habits that stick with us

shopping listI was looking at my shopping list the other day and I thought about how habits we acquired long ago continue to stick with us. In particular, I noticed the cross-hatch on my z’s. I thought about where that habit came from.

It came from seventh grade math. Mrs. Proctor was the teacher. We were doing some basic algebra and so our problems included letters as well as numbers. She asked us to cross-hatch our letter z so as to clearly distinguish it from the number 2. I’ve been doing it ever since.

It’s interesting where we pick up these things.

literary smackdown

There is a column each week in the Sunday New York Times Book Review called “By the Book.” Each week a different author is interviewed with a more or less standard set of questions. Here is an exchange from a recent interview with author Daniel Silva:

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, with William F. Buckley to serve as referee. I think I would set the table with paper plates and plastic utensils to avoid any undue bloodshed.

I posted this to Facebook and commented, “Can we somehow involve Dick Cavett in this as well?” After I wrote this I realized that Cavett had both Mailer and Vidal on his weeknight half hour PBS program in the mid and late 1970s. I don’t recall Buckley ever being on the show, but this was when Buckley was ascendant with his own weekend program in which he engaged in an intellectual smackdown with whomever his guest might be.

In fact, if I recall correctly, Cavett once had Mailer and Vidal together on the same episode, and there was something of a smackdown on that show.

There was some marvelous television in the 1970’s.

my Steve Allen encounter

You no doubt remember the great comedian Steve Allen. He was brilliant and I miss him. Terry and I had the opportunity see him when we were living in Mountain View and he was at the comedy club in next-door Sunnyvale. It was a small, intimate space, which was nice.

Steve AllenSteve was a master of improv, and he engaged the audience. In that show he took questions from the audience. After getting the first question he said, “And what do you do for a living, sir?” The audience member said, “I’m a technical writer.” Given that I was a technical writer in those days as well, I applauded. Steve looked over in my direction. The stage lights were on and the house lights were off, so he couldn’t see me. But he looked over in my direction and said, “Why would someone applaud at the mere mention of the words ‘technical writer?'”

The Steve made phrase “mere mention” a thread throughout the rest of the show. So I was a contributor to that night’s performance.

That’s my Steve Allen encounter.

photo credit: Alan Light. cropped. Creative Commons License.

a distraction

Earlier this summer I was watching a baseball game. I don’t remember who the teams were. They weren’t either of my local teams. The game was not terribly exciting and I noticed two attractive young women sitting behind home plate. They were just two or three rows back. These were certainly ultra-expensive seats – the ones where servers come and take your order for gourmet snacks.

baseballIn any case, these two women where talking to each other and seemingly not paying attention to the game at all. I could only see them when a left-handed batter was at the plate, but I became fascinated. When one of the women left her seat for a while, the other woman seemed to be looking at her smart phone rather than watching the game. When the first woman returned they resumed their conversation.

Obviously these ladies were not baseball fans. I am guessing that their tickets must have been gifts from a season ticket holder who couldn’t make that particular game.

They were definitely a distraction from the game, but an interesting insight into human nature.

Pat Summitt

Terry and I were saddened by the passing of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt last week. The Monday newspaper said that she was declining rapidly and family members and former players were arriving to be close to her. On Tuesday the news spread rapidly online of her death that morning.

PatSummittThe two of us loved watching her on television during the women’s NCAA Tournament. She was an intense and energetic coach, beloved by her players. She had the best winning record in all of Division 1 college basketball – men or women.

It was hard for both of us to learn that she retired from her position after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The morning of her death the doctor guy on the local morning news was talking about how a study said that extensive brain training exercises could help stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s in its early stages. But who used their brain more than Pat? Her career was all about using her brain all the time.

And you know what else? Pat was only a year older than Terry and me. Sobering.

Life is fragile. Embrace it while you can.

the value of a college education

Recently my friend Jane Redmont shared an article on Facebook criticizing something called “learning outcomes.” Jane commented that the idea of learning outcomes has only been “a thing” for the past decade or so. Her post certainly put a bee under the bonnets of a few of her academic friends, one of whom commented that learning outcomes started showing up on accreditation standards in about 2000. In general, the article seemed to me to be filled with a lot of academic jargon, but one statement stood out: “All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives.”

I replied to Jane that I was glad that I was in college long before learning outcomes existed. I pointed out, however, that there was a truism we loved to repeat when I was in college in the early 1970’s:

quoteThe lecture system is a means of transferring information from the professor’s notebook to the student’s notebook while bypassing the brains of both.

I certainly had my share of lecture-based courses during my four years at Pitzer College in PitzerftnsmClaremont. Nonetheless, my college education was successful in that I do still “love to think and never stop thinking.”

I do get tired of Pitzer constantly asking me for money while having an essentially non-existent alumni career development and networking program at a time when my own career is in need of a reboot.

Even so, my time at Pitzer has meant a lot to me, and for the fact that I continue to think, read, and learn I am still grateful after 40 years.

thoughts on cosmology

I try hard to keep this straight in my mind: what is the difference between dark matter and dark energy?

If I have paid proper attention to public radio’s Science Friday, I think I have a handle on this. Dark matter accounts for the missing matter of the universe, based on astronomers’ calculations. Dark energy accounts for the expansion of the universe.

In her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs (review coming when I’ve finished it) author Lisa Randall points out that dark energy is uniform throughout the universe, but dark matter is lumpy, existing in different consistencies in different places.

There was a time when cosmologists thought that the expanding universe would snap back and create in essence a new Big Bang. Very consistent with Hindu cosmology.

More recent thinking, as I understand it, says that there is not enough energy to do that. Rather, the universe will keep expanding until it cools off into nothingness. “Not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Depressing, except for the fact that we won’t be around to see which theory is correct.

And in any case, we have more pressing matters to address here and now. While the drought is perhaps abating in the northern part of California, it is still an unpleasant reality here in the Southland.

Then there’s that presidential election of 2016.

Waiting, Linda Ellerbee, for you to say, “And so it goes.”