Monday, May 26, 2014

An Unwanted Feature Can Be a Drawback

A few months ago, we traded in our electric clothes dryer for a gas model, to save money. A "feature" of this particular dryer is that if you don't take the clothes out at the end of the cycle, every few minutes the dryer rotates the clothes a bit (ostensibly to prevent wrinkling) and then sounds the "laundry's done" buzzer again. Now, that might be a great feature for many people, but for us, when we do a load of laundry at bedtime, the rotation and buzzer every few minutes is annoying. True, the buzzer can be turned off, but the rotation cannot, and our dryer is only feet from the master bedroom. So we still hear the rotation noise.

Another example of this "unwanted feature is a drawback" is the LED flashlight that I acquired recently. Push the button once and you get the full light. Push it again and you get a dim light (to allow the batteries to last a longer time?). Push once again and the light goes off. This feature is a drawback for two reasons. For those who expect simple on-off operation, requiring two clicks from on to off won't happen. (A friend clicked the light from on to dim and put it back into the glove compartment.) Second, it's just a tiny irritation to need to click, click to off, especially with the button on the base of the flashlight.

So think before you chase after all the features you can get on some new gizmo. You might be chasing a hassle.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Our Choices Are Determined by Our Options

Suppose that, after a sumptuous meal at some friends' house, you are offered a choice of chocolate or vanilla ice cream for dessert.  You choose from the alternatives available to you. However, the person sitting next to you asks the host, "Are there any other alternatives, such a coffee-flavored ice cream, a pie, or  fruit dish?" The host says Yes and the other guest orders. Now, since these are three of your favorite desserts, you are disappointed with your choice.

Problem 1 with choice selection: Failure of Imagination. Insufficient recognizing of alternative options. (Rush to make a decision and get it over with.) If only you had known or asked about additional alternatives, you could have made a more satisfactory decision.

On the television show, Naked and Afraid, the two contestants  are allowed to take one item with them to help them survive in the jungle. In the past, contestants have chosen to take a pot, swimming goggles, or a flint-and-steel fire starter.

Now, everyone knows that the two most crucial things to have in a wild jungle of a forest are water and fire. Next would be a tool for digging, and a tool for chopping and a tool for sawing. So which two to pick?

The failure of imagination here occurs when the so-called survivalist candidate in the contest chooses a knife, sometimes a rather small, folding knife. And his partner, who might not choose a pot, instead selects a flint-and-steel fire starter. But to take the second case first, why a flint and steel? Why not just take a butane fireplace match? You can get hundreds of quick, long-lasting lights with it. And remember that the survival challenge is for 21 days, not the rest of your life.

Then to the knife. There is an abundant choice of survival knives available, many of them large enough to work as digging tools. Some have serrations on the top of the blade, making them useful as saws. And some have survival kits in the handle, including compass, matches, fish hook, fishing line, and so on. A few come with blade sharpeners. So one tool can cut, chop, dig, saw, produce fire, show compass directions, fish and do whatever else your imagination can discover.

Once again, we make our choices from the options we believe are available to us. To make better choices, identify more options. (It is said that people who kill themselves believe they have run out of other options.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Go to the Ant, You Sluggard

Scripture tells us, "Go to the ant, O sluggard, observe her ways and be wise, which, having no chief, officer or ruler, prepares her food in the summer and gathers her provision in the harvest.  --Proverbs 6:6-8 So the ant's industriousness is recommended to us as a model.

But are there other characteristics of the ant that we might emulate? Here are some thoughts.

1. Ants are opportunists. They roam around looking for a tidbit of something sweet or greasy, and when they find it, they descend on it full tribe, like a locust attack. They don't bypass opportunity. They seize it.

2. Ants are proactive. They manage to seize opportunity because they send scouts out to roam all over the ant domain, looking for any chance encounter with food. They know that you cannot seize an opportunity you don't know about.

3. Ants are team players. If you watch ants, some are communicating with other ants, some are keeping the ant highway systems open with chemical trails, some are managing security (as when the soldier ants come out). As team players, ants are always ready to take one for the team.

4. Ants share everything: Food, shelter, trails, even ant poison, unknowingly. They have huge air conditioned spaces for the young and take care of huge quantities of eggs by assignment.

5. Ants are committed to maintaining the roads scholarship and some of the money must come from this fund. So, when you see these scouts or an entire colony on the move. They know, for example, that storm drains are useful, even though it's not raining right now.

6. Ants are resilient. They bounce back from tragedy with an eagerness to go on again. Think of those tens of thousands of ants you kill with your bug spray can, only to find next day thousands more, each with the same purposefulness and opportunism.

7. Ants persevere. Ever tried to wipe the ants out, to prevent them from coming back? But as long as  you leave the sugar or fat item out, they will soon be on it in huge numbers again and again and again. Ants don't know the meaning of the word surrender.

8. Ants recycle. Ever spray a stream of ant killer, and wipe out a few thousand ants? Then  you came back later only to discover that all the ant bodies were gone. Yes, the ants cleaned them up, took them away so they could recycle their juices. Look for a pile of shriveled up ant bodies near the backdoor.

These, I think, are the cultural strengths and weaknesses of modern societies populated by humans. Maybe we should go to the antlll

Saturday, May 10, 2014

It's About Sex

One of the unfortunate things about our cultural obsession with sex is that we've invented too many euphemisms, innuendos, and synonyms for matters sexual. As a result, you can be chatting along and suddenly find yourself betrayed into an unintended sexual reference. Here are just a few off-the-cuff examples that come to mind.

"Yeah, our camping experience was a great time for bonding. We ate together, worked together, fished together, told stories together, slept together--" Ooops, Didn't mean that. And what a dumb euphemism, since sleeping is the furthest thing from two people's minds when they are, um, well, "having relations."

That brings up a problem with the English language. We have only one non-slang, transitive, active verb for having sex, and that's the popular four-letter one that is considered crude and formerly taboo in company. There was a socially acceptable transitive verb arising from middle English, swive, but it has long been obsolete.

And we lose perfectly good words to sexual meanings. "We have an intimate relationship," used to mean you were very close. Now, people assume you mean you're skin diving. And take the word "intercourse," which means "communication." You can read nineteenth-century novels and find statements such as, "I learned little about the forest from my daily intercourse with Jane," and you might think you're not reading a G-rated novel after all. But the damage to the word is the result of laziness. The expression, "sexual intercourse" (sexual communication = having sex) was truncated to just "intercourse" and a very useful word was lost to us forever, except as a sort of euphemism.

Another interesting betrayal of language occurred in radio advertising. A Los Angeles car dealer's ads touted the low prices of the cars, and finished each ad with the promise of a great deal, concluding with "And remember, Nick can't say no." Then, Nick decided to let his daughter do some of the spots, so the ads concluded with, "And remember, Elizabeth can't say no." It wasn't but a month or two before the dealer realized that when it's said that a woman "can't say no," it means that she is, um, promiscuous.

Now there is another word, just like "intercourse," that we have lost to sex. The actual meaning of "promiscuous" is "not discriminating" or "not choosy," "indiscriminate." But now it just means slutty.

Another problem is male-to-female talk, where an expression that would be clearly understood in a male-to-male interaction would be taken as an obscene comment when coming from a male to a female. This almost happened to me once when I was getting parts to install a new water heater. I was at Home Depot looking for the short pieces of pipe that connect an iron water heater tank to the copper plumbing. There was a young woman working in plumbing. I just caught myself before I asked her, "Do you have dielectric nipples?"

I recall a British actress in the US for a talk show appearance, who reported that the concierge acted oddly when she asked him, "Can you knock me up at seven tomorrow?" The expression in England is a request for a wake-up call (or knock on the door).

I thought about listing a few of the slang uses of formerly perfectly good words that we have lost to sexual references, but for the sake of good taste, I will refrain. Too bad we can't just invent new words and keep the good old ones for their innocent uses.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Global Warming Questions

A major problem with the news media is that complex issues get compressed into little sound bites and short presentations, often framed in a script that the journalistic community has adopted. (Compare the use of the term "black boxes" for the orange data and voice recorders on commercial aircraft, or the term "Richter scale" in the discussion of earthquakes--a scale not used since the 70s or so.)

When there is a multiple shooting somewhere, the media dusts off its gun control script. Not too long ago there was a mass stabbing, but the media, having no "knife-control script," couldn't advocate tighter laws for knife ownership.

To the point:
Discussion of global warming or its much more vague but newly popular alternate concept, climate change seems too often to conflate, bypass, and ignore a number of questions relevant to the discussion. Here, then, are just a few:

1. Is global warming occurring? That is, Is the climate getting hotter?
2. If the answer to 1 is Yes, then what is the base measurement? In other words, if the earth is getting warmer, since when? Since 2000? (It seems that global temps haven't changed since then.) Since 1950? Since 1850? Since 1500? Since 1000?
3. If the earth has warmed since the named baseline, is that an absolute rise or a rise on a larger cyclical pattern or rising and falling global temperatures? Do the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age suggest a cyclical pattern?
4. How can we know whether the earth is warming or not? This is a question about measurement reliability.

  • How reliable are old data, such as the temperatures recorded a hundred, two hundred or more years ago?
  • How reliable are new data? Was a parking lot installed around a measuring station that used to be surrounded by grass or trees?
  • How representative are the data? Inductive leaps can be problematic.
5. If global warming is occurring indeed, is that bad? During the age of the dinosaurs, the planet must have been pretty lush to leave behind enough plant matter to give us all the oil we now have. And anyone who has raised vegetables or fruit in a hot house knows what huge and delicious produce results.
6. How can we know if global warming will, on balance, be a negative? Sea levels could rise, but starvation might be almost eliminated because of a crop-friendly atmosphere.
7. If global warming is occurring and it is bad, what is causing it? It's popular to throw a dart at human activity such as burning fossil fuels, but is that really the cause? Sunspot activity has also been proposed. Is there a suite of causes and not just one?
8. If global warming is occurring and it's bad and humans are causing it, what can be done to ameliorate it? It's interesting here that some solutions are more popular among the chattering classes than others. Solar power? Got it!, Nuclear power? Not so much. Wind power? Yay. (But those wind generators slice and dice endangered bird species. Guess you have to choose your eco-priorities.)
9. If you have developed a list of what can be done, then what should be done? Who's going to pay for it? Why them? 
10. What if nations don't cooperate? Third world nations just now ramping up their energy needs and production are unlikely to shut down their power plants.

Whatever your position on global warming or climate change, I think it will be helpful to consider some of these questions as entry points for fresh thinking and analysis.

I Disagree, But Don't Hate On Me

Why do some people get so upset when you disagree with them?

Blaise Pascal references a question by Epictetus: "Why are we not angry if someone says that we have a headache and are angry if someone says that we are arguing badly or making a bad choice?" Pascal's answer is that we are certain that we don't have a headache, but we're not sure that we aren't arguing badly or making a bad choice. Indeed, it seems that the more some people fear that they might be wrong, the angrier they are.

It's been noted that disagreement and argument, rather than bringing about compromise or a search for common ground, actually polarizes the contestants further, making them argue in even more extreme terms.

To return to our initial question: Why do some people get angry when they face opposition or challenge to their assertions? Here are some possible reasons.

1. They are upset by what they view as error.  Having perhaps arrived at their stated conclusion only after long and hard thought, or having adopted a position that seems to be the only one that corresponds to their other, deepest beliefs, to hear someone contradict them is a source of frustration, as if they are afraid that the long set of reasons and arguments must be revisited, to their distress.

People who invoke ideas such as "settled science" or "historical fact" are sometimes hoping to quash a rehash of what they consider long concluded arguments.

2. The introduction of a contrary fact or claim upsets some people because they believe it will result in confusion that would require a long discussion to clarify. Speakers (professors, presenters, etc.) who are attempting to present the basic ideas or arguments about a topic sometimes react with heat when one of their hearers raises a conflicting idea or an idea that shows the speaker's thesis to be oversimplified.

3. The disagreement is a misunderstanding, which, to the angry presenter's mind, shows a lack of understanding, knowledge, or expertise on the part of the objector. For example:
Presenter: "The circumstantial evidence convincingly points to the guilt of Frimpson."
Objector: "But Frimpson passed a lie detector test.  He said he didn't do it and he passed the test. He therefore wasn't lying. He was telling the truth."

Here, the presenter gets upset because he perhaps was lecturing to an audience he assumed knew that passing a lie detector test is not an absolute guarantee of truthfulness. He is frustrated with the objector because a lengthy explanation would derail the presentation.

4. For people who are advancing a point close to their strongly held ideological framework, anyone who disagrees with their position is not just wrong, but is evil. This is especially true of leftists, who see many political, social, and economic ideas in moral terms of good (their position) versus evil (their opponents' position).

All of these reasons should be considered in light of Pascal's Headache. Is the degree of anger commensurate with their degree of self doubt?

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

You Can't Go Home Again

I had not eaten a Hostess Twinkie in at least 20 years. But recently, on an impulse, I bought a box, just to see what they tasted like, and to see how familiar they would be. In spite of intervening years and the change in ownership of the Hostess Bakeries, were they the same, familiar treat of my  youth?

No. The Twinkies in the box of 10 seemed smaller and more carelessly made than the Twinkies of my childhood. They didn't taste the same, and even the texture seemed less fluffy. The cake was more dense than I remembered.

Now, it has often been remarked that things we revisit after many years of absence seem smaller than we remember simply because we were smaller as children and now that we are grown, the house or uncle Fred seem to have shrunk by comparison.

Similarly, as kids, our taste buds were working much better than they do today, as we enter or near our retirement years.

The counterargument, though, is that while brand names are created to provide a familiar, dependable, known-quantity product, behind the scenes is a lot more variability that many consumers understand. For example, I once looked up the formula for a very popular, national brand of laundry detergent. (This was in a poison-control book to aid doctors when a kid had eaten a mouthful or two.) The formula was like this:

"Depending on region, ingredient cost, and availability, X laundry detergent contains:

  • [Name of one ingredient] 15% - 30%
  • [Name of another ingredient] 20%-45%
  • [Name of another ingredient] 8%-12%
  • [Name of another ingredient] 13%-28%"
In other words, the next time you buy a box of the same detergent, you might not be buying a box of the same detergent.

Another issue is the brand name itself. Remember Polaroid? Established brand, good reputation, trusted, etc. But the Polaroid camera and film company went bankrupt. But the Polaroid name was licensed to various manufacturers, resulting in Polaroid-branded batteries, light bulbs, DVD players, and so on. 

Similarly, Ipana toothpaste was a popular brand in the 1960s, but lost market share and was stopped in the 1970s. Then a few years ago, the brand name was licensed by another company and Ipana came back on the market. But was it the same toothpaste or a modern formulation?

Also similarly, Emerson radio ceased manufacture of DVD players, TVs, and so on, but licensed its brand name to Funai.

Finally, many manufacturers have their products designed and actually made by third parties or operate plants in foreign countries. Check the labels: That quintessential Japanese manufacturer, Sony, now markets products made in China.

So are Twinkies really different, or am I just different? Food for thought; something to chew on.


Saturday, May 03, 2014

Tell Me What to Do Before What Not to Do

I just became the happy owner of a Coleman CT-70F LED flashlight. Flashlights have changed in recent years with the advent of LED technology. Instead of the two-D-cell flashlights that throw a whole 9 lumens into the dark, it is now possible to shine 50, 100, and even 1000 lumens into the night. The Coleman CT-70F (available at Walmart) is rated at 700 lumens.. However, apparently there can be problems with the LED if the voltage is sent through backwards.

The package says in a prominent, upper right corner, "Warning: Do Not Install Batteries Backwards." In the "Important Safety Instructions" inside the package, we read, "Warning: . . . 1. Do not install the batteries backwards. Follow the + and - symbols as shown in the instructions. . . . Save these instructions." Now, unless there is another instruction sheet missing from my package, there is no other set of instructions about battery installation.

So, I figure that maybe there are markings on the flashlight itself. I look all over inside the cap and on the inside back, but can't see any. Then, as a last effort, I shine another LED flashlight (a Rayovac that puts out 120 lumens) into the battery chambers of the Coleman, and Lo and Behold, there are some tiny + and - diagrams inside each tube.

This is a long winded way of saying that it would be far better to put on the package and on the instruction sheet, "Be sure to install all the batteries with the + end toward the front of the flashlight."

The point then is, instead or scaring people by warning them about the (unspecified) dire consequences of doing something incorrectly, just tell them that it's important to do the task correctly--and tell them what that means.

Coleman CT-70F LED Flashlight Review.

In the event you are interested in owning a high-output LED flashlight, I can recommend the Coleman CT-70F. Camping or even outside in the dark, or in your basement, you'll instantly exclaim, "Now THAT is what I call a flashlight!" the moment you turn it on.

With the six AA alkaline batteries installed, the CT-70F has a reasonable heft, weighing in at 15.8 ounces (just under a pound). The aluminum body gives you a feeling of quality and solidity. Length is about 9.25 inches. (As a comparison, my plastic, 2 D-cell no name flashlight weighs 13.1 ounces. My old technology, 3 D-cell aluminum Mag-Lite weighs almost two pounds--1 lb 15 oz--and puts out what some say is 37 lumens.)

Unlike some multifunction flashlights that require you to cycle through all the functions until you reach the one you want, the CT-70F has a smart switch. Click and you get the full on, night-piercing blast of light. Click and it's off. Click and hold and the light goes from bright to dim--just like a dimmer switch. Double click and you get a 700 lumen strobe light. The adjustable bezel (just twist) allows you to select a light throw anywhere from narrow spot to wide flood.

I realize that it's a total cliche to say, "Makes a great gift," but I think any man would be overjoyed to have this flashlight. It may be that not many non-camping men would indulge themselves with a $40 flashlight (it took a somewhat dicey nighttime driving experience through a very dark, iffy neighborhood, unable to read street signs until too late, turning around on a dead-end street amid barking dogs and angry residents, for me to make the final decision).  So, if you want a manly gift idea, here it is.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Drive By Learning

For a number of years now, pundits have remarked on the diminishing attention span of our culture, driven, it is averred, by the visual media: TV, film, MTV, TV commercials, TV news with its terse news bites, and so on. Now, however, some are also thinking about a diminishment in our ability to think long or deeply about anything.

Writers like Nicholas Carr, whose article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" suggests this phenomenon with concern, and David Weinberger, whose book, Too Big to Know, suggests that long, deep thinking provided by reading a book is pretty much a historical artifact, made me think that learning itself (such as the university experience) is tracking along these lines.

We used to be able to sit down with a lengthy book and read it carefully and thoughtfully. That last sentence probably lets you know how old I am, for many of today's college students won't know what I'm talking about. And that's the problem. Now, and this is true of me, too, if we attempt to engage a lengthy book or argument, a little voice (or at least, a sense of urgency) starts to irritate us with, "There are many other things to do today. You don't have time for this. Hurry and get the gist. Skim. Glance. Skip. Skirt. Read the summary."

The fact that we can surf from one place on the Web to another in just the blink of an eye (or if you have a crummy Internet connection, in just minutes), turns us into information channel-surfers. Get an answer fast and move on. But this is not good.

If we become mere information skimmers, knowledge hoppers, data browsers, staccato thinkers, unable to read, understand, and process an extended argument, we are likely to be much more open to the information confidence men and women, who know very well how to select details, slant the facts, omit what works against them and double up on what suits their case. We will be much, much more vulnerable to emotional appeals because the emotions can be engaged quickly and with fewer words that are required to engage the brain deeply

And consider:

  • Catching the gist of an idea is not the same as understanding it.
  • Skimmers of gist are able to pay attention only to denotation--the obvious meaning of the words used. But those who create the message are able to exploit connotation--the emotional and sometimes judgmental meaning of words, thus manipulating the reader unaware.
  • Deep thinking requires deep reading.
  • Good decision making must be thoughtful and circumspect, and that cannot be accomplished by soda straw quick sipping off the Web.