farting, astronomy, or grief.  It can be clarifying, as mothers and primary teachers know, to put into words an idea, a feeling or a description that can be understood by a pre-schooler.

Adventures in parenting

As a parent, you never know what is going to happen.  Most days go by normally and they lull the parent into thinking they will all be that way.  Every now and then, something happens that shows they don't have to be.

When our daughter was quite little, before she could speak clearly, she started to have troubles while sleeping.  She would wake up, frightened and upset.  She was clearly afraid of something and she would repeatedly say some phrase or sound but neither her mother, an astute, imaginative and careful listener nor I could make out what she was saying.  After the little kid did manage to quiet back down and fall asleep again, the two of us would repeat back and forth to each other as accurately as we could manage what we thought we heard but we didn't recognize any word in her utterance.  You know how a puzzle can grow on you as you get more and more determined to solve it.  When young parents get awakened by a scared child crying out in fear after getting nicely to sleep, they get frightened and perplexed themselves.  When it happens several nights in a row, the determination to find a solution gets pretty strong.

I think it was Lynn who noticed that our girl's upset might be coordinated with the furnace blower turning on.  Her little bed was right near a heat vent and maybe the fan beginning to blow caused our daughter to look at the vent.  Lynn eventually worked out, with constant checking, that the phrase was "the house is wiggling."  Our girl thought the heat was the sound of the house betraying dangerous instability.  Her mother was able to assure her the sound was a good one and did not signal any sort of danger.  Problem solved and it never bothered us again.

The same little girl was very pleased to get an Easter basket, one with several large chocolate Easter eggs seated in artificial grass surrounded by jelly beans.  Inexplicably, she started crying while trying out the jelly beans.  Her mother noticed that saliva was dribbling down her chin and looked more closely at her mouth.  Yikes!  There were way too many jelly beans crammed into that little mouth, so many, in fact, that she could not move her jaw or swallow.  Lynn dug her finger into the gooey strangling mass and pulled some of it out.  That little sweetie is the grandmother of four now and from that day to this, she has not had any more trouble with jelly beans.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Kindness and empathy

The other day, we happened to see some of one of The Human Spark videos on public tv.  It must have been program 2, "So Human, So Chimp".  The part that has really stuck in my mind is where very young children watching manipulated blocks saw one block that was friendly and cooperative with another block and one that wasn't.  The uncooperative block pushes other blocks, knocks them over and so forth.  The cooperative block assists another over an obstacle and does other helpful actions.  Then, the toddler is offered a choice between the two blocks.  Repeatedly, the "good" block is chosen and the nastier one is rejected.  That children so young could infer which is the good one and which is the nastier one from such abstract behavior and then remember which is which, to later select the one they liked is touching and marvelous.

I have been thinking about what I saw for a week or so.  Today's Time magazine includes an article by Maia Szalavitz called "Kindness 101", a report of training and instruction aimed at lessening or eliminating bullying behavior.  There are several promising approaches but a  notable one featured in Time relies on groups of children meeting a baby and the parent.  The program called "Roots of Empathy" was founded in Canada by Mary Gordon
.  If the pictures of youngsters observing babies and toddlers on the linked web site don't honestly get your humanity flowing, seek help.

(copyedited by L.S. Kirby)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

English and signs

One of the fun things about languages is that they can lead to poetry.  To unusual ideas, at the very least.  Lynn and I sat together and laughed and wondered at the 176 signs shown here.
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/05/11/travel/funny-signs.html?src=me&ref=general#/all/

maps and waste

I have been wanting to mention one of the most famous maps ever drawn.  Edward Tufte's books on maps, charts, diagrams and such are famous trips through that world and I have mentioned his nomination for the most impressive map ever drawn in a previous blog. That one is about the French army's experience trying to conquer Russia.  

However, another map that has stuck in my head is Dr. John Snow's map of cholera cases in London.  Snow was a physician in London who observed the sickness was more frequent around a certain water pump.  He made a map of the distribution of cases of the sickness, linked immediately above.  Evidently he lived and worked in the area and had everyday contact with the problems of the disease.  This was in 1854, not all that long ago, but before it was understood that many substances can harbor causes of disease too small to see.  Reports mention the idea that some sort of bad air or miasma carried the disease but they also say that the sanitation situation, especially the handling of human and animal waste, was extremely bad, especially in that section of the city.  Snow was eventually able to convince the authorities to remove the handle on the pump he had targeted and there was a serious drop in the cases of the disease.

A related book on human waste and its implications for our lives is mentioned in this blog entry.  That book "The Big Necessity" by Rose George shocked me in several ways and one of them is the mention of large and important European cities that only in the last few years have installed water treatment plants.

Friday, May 14, 2010

viruses, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis

Sometimes, one of us finds a book or article that really excites us and then that person helps the other understand and get enthused.  That is what just happened with the article in the June 2010 Discover magazine called "The Insanity Virus" by Douglas Fox.  

Our daughter died of brain cancer but she was incapacitated by schizophrenia and bipolar disease for 20 years before her death.  Extreme mood cycles can be a problem but serious delusions were a more debilitating problem for her.  As depicted in the film A Beautiful Mind and explained in the link above, she would at times be convinced that she was the actual physical lover of a long-dead historical figure or was about to be awarded a special medal by the US Congress.  We have long been aware of the efforts of Fuller Torrey, MD to find a virus that links to instances of schizophrenia.  Douglas Fox writes of the work of Torrey and Johns Hopkins scientists in cooperation with French, Swiss and others in uncovering the mechanisms that might explain many instances of both schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis.  

The book "Genome" by Matt Ridley started our basic knowledge about human genes a decade ago.  Statements there that large chunks of the human genome are "junk" made me wonder whether further knowledge might change that idea.  Fox writes that 60 million years ago, a virus infected a lemur ancestor of ours and managed to get into its testes or ovaries.  Actually, there are several that have managed to do that over time.  Our bodies seem to work at sealing them and their effects on us off, most of the time.  However, especially when we are babies, infections can begin cancers, incomplete myelination (insulation) of our nerves and schizophrenic misbehavior of our brains from these viruses that all humans carry.  These viral effects might not occur on a functional level until we are teens or young adults.  Torrey has been relentless in his pursuit of explanations of schizophrenia since 1957 when his sister was struck by the disease.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tunes and life

I was a little surprised when I read in Walden that Thoreau, alone in the woods, recommended that people not listened to music.  He says something like it is too hypnotic and can easily become an addiction.  I don't listen a great deal but music offers such pleasures that it seems equivalent to good food and good friends as a source of happiness.  Yesterday, while driving for about 6 hours in the car, we spent some of the time listening to music.  We have loaded nearly all of the CD's we own into our classic iPods and so we have a portable library of music everywhere we go. 

I find tunes coming to mind unbidden, exactly as Thoreau predicted, but I have not found any bad side effects from them.  I find three sources of music especially empowering: Mozart, Iz and hymns.  We have a good bit of Mozart, both instrumental and operatic.  My cell phone ring tone is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.  We enjoy his operas The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro.  If the two of us have a "song", it is probably Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K 581.  Also, the music adapted from Mozart by Markoe we have listened do while doing yoga and it is very soothing.

"Iz" is the nickname of the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwoʻole.  We carry a couple of his albums on our iPods but "E Ala E" is the collection that I return to repeatedly.  The mist-covered fields of northern Wisconsin are not the meadows of Hawaii but his voice and the notes and rhthyms are just as mellow and majestic here.

Whether at home, the moving car or in church, the great old hymns such as "It is well with my soul" (verses of which might be acceptable in nearly any spiritual tradition) and "How great thou art", which we sang at our daughter's funeral service, restore our balance, our energy and our optimism.  We happened to also listen to "Chiquita" by Abba. I have always liked the pounding piano in that arrangement.   It reminds me of a few experiences in European beer halls where it seems to me the level of music sensitivity is fairly low at times, but the communal joy and energy created by belting out clear simple tunes and rhthyms are as nourishing and uplifting as food, drink and smiles.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Using a static mind in a dynamic world

I mean by "static" something that is or tries to be still, unchanging.  I mean by "dynamic" something that evolves, or at least, changes over time.  A while back, I was alerted by writings that business and organizational theorists were trying to grasp what makes an organization able to revise, update and modernize itself.  Anyone writing a constitution or set of by-laws for an organization faces the question of succession,  how the officers be replaced when they retire, die or move on to other things.  It is likely that the question of modifications needed to the by-laws themselves will come up, too.  How will amendments to the constitution be created? 



My body and I are actually an organization, too.  I have heard that we are organized in such a way that new cells are created steadily and put in place of aging ones.  But I suspect my thinking more or less assumes a static world.  I meet a 2 year old child and then am taken with how that person has grown when I see her 6 months later.  My brain seems to expect the person to stay the same.  I expect me to stay the same but the mirror tells me I am changing all the time.



I guess living where the seasons really show themselves helps me stay aware of the changing world.  Using the same term for this spring and last spring, though, lulls me into believing they are the same or negligibly different.  Actually, each spring is its own and does not duplicate any other.  I do spot and recognize similar cycles in lives, administrations, stories, versions of Microsoft operating systems.  I rely on the similarities to make it easy to live in this dynamic world.  But I try focusing on seeing the changes to stay alert to the ongoing flow of events, harvests, creations and blendings.  My license plate says "VERSION".

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Frightening futures

Well, what else are we going to worry about?  We have the present more or less under control and we have passed the past.  So, that only leaves the future.  

According to George Johnson in his book on the woman astronomer Henrietta Leavitt,  it has not been 100 years yet that scientists and others have realized that what looks like stars in the heavens are actually stars all right but are whole galazies of them.  Less than a century ago, even professional astronomers thought that what we now call the Milky Way was the entirety of the astronomical bodies.  There is a great deal that we still don't know today and we can see that there may always be important questions that we cannot answer, both about the world and about ourselves.  

One of my favorite characters in "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!" is a minor one.  The Russian sub is stuck on a New England costal sandbar and the captain has sent his best crew sneaking ashore to try to somehow get a strong enough motorboat to tug it lose.  The men on that mission are intelligent and very, very scared.  They would just like to go home but they try to take steps to avoid being spotted, identified and reported to the military authorities who will not be gentle with armed foreign forces ashore in New England.  The entire American population is afraid of Russia and Russians and sees them in the least shadow.  Calls to the local sheriff about suspicious groups of men sneaking about here and there have included gut guesses by the callers that the groups might be Russians.

On Sunday morning, the sheriff asks the townsmen to gather in the local bar and explains that he wants some armed crews to investigate various parts of the island reporting odd activity by unidentified people not recognized by the locals.  My guy bolts out of the gathering shivering and babbling," It's all over!  It's all over!  We don't stand a chance!  Not a chance!"  Zero people have actually been clearly seen or talked to.  Nothing is really known about the reported events.  Yet, deep fear, probably from having a poor childhood or something, has arisen and totally spooked this man.  

Charlotte Beck reports a Zen story of a man being chased by a tiger.  As he runs, he happens to spot a perfectly ripe, red strawberry and snatches it as he flees the beast.  As he pops it in his mouth, he exclaims," Delicious!"  Now that is realizing a good thing while you have it! 

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