Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Conversation With Margy

I know that some of you have heard this story before, but it illustrates a point that I hope to remember when my time comes: Sometimes people who are at death’s door need permission to give up and pass peacefully. This is one such true story.

On Monday afternoon, August 21, 2006, I played bridge at Luther Acres. Since my mother-in-law, Margy Dissinger was a resident in the extended care unit, I decided to stop in and visit her for a few minutes after the game.
She was not in very good shape. She was alternating between gasping for breath for 15 seconds, and not breathing at all for as long as a full minute. Her eyes were partly closed, and since she was heavily medicated, I am not sure if she even knew I was there. But I decided to hold her hand and have a conversation, one-sided I’ll admit, with her.
I told her that I had just come from playing bridge, and if she had been there, she could have beaten me just like everybody else did. (I had been playing for about a year, and when she was able to play, we had a friendly competition going for bragging rights).
We mentioned that in 1976, Margy, Raym, Patty, Barbara and I visited Williamsburg, Virginia. Raym was wearing shorts, and we were refused admission to one of the fancy restaurants. Patty said he looked like a tourist, to which he replied, “Well, I am.”
We finally found a place which appeared to be a converted warehouse. The cooking was done behind a curtain, but it was delicious. They were the first, and the best, steamed clams I have ever eaten. Over the years we have talked several times about the place where they cooked behind the curtain.
While Barbara and I were living in California, she visited us several times. One time we took Aunt Esther and her to Yosemite, where my son and his family met us. My granddaughter was about seven at the time, and the little girl decided to take the ladies on a walking tour. She guided them to one of the waterfalls, cautioning them to “Be careful, ladies, these rocks are slippery.” I think the ladies enjoyed the little girl and her tour more than the awesome scenery.
Another time in California we took Margy to visit Hearst’s Castle, with its many rooms and guest houses. It includes a movie theater, and an indoor swimming pool finished in tiny azure tiles held in place by gold cement. We all thought it was beautiful.
Then we talked about our visit to Hawaii; on one island we walked a short distance through the jungle to the Fern Grotto, where the natives and non-natives go to get married. We passed the place where Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii was filmed.
In Alaska the two of us bundled up in warm clothing, raincoats and fur-lined boots, and took a helicopter ride to the Mendenhall Glacier, where we spent an hour looking at the ice worms and other features which the guides pointed out to us.
Later on that same cruise we flew in a small plane, (four occupants, including the pilot) into the back country, where we landed on a beautiful lake. It was so calm, and the water was so blue, the snow-capped hills so green, that it seemed as if we were the only people in the world. And according to the pilot we probably were the only people within ninety miles. We flew so low that it seemed as if we could reach out and grab the bushes on the hills.
We remembered our cruise to the Caribbean, and the helicopter ride we took over the Virgin Islands. It was hard to believe how blue the water was, how green the forests were and how sandy white the beaches were.
Then we talked about her long life, and how she had spent over forty years with a good man. Together they raised really good kids, and they are happy and doing well in their separate lives.
Finally I reminded her that Jesus had gone to prepare a place for her in God’s home. I told her that if she wanted to go there, we would be sad for a while, but happy for her, and that it was OK to go. We would understand.
Finally I had to leave, and I told her that I would be back, but if she decided not to wait for me, it was OK.
She died 30 minutes later.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Moral Dilemma

“Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?" is the modern version of the so-called Euthyphro dilemma posed by Socrates. If God commands what is moral because it is moral per se, then God is merely a mouthpiece passing on to us what we could find out for ourselves. Conversely, if something is moral because God commands it, then he could make anything – rape, murder, incest, etc. – moral and we would be obliged to obey Him regardless of how heinous His command is.
As is usual for such a dilemma, philosophers and theologians have argued this proposition ever since Socrates voiced it, and as is also usual, both sides are partially correct. Let’s examine the record.
First we need to come up with a working definition of “moral.” I propose the following as a starting point: Morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal. So if God commands any item to be moral, it is moral per se if it fits into our definition of morality even before God makes it a commandment.
Let us see how God’s Ten Commands fit into our definition. Assuming that there are many rational people in the world other than Jews or Christians, the first four:

1.) Thou shalt have no other gods before me ( Exodus 20:3),
2.) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” ( Exodus 20:4),
3.) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” ( Exodus 20:7),
4.) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” ( Exodus 20:8),

would not fit before God made them into commandments. As for the rest:

5.) Honour thy father and thy mother” ( Exodus 20:12),
6.) Thou shalt not kill” ( Exodus 20:13),
7.) Thou shalt not commit adultery” ( Exodus 20:14),
8.) Thou shalt not steal” ( Exodus 20:15),
9.) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” ( Exodus 20:16),
10.) Thou shalt not covet” ( Exodus 20:17).

they are probably acceptable to most rational persons everywhere, with or without God’s intervention. (I am not sure most teenagers would agree to number 5.)
In addition, God issued 600+ other commandments, and we do not have to look very far to find some that do not fit into our working system:

1. ) … none of your descendants … who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles … may come near to offer the food of his God. [Lev. 21:17-20]
2.) When a man sells his daughter as a slave…[Exodus 21.7]
3. ) As for the male and female slaves whom you may have…[Lev. 25:44]
4.) …anything in the seas…that does not have fins and scales…they are detestable to you.[Lev. 11:10]

It appears that the Euthyphro dilemma consists not of widely spaced horns, but is instead a continuum running from moral per se to moral per fiat. Thus there are opportunities for humankind to use its God given intellect. Although different systems of morality may agree to a large extent in their moral per se constituents, they differ substantially in there per fiat constituents. That makes them neither equal nor relative; but it surely makes them combative

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Is Anyone Out There?

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) began two years after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. Two physicists published a paper detailing the ease of sending certain radio waves to the stars. Since that time numerous organizations around the world have launched SETI projects. The object, of course, is to find signals that have some characteristic that indicates they were produced by intelligent life. (An example would be a repeated transmission of the value of pi.) SETI organizations are searching for some indication that we are not alone in the universe – that someone else is out there.
I, too would like to know if someone out there in cyberspace is reading my blog. I have received comments from three people, all members of the same family, indicating that they are checking my writings. But if you read my blog, and have not commented on anything, I would like to hear from you. Here are a few possible comments you could make:

1.)    I find your blog very helpful. Whenever I can’t sleep, I log on and read your message for the day. After five minutes I can barely stay awake long enough to get back to bed.
2.)    I read your blog every day. I find your comments so laughable that I keep smiling for the rest of the day. I understand there is some talk about having me committed.
3.)    I read your blog every day. I find your comments so stupid that I am grouchy for the rest of the day. As a result I am in line for a promotion. I am a collection agent for the IRS.
4.)    You are not alone. While I don’t agree with everything you say, I enjoy getting a different viewpoint.
5.)    Make up your own.

Please click on the “comment” button at the bottom of each day’s blog, and follow the instructions. Just write Comment 1, Comment 2, etc. and continue to the end. You can either sign your name, sign a fictitious name, or remain anonymous.
Don’t be bashful.
By the way, if you want to argue about anything I write, great – I’m all for it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

TV Jobs I Would Not Want

There are some high profile jobs on TV that, for one reason or another, I would not want. For example:

Anchorperson – It looks easy to sit there and read whatever comes up on the teleprompter, but to do so with a straight face would be difficult for me. For one thing, the writing is usually not very good. I have written elsewhere about the use of “troop” to mean one person; it actually means a whole bunch of troopers, soldiers, whatever. Other questionable writing is also commonplace. (See my blog for September 14.) I would probably have to sigh while shaking my head. Not good PR.
I also have a hard time keeping my expressions to myself when I don’t particularly care for a situation. For example, when I am in a restaurant, and hear someone order a steak well done, I reflexively cringe. One might as well eat shoe leather. If I were reading about, say, a political speech, I would also probably cringe. Some things are just hard for me to swallow.
Plus the anchorperson is expected to make small talk with someone he or she may not know very well, or perhaps may not even like. I have trouble just engaging in small talk with a friend – I would be tongue-tied with a mere acquaintance.

Weatherman – In addition to all the disadvantages that come with the anchorperson’s job, the weatherman must keep his composure even though he knows full well that the “information” he is spewing is worthless. And yet he has to spout it day after day with a straight face. In addition, he has to have some knowledge of geography, not only of his immediate area, but of the whole country. “There is a storm front making its way through Oklahoma.” First of all, I don’t care – it will probably veer off to Georgia or some other foreign place. This is way over the head of someone who doesn’t even know where Brownstown is, although I think it’s nearby.
Possibly I could pull off this part of the job because most of the audience doesn’t know much about geography either. I don’t think they teach it in school anymore, because by the time the students learn where Burma is, it has become Myanmar.

Team sportscaster – I could do this job under three conditions:
1.) My team is on a winning streak. It must be terribly difficult to hype a losing team, and do it every day with real (read “sham”) enthusiasm. And my team is usually losing.
2.) I would be allowed to shut up when nothing is happening on the field. The best sportscaster I ever heard is Vin Scully, and the second best was the late Don Drysdale. Both learned to be quiet when they had nothing to say, but that seems to be a difficult lesson for the contemporary sportscasters to master, particularly those in Philadelphia.
3.) I would not have to put up with network sportscasters, who blow into town the night before a nationwide broadcast and pretend they know everything about the team, the city, and everything else. All they really know they get from stat books provided by the participating teams.

Of course, I reserve the right to change my opinion of any of these positions if the paycheck is right.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Happy Cows

While it may be true that happy cows come from California, I recently saw 1,500 happy-looking cows without leaving Lancaster County. I was very favorably impressed at the effort that goes into making life easy for these animals. All they need to do is eat, sleep and produce milk – an average of  75 pounds every day. There were also 750 heifers on the farm, thus assuring a continuing supply of product as the producing cows dry up.
This particular farm raises all their own feed, with the exception of soy beans, on 3,500 acres. After the harvest, the hay, corn, etc. is accumulated in huge piles, covered with a layer of plastic, and then a layer of old tires. I had often driven by the farm and wondered why they were collecting all those tires.
In addition to structures for producing cows, there are separate structures for cows in their last two months of pregnancy, sick cows, cows which have recently given birth – you name it.
At feeding time a huge machine is driven down the center of the building to dump food within reach of the cows lined up along the sides of the wide central aisle.
But the most interesting sight of all is from the platform overlooking the huge carrousel which carries the cows at milking time. When I lived on the farm, we had one cow to be milked; the sight of 54 cows being simultaneously milked will stay with me for a long time. The wannabe standup comedian who served as our guide told us that the hardest job in the place is teaching the cows to jump up unto the moving equipment. Actually, they enter from a passage which is wide enough for only one cow at a time.
Each cow wears an ID chip like a wrist watch on its left front leg. Sensors record how much milk is produced, how active the wearer is, and all sorts of other information which the herdsman uses to monitor the physical condition of the cow. Because one cow’s illness could lead to the destruction of the entire herd, meticulous records are kept.
Milking is done three times a day. It takes eight minutes for the carrousel to make one revolution, but the actual milking takes about four minutes. The rest of the time is spent cleaning the cow’s teats with iodine, attaching the hoses, removing the hoses, and giving the teats a final coat of iodine to prevent infection.
As the cows step off the carrousel, a rotating brush is supposed to give each one a “back rub;” sort of a reward for a job well done. At the time we were there, the brush was not working, and some of the cows stood there waiting for their rubdown until pushed away by the following cow. Most of them moved on with what I can only describe as a look of bovine disappointment.
As the milk moves from the milking machines, it is first cooled, and then pumped into huge enclosed tanks. The milk from each shift goes into a separate tank, and after it is removed for further processing, the tank, and all other equipment, is thoroughly cleaned before the next shift.
From the time it leaves the cow until it arrives at the grocery store, the milk is never touched by human hands. An added plus is that a kosher inspector is on site to make sure that the stringent kosher rules are followed.
It is not an overstatement to say that “Cleanliness is next to godliness” is the unspoken motto of the place. After seeing the way things are done, I have no hesitation about using any modern dairy product.
 And regardless of what the guide said, I really doubt that cows that give 1% milk, 2% milk, etc are kept separate from each other, nor do I believe that black cows give chocolate milk. They don’t, do they?

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Shortly after we moved back to Pennsylvania from California, I received a call from a friend with whom I had not had contact for almost 65 years. When I started school in a two-room schoolhouse, he was in second grade. Over the next six years we got to know each other pretty well, and became good friends.
I moved to a different school when I entered 7th grade, but again we came in contact when I entered high school. I played saxophone and he played tuba in the high school band. When he graduated in 1945 we went our separate ways, and soon lost track of each other. He became a teacher and I became an accountant.
After he retired he regularly played bridge with my mother-in-law at Luther Acres, the retirement community where they both resided. It was through her that he found out I was back in the area.
After his call Barbara and I began going to places of local interest with him and his wife. Although we didn’t all have the same interests, we meshed very well. The point is that even after all those years the old friendship was quickly rekindled.
Since we have been at Luther Acres, we have met many other folks who have become friends – probably more than we have ever had before, at least at the same time. I recently read somewhere that people change “best” friends every seven years on average. That may be true, but people here just naturally want to be close, and it’s a wonderful feeling; hopefully that feeling will last more than seven years. I think that as friendships get longer, they also get stronger.
Good friendships don’t die easily, and they are one of the most valuable things one can have.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Nothing Comes From Nothing

In the 1980s I worked for a company which manufactured business forms, including form letters for mass mailings. One of our customers was a faith healer by the name of Peter Popoff, who claimed to receive messages directly from God himself.
Peter’s shtick was to set up highly publicized public healing services in large cities. At these performances he would call out members of the audience by name, ailment, and sometimes even home address. The person so called would come on the stage, and Peter would miraculously heal whatever ailed him or her. Audience members were asked to throw their medicines on the stage, and did so by the thousands. I shudder to think how some must have suffered as a result.
Anyway, in addition to his performances, Peter would mail out letters by the tens of thousands, sometimes containing a napkin or some other small token. The recipient was supposed to carry the enclosure for a short time, then mail it back with a prayer request and, of course, a check.
For a while we printed 10,000 letters per week for Peter. His budget was $500K per month, and although we received only a small percentage of that, we did rather well. And we didn’t even need to have a salesperson call on him.
The whole thing came to a screeching halt one night on the Tonight Show, when the Amazing Randi, a professional magician and paranormal debunker, presented recordings containing many hours of Peter getting his transmissions from God at 39.17Mhz. And on these recordings God turned out to be Peter’s wife, Elizabeth. It seemed that after gleaning information from conversations and prayer request cards filled out by the incoming audience members, she would pass it on to Peter, who, in spite of being a healer, found it necessary to wear a “hearing aid.”
Many more of Peter’s shenanigans along with details of how his direct line was cut off can be found at http://www.bible.ca/tongues-popoff-39-17Mhz.htm. For all his business was worth after that, Peter might as well have been a pregnant prostitute.
An apocryphal story is told about a man who was visited by a police officer, who told him that the river was rising, and that he should evacuate his house. The man declined, stating that, “God will take care of me.” Eventually the water came up to his front door, at which point a man came by in a motorboat and offered to take him to safety. Again he declined, saying, “God will take care of me.” Soon he had to climb unto the roof of his house. Then a helicopter came by, and the pilot offered to take him to safety. Again he declined, saying, “God will take care of me.”
Finally he drowned, and when he appeared before the heavenly throne, he asked, “Why didn’t you take care of me?” And  God said, “I sent a policemen, a motorboat and a helicopter for you, and you declined. What more could I do?”
The point is, if a miracle is going to happen, it is probably going to be through the actions of other people. God does not perform miracles by suspending His laws of physics.
Of course, unexpected and unexplainable physical events do happen, but not all of them turn out to be “good.” Nothing appears from nowhere; for every event there is always a line of events that we can trace backwards in time, although we did not understand or pay attention to them at the time.
When we judge an unexpected event to be “good,” we call it a miracle, and when we judge it to be “bad,” we call it fate, or God’s unfathomable plan. Whether it’s a physical event or a human event, we tend to remember the good ones, and just to accept the bad ones. And that’s probably a good thing.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

The Lancaster General Hospital is a highly regarded not-for-profit hospital with a net profit(?) of $135.8 million for 2007, up 27.5% from 2006, on operating revenues of $716.7 million. Yes – you read that correctly: a not-for-profit hospital with a net profit of $135.8 million.
With the cost of health care spiraling out of control, and even though it’s a pittance on the national scale, one might think LGH would use at least some of that money to give its patients a break on their bills. After all, according to their web site, their official Mission Statement is “To advance the health and well-being of the communities we serve,” and their Vision is “To create an extraordinary experience...every time.” But no, the plan is to use that money to build another large money-making not-for-profit facility in West Earl Township.
Lancaster County is a very conservative area, and a majority of its government entities have traditionally been devoted to preserving its lush farmland. LGH’s proposed satellite would require new utility lines to pass through a few miles of that farmland; thus this construction has become extremely controversial from that angle. In addition, residents are wondering what the effect would be on Ephrata Community Hospital, a nearby small but very efficient operation.
Most local politicians are Republicans, and as such they tend to be protective of small businesses. Consequently, they should be very concerned about the potential plight of Ephrata Community Hospital. Because of its huge resources, LGH could easily price ECH out of business. After all, this is the very situation which has created a backlash against allowing “big box” stores such as Walmart to enter some local areas.
On the other hand, these same politicians are united in opposition to the health care plan proposed by President Obama because of its “public option,” a provision which they maintain would stifle competition.
So they are anti-competition in West Earl Township, and pro-competition on the national scale. And if they attempt to control the expansion of LGH by quietly playing the farmland preservation card, are they not employing government meddling in the private sector - an extreme conservative no-no ever since the days of Ronald Reagan?
Will Goliath beat David this round? If I had to guess, I would bet on the boys with the deep pockets, especially since both the politicians and the pockets are local.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sometimes It Is What It Is

In his song “As Time Goes By,” Louis Armstrong sings “A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh…” Some folks can’t resist imputing hidden special meanings to events which just stand on their own. Here are a few examples:
Sometimes a grassy knoll is not a hiding place for a second gunman – it’s just a grassy knoll.
Sometimes the holocaust is not a story cooked up by the Jews as an excuse to form the nation of Israel – it’s just a horrible historical fact.
Sometimes the debris from an experimental high-altitude surveillance balloon is not a crashed UFO – it’s just the debris from an experimental high-altitude surveillance balloon.
Sometimes an automobile crash caused by a driver under the influence of drugs is not the assassination of a princess orchestrated by the Royal Family – it’s just a crash caused by a driver under the influence of drugs.
Sometimes a political attack on a philandering president is not a “vast right wing conspiracy” – it’s just a normal opposition tactic.
Sometimes a terrorist attack against symbolic buildings is not something orchestrated by thousands of government employees in order to drag the United States into a middle east war – it’s just a terrible terrorist attack.
Sometimes a Hawaiian birth certificate is not a counterfeit to cover a birth in Kenya – it’s just a true Hawaiian birth certificate.
Sometimes an inspirational presidential speech to school children is not an indoctrination into socialism – it’s just an inspirational presidential speech to school children.
Sometimes a provision to allow patients to speak to their doctors about end of life treatments is not a “death panel” – it’s just a provision to allow patients to speak to their doctors about end of life treatments.
Sometimes a bill to provide health care to all citizens is not a plan to convert the republic to socialism – it’s just a plan to provide health care to all citizens.
Conspiracy theories have been around for a long time, and will probably continue to abound into the far future. It seems to me there are three possible explanations:
1.)    Sometimes there really are conspiracies. An examination of the facts normally brings them into the light of day.
2.)    As with the results of Louis Armstrong’s kiss, sometimes otherwise lucid people can be seduced into believing and doing something they would not normally believe and do. Again, an examination of the facts is in order.
3.)    The really far out theories are usually promulgated by individuals apparently vying for an idiocy trophy. An examination of the facts is a waste of time.
In the meantime, Elvis lives!

I know there are people out there who read these blogs and agree, disagree or have something to add. Please don’t hesitate – click the “comments” button below and let me know what’s on your mind. All the rest of us would like to hear from you.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Baseball's Closers

Major league baseball is a game of specialists. Each position is manned by a rich young man who is an expert in one facet of a kid’s game. In the American League there is even a player whose only job is to hit. Usually the only generalists on the team are utility infielders and outfielders.
This specialization is most apparent in the pitching staff; there are starters, long relievers, middle inning relievers, short relievers and normally one closer.
The closer is a breed apart from the other pitchers. When his team is leading by not more than three runs, it is his job to get in and “save” the game. He does this by throwing nine or ten pitches and shutting down the opposing team by not allowing enough runs to win the game. I think his arm falls off after twelve pitches.
When his team is leading by two or three runs, it is almost a sure bet that the closer is going to give up at least one run. I believe that the secret agenda behind the closer is to keep the fans on the edge of their seats until the final out. When the closer is called upon, very few fans head for the exits to beat the crowd. They are too busy taking deep breaths and chewing on their fingernails. As one closer put it a few years ago, “Sometimes I close the game, and sometimes I make it close.”
When the closer is going well, his manager is all smiles. But when the closer has blown a few saves in succession, his manager is apt to paraphrase Henny Youngman’s famous line: “Take my closer. Please!”

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Rah, Rah Team

Football season has started, and the media have hyped the fans to their annual fall frenzy. It would be wonderful if they could support performance in the classroom to the same extent as they do for performance on the athletic field. It seems odd that so much emphasis is placed on things that many animals can do much better than humans ― they can run faster, jump higher, copulate more often, perform greater feats of strength, etc. ― and so little on the process at which humans excel: think. We celebrate what we do from the neck down, and merely tolerate what we do from the neck up.
I do not believe that education necessarily can be improved by throwing more money at it, but it would help if some of the same spirit could be thrown at it.
However, on the subject of money, I realize that athletics is a money-making activity; it is probably the only education-related activity that is self-supporting, and it is my understanding that income from athletic endeavors goes strictly for the furtherance of more athletic endeavors. I do not see any reason why some of the income from sports should not be diverted to classroom necessities. School boards are having a tough time budgeting during the present recession. Everyone wants more results with less money, and here is readily available cash.
I know this is not going to happen, so perhaps another solution would be a change in attitude. Some schools have already done so.
In my area there are two high schools within five miles of each other. One has an outstanding sports program, and the athletes receive overwhelming support from the local fans. Their football team, for example, is almost always in the running for the state championship in its class.
The other school concentrates on classroom results, and although their athletic teams also receive local support, they do not turn out state champions; not many of their athletes receive full athletic scholarships.
At the last area science fair, the second school had 29 students who won awards for their achievements. The first school had no students entered. I believe a difference in emphasis, perhaps by one teacher, made the difference.
I do not mean to imply that the first school turns out only moronic jocks – I realize that there are many good students coming out every year. But with the emphasis of both the school administration and the community concentrated on sports, and scholarships going to more athletes than bright students, even the good students must wonder if it is all worth it. Which school is more likely to turn out the well-rounded citizens which our society needs to compete with China, India and other rising nations in the 21st century? Will it be the brainiacs, or the brawniacs?
As always, time will tell. I’m betting on the brainiacs.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Signs Of Fall

Although folks living on the Equator will not see the sun pass directly overhead for four more days, here in the Northern Hemisphere both Mother Nature and humans (who mistakenly think they are separate from nature) are already well into their autumn routine.
Two weeks ago I noticed that some of the trees along Main Street had developed a reddish tint, and last week they were definitely showing their lovely fall blush. Also last week, I heard the first call of the wild geese, heading south I presume, although I didn’t actually see them.
Last year I noticed that throughout the winter, some flocks of geese were headed in unpredictable directions, including north, even in January. I wonder if climate change, nee global warming, has confused them. Will the time come when they will stay at home for the entire year?
Humans have also made the transition. No respectable person has worn white since Labor Day. But I also notice that there are more and more disrespectable people who are wearing whatever they please. I am in favor of this trend.
Unless you have been living on the dwarf planet, Pluto, you have probably noticed that football is in full swing. On TV you can view Friday night football, Saturday afternoon and evening football, Sunday afternoon and …; you get the idea.
Of course, the sight of kids on their way to and from school is another sign of fall. As a result, Barbara and I have sought out routes that detour around schools at certain hours of the day. A really astute person can tell when school is open just by noticing which streets we are using at 8:00 am and 2:30 pm.
Yesterday we put the flannel sheets on the bed. In the next week or so we will be switching to long-legged and long-sleeved pajamas, and sometime after that it will be time to dig out the comforter. Hopefully that time is still a month or two away.
Yesterday also was the last of the “corn and tomato tables” in the dining rooms. We got to take advantage of them only once, but they were delicious. (The corn and tomatoes – not the tables.)
I have already started checking the thermometer and the weather forecast in the morning, before deciding what to wear for the day. Soon I can stop checking – I will know what to expect.
Very shortly I can think about taking the patio furniture inside. I like to think about it for as long as possible – usually until Barbara says, “When are you going to bring in the patio furniture?’ I just realized that I always like to think about work before actually doing any of it. I can say every day, “I’m retired – I was tired yesterday and I’m tired again today.
Anyway, these are some of the signs of fall that I have noticed. If you would like to add to my list, please do so by clicking on “comments” at the end of this section.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Music Has Charms To Soothe A Savage ...

“Music has charms to soothe the savage beast” is a popular but incorrect quote of a line from a 1697 play “The Mourning Bride” by William Cosgrove. The correct quote is “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” Whether or not music can soothe a savage breast, until this time its effect on a beast has been open to question. However, a recent study indicates that in very special cases, music can be written that can affect the behavior of certain animals, specifically the cotton-top tamarin of Central and South American rain forests.
Wisconsin psychologist Charles Snowden has recorded a catalog of calls from these primates. Now David Tele of the National Symphony Orchestra has composed music utilizing the rising and falling pitches, sound duration, etc. of two types of the monkeys’ calls – one “alarm” call (sort of a heavy-metal style), and a second “safe and calm” (ballad) style. Then he speeded up his music eightfold to match the frequency and tempo of the monkey vocalizations.
When the human style music was played for the monkeys, there was no reaction, but when the up-tempo music was played, they displayed signs of agitation in response to the heavy-metal style, and appeared to calm down when exposed to the ballad style.
It appears that these are the first controlled studies that show a response to music by an animal. The findings indicate that the human proclivity for music has a long evolutionary history.
There is no doubt that music can stimulate a strong reaction in humans (See my blog of September 15th). For example, in my own case the sound of country-western music (an oxymoron if there ever was one) causes an extreme allergy. My feet start moving toward the nearest exit, or if none is available I immediately start looking for a pillow or something with which to cover my ears. But I really do enjoy a good jazz concert.
As in my preferences for most contemporary entertainment, I seem to be outnumbered. But what do all those other folks know? Most of them can’t tell a breast from a beast.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chalk One Up For the Electronic Age

My doctor ordered a CT Scan because I was experiencing fatigue in my legs. When I got to the hospital for the Scan, they found that the doctor had ordered the it to be made with a dye injection. This was not on the original order,  consequently, I had to have a blood test prior to the scan in order to make sure my kidneys were working well enough to eliminate the dye afterwards. Fortunately they were.
But I didn’t know if my insurance would approve the extra blood test. A quick check with the hospital insurance office indicated that it would be OK with my particular insurance, although that is not true for all insurance companies. I think this was an extra test to be certain I would not have an excuse to sue for malpractice. There is a lot of that going around these days.
There is a big fuss going on regarding a health insurance overhaul. One of the arguments against covering more people is that health care would have to be rationed because of the huge influx of new people covered, which would cause a huge shortage of facilities.
But it is rationed now, not by the shortage of facilities, but by who can afford it. I have several vouchers for health care in my wallet – they have pictures of Jefferson, Hamilton and other founding fathers on them. Someone with coverage by some insurance companies could not have had the additional testing, or else they would have been stuck with a huge bill. And people with no coverage or money would have to forego the test altogether.
If one believes in the capitalist system, one would have to think that a shortage of facilities would eventually be remedied because the increased demand would lead to an increased supply. Although it would cause an initial disruption, particularly for those of us who have adequate coverage now, I am inclined to think that expanding and overhauling the system would be a smart move in the long run. And it would lead to a stronger nation.
It has long been a cliché that bad news makes one feel better than no news at all. And it’s true – the doctor called this morning with the results of the tests I underwent yesterday. Yesterday! We sometimes waited weeks for results when we lived in California.
Anyway, I was told I have peripheral vascular disease or PVD. (Sounds like a type of old-fashioned underwear).. Even though I don’t know what that is, although I suppose it has something to do with the blood vessels in my legs, I feel much better. Not in the legs, but in the head.
I need to look up what PVD entails, but in the meantime, he is faxing a prescription for a generic Zocor. I don’t have to call anyone or go anywhere to pick up my prescription – it will come in the mail. Ain't this electronic age wonderful!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Rite Of Spring and the Healthcare Plan

Igor Stravinsky was born in 1882 in Russia, and died in Los Angeles in 1971. Time magazine has named him as one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century.
His most famous composition was the ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps,  "The Rite of Spring" in English, which debuted in Paris in 1913. To this day its vision of pagan rituals, enacted in an imaginary ancient Russia continues to dazzle and overwhelm audiences. Critics have called it the greatest single break with tradition ever achieved in music, or any other art form for that matter.
At the premier, trouble began with the playing of the first notes in the ultrahigh register of the bassoon, as the renowned composer Camille Saint-Saens conspicuously walked out, complaining loudly of the misuse of the instrument. Soon other protests became so loud that the dancers could barely hear their cues. Fights broke out in the audience. Modernism had arrived in music.
Throughout the composition Stravinsky not only calls upon the usual symphonic instruments to play unusual sounds, as evidenced by his use of the bassoon, but he also uses instruments which are not normal symphonic accoutrements. Examples are the alto flute, the soprano clarinet; the soprano, C and bass trumpets, the tenor tuba, and percussion instruments such as the tam-tam, antique cymbals and the güiro (a Central  and South American instrument). Coupled with his unusual time signatures, 5/8 for example, which in some cases changed with each measure, and even differed from section to section within the same measure, it is not surprising that the audience exhibited unusual reactions to the performance.
Eventually the music has become accepted and even embraced by the music public. Excerpts from The Rite accompanied the march of the dinosaurs in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, and Stravinsky’s style was evident in the theme from the movie Jaws. His work exerts a great influence over the output of modern film composers such as John Williams.
An examination of The Rite of Spring is enlightening. Here was a composition based upon traditional music: the instruments, notation and time signatures. Along the way Stravinsky added new elements and rearranged the traditional elements in non-traditional ways. Stravinsky has said that he could hear the sounds, but that he had some trouble with the notation.
As with many new ideas, the work was vehemently criticized and opposed by traditionalists and others. Over time, however, it has become generally accepted, and has spawned much new and exciting music. It is no exaggeration to say that, for better or worse, music would not be the same today without Stravinsky’s work.
It is my belief that this work can be used as a model for any new or different idea. At the present time healthcare is front and center in the public’s attention. Although President Obama will not be able to get a plan which completely fulfills all his promises, it is almost a sure bet that some plan will be enacted.
Based on the model, it will contain a rearrangement of traditional elements, e.g. insurance payors, preexisting conditions, and cost containment, and there will probably be some new ideas such as universal coverage, tort limitations and government support.
The wording (notation) of such a plan is still undecided, and will undoubtedly go through all kinds of adjustments until a final form is settled. The plan already has a substantial number of detractors, but over time it will probably become accepted, and may well lead to other improvements and developments. It will definitely change the healthcare system.
Or maybe not. Time will tell.

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a performance by the Presidio Brass, a group out of San Diego. Each of the five musicians was extremely proficient on his instrument, which consisted of a French horn, a trombone, a tuba, and assorted types and sizes of trumpets played by two members of the group. Their selections ran the gamut from Rimsky-Korsakov to W. C. Handy. Regardless of the genre, the talented young men seemed at home, both individually and as an ensemble. If you have the opportunity to attend one of their performances, don’t pass it up.

I have come across a new mondegreen (see the posting of 8/31): “London derrière” from the song “Londonderry Air.”

Monday, September 14, 2009

Language That Bugs Me

Although I am not a member of the "speech police," I am annoyed that the media has recently adopted usages that I find irritating. I know that the English language changes over time, but I believe that changes should make sense.
For example, Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary defines the word "troop" as: 1.) an assemblage of persons or things; company; band. 2.) a great number or multitude.
I usually think of a troop as a group of boy scouts, state troopers or military personnel. As a result, when I hear the talking head say that more than 100 troops arrived home today, I imagine that the docks were inundated with thousands of soldiers, sailors or marines pouring out of a long line of ships. But this is media newspeak meaning that 100 service members, possibly a troop, arrived home today.
Another example from Webster's: unique; 1.) existing as the only one or as the sole example; solitary in type or character. 2.) having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable.
Recently I read an article in the New York Times, describing the Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka as being, among other things, so unique that blah, blah, blah. I presume that the writer feels that since Matsuzaka is “uniquer” than anyone else, he is the “uniquest” of all. I have also heard a TV host talking about one of the “most unique” things she ever saw.
Now I realize that Matsuzaka is unique, and the host may have been describing a unique object, but neither one is more or less unique than any other unique object. One would think newspaper editors and TV writers would know better. If your object is the only one of its kind in the whole world, it's unique. Otherwise it's not.
Many people complain that they have a disorder that prevents them from enjoying the sensation of touch. At least that's what they are really saying when they use the phrase "I feel badly. . . " to indicate they have a sympathetic reaction to some bad news. In this case, “badly” refers to the sensation of feeling, and might be correct if, say, ones fingertips were sanded off so that no sensation of touching passed to the brain. The word "bad" in "I feel bad . . " refers to the speaker, not to his or her nervous system; it indicates the emotional attachment one means to express. The same is true of all other linking verbs such as taste, smell, etc.
Although often heard, remarks such as "A-Rod is better than any player in all of baseball," and "Sir Clyde of Lemon is better than any dog in the show," don't even make sense. To be true, both A-Rod and Sir Clyde would have to be better than themselves. Give me a break!
A southern drawl or a Midwestern accent is one thing, but mispronunciation is something else entirely. TV reporters take great pains to avoid an accent, so when I hear one say that one event “ummediately” followed another, I assume that the speaker has some kind of speech impediment. To pronounce the word as if the first letter were "u" instead of "i" leaves a bad “umpression.”
Apparently some people who should know better have a problem differentiating "pre" and “pro” from "per." I often hear statements such as, "The accident could have been pervented." Please folks, when you talk like that it “persents” all your old English “perfessors” in a bad light.
From time to time new figures of speech appear in ordinary conversation, but lately one has appeared that is completely useless: "I want to say: yada, yada, yada." If you want to say something, just say it. I will jump to the wild and crazy assumption you wanted to say it, and if you didn't really want to, I will allow you to go back and make a correction. Life is short, save your breath.
Lastly, I will very briefly mention the language of athletes: sentences such as "It's like . . . you know …. whatever."
Enough said.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


As I have written previously (see 8/30/09), on many mornings I partially wake up and allow “seeds” of ideas to “germinate” in my head. But it doesn’t work that way every morning. Today, for example, I was busily dreaming right through the time when I usually start to get into that “half awake, half asleep” state that I think of as my period of communication with my Muse. (The Greeks had a really odd and poetic way of putting things).
Anyway, it was one of those complicated dreams that is chock full of things that are contrary to common sense. In this dream I finally did as I have done before: even though I was deep in dreamland I realized that, “This is a dream. I must wake up.” But it didn’t work. Barbara was in the dream, and I finally told her (in the dream, of course) that I was dreaming, and asked her to poke me so that I would wake up. Which she did, but it didn’t help.
Finally I began to awaken, but in this in-between state, I thought that I was only dreaming that I was waking up, and that I was really still asleep. Weird, huh? I am happy to tell you that I eventually realized I was really awake, but I couldn’t help wondering what a dream is and what causes it.
Some people believe that a dream is a premonition – who has not heard of the person who dreamt that a loved one was in danger, only to wake up and hear that the dire event in the dream actually happened while the dreamer was asleep? Of course, that is a sample of one – hardly enough to come to any firm conclusion regarding the premonitory power of dreams. We never hear about the thousands of dreams depicting loved ones in danger, and low and behold, the drastic event doesn’t happen. To get one prediction right out of thousands of dreams brings the whole idea to the level of a coincidence.
And I believe that is exactly what it is – a coincidence. So-called seers have either had a few lucky guesses, or have made their predictions so vague that they could apply to almost anything. There has never been, and I doubt there ever will be – a bona fide, specific prediction of the future.
Of course, it is possible to make broad forecasts based on current trends, e.g. one may use the current trend of the Dow- Jones Industrial Average to forecast that the stock market will be 10% higher by the end of the year (don’t I wish?). But if it were possible to actually make a specific prediction, nobody would ever win the lottery except fortune tellers.
Alfred North Whitehead, a 20th century philosopher, has said that no understanding of the universe is complete unless it explains dreams. The astronomer and writer, Carl Sagan, has ventured an explanation which I think makes sense. During sleep, the brain attempts to classify and store the sensations that it experienced while it was awake. A dream is merely the subconscious awareness of the brain’s activity as it attempts to file these sensations for future reference. It is a marvelous achievement, but it is perfectly natural.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Television Then and Now

In 1961 the Chairman of the FCC, Newton Minow, called TV a “vast wasteland.” After asking his audience to sit in front of the TV set for one whole day, Minow said, “You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endless commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."
I thought we could see if progress has been made in cleaning up the “wasteland” by comparing the types of shows that were popular during Newt’s era with the popular types from the 2008 – 2009 season.
In order to conserve space, I have broken the top 25 shows from the two eras into categories. The number of shows in each category for the two periods is shown in the following tables:
In both periods sitcoms reigned as the favorite. 1961’s second place Westerns do not appear in the 2008 table, but the Supernatural and Forensics/Crime tied for second and third place. Cartoons increased from one to three shows.
I am not surprised at the popularity of shows in the Forensics/Crime category; at least they have some basis in science and reality. But the Supernatural! And Cartoons! For grownups? Give me a break.
I do not wish to suggest that there are no good shows on TV. PBS, the History Channel and the Discovery Channel air some excellent shows, although the Discovery Channel has been delving into ghost stories seemingly without looking too deeply for natural explanations. And studies have shown that even though accompanied by a disclaimer, a huge number of people accept these stories as fact! Amazing. But as Newt said, good shows on the major networks happen only rarely.
It would also be enlightening to look briefly at the TV advertising between the two periods. In the 1960s, cigarettes and liquor commercials were both shown on TV, and have been replaced by erectile dysfunction and contraceptives commercials in the 21st century. What an improvement(?)
In the 1960s it was taboo for men and women to be depicted as having a sex life; today it appears that they do not have much else. This is particularly true for some of the cable networks, which were not around in 1961. I believe that the depiction of sex is OK as long as it makes sense within a normal story line, but when many of the story lines primarily concern sex, it seems just a wee bit over the top.
Words denoting certain body parts, as well as Anglo Saxon four letter words were taboo in 1961; today the major networks allow words such as damn, hell, and in certain contexts, penis and vagina. But again primarily on the cable networks, George Carlin’s famous seven words not allowed on TV are not only common, they seem to be preferred.
Anyway, so much for progress. I am sure that Newt is disappointed at the direction things have taken. We all should be. Either the vast wasteland has grown vaster, or I have become an old prude. Or both.