Saturday, July 31, 2010

Getting ready to die

Today, we finished reading aloud "Letting Go" by Atul Gawande, a professor of medicine, author and sometime writer for the New Yorker.  I think he writes very well and read him every chance I get.  This article is about dying and appears in the August 2, 2010 issue of the New Yorker.

It seems to me that most living organisms struggle to stay alive.  It seems to be a basic property of a living being to want to live and to keep on living.  Most people alive today know that there have been scientific breakthroughs that allowed for amazing things to happen, amazing travel at amazing speeds, amazing experiences such as live tv from the other side of the world and amazing advances in health care.  I recently mentioned the book and audiobook "The Demon Under the Microscope" by Thomas Hager.  You can't go through the story of World War I soldiers dying from infections and World War II soldiers living to heal without infections and be insensitive to the exaltation that can come from knowing you are on the brink of death and being saved by medical science and skill. 

It is a hard fact that an oxygen-burning engine, such as a human body, cannot last forever.  In most cases, it can't last 100 years.  So, it seems fundamental to face the fact that we will die.  In today's world, many of us experience death as something that happens to old people but other eras found death more often at all ages from birth to the last years.  Americans have an optimistic can-do tradition and like to pride themselves on their imagination and tenacity.  Add all that to the love we feel for our relatives and we have the perfect formula for the current difficulty Gawande discusses in the article linked above. 

The financial difficulty is the first layer of the problem.  25% of all Medicare expenses are from treating and caring for people in their last year of life.  As long ago as the early 80's, W. Edwards Deming emphasized that the problem of medical care and health-related expenses could easily be a bottomless pit for our wealth, our thought and our energy.  The situation is much worse now.  Through various relatively simple procedures, medicine can keep many bodies in a state approximating life more or less indefinitely, although what we would call the quality of life for those bodies is very low. 

However, you can see how blind obedience to the principle of "keep on trying and never give up" can couple with the current ability to keep people technically alive and result in more and more bodies being mechanically breathed and artificially fed through tubes and put through procedure after grueling procedure, all because no one has the will to say "When", to say "That is enough, we are failing.  Stop now!"  As his article makes beautifully clear, simple, honest complete conversations with knowledgeable physicians and fact-facing family members can spare months and even years of torture, procedures that still end in death but after isolation, expense for us all and false hopes that cannot be fulfilled. 

If you are 60 years old or older, tell everyone you love now that you love them.  Don't wait.  You can always repeat your statements later if you are still able.  Then, talk with your physician and your family about how you want to be treated when you are told you have an incurable condition and that medicine can do nothing more of any practical value for you.  That day will come, so work on it now.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Hungry searching: unfulfilled desires

I just finished A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller.  I enjoyed his reading of his book very much.  It seems clear that he is a self-aware person and quite articulate.  The book strikes me as a story and statement by a young man.  He does not seem especially interested in philosophy or the history of philosophy.  I can understand that.  Most of the great statements of philosophy that I have seen have done little for me.  But he does seem unaware that many of puzzles he wants solved are similar to what many minds in many ages have struggled with.  Some of his statements seem to be an invitation for him to digest Buddhist thinking or American Buddhist thinking.

I have also finished "Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart" by Mark Epstein, MD, an American psychotherapist who applies Buddhist thinking and concepts to his life and his professional practice.  I enjoyed the book enough that I rank it up with "The Warm Heart" by Kornfield and "Everyday Zen" by Beck.  Then, I noticed among his other books, one on what the Buddha taught about desire.

Since I seem to be incapable of having no aims, no goals, no plans, no preferences, I have always felt that either I didn't understand some of the basic Buddhist concepts or that they didn't apply to me and my life in my era and my culture.  Epstein's book, Open to Desire: What the Buddha Taught seemed like just what I could use.  It is and Donald Miller would probably benefit from it, too.  As I have suspected at times, Epstein makes it clear that a better word for the Buddha's teaching is "clinging" but that, too, needs a bit of an explanation.

He tells how as a young man, he and his friends who were trying to apply Buddhist ideas to their life and thought, tried to avoid all desires.  So, when the group wanted to go out to dinner, none of them dared to express a preference for any restaurant.  Doing so would have revealed them to be shallow practitioners of Buddhism.  They all just sat around hungry and ready to go and eat but none was willing to show any preference.  That is ridiculous and not a recipe for confident and satisfying life.

Both Miller, as he matures, and Epstein, as he grows and works with his clients, see that it is easy and common to assume that life will be just peachy if we can just _____________.  Different people fill the blank with different items, a better body or a better mate or a better car or whatever.  Whatever we pin our hopes on, we are soon disappointed.  Either the item is never obtained or it is obtained.  When it is, it soon loses its shine and fails to keep us permanently walking on clouds.  Pining for the next fill-in-the-blank is what the Buddha advised against. 

What to do?  first, nothing.  For at least 10 minutes a day.  Just sit quietly for that much time and shelf the ideas, demands, questions and images that come to mind.  Save them for later (by which time, you will have forgotten many of them.  Not to worry - a new set will emerge.)  Meanwhile, notice how my own mind as well as ads and fads supply me with little whispers about how great it will be to get XXXXXXX.  Be patient with the unending stream of desires and plans.  That stream will continue, regardless of what you do.  However, develop a slightly distanced perspective that assists you in accepting that life is good but it is not all good, every minute, and can't be.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The grandmother hypothesis

Seems that menopause is a puzzle.  Why have it as part of women's lives?  It seems to be rare in the animal kingdom.  There could be many reasons but while thinking about the question, researchers have found that grandmothers contribute to the health and well-being of grandkids, mothers and families.  Of course, we grandfathers are fonts of wisdom, too, but we don't seem to have the range of strengths and possible contributions grandmothers have.  Actual meals as well as tips on cooking and menus, sewing and fashion ideas, plants, working with and interpreting physicians and sickness indicators, sympathizing with teachers, patience with stages of development, financial tips -- the list of their areas of contributions is quite long. 

We grandfathers are valuable for understanding and interpreting the male world but we tend to be loners while grandmothers really extend themselves for others.  I know a grandfather who has virtually rebuilt a couple of houses and that is a real achievement for his children and grandchildren.  Maybe we should extend the grandmother hypothesis to grandparent hypothesis.  Since more of us have great-grandkids that are maturing and have a chance to know their great-grandparents and also benefit from interaction with them, and since more great-grandparents are likely to be sufficiently active, wealthy and youthful, there is another generation that can be counted in the family.

As the world moves to a knowledge-based way of life and the relevant knowledge includes self-understanding and insight into behavior and motivation of others,
the perspectives of older people may be more valuable than ever.  It's true that many grandparents don't know that much about ripping songs onto a CD or into an mp3 file but it is also true that they are less addicted to multiple gadgets in their lives and better able to describe life in different terms than used in the seductive ads.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stealth aging

I found out that it is not just me.  All my stuff is also aging steadily.  A hose has a hole worn in a crack where it has been bent too long.  The long-life bulbs burn out.  The magazine subscriptions need updating.  The miles keep piling up on the car while the roof ages steadily in the heat and the cold.

We try to make things last but in the end, everything is aging all the time.  Everything wears out and I don't know how to stop it.  I don't even know how to stay aware of it.  I could keep some sort of database where I enter everything we own and its age.  I could have a column where the age is updated each time the file is opened.  We might have some sort of radio frequency Id (RFID) arrangement that would log the item and the date as it comes into the house and keep track of its age and maybe send us an email when, say 80%, of the expected useful lifetime has expired.  But more complexity, more use of files and information processing and more burned-up electrical energy certainly does not appeal to me.  Not to mention more time sitting at a computer.

Quiet acceptance is not my strong suit, although I am trying to improve in that area.  When something fails and I can see that is has aged, I sometimes feel betrayed.  Something, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, irreversible decay, has snuck in like a thief and undermined what used to be perfectly good.  In the words of some Peanuts characters, who ordered that?

I guess a good-sized portion of the economy depends on this aging.  Of course, fashions and modifications and fads can also change our acceptance to rejection.  We can create a new desire more or less out of nothing.  But new towels, new shoes, new rugs and flooring would also be needed over time just because of this steady, relentless aging.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How to eat less

My brother-in-law lost 15 lbs. in about a month.  How did he do it?  By eating less.  That's what he told me and I believe him.  I would like to lose about 7 lbs. and I haven't made any great progress.  But, reading Prof. Brian Wansink's "Mindless Eating" and other books and sources as well, I have become interested in paying attention to my feelings of satitation when eating.  Wansink relates truly surprising results from his experiments at his Cornell special eating place where he conducts research on why people eat more calories than they should for their own good.

The basic idea is to pay attention to the signals from your insides about being full, satisfied.  This article mentions the likelihood that Americans will eat until their food is gone or their plate is clear - visual clues, while the French tend to eat until they are full.

Once in Hawaii, we were told (jokingly, of course) that people should eat until they are tired
from eating, until their arms are tired from lifting the spoon and fork to their mouths. I have read that our skin can make vitamin D, which research has been finding to be more important to us in more ways that previously known, but that the skin is less able to do so as we age.  I think I have read similar effects of aging on our thirst, our ability to detect when we are short of moisture in our bodies.  Maybe our ability to perceive being being full also gets less sharp as we age. 

I feel stupid when I overeat.  I don't like feeling stupid and I am trying to be more aware.  I think it can take 15 or 20 minutes before the impact of some meals is felt so eating slowly and being sensitive to how much I have eaten as well as how satisfied I feel may help me be a little more accurate in taking just the calories needed and no more.

Modern foods, modern variety of both foods and things available in a given meal and modern marketing techniques all conspire to try to get us to stuff one more delicious mouthful in.  Michael Pollan says somewhere in "The Omnivore's Dilemma" that we are structured to be able to eat sweets whether or not we are full.  So, sweet desserts can be appealing after a big meal but they can easily add calories and sugar that is not good for us and which we would be smarter to avoid, whatever our childhood memories. I realize that our hips and legs, our vision and hearing may all deteriorate, leaving the pleasures of fudge and cookies as one of the few continuing pleasures.  At some age, it may not matter but for now, it is a good challenge.

(Copyedited by L.S.Kirby, who suggests that the pleasure of the taste in the mouth sometimes overrides the perception of fullness in the belly)

Monday, July 26, 2010

professional is not the only flavor

It's been fun being around while my wife resumes her piano playing

I think we had been married for 8 years before I had a chance to hear her play at all.  We were never around a piano until we rented a house that had one.  Then one day, she dug out her piano music and played the sonata in C no.1 opus 36 by Clementi.  She doesn't play like the cute little squirt shown in the link but she plays well, stately, and strong, and good to listen to. 

Fast, professional, polished - those are good traits for a performance but they aren't the only traits.  As I hear her repeat the melody and the bass clef for Dona Nobis Pacem slowly and with concentration as she trains her mind and her fingers, I get to hear musical expression that is not available anywhere else.

When I buy the Oklahoma! download, I don't get to hear the simple basic versions of the tunes she plays.  The full orchestration, professional voices and timing are excellent and I can see that is what people want to pay for.  Still, the very elementary versions have a way of penetrating my brain.  An hour or a day after she practices, I find myself thinking or humming or whistling a tune.  Suddenly, I become aware of it.  What the heck is that tune?  I know I don't have a recording of it.  I know it is not a random set of notes.  I have learned that to answer that question, it pays to think back to what she is currently practicing.  As I review in my head what I have been hearing, I come across the very tune I have been thinking of.

I tend to have the last heard tunes in my head.  The Hawaiian songs of Iz, the Caribbean songs of Harry Belafonte, and both the elementary tunes and the basic versions of advanced music she plays all have a place in my head while I wash pots and pans or walk through the neighborhood.

Genuinely advanced is not the only flavor that is tasty.  Modern communications have made all of us aware of the top in expertise and skill, so much so that much of what we learn about is not within the possible for most of us.  What is actually possible, what comes from us and is at our level and our pace also enriches our lives.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Preview from a class

It has been fashionable to assume that any version of distance education where the teacher and the students are not in the same classroom at the same time has just got to be inferior to the old situation that used to prevail.  I have had 10 years of experience that shows to me that this idea is quite wrong.

One time, I read that American fighter pilots kept defeating some enemy planes mostly because of their communication equipment and their use of it, enabling the fighters to talk to each other while fighting.  This communication changed the nature of their cooperation. 

Similarly, in the electronic classrooms, where time is arrested and students talk to each other by computers, they can and do communicate in amounts and in types of expression that are not even possible in the traditional classroom.  Everyone can speak at the same time and everyone can be heard.

This post on the Oreilly Radar blog expresses visions of something like the same effect in government and in the interaction between government and citizens.  In the old days, one citizen got to talk to one official.  Consider what happens when virtually immediate communication takes place between very high numbers of citizens and very high numbers of government employees.  Not only that, but suppose they all have the full resources of the web and high-level access to experts, thinkers, financiers, inventors, marketers, etc., etc.  In some political riots recently, in the US as well as Iran and Cambodia, there have been reports of coordination between people and groups by cell phone and Twitter.  It seems possible that as technical capabilities  expand, and as people everywhere learn to make use of technology better, faster and more cheaply, truly new stages of human experience and development will be reached. I hope they are mostly positive.

Be mindful but of what?

It is supposed to enhance the value of my life to be mindful, which usually means staying alert to, and focusing on, what is actually happening to me, not to go off into la-la-land too often or unconsciously.  I wrote about my awareness on the bus ride through France that using that time to get my accounts in order while skipping the scenery I had journeyed to see would not make sense.  It would be a waste of a good opportunity to see what I normally don't get a chance to see.  Buddhists and others are always urging us to be mindful of our lives and bodies, of our experiences as we have them.  They advise avoiding what Thoreau wanted to avoid, which was arriving at the end of life only to find that he hadn't lived. 

But as anyone today with several children, with several possible area and regional trips, with several restaurants serving wonderful daily specials, with several channels showing great shows, several libraries with books and magazines not to be missed, with sales of audiobooks at unheard-of prices, dozens of web sites that are each capable of blowing one's mind, as people today can tell you, you can't be mindful of it all.  There is simply too much world, too many ideas, too many opportunities.  We don't have time or attention enough to be mindful of them all.

Whichever way I turn, I miss things behind me.  Whatever I choose omits far more choices than I chose.  I have paid attention to some things but I have no way of knowing if my choices were really the best.  I don't want to waste time and effort on worrying about or regretting the many choices I refused, not to mention the oceans of things I could have chosen but didn't even know about.  This being mortal and time-bound is a tough struggle.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Well-written Onions

I follow more than 20 blogs on my own blog site.  One of these is The Onion, a satirical newspaper.  I often get a chuckle from their articles.  Two have recently caught my attention.

The first is a notice that God has been making noises that He might retire soon.  I know it is hard to believe but take a look for yourself.  Seems as though he has been in total charge for a long time and is getting a little tired.

The other article from The Onion is this honest and evidently heart-felt statement by Kurt Barnhurst entitled

We Will Never Be United As A Nation As Long As There Are Other People Besides Myself

Kurt, like many other sharp-eyed and thoughtful commentators, offers some clear steps to lowering the bickering level in this country that so many are tired of. 

It is a rainy day and I am not in the mood for it.  I know I should be grateful for the moisture and the cool.  Right now, it is 64° here at noon and that is fantastically cool compared to many parts of the earth.  Still, every now and then, the right silly comment hits the spot and The Onion is often the place to find a good one.

Friday, July 23, 2010


A couple of friends have complimented me on my writing.  Why don't I get published?  Why don't I write a book?  Sometime, I might. 

Once I taught a course that I liked very much.  It was a review of the books the students had read, from the first book they had read to them, to the one they are reading now.  We each tried to make a list of all the books we had read over our lifetime.  It is only a try, since we have no perfect way of knowing them all but it is fun.  Often, when the students looked at others' lists, they would recognize a title on someone else's list they had read themselves.

We simply tried to write out a list in the actual order we remembered the books.  Not a complete bibliography or correct footnote or reference form, just a list.  While working on such tasks, sales of books, especially used books, got my attention.  Used books may be sold for only 5 cents each or maybe even a lower price.  When I see a table overflowing with books at such a price, I think of the author, maybe 20 or 40 years ago, happily receiving a letter from a publisher saying his company would like to publish the book.  Maybe they would be another Shakespeare or William Faulkner or Tom Robbins.  Now, that book, that dream, is on sale for a very cheap price but might still be left behind, unpurchased at all by anybody.

When I write a blog entry, I have the fun of thinking up what might be interesting to write about.  It takes only a short time to type out 300 or so words.  While doing so, I think of things I might like to look up in Google or the Wikipedia.  I find out all sorts of things I wouldn't know otherwise.  I recall things I haven't thought about for decades.  Then, I get to publish my words on a Google web page, which can be seen all over the world.  Of course, 70 million or more other people are doing the same thing so it is quite likely that no one will see my words or pay any attention to them.  But on good days, 5 to 10 of my friends comment a little about my post.  And, now that Google furnishes statistics and information about blog pages, I find that people all over the world are viewing my blog.  Since the records have been available in May, people in the following countries have viewed my blog
Canada 11
Denmark 7
Netherlands 5
Russia 4
Australia 3
United Kingdom 3
Latvia 2
India 2
Ukraine 2

Thursday, July 22, 2010

good comments from a great grandson

"Yo Momma!"  At about 3 or 4 years old, he and I were following a small river.  He delighted in staying abreast of a stick he had thrown in the water.  Pretty soon, we had walked a good distance and I thought we might try walking back to our house.  As we walked along the path in silence, he suddenly said,"Yo mama".  This is a very young, very innocent Caucasian boy walking along with his great grandfather.  I am confident he meant no disrespect to my mother.  He didn't know my mother, had never met her and had no way of knowing the words he had heard somewhere on television could be a slur against a mother's purity.  You can imagine my surprise at his urban utterance. 

Let me tell you...We were trying to find something that might amuse him.  How about a tour of the local city waterworks?  He has always been fascinated with water flows.  He has a Brio water table that gave him great pleasure.  He played for hours and then more hours at the Albuquerque Explora! children's museum with their elaborate and fascinating water table.  So, we drove over to the water office to see about tours of the works.  I opened the front door and this little 3 ft. boy walked in and right up to the receptionist's desk.  He said," Let me tell you how this is going to go."  I was aghast and the receptionist just laughed at this little squirt using such forceful language.  He didn't mean anything by it and had no idea that he was being pushy.  We did get a nice tour of the facility.

Who wants the ball? On a recent trip, he demonstrated his complete knowledge of the sound track of the movie "Up".  Since we watched it together, either of us will mimic someone tempting a dog with a ball to be thrown, saying," Who wants the ball?  Who wants the ball?"  We enjoy talking this way at any time and place, whether or not the moment has anything to do with dogs or balls.

Get it? As he has gotten the idea of double entendre, he loves jokes using such things.  What was the rating of the recent pirate movie?  Arrrgh!  After such a joke, he needs to inquire "Get it?  Get it?"  It is so witty, so clever, laden with so much meaning that he just can't believe that somebody else understands the full impact of humor, the similarity between an R rating and the pirate's exclamation.  Get it?  Get it?  He doesn't go any further with his inquiry and asks for no elaborate proof or explanation of your grasp of the humor (?).

Mom, I've been ... I read a very interesting article in Time about the usual training for kindergartners in France in area of eating.  They go out of their way, at least by our standards and practices, to introduce the children to good eating and an advanced menu. So, when we were on our way to the farmers' market the other day and he seemed bored, we invited him to come with us.  He is beginning to be brave enough to try some of the more exotic foods we recommend.  He was intrigued by the spring rolls being cooked on the spot.  We bought one and I took a bite.  He tried to decide what was inside before tasting it.  His Nana became impatient with him and said,"Oh, just take a bite!"  For once, he actually did.  She took a 2nd bite and asked if he wanted another.  He said he did.  On the way home, I told him he had been training his palate.  At home, he leaped out of the car and said,"Mom, I've been training my palate!"
(copyedited by L.S.Kirby)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

probability and money

One of the differences between modern times and previous ones is that we have developed the idea of numerical probability.  Some authors have wondered that as smart as the Greeks were and as much as they cared about mathematics, why they didn't invent probability.  The modern concept of probability is often said to have begun with correspondence between Pascal and Fermat in the mid-1600's.  They were asked by a gambler which of two strategies was really better and why.  The difference was very slight so the gentleman must have gambled quite a bit to be able to sense that there seemed to be a difference.

In their usual quiet way, the Italians had started writing on the topic well before these two Frenchmen but Cardano, the gambling scholar, didn't get much credit until recently.

For a long time, the subject was somewhat undeveloped and not considered a genuine branch of mathematics.  It helped thinkers immensely when, in the 1900's, Kolmolgorov developed three simple axioms to base probability on:
    A probability of an event is a NUMBER equal to 0 or 1 or any real number between those limits
    The probability of a certainty is 1 and that of an impossibility is 0
    The probability of the occurrence of an event plus the probability of the non-occurrence of that event = 1

In my work with students, I have found that the first step is to repeatedly stress that a probability is a number.  I ask a student to state a probability.  Someone who does not grasp that a probability is a number will
 ,  instead, state an event.  Such a student may say something like "it will rain today", a statement of an event, not a number.  I am trying to get them to state a number, such as 1/2 or .37, a number which could be the probability of rain today.

Because in real life, events either happen or they do not, 
 it seems wrong to use a sliding scale to represent how likely something is.  It is not unusual for people to say that they want to know whether it is going to rain, not some number that still allows for rain and for not rain.  I have some sympathy, but I see that in the most important matter money people use use to a sliding scale.  We are accustomed to seeing how much money we have in an account and then gauging whether we should buy a given item.  We are ok with using the sliding scale of the account balance to decide if we can afford something.  We don't ask,"Well, do I have enough money or not?"

Similarly, if the probability of rain is 30%, the rain likelihood balance is low but we might possibly scrape by and get some.  Just don't count on it.  The odds are 7 to 3 (70% vs. 30%) against it, sometimes written "7:3 against

The most fundamental change in probability since its invention, it seems to me, is the development of Bayesian/subjective probability and statistics.  That spreading discipline can make use of personal judgments expressed numerically.  The method is much like a marketplace where I get to say what I will sell my cap for.  The selling price I set is my judgment of how much I want for the hat and how much people are willing to pay.  Similarly, a Bayesian analysis can use numerical judgments expressed in probabilities.  How likely is it that it will rain today?  How likely that a given piece of legislation will be passed by the state legislature?  Your estimate or mine can be used to start a Bayesian analysis of the problem going.  As we gather evidence and evaluate it numerically, our answers usually converge toward a given value.

Monday, July 19, 2010

today's need for play

I still feel bad about my mother's attempt to learn to use a computer and she has been deceased for 5 years.  She listened to how much I got from my Apple 2e and the Appleworks program.  I hadn't heard about word processing, spreadsheets and simple databases until I received that program for Father's Day in 1984.  I urged her to get a computer and try using it for writing letters, keeping track of her money and making ordered lists she needed. 

I think I dropped the ball some when I didn't urge her to play with the machine.  She seemed to take the "good student" approach of buying a fat book that explained everything the machine could do and then start reading on page 1.  For many complex, powerful experiences and tools, that is not usually a good way to learn.  Much better to use the dip-in-when-you-need-something approach.  Try something, say organize your digital photos using Picasa and start doing that.  When you run into an obstacle, then go to the Help file or the library or search the web with Google.

Starting on page 1, you will forget what you read before you get to page 5.  Reading complex directions without trying to carry them out asks your mind to keep abstract symbols without them having any meaning, not what the mind is good at.  One of several obstacles to good learning in many classrooms today is a similar overly simplistic approach.  The problem is related to the problem of recognizing the strengths and powers of women.  When the teacher demands everyone sit still and quiet and pay attention, the brains of the students are working at a low level, not very engaged.  When a society says that women need protection and isolation and commands, the brains of the women are working at a low level.  We all lose when people are required to stick to a rigid, simple routine, as when my mom started on page 1. 

Whether it is in the classroom or the workplace or the home, we do much better when everyone is free to use their brains fully and widely.  Since we have different thoughts, different backgrounds and different strengths, we are not all suited to take the same path or proceed at the same speed.  Clever use of our diversity and even of our moods may lead to greater individual fulfillment and greater collective achievement.


I read that faster and more efficient brakes get some people to be worse drivers since they can stop faster.  Somebody said that the way to get people to drive carefully is to mount a strong and razor-sharp bayonet in the middle of the steering wheel aimed right at the driver's chest.  Any wrong move might then result in being impaled.

I doubt that is an innovation that will be adopted but I do think that people have a tendency to find the limits of a situation and work at those limits.  In fact, I just learned the other day that finding that a technical innovation, such as better brakes or better steering, has lead to worse behavior has a name, the Peltzman effect.  The University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman is the thinker referred to.

One of the interesting things about modern computers is the "Undo" command.  Take an action such as turning the text red and then Undo if you don't want that after all.  Some software can not only undo what was just done, it can undo what was just done before that last action as well.  The typical symbol for an Undo key is a curved arrow to the left, more or less symbolizing going back in time to where we were before.  I like to be able to Undo something I did by mistake but the ability to use that power may lead me to make more errors or be more careless in my work than when there is no Undo.  On a PC keyboard, the command "Control-Z" will cause an Undo to be executed.  People who are used to having that ability can be upset by using pencils or pens, which don't have an Undo function.  You can buy rubber erasers with "Control-Z" written on them to do an Undo an old-fashioned way.

A long time ago, the ancient writer Lucretius described rich people commanding their chariot driver to them out to their country home, only to decide upon arrival that they had changed their minds.  They had their driver take them back to the city.  I suspect that when we complete the development of tesseracting as explained by Madeleine L'Engle in A Wrinkle in Time and we really can "jump" instantaneously from here to there, we will spend lots of time undoing and jumping right back again.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Same old eyes, wrong feet

We often say to our grandchild that he needs to switch his shoes because he has them on the wrong feet.  Each time we do, I am tempted to make a crack about they couldn't be the wrong feet since they are the only feet he has.  

That idea lead me to the interesting subject of what I accept as boring or repetitive and what I don't.  "Mindreal" by the scientist Robert Ornstein goes along with various ancient philosophical themes that stress that our senses and our minds do not present us with a picture of reality.  As the same scientist makes clear elsewhere, our minds are more or less wired to notice the recent, the novel, the outstanding.  Once I let myself decide that there is nothing new in the scene out my window, that scene is boring.  

Yet, because I don't think about it, I don't complain that these eyes, these ears, these hands are the same old ones I used all day yesterday, even though they really are..  Ideas such as these lead me to recall the poem called The Pessimist by Benjamin F. King:

Nothing to do but work,
Nothing to eat but food,
Nothing to wear but clothes
To keep one from going nude.

Nothing to breathe but air
Quick as a flash 't is gone;
Nowhere to fall but off,
Nowhere to stand but on.

Nothing to comb but hair,
Nowhere to sleep but in bed,
Nothing to weep but tears,
Nothing to bury but dead.

Nothing to sing but songs,
Ah, well, alas! alack!
Nowhere to go but out,
Nowhere to come but back.

Nothing to see but sights,
Nothing to quench but thirst,
Nothing to have but what we've got;
Thus thro' life we are cursed.

Nothing to strike but a gait;
Everything moves that goes.
Nothing at all but common sense
Can ever withstand these woes.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Saint Ralph

We are fans of AARP's Movies for Grownups.  We use the feature to select movies for ourselves. We are a generation that began attending movies in theaters as children and still enjoy the intimacy of a good movie together, one that transports us to an interesting place, drops us into a problem situation, stresses us and then brings everything to a satisfying conclusion in less than 2 hours.   These three and four hour jobs are less attractive although we are not above stopping halfway through something we actually want to see and scene-selecting our way to that point on the next evening.

Our most recent movie was "Saint Ralph".  It was very enjoyable and I recommend it.  From the write-up, I was doubtful about how much I would like it.  Youthful striving, older realism, open-eyed advance on problems that bug or frighten us - these are just the things to entertain and fortify us for a couple of weeks.  

I am often surprised at how completely I can forget a movie until I see its title.  Then, it comes back to me.  As I look over what we have recently watched, I remember how much I got from "Return to Me", which I had forgotten about.  I did recall "A Rather English Marriage", which was a good example of being taken into an interesting situation in a setting I would not have otherwise been able to visit.

As we age, it is apparent that sex, attraction, spies and bank holdups are not really part of our lives.  Medicare, investment returns and reading obituaries are the real grown-up topics so we find that the label "Adults only" signifies something for youngsters, not us.  We are working on a script for Sean O'Connery, who just turned 80 but still has ardent fans worldwide.  We picture some intelligent and clear-thinking babe about the same age having a smooch with Sean.  Then, the couple retires to separate bedrooms.  He is gassy and she snores and they need their privacy.

Friday, July 16, 2010

To the humanities and their supporters

I dedicate today's blog to my friend Professor Judy Geiser who once gave me a short but spirited lecture on the fundamentality of human thought in all its forms.  As she surrounded my meager statements with perfectly placed objections, clarifications and extensions, I realized at the moment that I was hearing an explanation of the place of the humanities in our lives.  She may well have forgotten the incident but I haven't. 

Actually, many of my friends are respectful and appreciative of the value of the humanities.  Any teacher, principal or professor of elementary education knows the power of literature, story and good language, both spoken and written.  Even though the humanities relates to all our lives, today we have good reason to stay alert to the sciences and arts, too.  But all human thought and emotion is important when we pause to think about it.  Of course, professors of English and all other languages lead the pack of supporters.

As I read through the post linked below, I thought of all the appreciators of humans and humanities in today's increasingly unified world.

Here is a worthwhile post

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Help from the future

As an assistant professor, one needs a research program, an agenda of work that is planned and can be expected to further a theory, extend understanding or lead to something valuable.  When I was an elementary school teacher, I thought it would be possible to plan and carry out exercises that would show how to improve education.  By the time I had earned a doctorate in research methods, statistics and measurement, I had a better understanding of science and education.  I came to the conclusion that many people in many different disciplines had a very good understanding of the human mind and did not need scientific proof of ways to communicate, advise, coach and promote learning and growth.  It became clear over time that I needed to have some professional credentials if I wanted to be promoted.

I did want to be, so I looked around for some areas to work in.  The American Educational Research Association (AREA) has many divisions and subgroups, more than 80 at the time.  They relate to nearly any conceivable aspect of education and human learning, a very broad subject for sure.

In 1972, the book
Limits to Growth came out.  My friend, a history professor and I talked about its dire predictions of pollution, overpopulation, dearth of natural resources and a generally dark future by the year 2025.  He wished for a list of sources on the "history of the future", meaning various predictions from the prophets of Biblical times through Nostradamus to Arthur Clarke.  He and I and a professor of the College of Natural Resources planned and began a course simply called "Futures".  Our idea was to assemble the best insights into the future we could and present them in the course, while introducing famous predictions of the past with some information on how accurate the predictions were.  It worked satisfactorily but we found that the entire future of everything for all time was a bit much to handle.

We also found that many predictions were vague and  without deadlines that would enable knowing when the prediction had failed to be correct.  I realized that the future is a good place for scoundrels and snake oil salespersons.  "The world will end in 2 weeks and the only way to save yourself is to become my servant" or " take daily doses of my patented elixir".  We found that the story of
Chicken Little and his dire warning of the sky falling is a succinct model of much comment about the future.  

Still, I am beholden to the future for giving me both professional presentations and professional credentials, not to mention some experience dealing with people's thoughts on the future.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Searching for the 'best'

Basically, the very "Best" is elusive.  Best for whom?  Best for what?  Best for when?

Take cars.  I guess for comfort and style, best is a Lamborghini or a Mercedes Benz.  I put "World's best car" in Google and found that the 1931 Bugatti something or other sold for 8.7 million dollars in 1987.  You can bet I would not spend 8.7 million dollars on a car, 1931 or this year's.  Do I want a fast car?  For what?  I can only drive about 72 or 73 without getting stopped.  Nearly any car can do that. Do I want a stylish car?  What is stylish in Stevens Point or for a man my age is not going to be what many people consider stylish.

Same deal with most things.  Best chocolate.  I like dark chocolate so my best will be dark.  You don't like dark chocolate and are willing to settle for something not the best but you stubbornly cling to the idea that you know what you like.

Aside from the matters of taste, purpose and availability, the "best" is still unstable.  Two straight lines will diverge more and more unless they are absolutely parallel.  That means that any correlate with quality or bestness has to be exactly, totally equal to the bestness scale, or some reading on the correlate (speed or reliability or stylish good looks or convenience or versatility or something) will not equal the truly best.  It is only in the middle range of a variable that we have much of a chance of finding a general scale that actually fits the other variables.  We can probably find a car that has middling economy, middling reliability.  The difficulty of collapsing multiple important variables into a single scale so we can pick the 'best' is well-known. 

The handsomest prince is not the bravest and not the richest.  None of them is the most intelligent, and the best father of children is a still different guy.  You can see why much of the world's wisdom literature counsels acceptance of the trials and tribulations of life.  There really is no best, even though we think we imagine it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Saying Yes your way

In Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink", a point that stood out for me is made fairly late in the book where he says that it is a rule of improv comedy that the good player does not say, "No".  He gives the example of one actor saying to another "It looks like you have a leg growing out of your ear."  Saying something negative such as "No, that is not a leg.  It is an ear with the extra ability to walk" does not carry the action along as well as a positive response with a twist.  Anything that begins with an affirmative tends to swing the whole show along better.  Saying something like "Yes, I am working on having my ears do the walking" leads to better comedy, a performance that is wittier, faster-moving and brighter.

I am taken with this idea.  I know in wrestling trying to stop the momentum of a charging opponent cold is much harder and more likely to lead to injuries that going with the direction of his body but modifying the direction and effect in my favor.  I listened to the astronomer
Neil De Grasse Tyson say that if Earthlings are destroyed by another planet crashing into the earh, it will be their own fault.  They know how to avoid such a catastrophe and they can do it if they want.  All they have to do is attach a couple of cheap rockets to the sides of the oncoming body and use them to deflect its course on a angle past the earth.

As my brother-in-law said about marketing and politics, it is better to find a way to go with the flow but toward your interests.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Greedy for lives

In a couple of hours, the World Cup final will take place between Spain and the Netherlands.  700 million people are expected to watch worldwide.  Just think what it would be like to be one of the players.  Or, one of the players' parents.  There are sure to be many players in teams that played in matches leading to the finals that will watch with some envy or pain.  There are commentators in every language ready to talk about the match.

The older I get, the more I realize that I might have been a good athlete or a coach or a sports photographer.  I might have manufactured the shoes or the balls the players use.  I might have been a taxi driver in Johannesburg or in Los Angeles trying to get fans to a match or a plane to get there.  As I get older and build up my knowledge and appreciation for the world and its complexity, I realize there are so many paths that life can place us on.  I get interested in the story of each person, each family, each deliberative group, whether it is a group of kids who are a street gang in Brazil or the senators of Idaho or the city council of Madrid.

As I watch or talk or read or listen, I find I am part of the lady who used to be a university financial auditor but is now retired and spends her time reading, walking a little and keeping her plants watered.  Then, I am only two and am just learning to talk.  I have tons of ideas and everything is new and exciting but I am sometimes frustrated that I can't pronounce words clearly enough to make my important observations understood.  Sometimes, I am a mentally ill person who realizes that I am secretly the head of intelligence for my country.  Sometimes, I am a saddened politician who just wants out of the game, even though not half of my dreams have been realized.

I am afflicted with greed for more than one life and am doing my best to satisfy my hunger.

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