Sunday, June 14, 2009

Schooling Today

I have been listening to Prof. Timothy Taylor of Macalester College in his series with the Teaching Company on America and World Trade.  It is the second course of his I have listened to.  As he works his way through the regions of the world and how they are doing economically, he makes clear that many governments try to regulate their economy in ways that bring strength to their nation and good living to their citizens. 
In general, this effort has not been successful.  Regulating the business of a country reminds me very much of the debate for nearly 100 years in American educational thought.  On one side, we have the conservatives who tend to be tough and have high standards.  On the other, we have the liberals who are focused on freeing the student to become what she or he can become. 
Often the teacher is in a position to dictate what work must be accomplished.  Sometimes, the actual list of required work comes from a state list of requirements but usually the teacher is the main decider of what needs to be done for each grade that can be awarded.  So, the teacher or the state are in a position to dictate what the student shall learn and what the student shall do to demonstrate mastery of the learning.
As with a government regulating business, those who set demands, regulations, and restrictions on learning need to be right if they are to avoid causing more trouble than assistance.  To be right about the student, the learning and the society the student will live in after graduation, one needs to know the future.  Unfortunately, the future is always unknowable.  Today, with great emphasis on research and innovation, predicting the future successfully is even less likely than it used to be.
In the past, educators have taken refuge in the three R’s of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.  The general idea has been that those three are fundamental and more or less essential to a successful life and contribution to the society as a citizen.  All three of these typically required areas are subject to new questions and doubts today.  None of them is a complete waste of time but there are important alternatives that are steadily growing.  YouTube permits learning input without much reading.  Keyboards and spell and grammar checker permit writing without knowing the Zaner-Bloser prescription for “proper handwriting”.  Spreadsheets and calculators and sophisticated cash registers supersede the multiplication tables. 
All of these challenges and adjustments come from technology but the world is changing in other ways and from other forces than just technology.  In many American schools, many languages are spoken so there cannot be a presumption of English proficiency nor Christian traditions.  Much more understanding of the ways that people can and cannot learn is multiplying both the recognition of individual differences and the attempts to find individual strengths and limitations, all to an extent quite unknown in the 50’s and earlier.

Reruns tomorrow

Tomorrow starts three weeks of random selection of post re-runs.  Here is a web page list of them:
Here is the list itself:
day date re-run title
Thu 18-Jun Vitamin D
Fri 19-Jun How I Got Firearms
Sat 20-Jun Pivotal moments
Sun 21-Jun Four types of people
Mon 22-Jun Pure fear
Tue 23-Jun A Growing Satisfaction
Wed 24-Jun Saying the Actual Truth
Thu 25-Jun Keep or toss
Fri 26-Jun Some basic truths
Sat 27-Jun Our Minds and Reality
Sun 28-Jun My Life in Corrections
Mon 29-Jun Where can we put all this shit?
Tue 30-Jun Using a heart rate monitor
Wed 1-Jul Thoughts keep coming
Thu 2-Jul The Value of Pain Talk
Fri 3-Jul Two topics today
Sat 4-Jul New conversations
Sun 5-Jul Free computing
Mon 6-Jul Anything exciting going on?
Tue 7-Jul Local warfare
Wed 8-Jul The little baby who grew
Thu 9-Jul Cascades of thoughts

The Test Is Key

The idea of the test is not popular with most people, whether they are students or used to be.  Tests mean stress, challenge, trickery, and failure.
But surprisingly, tests can mean completion, attainment, success and freedom from educational requirements.  The trouble with most tests is that they aren’t available until you have sat in the class for the required time.  If the test is available at the beginning of the instructional period, the whole arrangement might be referred to as “testing out”.  A student is said to test out of a course if she takes a test, passes it at the required level and is given credit for that course.
Ideally, the test should be the same one as the students who do attend the classes and read the text take.  Sometimes, an instructor is nervous about crediting a student with the course if that person has not sat in the class the usual hours.  In that case, the instructor might make an especially difficult or detailed test so that a student who passes seems like a safer bet for a passing grade.
Students and institutions often expect the instructor to pass out a syllabus at the beginning of the course.  That document usually specifies topics for the classes and may give details about assignments or papers. It doesn’t usually state the test questions that the students will be expected to answer. 
It is not unusual for one or more tests to be kept from the students in the class for purposes of secrecy.  What if the students study just the answers to the test questions but learn nothing more?  Then, they would get counterfeit grades, being labeled as O.K. when they are only partially O.K.  But if the test is a good measure of proficiency and mastery, it might be freely available from day one.  It can serve as a guide to learning the course content.  Sometimes, the test is not shown to the students because at the beginning of the course, it is too frightening.  If the students look the test over and realize it is all Greek to them (because the instructor hasn’t worked with them yet and the course hasn’t worked its magic yet), they may become too discouraged or frightened. 
I liked the situation the Boy Scouts used.  You want a merit badge in biking or first aid.  Look at the requirements.  For those requirements that you can do now, you are ready to perform in front of a Scout official.  For those that you can’t perform or don’t even know that they mean, you have some learning to do.  The list of requirements is freely available to all and is a good guide to completing the “course”.  Very importantly, if you attempt to demonstrate mastery of one of the requirements but your attempt falls short, you can learn more, practice more and try again.  There are many educational situations where failing a test does not open a door to trying to test AS GIVEN (no fair changing the questions or requirements!) further times until you do master it.  Note that which requirements you did well and which you didn’t is completely open information, again quite unlike the situation in most formal testing situations.
A basic rule of thumb is "If you can't take the test repeatedly, you are in a contest, not a learning situation."

Saturday, June 13, 2009

You and I will not "die"

Well, of course, there will come a time when we are no longer visibly around, when we no longer speak or write new emails.  But when that time comes, our friends and relatives will re-circulate old emails and play recordings and videos of us, maybe even some from our childhood.  Is Humphrey Bogart dead?  In the usual sense of the word, yes, since 1957, according to the Wikipedia.  But I am trying to focus on non-usual senses of the word, senses that show the fact that aspects of a person can persist importantly regardless of the fact they have stopped breathing.   We can still see Humphrey.  Look here, for instance.
Well, but Humphrey was famous and is “immortalized” in film but you and I aren’t.  Maybe we are.  We know each other.  Besides, check yourself out.  Look in Google and Google Images.  Check the CIA, the FBI, your records at the bank and in your doctor’s and lawyer’s office.  You could be in all of those places and many others I don’t know about.  It is a big job just finding all the parts of you!
My daughter, my mother, my stepfather, my father, my grandfather, my grandmother and many others I had known and loved have died.  But, I have each of them in my head.  Their appearance, their ideas, their principle and their genes are in me now.  Are they “gone”?  Not at all.
Between memories and artifacts like letters and sewing and carpentry and art they made, parts of them are still here.  Before they had gone through the state-change from “live” to “dead”, most of the time during my adult years, I wasn’t near them.  I didn’t see them often and I didn’t hear from them.  Just like now.
They even change in my mind and perception.  As I age, I view them differently at different times.  As I go through changes of opinion and emphasis, so do they.  Just like then.
Sometimes, the most helpful image of a person is that of an amoeba.
We are of a shifting shape, with indistinct and changing boundaries.  We spread over to here and reach to there.  We expand and contract.  We extend through time and space and change locations.  No wonder it is so difficult to cease to exist.

Sewing crafts

This from Wired magazine on sewing crafts and programming:

Friday, June 12, 2009

An exciting meal

Things are moving here on the food front.  We subscribed to a box of groceries harvested off a local farm and delivered each week.  This was the 2nd week of what we expect is a challenge to eat all the vegetables before the next week’s batch arrives.
A year ago, we visited Ithaca, N.Y. and ate several times in the Moosewood Restaurant.  Until then, I wasn’t that much of a fan of the Moosewood Cookbook, The Broccoli Forest and other Mollie Katzen books.  But after our third trip to the place in as many days, I was strongly converted.  It was notably delicious food, no mistake.
As a college freshman, I was required to write a research paper.  I fooled and squirmed and handed in a paper saying I hadn’t done the assignment and couldn’t find an idea.  My prof, the same one who had brought Lynn to my attention by asking her if her name was Finnish, kindly gave me a second chance.  I tried the subject of nutrition, since as a wrestler, I had heard things that didn’t make sense, such as eating a 1 oz. chocolate bar would result in several ounces of weight gain.  From then on, I have been a fan of good nutrition information.  Over the years, I noticed articles by Prof. Jean Mayer of Tufts University were especially helpful. 
Then, I found the name Walter Willett on more and more helpful articles.  He has emphasized that the right fats are essential to good weight control and good health.  He is the chair of nutrition at Harvard Medical School.  When I found a book on good eating and good weight control co-authored by Mollie Katzen and Walter Willett, I immediately began checking the local libraries for a copy.  Neither public nor university has it so I ordered it used from Amazon.  It is great.
Lynn is the queen of vegetables.  Maybe queen of the promotion of vegetables since she is forever advocating them but neither of us eats 5 to 9 servings of vegetables and fruits a day that Katzen, Willett and many others recommend.  As I age, I keep getting heavier and I don’t like it.  I can probably learn to adjust to it but I would rather lose weight, at least some.  I read recently that young or old, rich or homeless, we all approach a buffet with internal circuitry that sends us to the calorie-rich foods.  People tend to refer to lettuce, carrots and other vegetables as “rabbit food.”  Who wants to be a chicken-hearted little rabbit, nibbling and nibbling, when a good steak or rich brownie is waiting?  That circuitry has been directing me to more calories than this aging body can burn.  It doesn’t have to be that I am a food robot, gulping down what is not good for me.
Yesterday, we picked up our 2nd delivery of farm vegetables.  Included were radishes, the same food that involved Rapunzel in her hairy adventures and the same food served in German beer halls as a snack.  Note: very low calories but healthy and with a kick.  The trouble is we rarely eat radishes.  We profess to like them and the ones in the box are very tasty but still…rabbit food and raw.  That doesn’t really spell D-I-N-N-E-R.  Lynn was determined.  For one thing, we have to think differently if we are going to eat more veggies and if we are going to survive the coming vegetable wave from the farm boxes each week. 
With a little help from the internet, she sautéed slice radishes and the green radish tops.  They went well with the hopping john.  We feel like budding Mollies and Walters.  Just watch us shrink.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Just a little reminder

I read the other day about some study where people got daily reminders to work on eating less and losing weight.  From the little bit I saw, the group that got such reminders did better than the group that didn’t.  Such a result doesn’t surprise me.
Reminders fascinate me.  They are both simple and complex.  Peoples’ reactions to a reminder can cover an equally wide range.  My mom tells me to sit up straight.  Grrr!  I’m not a baby.  That woman is constantly hounding me.
I know an ex-librarian whose biggest burden at work was having a patron pop up at the desk needing help just when she was getting into a job that really needed doing.  Reminders are often interruptions and can produce similar reactions of frustration or impatience.
I have never actually tied a string around a finger to remind me to do something.  But the image is widely understood.  Firefox Reminder uses a paw with a blue string tied around one toe as a logo.  Sometimes, when I think of something I need to remember to do, I put an object in an odd place.  Sitting a vase of flowers on the floor or putting a book in the middle of the hallway can remind me that today is trash day.
I can picture my whole day being governed by reminders which I myself have set.  Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird have task “to-do” lists and calendars associated with them.  My valet or secretary could follow me around and remind me of the next thing I wanted to do.  I would wear one of those Bluetooth clips on my ear and be reminded by cell phone. 
The email weight loss study made me think of my changed attitude toward spiritual reading.  Since the church calendar tends to repeat year after year, I used to think “Who needs it?  I know the text and the admonitions by heart.  Why do I need to have them repeated?”  Then, I found that I actually am more kindhearted and a little bit more mindful of others’ pain, confusion and loss for a day or so if I get a reminder to tend to the spiritual side of life.  Refreshers, re-painting my mind in the desired color, re-focusing my attention on a desired goal, re-affirming an intention really do help me live more the way I want.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

No Self and Emergence

One of the basic principles of Buddhism is that there is no such thing as the self.  That can be hard to swallow since Americans put emphasis on individuals and pay attention to self-improvement and self development.  The Buddhists argue that no part of the body or the mind is what is referred to as the self.  Maybe the self is just a myth.
A statement of the Buddhist approach is available on the internet here.
From a Western point of view, it seems that “ego”, the affirmation that I exist and am important, significant is related to the part of us that fights to stay alive.  In a sense, our desire to continue to live and avoid death works to support our awareness of our own past, present and future.  Our continuance is the ongoing of us.  So, there is a self, that which continues.
A couple of years ago, I came across the book A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down by Robert B. Laughlin.  The second part of the title got my attention.  How can you revise something from the bottom DOWN?  If you are at the bottom, there is nothing further below to revise.  The book is by a winner of the Nobel Prize in physics so that is a pretty good credential.  The title refers to a very old Western approach: Get to the basics.  Originally, the idea was that matter itself could not be infinitely divisible so there had to be a smallest possible unit, called the “atom”. 
Today, we are familiar with sub-atomic particles, so the atom is not the bottom of things.  As scientists have continued on their quest for the basis of everything, they have had to start considering “emergence”.  In systems theory, one of the basic tenets is “More is different”.  They mean that a group of 1000 people has different properties than a group of a billion people.  Physicists and other thinkers have started noting situations where different possibilities emerge when enough basic units occur.  Such an idea runs counter to the notion that things have a fundamental unit which more or less controls what they can be or do.  Some properties or possibilities emerge from the group.
So, following Bill Bryson, who pointed out that our configuration of atoms will last for a while but will eventually dissipate, we can cling to a notion of a self, the one we think of and that others think they recognize, but it may be just a handy term for a temporary cloud.

Monday, June 8, 2009

New conversations

One thing leads to another.  I look out for a good book to read.  When I see one, I try to remember to check in our local libraries.  If we have a copy, I try to remember to check it out.  If we don’t, I buy it.  Living in a small town in the north of the country is pretty nice with
The trouble is that with borrowing and purchasing, the books pile up.  They wouldn’t if I were a logical person, but I am piggy.  I borrow and buy more than I can read, telling myself I will get to them later.  I do read quite a few.  The second trouble is that after reading, I may “need” the book later.  You know, for reference, quoting or as a souvenir.  So, the books pile up.
At one point in the summer of 2007, I was surrounded.  Not just by crowded shelves but by stacks of books that wouldn’t fit on the shelves.  I boiled over.  When I expostulated (wow!  Big word!) that we had to get rid of some of these durned books, Lynn, ex-librarian and ex-professor of library science, jumped in with two enthusiastic feet.  Yes!  Let’s clear things out.  At the time, we had about 1000 books.  After clearing, we had about 300.  For us, it was a tremendous accomplishment, thanks to our persistent hardworking friend who carted the rejected ones away.
I tried, I really did.  I tried to borrow less and buy still less than that.  But, you guessed it.  But April of Ought Eight, there was a book I justified buying.  I needed it.  It was valuable and would improve our lives.  But I could not go through adding to our shelves, at least not just yet.  Amazon had incessant ads about the Kindle.  It held more than 1000 books in the space of one tradebook paperback.  I bought one and liked it very much.
This spring, I looked around for possible topics that might be of interest to our local elder group of students and thinkers.  The Kindle!  But one doesn’t want to speak to that group without good preparation.  I’m a book person but the Kindle also supports newspapers, magazines and blogs. 
There are something like 70,000,000 blogs.  That is quite a few.  I wanted to prepare for my Kindle talk with some experience of receiving a blog daily.  I realized that Amazon might use some judgment, some quality standard for which of the 70 million it would go to the trouble of sending to the Kindle.
I found that my own blog was a better place to keep track of the blogs I have found worth following.  Google makes it easy to select some and keep a link and a snippet of the latest post right beside my own posts.  Using Firefox for browsing the web, I have a bookmark toolbar that includes a link to my blog page.  Lately, instead of looking at Google News, Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times first thing each morning, I look at blogs of interest.
I am up to eight now.  The best is Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.  Best for what?  For good ideas, for good language, for good links to other things.  Just today, he and his staff turned me on to Scott Adams, cartoonist of Dilbert and author of several books you might not expect.  Adams has a blog that I just added to those I list.  I look at two from Amazon, one from, one on children’s books and two on business. Take a look for yourself.  Google has a blog searcher and there are other tools to find what you like.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Imagination and understanding from India

I can’t remember just what got me interested in “The Return of the Rishi” by Deepak Chopra.  He finished his medical training up to the residency in India.  Educated there, he saw things such as a yogi being buried alive in a box for 5 days and then happily emerging from the box when it was dug up and opened.
His residency began in an American east coast hospital a day or so after his arrival in the US.  He reports hearing his name called over the hospital loudspeaker.  As resident on duty, he was needed to pronounce a recently deceased patient dead.  He thought it was odd that he should be asked to so since the nurse on duty was quite experienced and knew that death had occurred.  That was why he had been paged in the first place.  As he approached the deceased’s room, he saw the family sitting in a waiting area at the end of the hall.  He saw that the room itself was too crowded with machines and equipment for anyone to sit in there.  That arrangement contrasted in his mind with what he was used to in India, where he had just been a few days before.  There, the dying would have been in the company of their family at the time of death, not surrounded by machines.
Chopra went on to become a practicing endocrinologist in America.  He steadily increased his awareness that mental, ethnic and religious ideas and customs in India had something to offer Western medicine.  Over time, he was written zillions of books, which seem to me better than the average self-help.  I did read his “Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment” but I think Herman Hesse’s novel “Siddhartha” is a better tour of Buddha’s life.  The Chopra work that has done much for me is “The Higher Self”, in audio form.  Chopra speaks with an Indian accent and in a charming voice. 
His background, experience and knowledge are such that he is very good at showing, step by step, how we can increase our awareness of our lives and bodies and move toward living life as we would like it to be.  He mentions an anecdote where miners were trapped with insufficient air.  One of them had a watch and called out the time each hour but actually allowed two hours to pass for each call.  When they were rescued, the only one that had died from suffocation was the man with the watch.  He convincingly emphasizes the impact of our thinking and what we believe to be true of the world on our health and lives.
He shows that other living creatures can sense heat in a way we cannot and that small animals can feel tremors in the earth that we cannot.  There are many realities that we are normally not privy to. His use of over-the-top superlatives is a little hard to take in this age of hype and bull but he examines things carefully and with a good eye.  He knows we can all lift ourselves to a better plane.  He shows quite clearly that our attitudes, our moods, our spirit exist and matter, in a practical hour by hour way.  The best way, but not the only way, to become aware of parts of our lives that we normally ignore is to meditate.  Practicing turning the mind off and only being aware of all we can be aware of – that increases our use of our other tools and feelings.

My Life in Corrections

In junior high school, I took a typing class.  I never planned to be a secretary or typist.  That’s a good thing since I was not good.  My fingers are fast but I make many errors.  You know how it goes: you type x words a minute but then subtract from your score some penalty for the typos.  I knew from the start that I wanted to compose on the keyboard, as I am doing now.  I did not have text that I wanted to copy.  My score was low and with the penalty subtraction, I sometimes got a negative speed.  I made a note to myself to forget about typing and just write in longhand.
I am a male and so did not practice my handwriting any more than I had to.  I did not write anything like “Mrs. William Xxxxx” over and over as beautifully as I could.  I figured that if people could make out what symbols I had attempted, that was sufficient.  However, people often could not make out my symbols.  Mind you, I graduated with a degree in elementary education and I taught the 5th grade for 4 years.  That means I was responsible for teaching handwriting to the children.  I held very few handwriting lessons.  Basically, I could read their writing, they could read mine, and we were satisfied with each other.
I began teaching college in 1968.  There were many handouts in those pre-internet, pre-email days.  I wrote the text and gave the handwritten copy to the department secretary.  She could usually understand what I had written.  I usually looked over the typing before it was printed.  Between the two of us, we often caught typos and omissions in time.
In the late 70’s, our department acquired an Atari computer.  It had a word-processing cartridge which enabled us to compose on a keyboard and read the work on a “tv” screen.  Corrections and changes could take place on the screen quickly and cleanly before anything was put on paper.  It was slick.  The trouble was I still felt that my fingers were slow and error-prone.
One day, a new faculty member stopped the chair of the department outside my door and asked to have a typewriter delivered to her office.  I was impressed that she clearly felt she would be more productive with the machine.  I wondered if there was something the matter with me.  I realized that over the years, my handwriting had certainly not improved and probably was worse than it once was.  I wondered if typing the letters, which would certainly make them clear and uniform, would help the secretary.
I decided to test my speed on a keyboard against my handwriting speed.  I was quite surprised to find I was about twice as long writing by hand.  I was impressed at how my fingers knew the keyboard and how easy the monitor made not looking at the keyboard.  Furthermore, I found that monitor technology enabled me to see what I was writing and make chances changes as they were needed.  From then to now, I have looked for ways to type instead of write.  I am still slow and error-prone, even worse with lots of Capital Letters and 1 or 2 numbers and punctuation marks thrown in ! 
But I followed my daughter’s advice and tried to see how my speed and error rate is now.  I tried 4 times and typed between 45 and 55 words a minute before correction and between 23 and 45 wpm after correction.  As my great grandson grows up, he and I are going to continue using the keyboard but probably not aim for typing jobs.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Two topics today

Good focus
I found that trying to see the monitor thru the bifocal area of my glasses was a pain in the neck, literally. I tried reading glasses and still use 2.00-strength cheap glasses at times. But the optical department of our local Wal-Mart introduced me to PC Peekers.
They have been the best thing I have found. sells them for $17.88 a pair, plastic lenses that slip temporarily behind your regular glasses. That is about the price at Wal-Mart, too. The twists on the ends make insertion and removal easy. The twists also keep the viewing area from direct contact with anything the Peekers are set down on, preventing scratching. I use mine quite often and suffer less in the transition to them and away from them than using reading glasses.
Laziness vs. Thoughtful Concentration
I try to avoid using the word or the concept of “lazy”. I take it to mean a basic propensity to not do work, or not do anything, or not do what is assigned, or not do “what I should.” By high school, often before that, in middle school or junior high, students are old enough to know what they want to do. Usually, they do not desire to do what is assigned, what is required or what adults consider good for them.
Often, the question arises, How can I get X to do what I want X to do? Teachers and parents have this question about young people. Politicians and managers have this question. Physicians ask this about patients and wives about husbands. Mark Twain had several things to say about this subject.
I guess it is true that at some ages, what is desired is just to not do what is asked but for many people, especially male people, poetry, pigs or pitching has an attraction and other things don’t. An activity or goal has an attraction and that is what is desired. Other things aren’t desired and may be resisted.
Several years ago, the Gallup Organization and some of its workers published books on a general problem in all organizations, worldwide. The basic problem is that people are put into prearranged slots, such as the job that was recently vacated or the slot of doing what the organization needs. Such a step seems natural, often inevitable. However, Gallup found that if more effort is put into finding a person’s strengths, that person is far happier and often more productive and more valuable to others.
Artists painting those silly pictures and sculptors tapping away at those big blocks of marble have often been asked by their mothers and husbands if they couldn’t stop the foolishness and cook or clear or visit the sick. Germaine Greer wrote The Obstacle Race about the desire of women painters to follow their interests and needs to paint but often falling in love and working for their emerging family instead. I realize husbands and children and grandchildren are very glad for Mom’s attentions and often women come to value the needs and futures of those parties more than their own arts and plans.
Sometimes, though, it is best if X does what X wants, even for quite a long time.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Our Minds and Reality

I have gotten good ideas from Robert Ornstein, especially his books
  • "The Healing Brain" by Ornstein and Sobel
  • "Multimind"
  • "The Roots of the Self"
He recently wrote a book called “MindReal” that repeats in detail a comment he made in “Multimind”.  He said that our minds are built from the cellular level up to note things along 4 variables:
  1. Recency – did it just happen?
  2. Vividness – Is it exciting? Colorful? ‘Real’?
  3. Comparison – Was it bigger, smaller, faster, slower than usual?
  4. Significance – What did it ‘mean’?  Was it ‘good’?  ‘Bad’?
For a while, I was focused on ideas from Deepak Chopra and Bill Bryson.  It seemed funny to me that a Hindu physician transplanted to the US and an American transplanted for years to London could occupy places of spiritual importance in my mind at the same time, but they did.  Chopra has gotten to me deeply in several books and Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” – a discussion of the rise and content of modern science by an excellent writer who is not himself a scientist - got my attention with two comments.
Bryson starts off the 500 page book saying he suspects his reader had more trouble getting here than the reader knows.  Not only did all one’s ancestors have to live long enough to reproduce, but all one’s trillions of atoms had to arrange themselves in this particular layout to make the body.  Chopra’s Book of Secrets was one of those works that grows on you over time.  Even when it has been put aside, thoughts and questions arise in the mind from it. 
One of his secrets is “The world is in you.  You are not in the world.”  What?  The sun, the Milky Way, gold mines, corn fields, great rivers are in me?  I don’t think so.  But he meant the same thing “MindReal” means: that all we can know, think and experience consciously is in our mind.  Books, pictures, memories, sensations – all in the mind.  Our ability to know what is on our mind, the famous five basic senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch and additional ones such as body awareness and awareness of our thoughts and feelings.
We learned in psychophysics class that a telephone wire seen at the right distance is too small for continuous perception of a solid black line.  But our minds assume it is continuous and show it to us that way, filling in parts that can’t really be perceived with our visual equipment.  In “This is Your Brain on Music”, the author says that a fundamental tone has overtones that are integer multiples of itself.  So, a tone of 100 hertz has overtones of 200, 300, etc.  But if the ear is presented with a series of just the overtones, the mind will supply the fundamental.  “It” “knows” that if the 200 was the base, the overtones would be 400, 600, etc.  So, it supplies what must be missing. 
“MindReal” makes clear that we only have a virtual reality to work with and we seem to be constructed to find and eat food, to avoid predators, to mate and to survive.  Using theory and making poetry and cooking advanced menus are our human efforts on top of the basics.  We  are using hunting/gathering equipment to paint with.  No wonder, we have trouble understanding ourselves and others.

Pivotal moment 2

In junior high, I studied Latin.  I don’t remember any special reason.  I didn’t especially like the idea of French, German or Spanish and Latin probably seemed intellectually promising.  So I learned “agricola” for farmer and “puella” for girl.  When it came time to go to high school, I found the only school where I could make my year of Latin count was the Baltimore City College, then an all-male high school.  It meant a long streetcar and bus ride but I did it for three years. 
It took a little while before I found out that I was enrolled in an academically advanced class.  It was a pleasant group of guys and we were in that same homeroom for all three years.  I had many adventures and pleasures at that school.  During my first few days there, I attended an assembly where the football team was introduced on the stage.  I had thought I would join that team.  But the coach introduced the smallest player and noted that he was the lightest at only 150 lbs.  At the time, I weighed 120 and I realized no football for me. I did wrestle and I did play the drums in the drum and bugle corps.  I won the role of Captain Queeg in my senior year and very much enjoyed showing my mental infirmity during cross-examination by Lt. Greenwald.
Various members of my homeroom took the SATs and were congratulated as they won college scholarships.  I didn’t think I was bright enough for such things.  I didn’t have money or savings toward college.  I didn’t think my parents did, either.   So, when my homeroom teacher asked us to write on an index card about our post high school plans, I wrote that I planned to join the navy.  I knew very little about the navy but I figured I would get a little pay and save it toward later schooling.  A few days later, I was told that the guidance counselor wanted to see me. 
He told me my teacher had informed him of my stated plan for the navy.  He said I would not like the armed forces and that I should find a way to go to college.  By then, I had decided my strongest pleasure was understanding people.  I had read about becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist.  My mother had wanted to become a teacher all her life instead of the business work she had gotten into.  She asked me to look into Towson State Teachers College.
I did and found it cost $67 a year for tuition and $267 a year for room, board and tuition.  Those amounts I knew afford myself.  That was all I needed to know.  Towson was totally wonderful.  I began to dislike holidays that would take me away from campus.
My homeroom teacher asked me my plans and followed up on his opinion about how they should be modified.  Had he not done that, I don’t know how I would have spent my life.  Thanks very much, Mr. Chubb!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Lady Tasting Tea Test

Sir Ronald Fisher was a mathematician and scientist who formalized what is called the analysis of variance, a statistical technique.  It is one of the two big techniques used today, the other being correlation/regression analysis.  Fisher wrote “The Design of Experiments”, a book that has been a mainstay of statistics and experimental design for years.  When the book reached its 21st printing, my favorite statistician, John Tukey*, wrote a review of the book, saying that when a book reaches 21, it becomes an adult and deserves special consideration.
In his book, Fisher created a story of a British woman who had consumed many cups of tea.  This hypothetical woman alleged that she was so experienced and so sensitive that she could tell by tasting whether the cream* was added to the cup and then the hot tea (from a tea pot, no tea bags!) or the cream was added second and the tea first.  Fisher showed that the math involved supported the idea that the lady’s claim should be tested by presenting 8 partially filled cups to her to taste and sort, where 4 of them were prepared one way and 4, the other.  The cups would be randomly set on a tray and her job was to sort them correctly.  100% correct sorting would be sufficiently improbable by chance alone that it would be rational to conclude that the lady did indeed have the ability she claimed.
This general plan, sorting two sorts of examples into the correct groups, is applicable to many tests and claims.  Lynn once made homemade Kahlua but found it a poor substitute.  My friend and I thought it was good stuff and claimed she was merely prejudiced.  She knows the lady-tasting test and challenged us to take a test of the real stuff and her recipe.  We both took the test and we both failed.  She took the test and passed.
Students in my classes have set up the test between margarine and butter, between a cola beverage and a white soda, and many other comparisons. 
* A note: Tukey’s name makes people think of the word “turkey”.  He was a very brilliant man and far from a turkey.  Still, it is worth knowing that there is a paper “A Quick Test According to Duckworth’s Specifications” by John Tukey.  That is true and the best stat humor I can manage.
*I received a note from a British professor stating that only an ignorant Yank would write about tea and cream when any Brit knows it is tea and MILK.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Cascades of thoughts

I agreed to give a talk on meditation since I think it is a valuable, easy, quick tool for increased mental, emotional and physical health.  I read Kornfield, Kabat-Zinn, and Daniel Siegel’s “The Mindful Brain.”  They were very helpful.  But when I found “The Mindful Way through Depression” by three British psychologists and Kabat-Zinn, I perked up.  Here was a book about a particular application to a problem.  I have not been bothered by depression myself but I know it is the most common of the four main mental illnesses (depression, obsessive-compulsive, bipolar and schizophrenia).  I figured if meditation can actually assist in lessening or eliminating depression, that would be a very good thing, indeed. 
The book comes with an audio disc and is also available in audio book form.  In that format, it is abridged.  With a non-fiction work, I find abridged is good.  It is often the meat with less chatter.  I listened to the audio book very carefully.  After explaining what meditation is (see the first link above), they started talking about their research and practice. 
They explained that they had evidence that people that are bothered by depression get trained into particular “cascades of thoughts”.  Some negative event sets their mind off and a habitual chain of thoughts and emotions quickly slides into the mind, very smoothly and without being noticed as such.  The picture of such a cascade stuck in my mind and it was clear that the idea was a mainstay of their approach.
The notion of a series of thoughts coming into the mind as a whole without being noticed is interesting and I have continued to think about it.  I find that many subjects or topics have cascades associated with them in my mind. When I do yoga postures, the same routine repeatedly, the same ideas come to mind.  When I think of a historical figure I have been interested in, Churchill for instance, I have the same memories of things read and reactions to those readings each time I think of Winston.   (You don’t mind me calling him “Winston”, do you?)  The same thing happens when I look at a book on my shelf.  The same series of thoughts and reactions spring up repeatedly.
Being aware that mental skids are in place that tend to slide a series of thoughts into my mind without awareness or approval can assist me in taking a turn off the usual path to something new.  I can get to new places, new impressions, new angles.

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