Friday, November 30, 2012

Brain maps and paying attention

One of my favorite anecdotes about the human mind comes from "The Inner Game of Tennis" by Timothy Gallwey.  A executive asks the tennis pro at the club for a private lesson.  The pro asks what he needs help with.  The exec says he starts his backhand too high and he needs to change that.  The pro sets him up in front of a mirror and they hit a few balls.  The pro tells him to focus on his image right at the start of the backswing.  The exec yells,"I start my backswing too high!"  Get that?  The exec tells the pro what his problem is and then discovers on "his own" that he has the problem he said he had.  Wha?

I read "The Brain That Changes Itself" aloud to Lynn.  I didn't get very interested in the chapter on pain, since it focuses on phantom pain that is severe and debilitating but is in an arm or leg that has already been surgically removed.  It's amputated.  It's gone.  It isn't there but it hurts like hell.  V.S.Ramachandran is the scientist who figured out that at least in some cases, the problem is the brain map.  When we feel pain, it is because our brain sends signals us that a part of our body is in disrepair.  When the limb is amputated, that brain map is still in our head and can do several unhelpful things.  It can get bored having no signals ever and expand into an adjacent area, using signals not meant for it.  

A man with an amputated leg can experience sexual orgasms in his leg!  The leg map is near the genital map in the head and the leg map may expand to include signals from the genitals.  A woman with a breast removed may find that she gets stimulated from touch on her clavicle, her sternum or her ear.  Those brain maps are near the one for the breast, which is still in her brain after the breast has been removed.

Just like the executive, I read all the words in the book aloud but since I had decided the words didn't apply to me, I did not pay attention.  Yesterday and today, preparing for a discussion on a more detailed book by Ramachandran, I paid attention.  Wow!  Amazing stuff and I let it slip right by me the last time I read this.

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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Presentation on "The Most Human Huma"

On Thursday, the 29th, I am giving a presentation on Brian Christian's "The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive".  It reports his experience and thoughts about the Turing Test, as conducted for the Loebner Prize.  Turing said in 1950 that if human judges could not distinguish written statements and answers by a computer from those of a human, the computer could be judged to think.  The idea can be surprisingly complex and the words involved can be interpreted in several different ways.  The book is an eye-opener as are other works related to it.

You may be aware of Napster and the effect of digitization on the music recording industry.  I am confident that similar difficulties have changed the business of photo processing as digital photography has spread.  There are many aspects of our society and lives that have been, are being, and will be changed by computers.  Probably more than you would guess and in fields that you might not guess, such as surgery on humans and military drones.

Here is a link to my presentation materials.  My experience with this subject is that it contains many fascinating aspects.  Repeated visits to it can pay off, as part of understanding the world, yourself and the semi-smart devices that pop all over the place, from your tv to your thermostat to your car, your doctor's office and other places.

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What if you wrote a dissertation?

I have helped many doctoral students with the PhD dissertation.  The usual language is that a master's degree student writes a "thesis" while a doctoral student writes a "dissertation", although sometimes the doctoral paper is referred to as a thesis, too.  Some schools have undergraduates write some sort of final paper and some high schools do, too.  Following the writing and editing, there are usually "orals", where the student and a committee discuss the paper.  

What is the paper supposed to be about?  My field of educational research, like the social sciences, typically expects a dissertation to be the report of an experiment or the analysis of some sort of data.  The data may be observations of someone or something, say the opening day of school, or numerical information, say responses to a survey.  Note that neither the opening day of school nor a written survey is actually an experiment.  Either could be part of an experiment, perhaps two opening days that are intentionally different in some way or a before-and-after survey, perhaps before special training or procedure, and afterwards.

The usual distinguishing mark of a simple experiment is some sort of contrast, such as before X and after X, or comparison, such as the success of left-handed teachers v. that of right-handed teachers. But numerical or observational data can come for many sources.  In schools and life, there are many moments and phenomena and periods of time that cannot comfortably, ethically or economically be repeated.  

There are many other aspects of completing a dissertation requirement besides planning and accomplishing data gathering.  The most important are social ones.  The committee of reviewers is a social group, many of whom have known and disliked each other for decades.  Usually, the dislike relates to differing stances or philosophies.  The political currents are not actually the business of the student but it helps to sidestep them as much as possible.  There are other circles that can affect the student, too.  Political or doctrinal differences in the field studied may need to be understood and accommodated.

Another important aspect of the dissertation is that it is not pure research, done just because the researcher wants to study, understand, or improve things.  The paper is part of the requirements of a particular department, college or university.  The format, timing and other aspects have to be acceptable to all those bodies.  

The typical format of a formal academic paper that reports an experiment or analysis of a data set is five chapters.  The first three provide an introduction, a review of other work that relates to the current paper and an explanation of the plan and its use in this study.  The fourth chapter explains what was found.  The fifth chapter is often titled "Conclusions and Implications".  This is the chapter where the student needs to explain the importance of the study for future practice and thought.  The 5th chapter differs in that the rest of the paper tends to need careful justification while the final one need freer but still rational thought.

So, now you are all set, if you want to get your doctoral degree or maybe an additional one.  Pass a slate of courses, usually between 60 and 100 credits worth, make a plan, have it approved by your advisor and write your dissertation.  Remember to be patient with the whole process and don't let politics or specifications for the required color of the cover get you down. It may help to remember that you are dealing with the remnants of a medieval process, modified over the years.

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How many times do I have to say this?

One mark of an inexperienced teacher or communicator is assuming that because something has been clearly said, it has been fully digested or learned.  There are a surprising number of reasons that something clearly said might not even have been heard.  Suppose someone is doing a crossword puzzle or playing a video game.  Suppose the intended recipient can't hear well or doesn't understand the language.  

Many statements that are heard distinctly are open to multiple interpretations.  Even the basic distinction between "yes" and "no" can get muddled.  I often hear people say the words "Yeah, no" or "No, yes".  Usually the first word is actually an agreement for something just said, as in "yes, I agree, no weapons allowed" or "no, I agree we must not overdo things, yes, three strikes is enough."  But if part of the statement is garbled or oddly timed, the meaning can be reversed so that a listener thinks the opposite of what the speaker meant.

Of course, if something complex or a fundamental change is included in a statement, a speaker could get agreement, even quite complete paraphrasing, only to have the agreed-to change forgotten in the next minute.  "Don't forget, guys, as we enter the assembly hall, we all keep our caps on."  If there is still anyone who habitually removes his hat upon entering a room with others, that hat might be whisked off by habit before there is any conscious recall of the special circumstances and practice this time.

One of the traditional tools for showing that a listener has heard and understood is repetition of the message by the listener, sometimes accompanied by a good paraphrase.  The idea is that if the paraphrase was constructed by the listener and the speaker accepts it, that could only happen if the listener did hear and understand the content and the spirit of the message.

In today's world of critical thinking and innovation, it is very possible that a statement is not acceptable to the listener as stated.  It may contain ambiguities or contradictions that the listener wants to discuss before agreeing on what has been said.  

This whole business requires a balance, though.  If I think you haven't heard or you look to me as though you have forgotten, I may repeat myself.  Then, you may be offended that I am saying again what you have already heard.  Why am I repeating myself?  What, do I think you are stupid or forgetful or absentminded?

I deal with this problem several times a day since I do have a hearing problem.  I have concluded that it is indeed parts of my brain other than my actual ears.  I can often tell that someone, say a store clerk, has spoken to me, but I can't process what was said.  Maybe I couldn't even tell what words were spoken.  When I can tell what was said, the meaning might not be clear to me.  I spend lots of time each day saying,"I'm sorry but I don't know what you said."  If the speaker was busy saying several different things rapidly to several different people, some silly but mutually irritating moments may be spend ferreting out what was said and having it said again.  Often the repetition will be spoken louder this time but just as rapidly, again leaving me in the dark.

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

Monday, November 26, 2012

Concentrating better on good materials

It can take a year or two adjusting to using an e-reader, like a Kindle.  We used to have only one or two channels on tv as a kid and the expansion to several hundred went slowly enough that I could get somewhat used to it.  Of course, I have spent many hours clicking through all our channels, sometimes continuing through them all again after rejecting each one once.  Now, I more or less assume, based on experience, that most of the channels at any one time will be broadcasting something I am not interested in.

Books are a little different.  In the past, I lugged them home from a library, knowing I had a limited time to read them or I paid a good price for them, betting the expense would be worthwhile.  Now the cost of getting a book is quite low and the physical weight is minimal.  All 220 books in my Kindle are there to be read and quoted, quotes to be shared without a deadline, all weighing together 12 oz.  It has taken a while for me to be accustomed to knowing what whatever I am reading, I have right at my finger tips many other books, also chosen for possible fun and improvement, that I could be reading instead.

Lately, I have been settling down a little, focusing on a book or a few of them, that I do want to read all the way through.  Paying some attention to a book gives me a chance to notice whether its quality is high and doing something of value for me.

Although I find I pay good attention when driving to an audiobook, I have not trained myself to do that at home.  But fiction such as "Polar Star", Great Courses such as "Myths, Lies and Half-truths of Language Usage" get as deeply into my head as something I read.  So, here is a list of items that have recently been worthwhile during these my declining number of years:
  1. Our Husband by Stephanie Bond
  2. Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon
  3. Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon
  4. Death by Drowning by Abigail Kearn
  5. Your Deceptive Mind by Stephen Novella (Great Course)
  6. Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  7. Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? by Molly Ivins
  8. Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan
  9. This Will Make You Smarter by John Brockman
  10. Buddha's Brain by Rick Hanson
  11. Inner Peace for Busy Women by Joan Borysenko
  12. The Twitter Book by Tim O'Reilly and Sarah Milstein
  13. Flourish by Martin Seligman
  14. Better Off Without Him by Dee Ernst
  15. Cloaks and Veils by J.C. Carleson
  16. The First Twenty Minutes by Gretchen Reynolds
  17. Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon
  18. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
  19. Borderlines by Archer Mayor
  20. The World's Relgions by Huston Smith
  21. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  22. A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss
Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Unnoticed information streams

I like to keep my eye on specialists in good news.  It is pretty clear that we, like many animals, are wired to stay alert to dangers and threats.  So, both consciously and unconsciously, formal and commercial sources of information tend to focus on what we call “bad news”: bad weather, crime, military threats, political defeats, alarming trends, etc.  It may take special diligence to be alert to good news. A couple of decades ago, the main such person I kept my eye on was Ben J. Wattenberg.  He had several books that mentioned trends and statistics that seemed upbeat and promising, at a time when population growth, water supply, food supply, and other important aspects of life seemed in jeopardy.  (Of course, they may still be.)

I only recently got a little bit familiar with Nate Silver, a statistician, and author of The Signal and the Noise.  He got a big boost in popularity with his predictions of the recent presidential election.  Somehow, I became aware of Charles Kenny.  His book “Getting Better”, is a look at worldwide trends in standards of living.  He writes,”
the evidence for any country being stuck in a technological dark age of population explosion and miserable subsistence without hope of exit is threadbare...looking at almost any measure EXCEPT income suggests ubiquitous improvement. The general picture is of rapid, historically unprecedented progress in quality of life—progress that has been faster in the developing world than in the developed. This is true for measures covering health, education, civil and political rights, access to infrastructure, and even beer production. Since 1960, global average infant mortality (to examine something more serious than beer production) has more than halved, for example.

Kenny, Charles (2011-03-01). Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding--And How We Can Improve the World Even More (Kindle Locations 204-209). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

He has many more amazing facts about worldwide and African progress in many areas.

My Kindle Touch can communicate with Facebook and Twitter.  I don’t use Facebook but I like what I have found so far on Twitter.  So, you have some guy (me) sitting in his armchair reading Charles Kenny.  The guy comes across a passage in the book that grabs his attention and he thinks that others might be interested.  He highlights the passage with his fingertip and is invited to share it on Twitter.  Twitter only accepts posts of 140 or less characters, including spaces.  But wait, Amazon, interested of course in promoting its books and discussion of them, instantly converts the passage into a short part of a web page, regardless of length, and then creates a very short link to that page.  At the same time, the guy in the armchair is invited to make a short explanatory comment.  In less than 30 seconds from the time our guy first read the passage, his comment, and a link to the passage are available on Twitter, worldwide.  

Suppose someone in Russia or China or Argentina reads the Tweet, clicks on the link and intrigued.  With a computer or a Kindle, that person could download the Kenny book and begin reading.  When the woman gives a lesson tomorrow in school or votes in her parliament or writes an editorial, who would guess the jumps from a 2010 book to the armchair to Twitter to her?  Yes, indeed.  Things are happening all over.  

One last bit: both Kenny and Jacqueline Novogratz (“The Blue Sweater”)of the Acumen Fund, trainer of volunteers interested in improving life in underdeveloped countries, stress that it is indeed technology but also IDEAS and DIGNITY that matter, not just money and income.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


This morning our tv, landline phone and internet were out for about three hours.  As usual with irritations, I tried to apply Karen Maezen Miller's approach to housekeeping and parenting ("Momma Zen" and "Hand Wash Cold"), which is to use each challenge as a chance to be aware of one's feelings and to observe them with a little distance and perspective.  I earned maybe a grade of C for my efforts. We still had working cellphones and separate signal to the iPad but our usual routines and best tools were inoperable.  I realize that those hardest hit by Storm Sandy and many people in other lands steadily put up with serious deprivations and that mine are short-lived and only a symbol of minor difficulty, not real ones.

Our Thanksgiving prayer is from Dear Abby's column, revised by Lynn Kirby:

Oh, Heavenly Father,

We thank thee for food and

remember the hungry.

We thank thee for health and

remember the sick.

We thank thee for freedom and

remember the enslaved.

We thank thee for peace and

remember the war-torn.

May these remembrances

stir us to service.

That thy gifts to us may be

used for others. Amen.

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

Friday, November 23, 2012

Why bother?

A while ago, a friend told me not to knock shame and guilt.  "Shame and guilt are what keep me going."  This is a mature and very well-educated man.  He knows a great deal about acceptance, about living with gratitude for the many gifts we each have in our lives.  He may not have meant his remark very seriously but it does touch on a question that pops up for me.  If I am grateful and content, why bother?  Whybother with dressing, breathing, paying my bills and taxes?

Not keeping on keeping on may result in punishment, pain or death and I understand that.  But when I feel accepting of pain and death, maybe I need not keep on.  

One answer to why bother may be that others depend on me or can be made happier and better off in part by my efforts.  So, I should keep trying if I want to help them.  However, I see all the time that helping people is not a simple task.  What I do to help may worsen their lives.  There usually are some things I can do that I am pretty sure are indeed helpful.  Those I am trying to help thank me or tell me I am being helpful.  It is possible that we are both deluded or mistaken but when I think I'm helping and they think I am, that's pretty good confirmation.

But my friend's answer is not so bad.  In the opening of his "A Short History of Nearly Everything", Bill Bryson explains what a miracle each of us is.  Just the cumulative efforts of all the previous contributors to my DNA, my ancestors, is by itself a gigantic achievement.  It would literally be a shameful waste to not preserve my body, my mind and my contributions to others.  If I just wasted myself, I would be guilty of dropping the ball in the great game of enjoying life and outwitting the germs looking for ways to consume me.

For some reason, another answer holds power for me.  It is simply "Why not?"  Why not cook another meal?  In fact, while I'm at it, why not put my mind to the task and cook a better meal, a more delicious one, a novel one?  I happen to have a brain that gets charged up by a challenge.  Endless acceptance doesn't usually seem that challenging but trying to surprise, please, out-do, economize, invent do seem interesting and engaging.  

Why bother?  I can.  I don't have anything better to do.  I can bring pleasure (sometimes) to others and inspiration.  Why not do so?

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

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Handling our pleasures and problems

Hands tell me a great deal and would do even more for me if I were tuning an engine or gardening.  But eyes reading and ears listening put ideas in my head much faster and more satisfyingly.  So, I keep being drawn to books and talk.

I guess it was because of the endless human drive to impress others with their own status or magnificence.  I'm not sure why we developed the stereotype that the person who uses hands to work is somehow lesser than the person who thinks and speaks.  In today's world and maybe the earlier worlds that have been available to people, hands really matter.  In fact, I think I have read that walking upright and freeing the hands to do a greater variety of things may have, in the opinion of some theorists, lead to the human brain being enlarged.  Of course, speech and eventually writing much later, also changed the mental landscape for humans.

But aside from fashioning tools and using them in manufacture or farming or fighting, today's hands are always typing or texting or clicking and again the hand turns out to be a major tool for people.  The newer touch interface makes great use of the finger tips and more often these days, hand gestures like swiping a finger across a tablet surface communicates with the machine.  Simply tapping two smartphones together may cause them to exchange contact information such as email address and phone numbers.  Again, the hands emerge as important.  

"The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture" by Frank R. Wilson is a good book on the subject of our important manual appendages.  I think it was in that book that I learned to respect the ring and little fingers since, unique among primate hands, they can collapse around something like the handle of a tool or sword, greatly increasing the grip strength.  Our thumbs are very important but the other fingers matter, too.  I read a book on boxing that emphasized that it is the little finger, on the outside of the clenched fist, that makes the important part of a punch, since that is where the power of the blow lies.

Even in cooking, hands matter, not only in mixing and handling pans but as intelligence organs.  Feeling is very sensitive in the fingertips and they sometimes provide information about a fruit or a butchering operation that gets to the mind more clearly and faster than any other way of understanding materials and tools being used.

I can't omit speaking with the hands both instead of voice, and as a supplement to voice.  The right gesture can clarify a remark or indicate the strength of the feeling being expressed in a way that words can't.

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Information raining down

In many parts of America today, it is a cliche to say that it is raining information.  I try to keep some perspective on the situation by recalling Charles Kenny's contribution to the Time magazine issue in March 2010, where he said that the great communication invention that will save the world is television.  He said that, at least for now, we should forget about Google, Facebook and Twitter. Much of the world still has no electricity and no television.  When there is television, it may be sporadic, trite or only propaganda.  (At least, ours is more or less continuous, which may not be such a good thing.)

Personally, I find a well-written document or book a better, faster source to the heart of a matter than a video.  I admit I did learn to tie a bow differently from a video and might not have grasped the change in my procedure had it been described in printed words.  I learned from a video how to trap voles (voles, with a "v").  I learned from "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson that the ideas and coding that make short quick video streaming on a web page and brought us YouTube have very much changed what can be done online.

I am a fan of the well-known TED talks.  TED stands for "Technology Entertainment Design" and the talks are part of the TED mission.  The non-profit organization is devoted to "ideas worth spreading".  The TED talks include excellent thinkers and speakers presenting short talks which can be viewed online.  Online can include on your tv set if you have a computer or Roku connected to it.  (I haven't tried Google TV or Apple TV but I imagine they can provide access to TED talks, too.  So far, my computer has been fine for watching TED talks as I am confident a tablet or smartphone would be, too.)

Today, I looked over some collections of TED talks, beginning with the one assembled by Tim O'Reilly, well-known publisher of computer related books.  His company also supports the O'Reilly Radar website, followed on my blog. Here is a link to nine TED talks that he recommends as very educational.  It is a good idea to at least look at the link to see what the talks are about.

A few years back, I sent a friend a link to a good YouTube video.  He told me not to send him such things as he was already spending too much of his life looking at YouTube videos.  As I wrote, I know information is raining down on us and much of it is not worthwhile.  However, there is far too much to pay attention to, even if you limit yourself to sources known to be high quality.

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What does experience do?

Applying to be a dispatcher of longhaul trucks, I would be asked if I have any experience dispatching 18-wheelers.  Since I have none at all, I might not be a hot candidate for the job. Like everyone else, I have run into the problem of getting experience if no one will let me get some.  But I often wondered, what it was that I would know if I were experienced that I don't know now.

One important answer to what experience does is provide a feel for probabilities associated with important events related to that field.  I wrote about the beautiful and touching young boy visitor playing bingo in a room of seniors who announced repeatedly in a bright, optimistic voice that he was going to win.  It took quite a few rounds and quite a few wins by others before he burst into tears of despair.  I don't know if he has played any more or not but he sure has a better grasp of how likely it is that he will line up five in a row before anyone else in the room.

I recently heard of an emergency room physician and a circuit court judge who both explained the pain of long practice dealing with lives, death and punishment.  It was clear that experience had delivered pain and doubt and compassion and frustration to both of them.  It was clear, too, that joy, appreciation, and pride of good service had been part of their experience.  Experience provided both with assurance of their powers and understanding of the limits of their powers.

We have all taken courses that we could not now pass.  But the experience has usually provided us with the confidence that we did used to know and could probably know again, with just a little peek at Google or those old notes down in the basement.

As a young person, I sometimes fell victim to a bout of depression as I realized some danger lurked ahead.  But by now, experience has taught me that just as Mark Twain found, "I have known many troubles and most of them never happened."  I will admit though, that there have been some serious downers as well as some great gifts, which descended on me with no warning.  Experience has taught me that I am not a good predictor of the future course of my life.  It is not just about me that I am a flawed source of what will happen.  I have learned through experience that I cannot predict very well what a committee of people, all of whom have good credentials and minds, will finally wind up agreeing on.
Main blog: Fear, Fun and Filoz
Main web site: Kirbyvariety

Monday, November 19, 2012

Where are we anchored?

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky did some memorable work on decision making and judgment.  Tversky died in 1996 but Kahneman went on to win the Nobel prize in economics.  I read about some of their work in the mid 60's researching my dissertation on decision theory.  There is a phenomenon in statistics called "regression toward the mean", which boils down to the fact that when you have a very good day or a very bad day, the day following will usually be more typical.  That happens just because it takes extra good luck, among other things, to have a very good day and extra bad to have an exceptionally bad one.

Kahneman and Tversky discussed the training methods being used with pilot instructors who used them.  The instructors emphasized that they made sure to bawl a student pilot out after a bad performance and they noted that the next time that student was in the air, the performance was better.  The investigators explained the idea of regression toward the mean to the instructors.

Kahneman has a book called "Thinking: Fast and Slow" in which he describes what might be called our human knee-jerk response in which we choose and complete an action instantly, too quickly to be analytic about the action, as opposed to slow, deliberate consideration of what to do and the implications of each possibility.  He notes that our unconscious quick system transmits basic assumptions to the slow analyzer part of our head without our noticing the transfer.  

Kahneman and Tversky did quite a lot of research on "anchors", usually numbers or representations of quantity that anchor our thinking quickly and subtly.  One example is the auctioneer who starts the bidding at a given number.  "Who will give me $200 for this fine painting?" sets up our thinking based on $200, so that number is the anchor.  I am asking $50 for my hat and I tell you that.  You offer $25 and I accept.  Wow!  You got a $50 hat for half price!  But only because of the anchor I used.  I am happy to sell it for $20.

Kahneman writes:

Anchoring effects explain why, for example, arbitrary rationing is an effective marketing ploy. A few years ago, supermarket shoppers in Sioux City, Iowa, encountered a sales promotion for Campbell's soup at about 10% off the regular price. On some days, a sign on the shelf said limit of 12 per person. On other days, the sign said no limit per person. Shoppers purchased an average of 7 cans when the limit was in force, twice as many as they bought when the limit was removed. Anchoring is not the sole explanation. Rationing also implies that the goods are flying off the shelves, and shoppers should feel some urgency about stocking up. But we also know that the mention of 12 cans as a possible purchase would produce anchoring even if the number were produced by a roulette wheel.

Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 126). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

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

Sunday, November 18, 2012


If I were a frontline warrior, I would be sending dispatches from there.  As it is, I am a backline householder and am reporting from way back in civilian land, away from the dangers.  Here is what I have to report:

Today's Writer's Almanac page includes a good poem by George Bilgere, a poet I like.  You might like him, too.  It also includes a moving statement by Queen Elizabeth the First, made near the end of her 45 year reign.  

The quote from a writer changes each time the page is accessed and I wanted to report the one that came up when I looked at the page:

"Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck."

—Iris Murdoch

I do feel very lucky to have found the wife I have and especially so since yesterday afternoon.  My marriage was not in jeopardy then but a symbol of it, my own wedding ring, had been missing.  I have been wearing that ring for more than 50 years.  (You wouldn't want it since it is misshapen from where I put a blowtorch to it.  About 1963, I had a little accident with mercury and got it all over my ring.  I had heard that mercury is bad for gold and read that I should heat the gold to 475° and the mercury would vaporize.  As I was wondering if the ring had reached that temperature, its side began to melt.)  I definitely felt something was wrong with a bare left ring finger.  I was shocked to find it wasn't on my hand and looked all over trying to figure out what had happened.  I must have taken it off to avoid getting it all gooey and put in on my dresser.  Shutting the sweater drawer, I must have rocked the furniture enough to make it tumble unnoticed into the drawer soundlessly falling onto a sweater.

I get shared jokes, videos and whatnot, some very good and some not.  I realize that as I look at enough stuff, I am going to find that I wish I had a catalog of what I've gotten because sometime I am going to want to find something again.  Often, a collection of slides or pictures or a video is a large file and I delete it to keep my mailbox from getting too big.  This is the latest thing that seemed pretty good.

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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Consciously taking a moment, meditation pays

One of my favorite authors commented on scientific attempts to understand meditation and its effect, saying it is not to be expected that scientists will leave their purely intellectual understanding behind.  Repeated meditation brings the fact that one's thoughts are indeed thoughts to awareness more easily.  Not that they are not of worth, as they often are accurate representations of the world or helpful guides or amusing insights but they do come from the mind and are part of the mind.

Meditation improves awareness of one's emotions as well.  It gives one a little distance from feelings and reactions, providing a chance to choose to harbor feelings or to discard them.  Karen Maezen Miller's "Momma Zen" and "Hand Wash Cold" are excellent guides to using everyday tasks and ordinary feelings such as elation or boredom or worry as opportunities to observe oneself wrestling with the ups and downs of life as well as the ups and downs of one's reactions.  Enough observation and a person can become favorably impressed with the smoothness of one's emotional swells and troughs, seeing a pretty good sailor negotiating the seas.

There may come a moment after a busy day when sitting by yourself and allowing the day and your feelings about it to pass across your mental screen is more enjoyable that a movie or book.

Evidence continues to accumulate that meditative practice assists with many aspects of thought and emotions, as with this article.  I am impressed with aspects of thought and observation that deal with humor, such as this interesting article on what sorts of jokes toddlers make and this writing by the witty and balanced Loretta Laroche.

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

Friday, November 16, 2012

For a better now

When I was a kid and heard about people worshiping a stone statue or a mountain or a river, I felt pity for such misguided ideas.  Then, I paid attention to the first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3), which in my King James version reads,"Thou shalt have no other gods before me".  I wondered what other gods there might be and what if they did not come before?

Fast forward to 1974-1980, the period well past childhood, when I got interested in meditation.  My first exposure was to transcendental meditation.  Then, I read "The Inner Game of Tennis" and saw a connection between action, calmness and thinking.  "Superlearning" intrigued me with both the idea that every movement of my body requires some muscle to relax and stretch as well as others to contract.

I knew that Eastern religious practice focused on meditation but I looked at American sources that told about the actual physical practice and played down religion, worship, and petitionary prayer (asking supernatural powers to intervene in the world for me.)  As the years have gone by, I have followed more and more paths into Buddhism, but never with any religious interest, just psychological and physical.  

"Buddhism or Bust" by Perry Garfinkel reports on current practice in countries where Buddhism is a major religion and it is clear to me that reading what the Buddha is supposed to have said and asking him to protect me in battle are quite different.  Still, Garfinkel's book makes clear that those entering battle anywhere on Earth tend to hope to prevail with serious loss or damage and in some lands and some temples and some villages, the words for Buddha are invoked.  

Jack Kornfield's "Bringing Home the Dharma" explains what it was like to try and export some of the Buddhist ideas and insights into a very different culture with very different ideas and history.  Kornfield is not the only person to try to grow seeds from Buddhism or graft some of the tree of Buddhism into American plants.  Jon Kabat-Zinn seems to have seen likewise what might be of use to Western people, especially those near death and no longer able to profit from medicine.  Daniel Siegel, MD, as well as Goldie Hawn and Susan Greenland Kaiser, and many other teachers and practitioners, have also benefitted from meditational practice without including religious activities or convictions.  Yoga, in several different forms, is also a popular path to quiet and still meditation, often enhanced, by stretching beforehand.

It seems that any idea or practice can get to be too ordinary, too much the same old thing, to matter, to really pay attention to.  Still, sitting still and focusing on a point or one's breath or any religiously significant word or image, repeatedly returning attention to the appointed focus, seems to be a fine way, in ten minutes a day, to improve one's awareness of both where one's attention has been focused and of one's internal feelings and impulses.

Such a practice has certainly not been limited to Eastern religions but it seems that just as attention training, it is inexpensive in all senses, quick and one of the most helpful of all tools a person can use to live in contented harmony with one's body, one's lot in life and other people.

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

Thursday, November 15, 2012

More on friends playing online games

A friend writes from Arizona:

For about three years now, I have been playing cut-throat, serious, online Scrabble every single day with a friend in Boston with whom I first began playing 45 years ago. It is the REAL Scrabble, and you access it on a U.K. site called the Pixie Pit. You have to pay a fee . Our scores are always in the high 300s, frequently reach the 400s, and even occasionally pass 500. If you don't know Scrabble, that would be similar to bowling consistently in the high 200s. I lose at least 2/3rds of the games, because he is a brilliant strategist with an astonishing vocabulary, and we play without dictionaries.

We always have three games going simultaneously, and take at least one turn a day. Sometimes when we both seem to be home and on our computers, we play nearly all day long.

It is a glorious and unexpected way to reconnect with my old friend.

Curiously, about a week-and-a-half ago he stopped playing out of the blue. I knew something was dreadfully wrong. I nearly called the police in his hometown, but my sense was that he was okay, even though he was in jeopardy. It turned out that he had been hospitalized after a massive heart attack, and I knew he was in trouble only by virtue of our Scrabble games.

Ah, this weird but wonderful new electronic world of ours!

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

More on social effects of electronic devices

My friend just got a Kindle Fire.  It seems to be quite sophisticated.  The Fire has a touch screen, which means manipulations can be accomplished with a finger tip and no computer mouse or touch pad is needed.  It is connected to Wi-Fi, which means that the entire internet is at the disposal of the user.  Quite a few small programs are available for the Fire, as is true of the iPhone, iPad and tablets using the Android operating program by Google.

Recently, an alert teacher asked me if I thought these electronic devices were hurting kids who use them.  I had just watched a 12 yr old, a 4, 3 and 2 yr old play with an iPad and a Fire while adult relatives around them watched and got in a few seconds of use, too.  It seemed clear to me that brains and social skills of understanding others and expressing one's ideas and desires were being used well by all concerned.  

On a walk this morning, my friend described his use of online scrabble playing.  It happens that yesterday, Lynn and I got into a conversation with a woman who explained her fun in using the iPad app, "Words with Friends".  She described playing a Scrabble-like game using her iPad and playing with others who were playing too but the group was connected only by use of the internet, not face-to-face.  My friend seemed quite enthused about the game being played between his wife and two married daughters who live 10 miles and 90 miles away.  He had just gotten home and taken a peek at the game in the Fire only to find that other players had made a turn.  He and his wife are clearly engaged with each other and others, known and unknown, playing the game.

Many of the companies who write and sell iPad games for Apple also sell the same game for Kindle Fire and Android tablet.  Just as online students in a class may exchange messages with classmates anywhere in the world, online games may include players from anywhere.  Some online classes, called MOOC's for Massive Online Open Course, may include 20,000 students at once.  I imagine that the various sorts of online games may be similarly large.  I can only guess at what is happening to the old format of chess by mail when it is transformed into a modern computer format.

Physicists and other scientists have a saying that "More is different", meaning that aspects of a chemical or physical phenomena may EMERGE (to use a currently hot word) when the atoms or molecules or other components get sufficiently numerous.  Sometimes, life, for instance, in a town of 3000 is different in fundamental ways from life in a city of 3 million.  Things can happen when the mass gets large enough.  Aspects, or properties, may emerge where they were not, before. 

The man had just returned from an evening with his long-time bridge group and his wife had just returned from a lecture to a packed hall on the speaker's experiences in World War II.  They are not without face-to-face activities, either.  Just wait for 50 years and check how the current crop of 15 year olds is doing socially at age 65.  I am betting they will be fine, even if I am not here to collect.

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

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