Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Meeting challenges for fun and profit

The 5th grader I am closest to has been having trouble in math.  He can count out basic facts pretty well, especially in addition.  But not in the other basic processes.  More troublesome, the more complex operations of multiplication and division require many applications of the basic single digit facts, calling on basic them rapidly and often.

Meanwhile this video game warrior deeply loves getting to new levels in several types of games: actual computer games, Wii games with special equipment and a wand that allows physical action affect the game, games on a Nintendo DS, a pocket-sized game console.  Most of all, he loves the iPad and games on it.  Those games require just finger use, no mouse, no wand.

The very popular and successful Angry Birds has swept onto the scene.  The link leads to a Wikipedia article that says more than 3.3 million hours of playing Angry Birds occur EACH DAY on the planet.  My guy likes the game very much but he likes other games as well.  When I pick him up after school, he is quiet and subdued about the day in school but then his memory supplies the latest goings-on with his game adventures.  The detail and energy he puts into the games and into such activities as finding You-tube videos that supply playing hints contrasts strongly with his desire to learn his math facts and do long division.

He is a sharp thinker.  I asked him how I could get some of his energy and delight shown for video games re-directed toward math.  (One of his teachers, who knows him very well, predicted that someday math would be a deep interest for him but it hasn't happened yet.)  He thought for a minute and suggested he needed a video game that requires math to play.

Lynn loaded Math Ninja onto her iPad and he spent a steady couple of hours playing it.  He was delighted that he "sailed through" many levels of the game and announced that he was beginning to consider trying it on the medium difficulty instead of easy.

The books Everything Bad is Good for You by respected science writer Steven Johnson and Reality is Broken by gamer and game theorist Jane McGonigal PhD are examples of serious thinkers who see increasing value and application of games.  University departments of gaming, in this country and abroad, show the recognition of the potential of games for entertainment, education and training.  Today's games involve psychology, computer science and business methods as well as mathematics, art and music.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Kindle and other ebooks

These days, I try to buy books to read on a Kindle.  There are other formats and other readers.  The two main sources of ebooks other than Amazon that I am aware of are Barnes & Noble and Google Books.  So far, I have not found a book I want on B&N or GB that wasn't already available for the Kindle.  In electronic format, I get the book very quickly, within a couple of minutes.  I don't need the postman or the UPS driver.  I don't need to shelve the book or dust it or heft it.  Recently, Wired or somebody stated that an ebook inside a Kindle has a form that means that some tiny atomic or sub-atomic particles must change and that the new form is a tiny, tiny bit heavier than the unchanged form.  Therefore, a Kindle weighs sub-microscopically more filled with ebooks than it does empty.  The estimate was that 1500 ebooks make the Kindle weigh more by 1/100 the weight of a single bacterium.  Not enough to notice.  

Many public libraries loan books electronically.  In addition, Amazon allows Kindle owners to borrow a book a month and keep it as long as desired.  I borrowed a book, didn't like it but I found I still have to wait a month to borrow another one.  If desired, Amazon will rent an expensive text to a Kindle owner for less than the purchase price but it can only be kept a week or two.

Amazon makes software available free on its web site that allows books to be read on a computer, regardless of whether the owner has a Kindle or not.  I assume Nook does the same thing.

The Kindle makes highlighting a passage from a book very quick and easy.  All highlights in a given book can be displayed in a single file very easy.  They come up in order of the book's pages and it is quick to move from one highlight to another.  The highlights made on a Kindle can be unloaded from the Kindle onto a computer in a file that can be read by Word or other word processing software.  The highlights are also stored on computers at and can be viewed there.

Some ebooks can be reformatted for Kindle by the free program "calibre", but the program states that only books without DRM (digital rights management) can be reformatted.

Monday, November 28, 2011

I was so surprised

I was so surprised.  I still am.

I was very surprised when my father said to come outside and meet my new little sister.  I had no idea!

I was very surprised too when my mother came up to the car after a long drive with my father and she told me that my cousin, aged 6 and one year older than me, had died of a brain clot.

I was surprised when my mother said she got a phone call that I had returned to school after lunch in 1st grade wearing a pre-tied long-style necktie around my neck above a t-shirt.  The teacher suspected it was a fashion move I had made on my own.  

I was surprised in 3rd grade when my pants split open during a quick duck in dodge ball, and when I arrived at the shoemaker with only one shoe, having dropped one on the way without noticing.  Also, when a girl handed out music books in class and accidentally brushed my lip and I fell instantly but temporarily in love.

It was amazing but nasty when I swallowed the cud of chewing tobacco in 6th grade.  My father had told me to chew all of it if I tried it at all.  I figured it might be fun but found it was terrible-tasting.  I didn't realize that the stuff was only for chewing and thought I would end the problem by swallowing it.  I tried to tell myself the nausea was a figment of my imagination but it wasn't.

After my junior year of college, I was surprised at how immediately clear the next step was for me when I received a long, tortured letter at the summer camp in Maine from Lynn in Florida.  We had been trying to bridge the distance with phone calls that we couldn't really afford.  The letter did it.  I quit the job on the spot and got a ride to Portland and a bus to Florida.  

I was surprised when the boy who had seemed quite upset confessed that he had vomited on our pile of class writing paper, only to see him pick up his rubber gag mess and burst out laughing.  

I was unpleasantly surprised to find I had gone to great effort to obtain plenty of Czech currency only find that I didn't need it but I did need a lot of German marks to pay our group bill.  It was a weekend and nothing was open to convert.  We were shocked to find the restaurant with the Visa sign in the window didn't take credit cards because the store was under new owners who had neglected to remove the sign.

Life is really full of surprises and I am surprised I don't' seem to be able to remember that.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Differences masked at equals

Ok, on a typical school test, we have four students.  It is a test of only two questions, A and B.  Here's what happened:

When students are given "scores" on tests, that almost always means the number of questions or exercises they got "correct".  So, here X has 0 and W has 2, while Z and Y each have 1.  So, Z and Y are the same, right?  Look at the diagram: Z and Y are as different as they can be.  They are just as far apart as the complete 0 and the complete 2.  Worse, Z and Y are diametrically opposite each other: what one knows, the other doesn't.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

advice to the young

We used to tell the young, eons ago, not to venture into the forest alone or without a weapon.  There were lions and tigers in there, and through no fault of either party, the beasts were hoping to shred the bodies of the young and consume the tender parts.  These days, except for a recent episode in Ohio, there are few lions or tigers to worry about.  However, there are plenty of dangers and traps waiting to suck the life blood or eat the delicious muscles of the young adult.

As I look at haunted faces, body piercings, tattoos, ear buds and dumbfones, I feel I need to fill my role as a grumpy oldster and advise the young to listen to a different drummer, take the road through the wood (not the mall) to a destination less hyped.

Otis Blackwell's lyrics as sung by Elvis

You know I can be found,
Sitting home all alone,
If you can't come around,
At least please telephone.
Don't be cruel to a heart that's true.

Baby, if I made you mad
For something I might have said,
Please, let's forget the past,
The future looks bright ahead,
Don't be cruel to a heart that's true.

Kirby's derivative advise for the young caught in social and marketing traps

I know you can be found
Sitting with your phone
The ads they just surround
You're never left alone
Don't be cool for a heart that's fresh

Baby, if you feel on trial,
Want something to make you shine
Please try just a smile
Your future ahead looks fine
Don't be cool for a skin that's whole.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Mindfulness vs. relaxation

Mindfulness is a popular word these days.  It can refer to more than one thing but they all have to be with being aware.  Another way of putting the subject is to say it is about what we allow ourselves to attend to, to pay attention to.  In America, a man who is often given credit for getting publicity for the subject is Dr. Herbert Benson, emeritus professor of Harvard Medical School.  His 1972 book, "The Relaxation Response", focused on the medical reasons for noting tension on the body and mind, and relaxing it away.  His recent 2010 book "The Relaxation Revolution" carries the same theme further and shows how much has been developed along this line in American medicine since his first book.

The Barry Boyce book The Mindfulness Revolution seems to me more important, although it can seem quite similar.  If you read the instructions for eliciting the relaxation response, similar to the body's parasympathetic response, from the 1972 book, you will find virtually the same steps as you will find in the Boyce book. The usual short version of the directions is to sit comfortably but still for 10 minutes or so and pay attention to your breath.  

However such directions are indeed a short version and for Westerners, I think, too short.  There are usually said to be two basic types of meditation practice: fixed attention and insight.  It seems to me that the first leads to the second naturally.  For 10 minutes or so a day, keep your attention on one target.  It works well to look at a single spot or junction of lines somewhere in your visual field.  Keeping your gaze there while placing your attention on the intake and exhale of your breath gives you something to focus on.  The reason you want such an anchor is so that you can notice when your attention has moved away from either of those anchors, the visual or the breath.  You can rely on your attention moving off the targets since that is what attention, the mind and the brain do.  The point and the value of the practice is to notice you have moved off the target when you can, and move back on to the visual and breath targets.  It is the noticing that leads to the psychological and life payoff.  Recently, an author on this subject said that 21 days of this exercise will be enough for you to see results in greater appreciation of yourself and the treasures in your life.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is often credited with first successfully introducing such an exercise into hospice medicine.  He had been doing the exercise and realized that cancer or heart patients for whom medicine could do nothing more might well benefit from getting to know their minds and mental habits better.  Even while dying, maybe especially while dying, being aware of what you are thinking about, being aware of whether that is what you want to be thinking about can be very helpful.  Dealing with pain, disappointment, failure, rejection, loneliness, arrogance, shame and the entire spectrum of human feelings, both positive and negative, is much easier when you can see what you are doing.  The exercise increases your ability to do just that.

Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Human intelligence

A friend wrote about intelligence.  That is a subject I used to deal with quite a bit.  My experience is that it is best to leave a blank when trying to assess someone's intelligence.  After physical science made some very impressive strides during the 1800's, psychologists wanted to do the same thing.  Alfred Binet was asked by the Paris school board to build a test that could tell whether a child was mentally capable of benefiting from normal schooling or insufficiently intelligent for it.  Louis Terman of Stanford University modified that test to create the granddaddy of American intelligence testing, the Stanford-Binet test.  

My doctorate is in statistics, experimental design and measurement, which means I had to take a grad course in individual intelligence testing.  The idea is that a piece of paper with questions and exercises on it can be printed in multiple copies and used to estimate the intelligence of each of a group of children.  Those that give the answers expected by the people or machines that mark the papers are considered intelligent.  However, in certain cases, an individual test is administered.  Here, a trained person sits alone with a student and asks questions by voice and requests the student to manipulate objects.  

The problem is that the method is very, very crude.  I sometimes think of getting an umbrella down a chimney.   It will go down one way (point first and closed) but not the other (open).  In a similar way, if a child is intelligent, mostly in a verbal, logical way, the test will show that.  However, the child can be extremely intelligent but not seem so on the test.  Just one of many, many obstacles is language.  If the child speaks only Spanish or Romanian, and we ask a question in English, guess what happens?

Contrast what used to be the 2 leading I.Q. tests, the Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler.  The Binet test used a conception of intelligence as logic.  So, Wechsler asks a child, "Johnny put his pants on over his head today.  Tell me what is funny about that?"  If we get an answer more or less equivalent to "well, pants are made in such a way that they cannot be donned so as to be worn in the conventional way by putting them on over the head", the child is considered intelligent.  

Wechsler used a different idea: that an intelligent mind would gather certain basic info.  He thought the child that knows that basic info is intelligent but not if the child doesn't.  So, we ask the child,"How far is it from New York to Paris?"  If the child says approximately 3000 miles, we have an intelligent kid but if not, not.

There are lots of other holes, just as bad.  Beware the idea that intelligence is measurable.
Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Playing with words

Cleaned His Attic

I finally got the attic straight,

Took Dad's old stuff away,

The strangest gear they'd ever seen

Was hauled through town today.

Both cameras with their splash attachments,

His painting done in boils,

His bowling saw and fishing sod

And wine arranged in coils.

The weeping bags,

The matched golf tubs,

His torn seat music

And Dad's gold strumpet.

I never understood the rules;

I didn't used to try.

But Daddy must have been a sport,

His memory makes me wry.


I let the beans out of the bag and I spilt the cat!  

I was struck by thunder!

It wasn't my fault!

I don't want to go fingering pointers,

but I was unawares that I was taken.  

I just had to stop and breathe a catch.

Warrior fun

That Herk sure plays a good game!  I checked him into the boards, a good one, too.  But he bounced right back off and flattened me.  I admire the oomph he puts into his blocks and slams.  Remember that time when he hit me so hard, he knocked my shoulder out of the socket?  Boy, he is a good one! What laughs we have! What good times!

Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Escape" and the real world

I like books, also movies and tv shows.  I like books the most because they offer the widest range of choices.  You can see why they tend to be cheaper, too.  Paper books require authors, editors, sales personnel, etc but the number seems small compared to the crews and technicians listed for the credits of a movie.

I spend lots of time reading and much of that reading is about books: what's good, what's just out, what is valuable but overlooked, and that sort of thing.  Often, in discussions of books, especially fiction or drama or humor, someone will say a piece is a good one for escape.  They refer to a trance, frequently a delicious one, where the mind is so occupied with the story or the tension or suspense, that one's surroundings have sunk out of the conscious mind.  At that time, we refer to the reader as having escaped from the real world.  Movies, especially in the traditional darkened theater have an even stronger effect on me.  Ever since I was a kid, I have needed a few minutes outside the theater, walking around, to shake off the impression I was Hopalong Cassidy or some other magnificent hero.

With this post, I am making a plea for understanding that the ideas and effect of that trance are part of the real world.  Likewise, the mathematician or the theoretical physicist and their lofty ideas are in the real world.  When a 5th grader is trying to visualize the product of 19 times 23, he is in the real world, as is that product.  I don't want to enter into some complicated discussion of the reality v. non-reality of mathematical entities or mythological concepts such as unicorns.  But it does seem a better picture of what we are about on this spinning ball if we take our imaginations to be real, as my plan to travel is real and makes me buy a ticket and pack a bag.

In this age of invention and innovation, of criticism and investigation, we might as well include our thoughts and mental constructions among the things we respect.

Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Monday, November 21, 2011

Leaves and all

Three words for nutrition: fruits and vegetables.   In fact, if you want to use one word, that will do: vegetables.  

I often think about our present dependency on oil: we get fertilizer to our fields using oil.  (I'm not sure how much we use oil to make the fertilizer.  I do know that the people who make it get to their workplace using oil.)  We use oil to tend the growing plants.  We use oil to harvest them, transport them.  

But humans did without such oil use for nearly all of the time there have been humans.  They have not ever done without plants.  I read that the Icelandic-American explorer Stefansson proved he could subsist on 90% meats by living in a New York apartment and doing just that.  There was doubt that he could but he knew from experience that Inuit hunters did that for long periods at a time.  However, I note that 90% is not 100%.  I know that scurvy was a lethal problem during the age of exploration by sails.  And I know that all animals, including me, need plants to live or animals that themselves live on plants.

So, those leaves and roots and seeds and stems and flowers are pretty important.  We celebrate our nation, our labor, our gods, our mothers and fathers.  We have our Sundays celebrating the source of the energy that enables plants.  But those leaves deserve an occasional salute, too.  Maybe the best way to celebrate is to eat our vegetables.

Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"unique" and meaning change

In order of increasing rarity: Usual, unusual, very unusual and unique  
A tie can be unique but ugly.  A very beautiful tie will often be unusual or we wouldn't notice it.  However, just because it is the only tie just like that and no other tie is like that, doesn't mean it is any good to look at or wear.

A man told me recently that he never texts and he won't respond to text messages.  He was indignant about the loss of discipline and correctness to our language and more generally to our society that text messages and young foolish people demonstrate in general.

Personally, I try to remain aware that language, like EVERYTHING else, changes, drifts.  "Nice" comes from Anglo-French from Latin meaning silly or ignorant.  "Cute" is a shortened from of "acute" meaning mentally sharp.  Both have changed their meanings over time.

I can understand being uncomfortable with word change.  For many people, being uncomfortable implies someone (ELSE!) is at fault.  The way to restore comfort is to find that someone and make them stop their faulty behavior.  I have feelings like that with the word "unique", which I want to mean "single", "unduplicated", "the only one in the world" but which speakers, thinkers, writers insist on using to mean "interestingly, provocatively, memorably unusual".  

Meaning change (click for link to web page)

"Silly are the goddy tawdry maudlin for they shall christgeewhiz bow down before him: bedead old men, priest and prester, babeling a pitterpatternoster: no word is still the word, but, a loafward has become lord."

Ronald Suffield, "The Tenth Beatitude"

"This subtle poem by the English philologist Ronald Suffield is actually written at two levels. For Suffield intends that the reader hold in mind not just the current meanings of these words but the original meanings as well. For the meaning of a word changes over time. The example everyone knows is gay, which originally meant "merry", but because some people are a little too merry came to mean "wanton", and because some people are a little too wanton came to mean "homosexual", which is the sense almost exclusively used now.

"Pejoration is the process by which a word's meaning worsens or degenerates, coming to represent something less favorable than it originally did. Most of the words in Suffield's poem have undergone pejoration.

"For instance, the word silly begins Suffield's poem and meant in Old English times "blessed", which is why Suffield calls his poem a beatitude (Christ's beatitudes begin with "blessed are the..."). How did a word meaning "blessed" come to mean "silly"? Well, since people who are blessed are often innocent and guileless, the word gradually came to mean "innocent". And some of those who are innocent might be innocent because they haven't the brains to be anything else. And some of those who are innocent might be innocent because they knowingly reject opportunities for temptation. In either case, since the more worldly-wise would take advantage of their opportunities, the innocents must therefore be foolish, which of course is the current primary meaning of the word silly."

Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A light in the EAR

This light in the EAR for depression, especially seasonal affective disorder - a type of winter blues - seems so unusual that I thought it deserves good detail.

From the Posit Science web site
Bad Weather Got You Down? A Light in the Ear Canal Might Help
By Marghi Merzenich on November 8, 2011
Do long, dark winter nights get you down? For those affected with the form of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the winter can be a difficult time. The National Health Service of the UK estimates that 7% of Britons are affected by SAD, and U.S. estimates hover between 4% and 6%. According to Mayo Clinic, SAD occurs most commonly during the winter months and happens because of an imbalance of melatonin production, which can disrupt the body's internal clock and lead to depressive symptoms like anxiety, lack of concentration, irritability, and hopelessness.
The most common therapy to date involves prolonged exposure to bright light (30 minutes at 10,000 lux – with the average office lighting being around 400 lux, and a bright sunny day being between 10,000 and 25,000 lux.) However, a new study from a Finnish medical company has found that a 12 minute session of light focused in the ear canal may be just as effective in treating SAD. The researchers channel the light into photosensitive areas of the brain via the ear canal via a headset device for 12 minutes a day. You can learn more about the device and the corresponding clinical trials in this article.

Semi-scientific article
The article includes this italicized statement:
"We presented earlier that the human brain is sensitive to light. These two clinical trials demonstrate that channeling bright light via ear canal into brain's photosensitive areas effectively prevents and treats seasonal affective disorder," comments Juuso Nissilä, Valkee's co-founder and chief scientist.

"We presented earlier that the human brain is sensitive to light. These two clinical trials demonstrate that channeling bright light via ear canal into brain's photosensitive areas effectively prevents and treats seasonal affective disorder," comments Juuso Nissilä, Valkee's co-founder and chief scientist.

Read more:

Here is the commercial product being discussed:
It seems to have a bright light on an ear bud that can be inserted in the ear canal.  They don't ship to the US yet but they are working on it.  Current cost is about $300.

Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Friday, November 18, 2011


A friend sent us these and we enjoyed them.  I thought you might, too.

Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Diabetes 2

I was surprised to see that the 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Canadians Banting and MacLeod for their work discovering insulin.  The book "Breakthrough" and others tell the story of the work done to understand the disease of diabetes.  Books on important points in recent medical history and research can be quite interesting.  Dana Sobel's book on latitude and scurvy and Thomas Hager's book "The Demon  Under the Microscope" make it clear that when we are born has a lot to do with what medicine can do for us.  Antibiotics really got going just before my birth.  Had I been born a little earlier, I might not have lived to this age.

The best advice on diabetes seems to continue to be a balance diet of good food without too many calories.  Many people have a little more money when they are older and can afford steaks, eating out, all sorts of rich food or whatever their appetites drive them toward.  I read not long ago that if people are served in a smorgasbord style, they tend to go for the starches such as potatoes, corn and peas and the meats and not toward the vegetables and fruits.  Even fruits can be troublesome.  Those are great choices in an age of food scarcity but we aren't in such an age.

The glycemic index, the measure of how quickly a food is digested, can also be important.  Foods like pasta and white rice and bread are digested very rapidly and the rapidity promotes heavier use of insulin.  Portion  size can be a great tool for allowing the lust for ice cream or alcohol to be a bit assuaged if a very small amount of a troublesome food is ingested.  It only takes a small taste to remind ourselves that the food in question is not all that heavenly and that another bite will not be even quite as delicious as the first one.

We have done pretty well keeping our blood sugar levels down by avoiding the whites, the white bread, the white pasta and white rice.  It hasn't taken much practice to learn to actually prefer whole wheat and brown rice.  The occasional piece of toasted cibata  with butter is all the more delicious because we keep it rare.  Drinking plenty of water also helps us feel full and is good for our kidneys.  The dietary scientist Barbara Rolls has books on volume of food, such as lettuce and soup, that help us feel full without getting too many calories.
Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

body energy

The Emperor of All Maladies is about cancer.  Some diseases get lots of attention (but of course, once we find we have a particular problem or condition, that's the one we care about at the time.)  When I was in elementary school, the disease I worried about was polio.  Kids my age would come down with it and become permanently paralyzed to spend the rest of their lives in an iron lung.

I suppose that it may be more helpful, if you are going to develop a disease, to get one that is common and had by many others.  That way, I guess, there will be more experience with it and more market for companies to work on medicines and treatments for it.  

Ten years or so ago, my doctor said that my blood sugar reading was 113 but "should" be below 100.  He emphasized that a few years earlier the American Diabetes Association had moved its standard to above 100 for pre-diabetes and 126 for diabetes.  He warned me to watch my sugar and carbohydrate intake.  At the same time, since I was getting older, he told me about "syndrome X" or "metabolic syndrome", a cluster of conditions in the body that may be the first sign of more severe problems to come.  That was the first mention of diabetes in connection with me.  Weight gain, waist and abdominal fat, high blood pressure and high blood sugar go together to increase the chance of heart, artery and diabetes problems.

I went right out and got books on the subject, naturally.  I also bought a blood sugar meter and began testing myself.  The most helpful thing I read was in the introduction to a diabetes book written by a nurse.  She said that most people think of diabetes as a disease related to sugar intake but that it is smarter to think of it as a calorie problem.  Our food-rich civilization, our advertising and cooking that creates very tempting foods and urges us to eat them frequently, our aging bodies that continue to desire snacks, sweets, dough products, and most of our "comfort" foods.  It can seem cruel of life to create a barrier to these sources of pleasure but that is just one way of looking at the phenomenon.

I find it is helpful to think of my body winding down, processing food energy less and doing so less efficiently.  I try to attune myself to that picture and act accordingly.  Now, just like my grandparents, I can see the value in splitting a banana and just eating half.

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