Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Visiting two Florences

I visited Firenza, the city in Italy we call "Florence" twice, first in 1974 and then again in 1998.  Both visits were only for a few days but together, they make a great mental reminder of the individuality of life's experiences.

The first trip was my first visit to an old city anywhere.  It was extremely crowded on the main sidewalks and I had to shorten my steps to avoid the feet in front of me.  We stayed in a little rental up what I would have called an alleyway.  It seemed romantic.  I had bought a gorgeous loaf of bread in a stop in Assisi, but learned that bread made with no salt was not very tasty.  Up the alley from our lodging was a bakery and I felt so clever finding a way to ask if the loaf I wanted there had salt in it.  We were right around the corner from the Duomo, the cathedral church of Florence and I liked the striped building.  The famous Ponte Vecchio ("old bridge") is very colorful, a clearly old bridge with shops all along it.  [It is famous enough that 'ponte' into Google suggests Ponte Vecchio immediately.]

Twenty-four years later, guess what?  I was 24 years older!  I had been in my early 30's the first visit so of course, I had changed.  But the events, the scenes, the impressions were also quite different, different enough that in many ways it seemed like a different city.  For one thing, we came in quite late at night, using a different route and stayed at lodgings that were very different..  Coming into a busy city that is unfamiliar in the dark is no picnic.  We got a little lost and even managed to get our tour bus more or less stuck in an ancient and tiny street until we stood outside the giant bus and guided the driver in the dim light.  The next morning, we got a chance to see the enormous villa in which we were housed.  The entry hall itself seemed as big as an American high school gym.  It was out in the suburbs with an orchard beside it and had great views of the area.

If we hadn't seen the same cathedral and the same old bridge without leaving the city, I would not be sure that it was even the same city.  It wasn't the same me and it wasn't the same set of experiences.  That old Greek said you can't step into the same (totally unchanged) river twice and we found we can't visit the same place twice.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

desire for more power

I have seen several little girls dress up in high heels that are too big for them, put necklaces that are too large over their heads and generally decorate themselves.  I don't see little boys do that.  Little boys might put on a Superman cape or a Spiderman mask but they would be for becoming superheroes, not for being beautiful.  I used to think that the search for beauty in little girls was a branch of the search for power but my wife sounds like she thinks girls and women often want to be beautiful, per se, simply and as such.

Some authors have thought that the desire for power was part of all humans.  Not mechanical power but all power: physical, mental, political, power.  Norbert Weiner, the founder of subject of cybernetics, very close to the modern subject of artificial intelligence and robot engineering, pointed to the stories in which characters ask a fairy godmother or a magic fish or a genie for three wishes that will be granted.  He cautioned that the search for power was dangerous, mostly because of greed or ignorance.  Greed can drive the seeker for greater and greater or longer-lasting power.  Ignorance is both present when we think we know what we want but fail to understand what we are asking for and also when we aren't good enough thinkers to see some of the consequences of a giving wish being fulfilled. 

The children's tale "The Fisherman's Wife" shows a fisherman who nervously kept asking a magic fish for more wishes to be granted, as his wife keeps requesting.  He can sense that he and she are treading on dangerous ground but keeps asking for more, to their eventual downfall.  The story "The Three Sausages" also shows the limits that would still apply if humans could simply wish for things.  The grown-up story, The Monkey's Paw, also cited by Weiner, tells of a knock on the door at the home of an elderly couple.  It is a messenger telling them that their son has been killed in a mining accident.  They have unwisely borrowed a magic monkey's paw, against the advice of its owner, just the night before.  Immediately, the distraught mother seized the charm and wished her son "was with" them.  Bang!  There on the floor is his mangled, lifeless body.  Not what she wanted.  She uses the powerful amulet again: "I wish he was alive!"  Bang!  He is gasping and bleeding in agony on their floor.

I guess if we are going to be in charge, it would be good if we knew what path is best, what specifications we want filled. Even then, we have to stay on top of the situation, what with the passage of time and aging and all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Prof. Chang's 6 year old son

Prof. Chang teaches economics at Cambridge.  His book "The Bad Samaritans" was an eye-opener for me.  He discusses the way Britain and the West have grown economically and compares that to the advice American and other institutions give to emerging countries.  The two stories, one of actual growth and the other of patterns and plans the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization give to third world and developing countries.  He argues that sheltering a country's emerging businesses from strong competition is essential to developing viable ones. 

At one point, he uses a telling example of his 6 year old son.  He knows that the boy is old enough to do some work and that children his age are indeed working in many parts of the world.  He really does want his son to have a good life and realizes that supporting the boy financially, economically, psychologically and in all other ways is important.  A 6 year old, in today's world, a 16 year old and maybe even a 26 year old, are young and vulnerable and need protection, support and assistance.

Americans are big on guts and independence.  Yet, it is clear when you think about it, that as one of the columnists at Wired puts it, we are all born naked, helpless and unable to care for ourselves.  Maybe if all one wants to do is carry baskets of ore out of a mine all day, a long period of support is not needed.  But most people want a productive and happy life for their children.  In today's world, that definitely means a good and full education.

As the saying goes, a teaspoon of water is enough to quench any fire at the beginning.  Everyone has a beginning when they are just starting out and could be scooped up by enemies, whether fur-covered predators or dead-end jobs.

Just let me alone, Mother

I saw my friend, the psychology professor, the other day.  I took the time to ask him what he is reading and thinking about these days.  He is a valuable source of new ideas.  He mentioned "motivational interviewing".  He said the emerging area owes much to Carl Rogers.  A main focus of motivational interviewing is resistance.

If your mother looks at you and says you should lose weight, you may immediately feel resistance.  Even if you think it would be good to lose some weight, you may not say that to her, especially at the time.

Personally, I enjoyed the book, Silas Marner, when we were assigned it in the 10th grade.  But when I mention the book, many people recall it as one of those boring books that was required reading.  I have seen that phenomenon repeatedly.  A truly arresting and enriching book gets assigned by the teacher and immediately the students feel a distaste for it.  They experience resistance to the idea of required books, assigned reading and the latest recommendation is labeled negatively within a minute or two of the students learning of its existence! (Silas is one of the many excellent books that are available all the time online for free.)

Virtually, the same thing happened with The Scarlet Letter.  I really haven't read many classics but that one was short and famous so I gave it a try.  Wow!  No wonder it has a place in history.  Who can forget the sweetheart who took the brunt of the shame and the phoney, lilly-livered louse who held his lying and hypocritical head high and let her bear it all alone.

[The Scarlet Letter is another great book steadily available online for free.  This one is part of the wonderful collection at Bartleby.com. If you are reading these words, you can look at Silas or Scarlet right now!]

Reading teachers, most teachers in fact, believe that reading can be a very major stream of developmental influences and deeply desire students to read books that will educate them.  However, counselors who are trying to assist a person out of alcoholism or tobacco or drug addiction have an even more life-saving duty.  It ain't an easy task.  Trying to assist (and nothing more!) clients to see that they themselves believe in living and want to live and live well is the task of motivational interviewing.  Just interviewing, not advising or making other moves that encourage that old resistance to pop out and yet again betray a person.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Be ye therefore at home with joy

The story goes that the Buddha was married and a father of a young son before he grasped the terrible realities of life: sickness, aging and death.  His father, the king, had heard a fortuneteller say that the boy would become a great religious leader if he realized the suffering in the world.  Since the king had high hopes of being succeeded by his son, he worked hard to insulate his son from the negative side of life.  But once Gautama realized these realities, he was immediately determined to understand all of life, to "get it" as we'd say today.  The Hindus revered wise men, who tended to practice self-denial, even self-torture, in order to become enlightened.  Gautama set to work with a vengeance, to the point of bringing himself to the brink of death by dehydration and starvation.  When he was so weak that he could barely move, a young maiden saw how far gone he was and said he simply must eat.  Sujata's ministrations brought him around.  Perplexed, he sat himself down under the bodhi tree, vowing not to rise or leave until he understood.  During the next days of careful concentration, he realized that even as a young child, he had experienced moments of direct joy - joy from the world, joy from being alive.  True, he knew the transient joys of food, rest and sex, but there was another joy, of living itself.

He decided that neither the indulged life of feast and orgy nor the ascetic life of starvation were the way.  The way lay between these extremes, the Middle Way.  He wisely and bravely allowed himself to be solidly at home with joy.  I hope you go and do likewise.

Sources (of millions)

Siddhartha - Herman Hesse
Buddha - Deepak Chopra
Going On Being - Mark Epstein
Also see chapter 2 of the book of Ecclesiastes

Monday, August 23, 2010

Just going through a stage?

We have several little children in our lives just now.  They each seem to go through stages.  For instance, there is a "No!" stage.  During it, the child responds to every direction with "No!", sometimes while complying with the direction and sometimes not.  When we start hearing one No! after another, we nod knowingly to each other and agree that this child is going through that stage.

Kids are often a very good stimulus for ideas and these stages make me ask myself "Am I going through a stage?"  For that matter, is my whole life a stage?  Is the outbreak of life on earth just a stage?  I think that some modern astronomers are considering the known universe as possibly one of several universes.  If that is the case, maybe our universe is in a stage of universe development?

The Buddhists emphasize that our conscious thoughts pass quickly.  I can look at a high level of anger or sadness as just a passing stage.  Often, an hour later, I have forgotten about the mood completely.  Lynn and I used to try to give ourselves an hour before discussing something that we had a strong disagreement about. Later, we learned that if we thought of putting the matter on our calendar for a later date, instead of just planning to let a little time go by on the clock, the whole thing simply dissolved before the date arrived.  We took that to be good evidence that it was just a stage.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Power of just a few words

Cardinal Richelieu lived during the time of the 3 musketeers.  He was a master statesman and is considered the first prime minister there ever was.  I read that he once said that if a man will write but three lines, he, Richelieu, would have him convicted of treason.  He meant that with no more than that, he or his assistants could find an interpretation of the three lines that would be enough to convict the writer of treason.

If you are looking for a book to give you a feel for the power of word-twisting and lawyer's skills in that area, I recommend Christopher Buckley's "No Way to Treat a First Lady".  Her boyfriend is a good example of the sleaze, the poet, the brain, the showman who, combined in a single man, is a force to reckon with in a courtroom.

Richelieu's boast reminds me of school assignments and Twitter.  Our society, like many others, realizes that effort is an important variable in life.  So, we encourage it or even require it.  We get school assignments to write 500 words or 50 pages or some other specified length, almost
always more than a student would produce without the specification for lots of word or many pages.  Since many people have slaved to create the required lengths, I like to keep my eye open for the power of short, little things.

It has been fun to ask intelligent, hard-working, honest students to produce only a single sentence for a given assignment.  Or, just a single word.  Given a chance, they can produce some very imaginative work.  Poets know the power of the right word.  I like Ogden Nash's ending of "The Panther", "When called by a panther, don't anther."

Twitter, which I have not visited so far, limits posts to 140 characters.  It is true that many report 'tweets' that are trivial but doubling the limit or multiply it by 10 or 100 does not guarantee that the quality or usefulness of them would be enhanced.  But scientists are reported to be using Twitter to communicate research results to each other successfully.

AARP's six-word memoir work is another aspect of the power of poetry and wordwork.

Short, clear messages can be fun to create and to use, even though they may open you to charges of treason.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

blogs and Veterans Affairs health care

I have read that there are 70 million blogs.  That figure or any other is difficult to verify, I think.  Many blogs are more or less straight from the author to the world wide web.  But many others are housed on individual company servers or elsewhere.  To me, a blog is an on-going column, much like the syndicated columns run by writers and correspondents for a century or more.  Regularly or irregularly, the columnist writes something, an "entry" or "post" or an "article".  The main difference between a typical magazine or professional journal article and a blog post is that the blogger intends to make additional writings later.  Thus, many blogs and podcasts (live or recorded sound presentations) offer RSS ("real simple syndication") or some other "feed" that will alert subscribers that there is a new entry.  The actual content of the new item is often delivered to subscribers, like a magazine in the mail or a newspaper on the front step.

On my blog's site, http://fearfunandfiloz.blogspot.com/, I follow, that is, subscribe, to about 20 blogs that often have something interesting to say or show.  One of them is O'Reilly Radar from various authors working for or with O'Reilly publishing, a house that specializes in computer books.  Today's post is another from Andy Oram who often writes eye-opening entries about things I would not otherwise know about.

When something is computerized, it is sometimes described as being "rationalized", since humans have to decide just what they want a machine or several of them or some sort of system to do.  Making that decision invites rational thought, as well as inspired thought and just plain play.  Oram writes interestingly about the Veterans Administration health service and mentions the book by Phillip Longman "Best Care Anywhere".  Oram's post is worth taking a look at, especially since there has been plenty of negative publicity about the VA health service and about health care in general. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Chinese blessing

I have read that an old Chinese curse is "May you live in interesting times."  I propose to the Chinese that they adopt the following as a Chinese blessing for men:"May you marry an interesting wife."  Men who get this blessing should look to their health habits, since an interesting wife requires being in good shape.  She and her ideas and activities also require flexibility.

I know because I myself have an interesting wife.  This fact was borne in on me when we attended an marriage enrichment weekend.  We were asked to introduce our partner to the group and tell some signature things about her.  As I reflected on the aspects of her that I should mention, I was struck by the breadth of her interests, talents and accomplishments.

We sometimes use a 4-part scheme in describing human personality.
  1. Rule-followers who focus on their obligations and duties
  2. Those with strong emotions, sensitive to emotions in themselves and all others. interested in all the arts
  3. Game-sters interested in action, games, winning and jokes
  4. Thinkers who like to ponder and analyze

As I considered my own interesting wife, I realized that she has good credentials in all of these directions.
  1. A strong Lutheran for 40 years who started out running to her mother in tears as a young girl because she had thought 'naughty words
  2. A vibrant engine of feelings of her own and readings and sensings of others, a dancer, a painter, a poet, a potter, a decorater, a musician
  3. A tough tennis player, a rigorous Scrabble opponent, a wrestler of Sudoku
  4. A PhD from a highly respected school, an author
Don't kid yourself.  I have plenty of additional evidence for each line.

My advice to young men: grab one such if you are lucky enough!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

cellphone living

We used to make fun of them, walking around with our hands up to our ears, too, pretending to be on the phone.  Somewhere, I saw a picture or drawing of a group of teen girls at a bus stop, each one of them pawing through a purse, in case the ring tone they could hear was their phone ringing. 

I don't make fun now.  I still want my cell phone to fit safely and unobtrusively in my pocket, which isn't very big.  I want a phone I can hear when it rings, that is not too expensive and that I can hear when speaking to someone on it.  I don't need internet connectivity.

I am guessing that we have saved maybe an hour or two over the last year calling each other in a mall to get back together after separate shopping.  That kind of call is our most frequent, followed by a call home to ask what was on the grocery list that was forgotten by mistake.  The truth is that we don't use our phones much.  Our company wrote to us that we rarely use the monthly minutes we have and invited us to use a pay-as-you-go plan.  We tried and found that that plan offered poor coverage to towers and we often could not get a signal.  We switched back to our original deal.

We have had very few dropped calls in the 7 or 8 years we have had phones.  In our neck of the woods, we wanted good coverage in the winter to be able to call for help if we had a car breakdown in bad weather or dangerous cold.  So far, we do not have a law in our area that forbids use of a phone while driving.  I do believe that research shows it is dangerous to do so and and the idea of texting while on the phone seems totally crazy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

New blog started

I taught a course for more than 10 years in which the students and I tried to look over the history of our own personal reading.  I started a separate blog on the same subject today.  I intend to put in comments and links now and then in preparation for some short classes to be held in November.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I am proud of my grandkids

I am proud of my grandkids.  I suppose that is not unusual.  A friend just sent me a traveling message that said people feel that their grandkids are perfect.  I would not go that far but the two families do seem to have good values.  Thrift, frugality, and best of all, not overly mesmerized by ads and the idea that everything new is great.  It seems that one of the big threats that we may be able to do something about is being overweight and getting too little exercise.  Clearly, we are animals, with animal wiring and need to use our muscles and lungs, but that is not easy when we need to drive to cover distances and haul things.  It is not easy when many good jobs are desk work, typing and talking.  Our young families are aware of the tendency of our way of life to stifle our exercise and expand our waistlines.  They seem to be on top of over-use of caffeine and alcohol and drugs and medicine in general. 

There are quotes from ancient Egypt and Rome where older people are bemoaning the state of the young and the possible deterioration of the nation.  I realize that times change and that the situation I thought I knew when I was young no longer holds, at least in its entirety.  When I see clothing or manners or activity that seems weird to me, it is usually among teens or young adults.  But then, it would
be, wouldn't it?  I try to remember what my businessman brother-in-law keeps telling me: that I am not part of the "hot demographic", that people my age already have what they need and more.  Thus, advertising, new products and ways to spend money are not aimed at my sort since we won't bite, spend or join much.  Heck, we often don't even move at all. 

Still, it can be worrisome when we learn of this practice or that debt level or some other activity not to conclude that, unlike tough, wily, dedicated, focused us, the current younger generations are too soft, too insensitive, too weak to carry on the glorious tradition we have.  Several times a day, I think of some worry about the modern condition and then realize that my grandkids in their parenting, their relationships and their lives are handling things very well, indeed.  Don't believe everything you read about the young.  We are reading and enjoying Affluenza by John De Graaf and others.  It is a freshly written review of many factors threatening our lives (over-consumption, debt, divorce, loss of orientation of our lives) and we learned about the book from our grandson-in-law who has been using it in his studies.  Don't be too surprised to find that it is not only electronics and video games that young people know well.  They are thinking, too.

(Copyedited by L.S. Kirby)

Monday, August 16, 2010

A theory and explication relating to the use of "no problem"

I do not like it when I thank a young person for doing something and they say "No problem".  We ourselves use the phrase when asked to do something and we are willing and happy to do it.  In those circumstances, doing the requested act is not a problem.  That is, it is easy and even a a pleasure to do something for the other person.  So, here's the rule: for older people, say "No problem" before something is done but you are willing and able to fulfill the request.  But, and this is important, say "you are welcome" or "it was my pleasure", something other than implying that you only helped so long as it was "nothing" and took little or no effort.  I realize that is some cultures, it is standard good manners to say something equivalent to "it is nothing", meaning "Oh, what I did is very little, not worth mentioning", that is, a type of modesty about the favor done.  But we prefer not to be told that we are nothing, that the favor we take pleasure in receiving is actually a miniscule thing and by extension, we too hardly matter.  This whole subject is not a big deal when considered from the larger perspective of centuries but if you want a good-sized tip, don't relegate us to tinyness. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

bikes in my life

We have a German student staying with us and today he and his group plan to bike our famous Green Circle.  It is 26 miles in length, often through woods and fields and completely surrounds the town. The event has made me think about bicycling in my own life. 

I must have had tricycles and I know I enjoyed using a scooter.  I guess many people were as charmed and excited as I was by the scene in the movie "Back to the Future" when Michael Fox quickly makes a scooter into a skateboard and uses it to escape hooligans. 

My first two-wheeler, a real
BIcycle, was a somewhat garish contraption of several strong colors.  It had a fake motor attached to the frame in front of the seat.  I thought that feature was silly but I didn't care.  I could ride a 2-wheel bike and I loved doing it. 

I earned cycling merit badge in Scouts.  I once biked quite a distance in an impromptu trip to give myself distance from a person I love but had a strong disagreement with.  But my biggest biking adventure was a trip through parts of Luxembourg, Germany and Belgium.  I was in my late 40's while most of the group were in their 20's.  I would happily bike for 30 miles in a steady way while some of the more energetic riders would travel 100 miles ( roughly 160 kilometers).  They were famished at the end of a day and vacuumed up food but still had energy for a vigorous swim. 

Most bikes today have rim brakes that squeeze the edges of the tires to stop the bike but I grew up with coaster brakes.  They were applied by pedaling backwards.  Coasting gently through neighborhoods while smoothly controlling the energy of the bike was a solid pleasure and still is.  I sometimes have trouble motivating myself to go on a bike ride since I read that I can burn about three times as many calories per minute walking briskly.  But for quickly covering 1 to 8 or so miles, given good weather and not too much wind, it is hard to beat a bike.  I have had a couple of bad spills and I have a respect for the distance from my head while on a bike to the pavement below.  I decided I can bike if it is 55° or warmer so that means much of the year is no good for biking.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Some things just happen by accident

Take Facebook.  I read that 500 million people have signed up for it.  That is nearly twice the population of the US and borders on one in every 10 people on the planet.  But it did not include me until the other night.  A friend sent my wife a video on Facebook and she wanted me to see it.  She sent me a link so I could see it on my own computer but it would only work if I had a Facebook account.  So, making the total 500,000,001, I joined.  I have enough to keep me busy and as another friend warned me, Facebook can be a big time waster.  I haven't been keeping a record of how much time I have been spending at the computer but the amount gets pretty high on some days.  I had seen that a relative I had lost track of was also on Facebook so some good may come from joining.

Take Wal-Mart.  I did not plan to be a supporter of Wal-Mart but I have turned out to be one.  A couple of years ago, gasoline was $4 a gallon.  I know that is much cheaper than it is in much of Europe and probably elsewhere but it was a high price for us.  That price turned our attention to driving costs.  The nearest grocery store is Wal-Mart and the next closest is nearly three times as far.  It seemed the economically sensible thing to do: shop at Wal-Mart.  Some items I want are not available there but it is a large store and sells groceries as well as many other items.  The prices are good and so is the quality.  I realize that many of my friends are against the firm.  I think the most common reason expressed is that the company pays wages that are too low and thereby puts a strain on social services and other tax-supported aspects of local and other governments.  I read The Wal-Mart Effect by Fishman, a book that gave both advantages and disadvantages to the store and its policies and the effect on other businesses.

Take distance education.  A term for teaching classes in a way that allows the students to work at home on a computer or in a classroom distant from the teacher by means of television.  I did not plan on being a distance educator.  But I did see that many of my students, after a whole day at work and then driving 50 to 90 miles to get to my class, were tired at the beginning of class.  Of course, they were even more tired by the end.  Deer and other animals on the roads, old cars subject to breakdowns, winter temperatures and wind chills quite capable of killing and slick ice on roads were all hazards the students faced getting to class.  I found out that special television arrangements (ITFS) and use of public television could easily substitute for those long dangerous drives.  As the world-wide web developed and optical fiber cable allowed larger and faster computer communication in text, pictures, video and sound, one thing lead to another and I did about ten years of distance education, in many circumstances and several media. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Save the cat!

"A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" by Donald Miller is the story of an author's thoughts and reactions to being told that an independent film maker wanted to make a movie about him and his life.  Miller had already written a couple successful books and was an experienced writer, but that is a medium in which the author can take the reader inside the mind or feelings of a person.  Working with the film makers, he had to think about the elements of a good story from a different angle, one more involved with showing and less with telling.

Writing teachers often give the advice "Show, don't tell", meaning tell what the character actually did that shows that he is despondent or exuberant instead of writing that he feels that way.  That is exactly the sort of advice Miller got.  He and his co-workers had to find ways to show what was going on. 

He also found that it is fundamental to SAVE THE CAT!  Within the first 20 minutes of the movie, the main character has to save the cat or do something equivalent, something noble and helpful and touching.  Without that, the audience will not identify with the character and will not care what happens to that person or be interested in the story or its outcome.  Of course, it doesn't have to be a cat and maybe it doesn't have to be a positive action, although it probably should be for a positive story.  Modern arts tend to sneer at positive outcomes and celebrate dark stories with frightening or depressing or ambiguous outcomes.  Maybe I am just a softie but I often care about the story and its outcome.  I have never been quite sure why my heart wants the lovers to find each other and be happy when I know all the while that they are made-up characters, are not real and are wisps of somebody's imagination.  Nevertheless, when they do find each other, I still feel good, as though this is a pretty good world we live in and things turn out right.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Wounded by education

The old-fashioned classroom appealed to the sense of order felt by many adults.  All those orderly children, facing the teacher and evidently listening.  The New England invention of the public school, where all would learn to read and thereby be able to get the word of God directly from the written source, seems designed to sidestep the invention of writing.  It probably was so designed since books cost money and the whole idea was to transmit knowledge by the voice of the teacher through the pupils' ears into their brains.  Such an arrangement sometimes works well.

But in today's world, we want all or nearly all of the students to learn and grow in skills, confidence and good judgment.  The old way, not that old actually, left too many undeveloped or worse, injured by their education.  The word "iatrogenic" means illness or harm brought about by the doctor or hospital.  We could use a similar word for injuries or limiting beliefs brought about by schools and teachers.  You can find people who were told by teachers they shouldn't try to sing since they didn't have a voice or talent for singing.  It is not unusual to find people who concluded from school experiences that they were especially lacking in some talent or ability, such as drawing or mathematics. 

Language is probably our best tool in life and schools are usually charged with improving the reading and writing skills of the students.  However, schools often damage students ability to speak out or to express themselves in writing.  For some sobering, even saddening examples of such damage, see the marvelous book "Uptaught" by Ken Macrorie.  Those who often misspell are often told that without correct spelling, writing at all is wrong.  If they have enough trouble, they stop writing if they can and life can be lived without writing, although it ought not be, since it is poorer that way.  Similarly, many educated and intelligent adults I have worked with carry internal convictions that they themselves lack merit because they don't read or don't read Shakespeare or other books they have been told are high-level language.

Of course, much depends on the goals you have for an educational system.  If you are trying to instill the idea that there is a right answer to everything and that the teacher or the system knows it, the
old idea of "listen to the teacher and remember what that person says" might make more sense.  Not too long ago, that was the model of education.  In many countries, secondary or tertiary education was supplied only to those with high grades who passed an examination.  These days, more people realize that many, if not most, important answers remain unknown and that we need to waste no minds.  We need to develop citizens who have good communication skills, good thinking skills and appropriate critical skills.

Some successful doctoral students seem to have been injured by the education they received, to the point where they can only criticize negatively and offer references and footnotes for every statement they make.  Our secondary schools, third levels of education and beyond negatively affect some students' ability to speak and write for the mass of our citizens to understand them.

(Thanks to Dr. L.S. Kirby for the copy-editing and the comment "
another way that doctoral students are damaged is that they had to read so much yukky stuff that they quit reading altogether."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mental illness and lying and truth

If I tell you that I am Christopher Columbus, you might laugh and think I was kidding.  You are pretty sure that Chis lived in 1492 and therefore could not be alive now.  That is too long for any human to live.  But if I got angry at your laughter and haughtily informed you that your laughter was inappropriate and impolite and that believe it or not, I really am Mr. C.C., you might be appalled.  You know damned well I am not the man who set off from Spain in the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, no matter what I say.  You might calmly begin talking about something else such as an item in today's news.  If I follow your lead and go with talking about the new subject, you might be even more confused.  A stunning miracle such as actually being Columbus or being fully reincarnated as him is way too big an event to sloughed off in favor of speculations about tomorrow's weather. 

This kind of talking merry-go-round is the sort of thing we experienced with our now deceased, adult daughter during her long mental illness.  We did find it quite difficult for several years to know how to act with she asserted something impossible and stuck to her story.  She did become upset when we doubted or questioned some of her statements.  If we tried to explore the factual basis for a hard-to-believe assertion, asking when something happened or why she hadn't mentioned such stunning news before, she was often disdainful of such pedestrian questions.  Sometimes, she would inform us that the event or the fact was true 'psychically', implying that pitifully under-equipped creatures such as us could not hope to grasp the why and wherefores of higher things such as she dealt with all the time.  She did seem happy to have us calmly congratulate her on her up-coming appointment as the head of the CIA and then to go on to discuss the weather. 

We continue to be interested in mental illness.  It is surprising to me that something like asserting that one is the living Christopher Columbus doesn't sound all that troublesome.  The explorer is not a subject of daily comment so what does such an assertion really matter?  It matters because first of all, nobody likes a liar.  Making emphatic statements that are not true, sometimes statements that COULD Not be true, ruins communication.  If someone makes no distinction between what is true and what is not, we would doubt anything they say.  We would not have a good basis for friendly social interaction. 

But things could go farther in a bad direction.  Suppose such a person 'realizes' that I am Hitler or some other tyrant or criminal.  Maybe they will realize it is their duty to eliminate me.  Our daughter did decide that her boyfriend had been replaced by an identical look-alike.  She attacked him for her own safety.  She did decide that the telephone wires running along the outside of her apartment building actually led to a bomb and that it was her duty to break them, which she proceeded to do.

Not all mental illness relates to truth and non-truth.  It may involve serious, incapacitating depression or undeniable impulses to wash one's hands repeatedly or return home 5 or 10 times to check that the stove is off and the door locked.  But it is all frightening and upsetting for all concerned.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On guard

If you see a beautiful flower, you may appreciate it but not immediately want it.  If you see a beautiful piece of fruit or loaf of bread, you may desire taking the next step of "having" it, eating it.  Seeing the beautiful Bathsheba, David wanted to have her, in this case having her as a wife.  See the wanting?  See the desire to "have"?  True, our appetites for food and for sex are do not extend in the same way to flowers.  We can't have or keep the flower.  Maybe if we were bees, our appetites would jump to the front of our minds. 

Regardless, David doesn't really get to "have" Bathsheba and we don't get to have our fruit and bread.  No matter what we do, the bloom will fade and the flower will pass into other forms that don't appeal or tempt us.  Isn't that sad, how everything fades and passes away?  Don't want to be sad?  Maybe you should protect yourself against sadness and loss.  Just remain unmoved by and uninterested in the flower.  Don't let its beauty get to you.  Guard yourself, steel yourself against appreciating its gift.  Heck, while you are at it, steel yourself against everything and everyone.  Beauty doesn't last and love doesn't last.  Whether it is wilting, divorce or death, everything good will come to an end.  Why not withdraw from anything good now?

That is just what some of Mark Epstein's patients do.  Try to block, parry and prevent bad feelings and sometimes even good ones since they tend to lead to bad ones.  He works with them to try and find a way to open themselves to pleasure and love, to handle the ups and downs of life without over-emphasizing the negative or anticipating fear and pain.  Too much defense leads to being walled in, blocked off from life and the wonders and delights it offers.  With practice, you can learn to see the wilted flower as the next stage in the rolling on of life in its course.  You can appreciate the loves you have now that you have them and forge new ones when it's time.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Kings and cults of personality

I have been listening to "Out of Mao's Shadow" by Phillip Pan.  It's the story of the last years of Mao in China, a time when the governing party tried rigorously to control expression of ideas.  As I listened, I thought of the story "1984" by George Orwell.  The idea of suppressing dissent, imprisoning and executing those who expressed alternate views and disagreement with the policies and practices of the government is one that we are all familiar with.  I am not much of a student of history but I wouldn't be surprised if all governments have an imperfect record of supporting human rights.  But the idea of erasing the record of someone's existence, of trying to make the historical record show only what some people desire it to show, of controlling the past, is not a new one but still seems pathetic as well as cruel, pointless, and ultimately an impossibility.

I wonder if ancient emperors and kings tried to convince people they were perfect, divine, flawless.  I imagine that modern photography, tv, and other media make possible attempts at trying to get every citizen to know and revere the great leader.  It might not have been as tempting when a few statues and portraits were more or less the limit of saying who this marvel was.  The Bible does refer to Ceasar's image on coins so maybe the cult of personality was also a possibility then.  The more I think about it, the more I remember the divine birth or parentage of even the pharoahs, so I suppose the tendency to worship and to encourage worship does go back a long way. As I check on "pharoah" and find that such rulers were explicity the political and the religious leader in one, I see how limited is my experience and my idea of a leader and commander of the people.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Managing when you can't totally solve

I once watched a respected college wrestler who clearly had an all-or-nothing approach.  He didn't spend much time riding his opponent in the typical way to accumulate points. Instead, he tried to pin him immediately and when he failed and the situation was moving into a protracted struggle, he would break off and basically start over.  It was a vigorous and maybe wasteful way to wrestle but it seemed like a clear plan and a somewhat heroic one.

I wouldn't be surprised if some day we find that putting up with a more partial method, one that is more gradual but less grand and dramatic, is the major difference between civilized and mature people and more youthful and naive methods.  There are, after all, many things that can be done in part but not permanently nor all at once.  I think I read once that people had to develop language and habits of greater calm and trust before they could live comfortably close together in a large city. I know I read, probably in Henry Petroski's The Evolution of Useful Things, that during the early days of tableware, people were reluctant to set the table with knives for fear they would be used as weapons in table arguments that escalated into fights.

In connection with handling situations with a lighter hand or a more tolerant approach, I often think of fishing with a light line.  I have only fished a couple of times in my life but I can picture working with the line to keep the fish hooked but not letting it get good tension on the line and snapping it.  I think some fishing is explicitly set up to be a contest of delicate touch and skill and timing to land a fish that could break the line if given the right chance. 

Same with my bank account.  There are sufficient possible expenses that could wipe me out if they all got piled up at once.  I need to manage my money, my time, my energy, my attention so that I can keep various parts of my life going without exhausting myself or my patience or letting important parts of my life go unattended for too long.

In philosophy of science, I read this lovely metaphor by Otto Neurath and it too reminds me of the greater achievements possible with flexibility and a patient approach:

"In fact, it was Quine, in Word and Object (p. 3f), who made famous Neurath's analogy which compares the holistic nature of language and consequently scientific verification with the construction of a boat which is already at sea:

"We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.""

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cue Q, the Armorer!

Many little boys dream of a magnificent weapon, one that will give them great power, such as the famous Sword in the Stone, Excalibur.  (For my money, there is no better telling of the story than T.H.White's "The Once and Future King".)  When James Bond is about to undertake a dangerous mission, he usually has a session with Q, the Armorer.  Q and his crew usually have one or two amazing weapons to arm James.  It is often a car that can fly and drive in the water and of course, at least one pen that is also a camera, a mace dispenser, a cellphone and maybe a small pantry of snacks.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if little girl dreams of tiaras, magnificent gowns  and stunning shoes were similar in some ways.  Just don't be surprised if a little boy wants a (plastic) tomahawk or pirate pistol.  Dreams of enhancing his power are typical and older "boys" may similarly dream of a special bowling ball or fishing rod or a smartphone that also does one's taxes.  The ancients had smith gods among their families of divinities, strong craftsmen who made winged shoes and chariots that fly up near the sun.  It is an old idea and one that an age such as ours that is steadily inventing more material goodies can also take to heart.  

Every hero wants to be well-equipped.  A strong, brave, fast horse would be nice or as in E.T., bikes that can be pedaled up into the air.  Every Q (quartermaster, supplier) wants to supply his charges with equipment that stands up to all demands and conquers all challenges.  I have read that the American army has a long tradition of equipping its soldiers well, realizing that their weapons, tools and supplies are a vital part of a fight against enemies or nature.  Maybe that idea has not always been well realized but the tradition is important.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Tossed; Google-play

Tossed her over the fence!
We went to our local farmers' market.  One vendor sells bison meat.  She had a couple of bison horns on her table and I asked her about them.  One was $15 but the other was not for sale.  It meant too much to her.  Why?  It came from a female who contracted circling disease, a brain virus that caused endless turning in a circle.  She was cured of the disease but the herd still rejected her and did so permanently.  When she tried to be part of the group, a big male lifted her off the ground with his head and tossed her over the fence!  She weighed 1100 lbs!  They kept wondering how she got out of the fenced area but found the answer when they saw the male toss her.

Fooling with Google this and that
Maybe you know that the Google firm has the motto "Don't Be Evil".  That fact by itself makes many people nervous about the giant well-heeled company.  However, I still find lots to like.  They have so many services and projects, it is nearly a full-time job just finding out about them.This morning I saw a reference to Google Wonder Wheel which I had never heard of.  Put the words in Google and get some info if you wish.  If you know what it is called a mindmap or a word web, that's what it is.

While exploring the page of Google things, which does not list everything (like it doesn't list Google Wonder Wheel), I decided to try Google Voice again.  I did and now I have a single number to ring all our phones at once!  I didn't use that option but I can give it out to those I want and try to control who has it and uses it.  I also tried Google Reader Play, a series of flips or slides that show interesting things.  I get to say which things I like.  They are chosen for imaginativeness or shock value but seem to be in pretty good taste.  One item that stayed with me was a comparison of the fears expressed by George Orwell in "1984" and such v. those expressed by Aldus Huxley in "Brave New World".  It is a short comic but is not funny and might give you something else to worry about.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

easy way to strengthen relationships

From a blog I follow here This is the sort of thing I have fallen into doing with my blog posts and it is fun.

What's an easy way to strengthen your relationships?

Share good news and enthusiatically respond when others share good news with you:

Sharing good news with others is one way that people can savor those experiences while building personal and interpersonal resources. Although prior research has established the benefits of this process, called capitalization, there has been little research and no experiments to examine the underlying mechanisms. In this article, we report results from 4 experiments and 1 daily diary study conducted to examine 2 mechanisms relevant to capitalization: that sharing good news with others increases the perceived value of those events, especially when others respond enthusiastically, and that enthusiastic responses to shared good news promote the development of trust and a prosocial orientation toward the other. These studies found consistent support for these effects across both interactions with strangers and in everyday close relationships.

Source: "Are you happy for me? How sharing positive events with others provides personal and interpersonal benefits." from J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010 Aug;99(2):311-29.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Eastern renunciation

I continue to find plenty in Mark Epstein's "Open to Desire: The Truth about What the Buddha Taught".  At one point, he relates an exchange between some Western psychologists and the Dalai Lama.  The visitors had heard plenty about difficulties stemming from emotions and one asked with some exasperation if the Dalai Lama  could think of any emotions that seemed to be have a positive value.  He replied that renunciation was often a source of joy.  Westerners often mean by renunciation a sort of retreating from the world, especially of worldly activities but the Buddhists mean something more like finally giving up on wanting, on endless needing of X.

The awareness that comes from sitting quietly and observantly with yourself sometimes turns up the same old longing.  Westerners might recommend action: you want to open a business?  Open it!  But Buddhists might say that if you can tell it the longing is another flibberty-gibbet, a flickering, tantalizing
fantasy that presents itself in wonderful terms that will only turn out to be more work and less play, renounce that longing.  Just give it up. Finally shelve the pest.  

Epstein is at some pains to explain that Indian thought emphasizes that even little renunciations of temporary anticipated pleasures can strongly improve the pleasure.  Say a gourmet has a special cheese or wine they have been anticipating.  Deciding to put off getting to it can sharpen the pleasure of tasting when it comes. 

The more basic, childish and primitive action is to want, strongly and directly and immediately.  Especially with a love of a person, whether it is a mate or a friend or one's child, too strong and too direct desiring becomes objectifying.  I really want that lover and I will make her mine.  Renouncing the power drive to capture and compel the response one seeks actually leads to greater mutual enjoyment of the bodies and the personalities.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The joys of green leaves and such

Nature is everywhere and it is often not all that hospitable toward us.  Bugs, heat, bacteria, pitfalls - they can put a damper on a picnic or a lovely walk in the woods.  Someplace Eric Hoffer says that some literature praising the joys of nature was written by Europeans that had not experienced the American wilderness and its rigors. 

Once, I tried going on a wilderness skills experience. It was only one night in the woods, in October.  I had brought a backpack and a good sleeping bag but little else.  I made a lean-to for myself as our guide showed how to do.  I slept fairly well that night but it wasn't all easy.  He showed us how to make a fire using a firebow but only he could do that.  Several of us tried and a couple people tried repeatedly but none of us succeeded.  He did the cooking and it is a good thing since I would have done it poorly or worse. 

When dawn came, we needed firewood.  I walked among pines snapping off low dead branches.  One of them was thicker and I leaned into snapping it.  When it did break off, I fell onto another broken-off branch and got speared in the upper lip.  I had breakfast and lunch with a little blood seasoning but it eventually stopped.  I had the slashed lip but I had no other problems.  As a Boy Scout, I camped many times but I never hankered to be out in the wilderness.

Mosquitoes buzzing around my head and stealing small bits of my blood, getting stung by yellowjackets, having our very limited dinner fall into the fire embers and ashes -- such experiences confirmed my pleasure being at a well-set table with good food, good drinks, good music and good company.  I am quite content to look at the beautiful wilderness on tv and the National Geographic website.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Correction and addition to today's blog post

I just realized that this morning's post had a faulty and confusing link.  It should have been to a web page I made at this location

I made my own separate page since there were several links I thought might be of interest and I wanted to make my own collection of them.

I also might have mentioned that Firefox can be set to leave little trace of travels around the web.  Google's browser Chrome can do a similar thing but only one session at a time, at least so far.  The articles linked on my page explain the increasing amount of stuff left behind by over one hundred advertising companies trying to sell targeted advertising information.  The dream of finding the customers who actually want to buy your product is a very big attraction.  The articles make clear that additional help is now needed to get rid of some of their stuff.  The Firefox add-on called Ghostery seems to be a fun and useful tool for being more aware of who is leaving stuff on your machine.

The Firefox Tools menu leads to Options that can be set to always start a private browsing session. 

Servant or bothersome or worse?

I recommend the Wall Street Journal's series on computer tracking.  I also recommend using Firefox for your browser.  The add-ons, available on the tool menu, called Better Privacy, Ghostery and Beef Taco are all good possibilities for increasing your control over what gets put on your computer and who collects data about your habits and preferences. 

Much of the current situation in computer tracking arose from the irritation people had when signing into something, such as email.  Too much trouble to do that over and over during a session?  How about if we put a small, unobtrusive file on your computer that says you have signed in and the program you want accesses that little "cookie" and lets you in faster and more conveniently?   One thing led to another, as it definitely will when millions of bright, energetic and ambitious people get together, and before long, someone realized that using those little cookies to do other things might make some money.  The articles linked above on the Wall St. Journal seem a good overview of the situation.

I am just now trying out Ghostery on a couple of our machines.  As a long-time public employee, I spent lots of time knowing that the whole public could and did have access to information about me.  I like people and I like teaching.  I don't want to be a hermit and
I needed to pass muster to be allowed to teach children.  To meet those goals, I need to live among others, who will definitely know me, computers or not.

It seems to be yet another issue that bears watching.  Having information (when you are interested) about who is doing what to your machine can be eye-opening.  One of my machines required me to reload the operating system, something I had not had to do in 25 years of computing.  That was informative!  So much I was used to was gone.  I had slowly accumulated many items that I really didn't need or use.  So, if you get too hyper about the problem,
try re-loading  the system and see what you think then.  Or, buy a new computer and try to keep it stripped down.  You can always disconnect from the internet but so far, the web has been lots of fun and convenience.

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