“These Are A Few Of My Favorite . . .” Songs

We have a lighter topic today – music.  I’ve recently made changes in my list of favorite songs, so I’ll talk about some of them, and then try to find an explanation for a pattern I’ve noticed as people get older.

The List

  1. Holding my number one spot for decades now has been Barbra Streisand’s version of “People”lyrics, video, created in 1964 for the Broadway musical “Funny Girl”.  I’m not actually sure I qualify as the type of person in the song (I may have come from a long line of rugged individuals living in a Love desert) but when I see those people together, I feel what could be envy.
  2. Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now”lyrics, video, which she recorded on her 1969 album “Clouds”, just moved up the charts to the number two spot that was vacated maybe a year ago by Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall”lyrics, video from their 1979 rock opera “The Wall”. As a teacher, I could just imagine my whole class singing “We don’t need no education” in unison and it just struck me as a bit funny.  Since that song became the Republican’s unofficial theme song, I find it more depressing than funny.

I’ve always liked “Both Sides, Now”, and similar to the story about “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, it shows how a change in perspective can enrich your life – or not.

  1. Next is “Climb Every Mountain”lyrics, video, which Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for their 1959 musical “The Sound of Music”. I’m partial to the version that was dubbed by Margery MacKay in the 1965 movie starring Julie Andrews.  Actually, I liked the whole movie, especially the songs Julie sang, like the title songvideo and even the song that inspired the title of this post, “My Favorite Things”video.
  2. Although the beat goes on, today’s last list entry is number four, “Hotel California”lyrics, video which, unlike the others, shot toward the top of my chart immediately after it was released as the title track from an Eagles’ album in late 1976 (even though by then I had already left of the state). I really enjoy the symbolism, and like many, recognize it as an allegory about hedonism and greed. Other great songs on that album include “New Kid In Town”video and “Life In The Fast Lane”audio.

While the top spots on my list are fairly stable, as one goes down the list, that becomes less true as a song’s ranking starts to depend more on my mood.  Looking down the list, you will see newer songs from artists like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga working their way up, as well as other classics like “The Sound of Silence”video by (Paul) Simon & (Art) Garfunkel (which I had heard before watching the 1967 film “The Graduate”, but the two together made an impression on me and that song remained near the top of my list for quite a while).  My favorite country singers are probably Kenny Rogers (my favorites being “The Gambler”video and “Coward of the County”video) and then Garth Brooks.  I prefer my classical music to be lively, like Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”full, finale, which some of you may remember from “The Lone Ranger”, and “1812 Overture”full, finale.

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The full title is “The Year 1812, festival overture in E♭ major, Op. 49”. Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote it in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s defense against Napoleon’s invading army (any resemblance to the War of 1812 between the British and the new United States of America is purely coincidental). More recently, the song was used in commercials for Quaker Oats Puffed Wheat, among other things.
I have also long been a sucker for Christmas music (I could enjoy these songs in June). Probably my earliest favorite, first sung the Christmas Eve of 1818 in Austria (I wasn’t actually around, then), was “Silent Night”video (surprise, surprise), which was unseated for a short time by “The First Noel”video, but now they both compete with a host of other examples of the genre (with “Joy To The World”video usually having a slight lead).

The Question

As a youngster, I noticed that people of all ages seem to restrict their musical listening to those songs that were popular when they were in their teens. At the time, I postulated that once the music retention area of the brain ‘hardens’, about the time one reaches adulthood, it is impossible to retain or appreciate new songs. Now that I’ve seen this phenomenon “from both sides now”, I’ve reworked my theory.  For me, one change that has occurred over the years is that I just don’t (have the opportunity to?) listen to as much music as I used to.  When I’m wrapped in thought, I prefer the sounds of silence.  And when I am around others, they rely on their old favorite, but limited sources.  This ties in with my earlier discussions How Large Is Your Universe and How We Lose Our Grip On Reality, and could be considered a sign of decay.  But it doesn’t have to happen.  If one were to diversify their sources, as suggested, they would know that there is very good music being produced every day, just as it was when they were young.  But then they would have to find something else to complain about.

My Last Thoughts On Our Last Election

Well, the people have spoken!  And I’m really disappointed. I’ve previously expressed my displeasure with some of Mr. Trump’s positions and rhetoricB1, B2, B3, but my main complaint has always been his severe lack of maturity, his complete disregard for the truth,

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Candidate Truthfulness
Candidate Truthfulness

as read in the International Business Times.

and his extremely low ethical standards that allow him to push the buttons of idiots and fan the flames of bigotry for his own personal gain, which he regularly puts ahead of whatever action might be better for the good of the country.  Trying to understand why he was so popular, I listened to a lot of people, but found their arguments lacking in both fact
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For an article on the pervasivenessD of fake news, see Fake news: How a partying Macedonian teen earns thousands publishing lies. For a discussion of the truth in “news” and even Ben Franklin’s words on the subject, see Fair Play in a Fact-Challenged Political Landscape. This is why my blog post How We Lose Our Grip On Reality was important. The sad part for me was that some of the claims cited as justification of a Trump fanatic’s position were too blatantly false to need any rigorous fact-checking effort.
and logic.  Examples include those who insisted Clinton just couldn’t be trusted (in light of the above), and the gentleman who praised Trump’s lack of political experience and then 30 seconds later bashed Obama for the same characteristic.  It makes me wonder if my concerns for “Falling Into A Negative Spiral” have all come true.

But you won’t find me out protesting, because I don’t see the point to it. I understood the rules before the election (See Article II and the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States) and thought they were as good as you’re likely to find anywhere.

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There is that one question about the fairness of the Electoral College and whether it has outlived its usefulness (which in today’s world I believe it has), but because in all cases where the Electoral College differed from the popular vote, the Democratic (or pre-Democratic) candidate lost the electionA as they appear to have done this year, I don’t see any serious efforts to change that process any time soon.

Some argue that the Electoral College was intended to favor smaller states. Certainly our founders pondered the issue of individual power vs. state power (resulting in the Senate giving states equality while the House of Representative tips the scale toward the individual). Personally, I like the notion of ‘one person, one vote’ without taking a penalty if you can actually wave to your neighbor from the front porch.

The news that many of the protesters didn’t vote was also disturbing; I’ve long maintained that if you don’t vote you waive all rights to complain about the election for the next four years.

A Growing Frustration

It has been said that Mr. Trump was able to tap into America’s growing frustration with the gridlock in Washington.  I can definitely understand such a frustration.  The problem is that for a majority of Americans, that frustration was self-inflicted.  I’m talking about the majority who four years ago voted for candidates with an R on their sleeve (and making no allowance for those who only do that so they can tell right from left) specifically because those candidates promised to rip the word “compromise” from their dictionary and vehemently oppose every move the opposition makes, even if it was originally their idea.  As one might expect, their candidates had some success, and now this majority is complaining that nothing gets done in Washington.  Really?  To me, that is strong evidence of the negative spiral I was concerned about.  I predict in four years these short-sighted people with shorter memories will be even more frustrated, and will make even more desperate decisions, speeding the downward spiral even more.  To see a discussion of one type of desperate decision-making and how to stop it, see my recent post When Sailors Should Split Tacks.  Sadly enough, like the skipper in that post, these people are incapable of recognizing their faulty logic or seeing their own part in this mess.   But as long as they have someone else to blame for their problems, I don’t expect to see much growth.  I’ve always liked to believe that whatever the results of an election, the people got what they deserve, but the truth is that the minority gets to suffer right alongside everyone else.  Those who took the right steps to make America great over the last decade also have reason to be frustrated.  Their frustration will be greater in another four years also, but they know that just waiting for others to mature won’t get the change they are looking for.  That knowledge alone does not make the frustration any less; they have to be mature enough to deal with it while they bide their time waiting for the next opportunity for improvement.

Wait And See

So that is what I’m doing.  Mr. Trump isn’t President yet so there is really nothing yet to complain about.  His lack of truthfulness, that characteristic that was the most bothersome during the campaign, is now the one thing that gives me the most hope in a strange way – if he only screws up one out of twelve of the things he promised to screw up, we should probably consider ourselves lucky.  Just hours after the election he praised Mrs. Clinton for her many virtues, which was 180 degrees off from everything he had said before then (English translation: “I’ve been feeding you all a line of cr@_ all this time.  Thanks for your vote”).  How many of his promises has he already walked away from, just weeks after the election?  There is the distinct possibility that some things could actually turn out reasonably well.  But there is still plenty of damage that can be done.  We need to bide our time and look for opportunities for growth.  To break the spiral, one thing I’d like to see is a strong, long-term commitment to education – an education that includes and even emphasizes critical thinking skills.  And as always, I’ll be doing my part to put things into perspective and combat “conventional” wisdom while promoting uncommon sense.  Thank you for listening.

When Sailors Should Split Tacks

American inventor Thomas Edison once said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”A.  From my experience, when you are competing, whether for business or pleasure, or trying to solve a problem, or just trying to get something done, you can usually do very well without that stroke of genius if during the remaining 99% of the time you can just keep from screwing up.

The Sailing Example

One summer when I was younger, I had the opportunity to race sailboats by donating the perspiration needed to handle the sails.  Since sailboats can’t sail directly into the wind, which is often exactly where you need to go, you must regularly choose which side of the wind is best, or which side of the course is best, or . . . the bottom line is that in sailboat racing, as in life, there are plenty of decision-making opportunities.  If we happened to get behind early in the race, by the time we got to a point that needed a decision, our competition had already gotten to that point and had already made their decision.  Our skipper, reasoning that we would never catch up if we did everything our competition had done, invariably would make the opposite choice at that point (hence, splitting tacks, or sailing on the opposite side of the wind as our competition).  More often than not we would get further behind.  As it turned out, we won almost no races that summer. Now I will use just a little math to show you why not.

The Math

Without divine intervention or that long-awaited flash of inspiration, after a short time the leaders in this race will be the ones that make more correct moment-by-moment decisions. When our skipper got to his decision point, it is reasonable to assume that the competition ahead of him is batting above 500D and already chose the short path. If the current leader has a success rate of, say 70%, then by blindly taking the other path, our skipper was limiting his success rate to 30%. This is NOT a winning strategy. The more prudent leader would have chosen his battles; he would have evaluated every decision independently – more often than not this means he would have made the same choice as his competitor (assuming his own success rate is high enough to be competitive – certainly higher than 50%)  – and he would bide his time while waiting for the competition to make their mistake. When his own evaluation led him to a different decision, he would quickly recheck his work (out of respect for his competitor’s 70% success rate) and then he would pounce.

A Non-sailing Example – Rush Hour Traffic

“Rush Hour”, referring to  those busy couple of hours in the morning and another couple of hours in the afternoon when everybody is commuting to or from work at the same time and traffic is congested (as opposed to that time of day when Rush Limbaugh is delivering his political commentary), implies an urban environment, which implies a larger grid of streets and thus a richness of decision-making opportunities not completely unlike a fleet of sailboats tacking upwind, but familiar to a much larger segment of the population.  Many of you may have carpooled with somebody with the mentality of the skipper described above: either there is some sort of accident or s/he misjudged traffic again and finds him/herself behind schedule and facing the growing possibility that they will be late for work.  Lacking patience or maturity, they assume the traffic must be better on one of the many alternative routes and blindly makes a turn (tacks) at the next intersection.  When they discover that this path is also blocked, they immediately move to Plan C, then D, and so forth.  Each maneuver has a small cost, which rapidly adds up, and then the path actually starts to get longer and they continue to dig themselves a deeper and deeper hole (oops, that’s not a sailing reference).  The math is similar to that above.  To mix metaphors even more, compare this to the hitter swinging too hard for a home run.  The problem is that in this game, after each errant swing the outfield fence is moved ten yards further away.  Although still mathematically possible (at first), the odds of that game-winning home run drop with every swing.  Those are the perils of panicking, shutting off your brain, closing your eyes, and trying to slug your way out of your problems.

The Moral

As you might have guessed, this article is not really about sailing, or traffic, or baseball. Blindly splitting tacks is a tactic of desperation.  Desperation is often a result of one’s fears getting the best of them, and may be one of the consequences of ignorance.  It is never expedient to shut off your brain to save time (by the same token, except for specially trained pilots in specially designed aircraft, nobody would willingly turn off an airplane’s engines while still in the air), yet people try it every day.  This is what happens when you panic.  So get a grip!  Just as in the sailing example, the prudent driver would carefully evaluate every decision (the more you practice, the easier it gets) instead of assuming the worst, bide your time, and make your bold move only when the conditions are right.

How We Lose Our Grip On Reality

After learning how to SCUBA dive while in high school years ago, my friends and I did most of our diving from the beach. The geography was fairly simple; from the beach the bottom had a gentle slope until reaching the (non-coral) reef of interest at a depth of around 30 feet a couple hundred yards offshore. Water visibility was typically 15 to 25 feet offshore, but could be less than five feet in the surf zone. After moving as fast as possible through the surf zone, we would regroup, sink to the bottom, and rely on our compass, backed up by our depth gauge, to find the most direct path (perpendicular to the beach) to our destination. Our depth gauge was supported by physical clues of our depth, like light intensity and even the spectrum of colors available.

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Of course light intensity drops steadily as one goes deeper, but also the colors disappear with depth, starting with the longer wavelengths (red)A.
 At the end of the dive we would return straight to the surface, which would put us still a few hundred yards from the beach.  We would inflate our life vests, as they were called back then,
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They are now known as BCDs.D.
roll over on our backs, and leisurely swim back to the beach as we caught our breath. It was quite common on this return trip to look back past your fins and either see the beach behind you, or see one of your friends swimming out to sea.

But you don’t need to be a diver to see how poorly we maintain a straight and narrow path.

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Any resemblance to Matthew 7:13 & 14D is purely coincidental. 😉
To do your own experiment, start in the middle of a large field, put a blindfold on and walk in a “straight” line, dropping numbered markers or flags or let out a rope as you walk (the last time I heard of anyone relying on the bread crumb trick, it didn’t turn out wellA.)  You should be able to take the blindfold off in less than a minute, look back at your path, and be happy nobody was watching.  The moral of this story is that without regular “reality checks”, one won’t be taking the shortest path to your destination, and probably shouldn’t expect to get there at all.  And so it is with life.

How To Maintain Your Grip On Reality

Make regular observations

Every nautical chart will tell you that “The prudent mariner will not rely solely on any single aid to navigation …”, which clearly means the same as that seventeenth-century proverb “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket”. Failing to make regular observations is the simplest way to lose touch with reality.

Verify all information – “Google, don’t gossip”

If you don’t know the position or the reliability of the source, you can’t depend on it to find or even describe your own position.

Apply the same standards to all information

Don’t get all of your news from one source. Expect all sources to have some bias (that may not be clear). Politically, this means that you should not get more than 30% of your information from Rush Limbaugh or any lesser-known celebrity (regardless of political affiliation). Your sources should come from all around your horizon,

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Landmarks that are near each other may have similar positional biases, which will translate into errors in your own position estimate because using them will cause the errors to accumulate and negate any averaging or cancelling effect that you were hoping to get from independent sources.
and you should not treat the information that comes from one side of your vessel different from the information on the other side. Again, politically, you can’t demand higher standards from the other candidates than you expect from your favorite. This just exposes you as a bigot looking for excuses.

Don’t Throw Out Information Just Because It’s Unexpected Or Inconvenient

I’ve already discussed this in “How Large Is Your Universe”.  If you are doing this, stop calling yourself a scientist and expect others to call you a bigot. We’ve all seen bosses who surround themselves with sycophantsD (ass kissers) and ultimately drive their Rolls-Royce off Reality Road into a ditch (Not surprisingly, none of their entourageD helps pull them out.)  When scientists, whose job it is to describe reality, run across information that doesn’t support their theory they are forced to change their theory.  Of course there are the occasional outliers,

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For a simple explanation of outliers, see the “Math Is Fun” website. The last paragraph of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (N.I.S.T.) website discusses how to handle outliers.
which need to be handled carefully.  One clue to how far you’ve wandered from reality is the number of outliers you have to throw away.

And that is pretty much it.  It is simple enough, but requires constant effort.  If you think I left anything out, let me know.  Other comments are welcome and appreciated.  Now go apply this to your life.  Thanks for listening.

A Spokesperson For Hillary Clinton

I think Secretary Clinton could find somebody like Clara Peller (August 4, 1902 – August 11, 1987)A to go to all of Donald Trump’s events. She could have been in the front row at the last debate, and then whenever Mr. Trump failed to answer a question (which I believe was every time except the last question (I’ll leave the fact-checking to somebody else – I don’t think I could sit through that debate one more time)), or when Mr. Trump interrupted Ms. Clinton (which only happened 18 times, down from the 51 times he interrupted her in the first debateA), this Peller doppelgängerD would interrupt Mr. Trump with her signature line, “Where’s the beef?”  I don’t believe Donald would even realize that she is questioning the lack of substance in his conversation or in his Presidential policies; with his adolescent “locker room” mentality, Mr. Trump would assume this old woman was referring to one of his male body parts, and he would feel deeply offended.  And then as Mr. Trump walked by at the end of the event, this lady could assume an open, gropeable stance, with her arms outstretched, and maybe her lips all puckered up and ready.  She could wind up  becoming Donald’s worst nightmare.

For Trump’s other events, you would probably need a corps of such old lady hecklers, because each one would find herself uninvited after her first appearance.  In fact, they would probably need to go in groups or be escorted, because Donald’s rabid fans would not be above “taking them out”.  Donald himself is more likely to launch into a tirade, followed up at three o’clock the next morning with a volley of angry tweets.

Mrs. Clinton would probably take the advice of Michelle Obama, rather than mine.  I understand.  I’ve never believed that the victor in a race to the bottom could really be called a winner, anyway (What was the prize for the first man to get to Hell?).  But a representative like Clara could put Donald Trump’s tactics into better perspective, and would be entertaining.

Simple English: The Problem With The “If” Statement

You are probably very proud of your grasp of English (unless you live in South Florida, in which case you may not give a damn).  And yet I have seen plenty of people whose lack of understanding about basic structures like the “If” statement

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The next article in this series will discuss how misunderstandings about the conjunction “or” have caused so much trouble.
cause them to make terrible assumptions.

An Example

Suppose a young child is misbehaving to the point that the care-giving parent decrees “If you don’t knock that off, I’m going to paddle you” (This is an old example; I’m sure nobody would ever actually do that today 😉 ). As young children have been known to do, for whatever reason, the child continues with its behavior. The parent repeats the statement, with added emphasis. Nothing changes. The parent soon throws their hands up and says “wait until (your other parent) gets home”.

The parent’s first decree, like all “if” statements, had two parts; a condition and a consequence (joined by the conjunction “if”), with the understanding that if the condition is true, then the consequence will occur. It’s simple enough that even a young child can understand it. If the condition is met and the consequence is not accomplished, then the statement would be considered false. In short, the child knew that the parent was lying.

Now suppose the non-care-giving parent comes home, sees the objectionable behavior, makes a similar decree, and then the first parent points out that they had already made that decree to no avail. The child, for whatever reason, stops the objectionable behavior. To everybody’s surprise, the second parent paddles the child. Although the child and many of you listeners may think bad thoughts about this parent, one thing you can’t call him/her is a liar.

The Problem

As you can see here, the problem with the “if” statement is that is incomplete in the sense that it only addresses what happens when the condition is true, remaining completely silent to the possibility that the condition could be false.  This allows most people to make the assumption that if the condition is false, the opposite of the consequence must occur.  As the young child in our example learned, that assumption would be a mistake.

The Solution

Don’t make stupid assumptions.  As your lawyer would tell you, get it in writing.  In the above example, since the second parent didn’t make any promises about what would happen if the behavior did stop, s/he can’t be accused of lying.  If this example bothers you, I’m sure the second parent told the child afterward that the paddling was for not obeying the first parent, in which case we would be unable to judge the truthfulness of their claim until after the right set of conditions are met following some later episode of misbehavior (guesstimating any change in likelihood of that future misbehavior based on recent events  will be left as an exercise for the reader).  To lawyers, mathematicians, and the like, the parent’s explanation doesn’t matter to this case and is unnecessary.

Save Your Birthday – Vote For Clinton

When I was growing up, birth was considered a significant event.  When a girl got pregnant, it wasn’t assumed that the fetus would have a normal, uneventful life as it grew, got an education and a good  job,  got married, created their own group of fetuses, contributed to society for several decades, and then had a long, fulfilling retirement.  In fact, for two of the three parties involved in the process, birth can be very traumatic.  According to one articleA, 60 to 80% of all naturally conceived embryos never make that milestone.  And of those who did make it, I don’t know of a single one of you that didn’t do a lot of crying about it.  Similarly, in 2015 over 300,000 women died during pregnancy or childbirthA. In the United States, 18.5 women die for every 100,000 birthsA. That is twice the rate of Saudi Arabia, three times that of the United Kingdom, and (strangely enough) 250% as many as died in this country in 1987 (yes, the problem is actually getting worse here).  In my mind, this is something we should be concerned about.

And then there’s the dad (or shall we say “sperm donor”).  Of the two events, the conception is the only one he has to show up for, and for many (mostly Republican) men in Congress, it is apparently the only one that has any meaning – probably the only one he brags about or bothers to put on his calendar (and to save time and space, I’m guessing he doesn’t even bother to jot down the mother’s name).  Some legislators have tried to pass laws making the mother personally responsible for everything that happens after that point.  I’m surprised that they haven’t passed a law replacing your birth date with the date of conception on your driver’s license and all other official documents (Oops! sorry, my bad; it just occurred to me that the reason they haven’t done that yet is probably only because they haven’t thought of it.  The good news is that nobody reads this blog anyway, so we are probably safe for now).

Call To Action?

If you are proud of your birthday, well actually the picture doesn’t look that rosy.  The nineteenth amendment to the Constitution, allowing women the right to vote, was ratified 96 years ago and what a waste of time that was.  Their major failures during my lifetime have been the Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.), the Hyde AmendmentD – which says the government can only spend money on men’s health issues, not women’s (OK, I’m paraphrasing (maybe even exaggerating) here), and most recently any law that says women will get the same pay as men for the same work.  Are my biases causing me to miss anything?  Help me out, because I can’t think of a single success they can point to (if you remind me of such a success, I will publish it).  I’m really afraid that until women finally grow the balls to exercise their rights, we are all screwed.  Is that how you see it?  Back in the late 1970’s I had a notion that the National Organization for Women (N.O.W. – which is now 50 years old) was apparently not the right group to lead the charge on the E.R.A.  My thinking was that maybe a men’s group with a name like “Fathers Without Sons” (or something with a nicer acronym) would be required to really get the balls rolling.  Is that really what’s needed to protect us?  Somebody please step up to the plate.  In the mean time, the rest of you could start small with a vote for Senator Clinton for President next time you get a chance.  Thank you.

The Blue-spotted Monks Revisited

If you are not aware of the Blue-spotted Monk problem, or haven’t seen my previous post (in which I made an error in logic), please visit The Problem Of Blue-spotted Monks.

Did you ever wonder what would happen if, as a cruel joke, it had been reported to the monks that one of them had the dreaded blue spot disease when in fact nobody was afflicted? (Am I really the only one here with a slight sinister streak?) Since none of the monks saw a spot elsewhere, they would each assume it was them that was infected and the very first day all the monks would have started to gather at the exit station. One of them, as he approached, would notice that none of the others had a blue dot and would start to chuckle to himself, thinking “these clowns can’t even count”. The others, hearing him laugh, would look around for the first time (until then they were so sure of their logical talents that they hadn’t even bothered to check), and by the time he stopped laughing the rest would have disappeared into the forest. Then it would occur to him that maybe he didn’t have a spot either. When word got back to the Guru, the laugher would be expelled for violating the “no communication” rule, but it wouldn’t affect the solution because the other monks only counted the peers that had spots on their forehead and he was never missed.

Plan B (I named this scheme in honor of B, who first put things in perspective for me. If this plan turns out to be flawed, like the last, I take full responsibility.)

When answering nature’s call in the middle of the night a few days after accepting B’s explanation about why the monks had to start at zero, it struck me that since a monk was really only concerned with three possibilities in the number of blue spots anybody has seen, modulo arithmetic might give a way to synchronize everybody’s universe or get everybody on the same page, so to speak. Plan B calls for everyone to start counting not at zero, but at the last multiple of six. For example, the person who saw ten blue dots knows that there are either:

  1. ten afflicted, not including himself, which means there are ten people who see only nine spots.  Everybody else sees ten.
  2. On the other hand, if he is blue-spotted, there are ten others like him who see ten spots and everyone else sees eleven.

Those who see nine spots know that those who see eleven don’t really exist, and those that see eleven know that the nine-seeers don’t exist. The monk that sees ten must consider each of the other two cases, but not both at once.

Under Plan B he would start counting at six, as would the possible people who saw nine, and those potential people who saw eleven. If everyone knew to start at six, the nonexistent people who saw only six spots would be gone before the second day (we’ll discuss them again shortly), and since that won’t happen, the nonexistent people seeing seven spots will leave on Day 2, etc. Our guy knows he can sleep in until Day 4, when the really possible nine-spot sighters would be scheduled to leave. If he saw spots on Day 5, he would turn himself in and everybody else would live happily ever after.

Starting the inductive thinking process, the first six possibilities start counting at zero, just like the old days. We’ll call that their landmark. As the logic countdown continues past the next landmark (which would be six in this scheme), the hard thing for me was knowing who would start using it first, or even if it was possible to make the switch if that person needed to wait for the person ahead of him (who is still using the old landmark) to make his move. I had the hardest time reconciling the notion that you needed to wait for the people ahead of you with the notion that those people don’t exist.  It turns out the solution was easier than I imagined.

In Plan B, if the number of spots you see happens to be six (or any exact multiple thereof), your dilemma is that the possible person who sees five spots started counting at zero, and won’t budge until Day 6. The guy who sees seven spots will start counting at six, and is depending on you to leave now (Day 1) or else he’s lost. Go to the exit point on Day 1. If you are not infected, there will be a very large crowd heading for the exit with no spots on their head while six people with a spot sit comfortably at home. When you spot your peers, you will avoid the crowd and head home knowing that those six afflicted people will all leave on Day 6 as scheduled, and all is right with the world. If you do have the spot, there will be six others with spots heading out that day with you while everyone else waits patiently at home. When those who originally saw seven spots wake the next morning, you will be gone and the problem will be solved.

What Next?

Lately this problem has turned into an on-again-off-again obsession for me. I first saw a different version of the problem when I was much, much younger; I didn’t figure it out for myself but the answer made perfect sense. Just a few weeks ago, I ran across the spotted monk version I discussed in my last post and again, when reading the answer, I was completely satisfied (although I felt for the commenters who couldn’t accept that it would take 100 days for 100 blue-spotted monks to turn themselves in). Days later, while on a walk contemplating even more difficult (but unrelated) relationship issues, an answer just came to me out of the blue, which is the answer I last posted. It was flawed, and when B. gave his “parallel universe” explanation for why we needed to start at zero, I thought it made even more sense than the conventional answer did, and I was again happy.  Several days after that, the modular arithmetic idea just came to me (as discussed). Then it was only my day job and other commitments that slowed me from working toward this solution. But we are not actually finished yet.

Calling All Logicians

All I’ve done so far (if I got it right this time) is to show that starting at zero is not strictly necessary.  Plan B is not the only possible plan, however.  In fact, I doubt it is the best or fastest plan (I suspect that using a smaller modulus might be helpful).  For the monks to abandon zero as their global landmark there would have to be an understanding that there was a single, logically optimal plan to replace it.  Based on my difficulties wrapping my mind around the issues so far, I don’t feel I qualify for the “perfect logicians” requirementA of this monastery.  It’s just as well; as an aging curmudgeon, that vow of silence probably wouldn’t have worked for me for very much longer anyway.  I’m hoping that the real experts will take it from here and God will finally allow me to let go of this problem.   If you like, you can even download a small spreadsheet I made to help visualize the problem (Get Microsoft Excel file (.xlsx)). If you do see a flaw in this scheme (a check of the references will show it would not be my first mistake on this problem), let me know. I may not be able to fix it, but in keeping with journalistic standards, I am willing to admit and advertise the error. Thank you.

Flawed Logic: The Problem Of Blue-spotted Monks

I recently ran across the Problem of the Blue-spotted Monks again at https://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/2011/04/04/answer-to-the-friday-puzzle-98/.  Actually, this is a slight variation of the well-known Blue-Eyed Monk problem that can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_knowledge_%28logic%29, among other places. One site even called this problem “The Hardest Logic Puzzle in the World”A, but that was probably just a case of self-promotion. For today’s discussion, I chose the first version of the problem because it is simpler (we don’t have to worry about the case in which one person has red eyes). If you haven’t done so, go ahead and read the problem. We will discuss the solution in the next section.

Start With Induction

The classic answer uses mathematical inductionD to first consider the (trivial) case in which only one monk has the disease. Then they move on to the case of two monks. Their error begins in the case of three infected monks, assuming that the monks were required to start back at one in making their individual analysis.  That is wrong; in the comments section of some of the references, several people take issue with this assumption.  I believe this to be a misapplication of the induction process.  The monks have only to consider two possibilities; either they are infected or they are not. For the sake of argument, let’s say there are ten infected monks. Most of the monks will see ten fellow monks with blue spots. Ten of the monks will see nine monks with blue spots. None of the monks will see only one monk with blue spots, or just two monks with blue spots, etcetera. Those monks seeing ten spotted monks have only two possibilities – either there are ten infected monks or there are eleven. Those monks seeing nine spots need only consider the possibility that there are either nine or ten monks infected. Most of the monks, in considering their first possibility (that there are only ten infections) realize that those ten, in considering the possibility that there are only nine infections, must allow for the possibility that there are nine monks who see only eight infected monks. With the information available, nobody sees any reason to consider any other lesser possibility. Just like in the conventional solution, each monk, having two possibilities, must allow the lesser possibility (which means they are not infected) to resolve itself first before concluding that they are infected and turn themselves in. All of the monks know that the least number of infections that any of them must consider is eight, not one. The first day nothing would happen. The second day, the monks that saw only nine other spotted monks will conclude that the possibility of anyone sighting eight spotted monks was groundless, so they will all turn themselves in. The third day, those who saw ten spotted monks will all breathe a sigh of relief.

Considering The Second Possibility

Now we need to look at the big picture.  This isn’t rocket science.  Why hasn’t anybody seen the error in conventional wisdom before today?  I, like the monks, must consider the possibility that I am the one infected.  If nobody else comes forward with a confirmation of the correct answer soon, I guess I’ll be forced to turn myself in.  Please hurry.

A Better Plan For Controlling Gun Violence?

Well, here we are again with another mass shooting in AmericaA, this time in Orlando, Florida.  This is the first such catastrophe since my last post on the subjectA six months ago, which followed a string of almost one mass shooting a month over the six month period before that.  And still no solution.  I saw a clever suggestion on Facebook, where some gentleman invoked the same rhetoric that Donald Trump used in his plan to ban all Muslims to call for a ban on all assault weapons and weapons of mass destruction only until the United States was able to get a handle on dealing with crazy people and began educating our children again (which were cited in that Facebook discussion as reasons for the rampage).  Strangely enough, this idea didn’t seem to be as popular as Trump’s.  We’ve also seen the difficulty in passing a law preventing people on the “No Fly” list from getting a gunA – something that most people consider sensible.

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The Atlantic has a nice articleA explaining how that idea has made hypocrites out of both political parties.
  Based on the comments and arguments I’ve read on this issue, I’ve come up with what may be the only workable solution.

Plan B

Since we will apparently never agree to restrict the ownership of firearms in any way (even though we have no problem regulating less dangerous products), we need to institute some sort of bag limits.  I am in favor of lifetime limits rather than seasonal limits.  There is still some debate on whether the limit on family members should be higher or lower than the limit on innocent strangers (the definition of “innocent” can be worked out later if it is even relevant to this discussion).  To get the ball rolling, I’ll throw out a few numbers that we can iron out in the comment section.  I propose a lifetime limit of one adult white male per person (some restrictions may apply) regardless of the number of guns owned.  Since up to now, damages for such offenses typically considered the earning power of the victim (which never seemed right to me), the bag limit for females should be about 1.5 (I’m not quite sure how to deal with round-off error; maybe we could start at two, but drop the limit to one if you’ve already met your male limit).  The limit on Muslims would, of course, be three (we need to keep the limit for any one incident below four so we don’t trigger the commonly used definition of a mass shooting, and can therefore look better than the French).  Since Jews are still the most persecuted religious group in AmericaA, we’ll set their limit at two.  As usual, there will be no limit on black males, except for overzealous law enforcement agencies.

If we follow this plan, the mass-shooting statistics are guaranteed to go down.  But if the overall gun violence statistics increase intolerably we could either go to a lottery system or increase the permit fees.  (As the fees for especially popular groups start to increase, we may need to find a way to control poaching.  We can worry about that later.)  Both of these solutions have been successful with other game.  If the fees are high enough, we could lower other taxes.  I would start with the taxes devoted to education, since I suspect that those most likely to object to this plan may have some level of intelligence.  We could export the catch to China and convince them it’s more humane than the dog meat they are now using.  If we corner the market for this resource, that too would increase tax revenue.

Did I forget anything?  I realize that this solution may not pass the test for political correctness, but based on some of the feedback I saw in the Facebook discussion, that alone could make the plan more attractive to some people.

What do you think?  If you have a more workable plan, let’s hear it.  If, on the other hand, your plan depends on Hell freezing over, you might as well keep it to yourself.


A Better Way To Handle The Harambe Incident

For those who haven’t heard about the gorilla named Harambe that was shot ten minutes after a toddler fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo around 4 pm on Saturday, May 28, 2016, here is as good a source as any: Gorilla killed after 4-year-old falls into zoo enclosure. Apparently, authorities had both a tranquilizer gun and a rifle at their disposal, and chose the rifle to fatally shoot the gorilla even though the boy hadn’t yet been seriously injured because they were afraid that the tranquilizer wouldn’t act fast enough. They didn’t have to make that call. Here’s a better way.

  1. Take both the tranquilizer and the rifle. The same person should not operate both.
  2. Have other staff members make themselves immediately ready to rescue the child.
  3. When both weapons are ready, shoot the gorilla with the tranquilizer.
  4. Have the person with the rifle continuously evaluate the threat posed by the gorilla.  If bodily harm from the gorilla is not immediately forthcoming, do not shoot.
  5. If the parents get hysterical while you are evaluating the situation and behave in such a way as to adversely affect the behavior of the gorilla or the judgement of the zoo staff, shoot the parents.  (So as not to make the same mistake as the Cincinnati Zoo staff did Saturday, I guess I should mention that you could use the tranquilizer gun for this if you had the forethought to bring the correct dose – even though at this point it wouldn’t be my weapon of choice.  If you don’t have the correct dose, just pray that the staff isn’t acting under the same level of panic or incompetence as they exhibited with Harambe.)
  6. Rescue the child as soon as practicable.

Although (admittedly based on limited information) I did not think the boy was in danger, and not all witnesses in Cincinnati felt the dangerA, those opinions don’t matter to the success of this plan. Since using the tranquilizer doesn’t prevent the use of the rifle, this plan could not have turned out worse for the child than the plan executed, and most likely would have turned out much better for all concerned. The zoo simply threw away options prematurely based solely on their worse fears instead of facts – that sounds like panic to me, and it sounds very unprofessional.  If you feel differently, feel free to comment.  If you see a reason that this plan would not work, feel free to comment.

How Large Is Your Universe?

We used to keep tropical saltwater fish. When getting a new fish, one important question that would inevitably come up would be how much space would it need. It amazed me to think that some fish, even in the wild, could be perfectly happy spending their whole lives patrolling one small rock. That was the extent of their universe. Each individual person, like each of those saltwater fish, lives in their own universe, each a different (but probably overlapping) subset of The Universe created by God.

In The Beginning

When you are born, your universe is very small – focused only on your mother’s breast – but starts to grow immediately. Every experience gives you a new plank you can use to expand your universe. As a new experience comes to you, your mind stretches to make sense of that experience. In a later article we can discuss how important a strong imagination is to discovering the truth (this may seem ironic), which is important for the growth of your universe, but I don’t yet understand how strong imaginations are developed. Other attributes are also required.

When Growth Starts To Slow

Growth may start to slow, however, once your universe is large enough so that a new plank can fit entirely within your existing universe. Since you didn’t have to stretch your universe to accommodate that plank, you may feel that no more growth is necessary and discard that plank. For example, in the story of the blind men and the elephant, which I embellished in The Blind Men And The Elephant, one scholar, “holding the tail, announced that an elephant was like a rope”. While their later behavior may lead you to question how scholarly they really were, a non-scholar would have been more likely to have declared that there are no elephants; what he was holding WAS a rope and he resented any efforts to try to fool him into believing otherwise. In this man’s mind, his universe was already sufficient to describe what he had experienced, and so he threw out the new plank. Once this happens, it takes larger and larger planks to keep up any growth.

When You Have Reached Your Limit

At some point your mind may start subconsciously throwing out old planks to make room for new. In my first career, I was at a field unit (from which everyone starts) and it was a common complaint about how clueless the people in the district office were about what was going on in “the real world”, based on the decisions that were passed down to us. And when someone in our unit was transferred to the district office, we took bets on how long it would take him/her to move to the dark side. The same thing happens when teachers with experience get transferred downtown, away from the classroom. One could argue that it was the people in the field, who had experienced only one small piece of the puzzle (or elephant, if you will), were the ones with the smaller universes and thus were unqualified to pass judgement, while the transferee, with more experience in a larger world was making decisions that would benefit the whole team. While that’s the way we would like to see it work, that doesn’t always happen. My father, who had to join a union to learn his trade, could see only the benefits of the unions at the time and was a strong believer. Once he became a contractor and had to deal with unions “from the other side of the fence”, he could see only the negative. Apparently his universe was not capable of stretching to accommodate both views. Sometimes the truth about elephants is too large to fit in anybody’s universe. When your universe stops stretching, it has reached its maximum capacity.

Then there are other people who are unwilling to stretch, and start throwing out new planks that don’t match or fit into a set of planks that they created themselves. Those people are known as bigots. It’s when they grab everybody around them and try to force the others into their resultingly smaller universe that things could get ugly. I think it’s a bad idea to voluntarily throw planks out of your universe at any time. Here’s why –

The Descent

At some point as you age, your universe will start to become less resilient and will try to shrink. The process begins well before your universe has reached its largest size, but from then on it’s all downhill. I think I’ve already started the slide. If you don’t keep actively trying to add new planks to slow the process, it may act like shrink-wrap, too soon becoming so tight around your body that everybody will be able to see just how small those private parts really are that you had bragged so much about for so long. When they start laughing, you won’t care that the shrink-wrap is now too tight for you to breathe.  I wrote this analogy specifically for men with bloated egos,

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since this term is not in any medical journal or book on psychiatry, I will have to define it in a later post
(which may be my favorite target), but something analogous happens to all population groups.

Measuring Universes

While the size of one’s universe seems to be a far better metricD by which to judge a person than more common and more superficial traits like size, sex, or hair quality, measuring this parameter is not as easy as it sounds. Since you can only measure something that is completely inside your universe, you can only judge people whose universe is small enough to be completely contained within yours, which usually means a child or imbecile. Maybe you are perfectly happy to always be comparing yourself to morons, but eventually your friends are going to correctly conclude that “it must take one to know one”. If a person has any talent or experience that is not part of your universe, there is absolutely no way for you to tell how significant that talent is. If the common area between you and that other person is only a small part of your universe, it might be tempting to draw inferences unfavorable to that other person. But since again you don’t know how large his/her unshared universe might be, your conclusions would be completely unsupported (It is entirely possible that their unshared universe could be larger than yours), but it would give evidence to any counterclaim that it is you who is the idiot.

A less common but more important question may be how to measure the size of your own universe. Sure, you can get from one side of your universe to the other, but what can you compare it to? Maybe you are like that little fish I mentioned at the beginning of this article, perfectly happy patrolling your own little rock while others swim in and out of your life on their way through. How do you know you are not missing out on something worthwhile just over that next rock? How do you know that something big is not soon coming along the path that will annihilate your universe and the universes of everyone around you? I don’t have answers to these questions, but clues might be found in the answer to two other questions: “How often do you discover a plank that isn’t yet part of your universe?” and “How hard are you really looking?”.

The Glory Of Golf

Before I start, I suppose you should know that I’ve never played golf. I was introduced to the game in school and whacked a few balls around, but it never captured my interest. Back then I didn’t even consider it a sport, and the news that some places demand you use a cart to get from hole to hole just reinforced my argument. Although at this point in my life I may be willing to reconsider the physical requirements necessary to qualify as a sport in my world, that’s not why I’m here. I believe there are important life lessons in the game of golf and I’m amazed that so many golfers fail to apply these lessons to their everyday lives.

For Perfectionists

There are perfectionists who would like nothing better than to redo their tee shot if it doesn’t go in the hole. Many of them would never progress beyond the first stroke. A golf course for perfectionists might not have a Hole #2, just eighteen 1st holes so they could better accommodate the crowd. At some point, possibly some time after the lights go out in the evening, even these people would be forced to move on. The question is not whether there are MulligansD in real life – certainly there are plenty of opportunities to practice and hone one’s skills before being tested. The question is whether when the clock is running and it’s time to get things done, if you’d really want to take a do-over. I think you will find that when you are allowed to take advantage of your earlier efforts and take your second shot from wherever the first one stopped rolling, you will find your solution or end of your journey much faster.  In life, the well-known problem-solving strategy of “trial and error” is much more effective when you can take advantage of what you learned in your previous trials.

For The Typically Delusional

Maybe the real beauty of golf is that it forces the rest of us to face reality also. When your shot invariably falls short of expectations, not only are you not allowed to start over, but you are not allowed to place the ball where it SHOULD have gone had the sun been up, or the wind had not suddenly come up, or somebody had not sneezed, or any other logical explanation for your shot being far below your previously advertised average. Yes, it IS amazing how often that happens. Deal with it. Move on. Your second shot will be taken from wherever the first one actually stopped rolling, under the conditions actually in effect when the shot was taken. And your third shot will be taken from wherever that one lands. In this fashion, your chances of success increase significantly with every stroke. You will eventually meet your goal of finishing the course, and you can practice your excuses when you get back to the clubhouse.

What’s not to like about that?

A Failure To Communicate? Oops, My Bad!

I’ve been pondering why I haven’t received a single comment yet, and while investigating I found that it was virtually impossible to leave a comment on this blog. Apparently I left a few crucial check boxes unchecked when setting up the blog and never went back to check it from a visitor’s perspective.  That wasn’t too bright. Now I fixed it.

Of course that doesn’t rule out the possibility that my subscribers and guests are just too polite (or shy) to say bad things about my writing. If that’s the case and you feel strongly about something I wrote, just leave a comment saying “I’m too polite to comment on the second sentence in the third paragraph” or something like that.  I’ll understand.

Another Clueless “Christian”?

Not long ago, on the Facebook page of an acquaintance, a discussion was brewing about the Pope having the audacity to say Donald Trump was not a Christian.

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I won’t give you a link to the Facebook discussion, but here’s a New York Times article describing the Pope’s remarksA.
One person suggested the Ten Commandments were the true litmus testD of Christianity.  This week I read that The Donald’s favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye”A. There seems to be some sort of misunderstanding here. Were this a characteristic peculiar to Trump supporters I would probably have let it slide, but I’m concerned that it is indicative of a growing segment of the population who call themselves Christians, but are clearly clueless about the concept.

My Background

I don’t  consider myself any sort of theology expert.  I’ve even been rumored to have nodded off in the middle of a sermon or two, and am not even guaranteed to come to the same conclusions as our pastor when reading any particular passage.  On each of the few occasions I actually tried reading the Bible cover-to-cover, I was becalmed in one of the begat sections.

Although I’m not a Catholic, I have been impressed with the latest Pope; he didn’t just memorize verses, he actually seems to understand a Biblical concept or two.  In fact, he is so different in my view from his predecessors that I’m amazed he was actually elected (maybe it was Divine Intervention).

The point is you shouldn’t take my word for any of this.  Maybe you should just read the Book.  I’ll give references when I can.  But just beware the begats.

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OK, if you must know, you can find some of them at Genesis 5:1 to end, Genesis 11:10 to end, Genesis 36:1 to end, . . . , Matthew 1:2 through 17, Luke 3:23 to end. This list is not exhaustive. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Bible Background

The way I understand it, the Bible has two parts; the first, called “The Old Testament” could be considered the prequel.  It includes the Jewish (who would prefer not to be called Christian) Torah, their most important text, and spans the period from the creation of the universe (now referred to as the “Big Bang”) up to, but not including the birth of Christ (from which the word “Christian” is derived), a.k.a. Jesus, a.k.a. all kinds of other titles. The New Testament is His story.

The Ten Commandments are in the Torah and therefore are in the Old Testament (Exodus 20:1–17D and then again in Deuteronomy 5:4–21D).  “An eye for an eye” has an even longer history. According to Wikipedia, the principle of “an eye for an eye” goes back to Babylonian LawA, where it was actually an attempt to limit any retaliation so that it wasn’t worse than the original offense.  In English, that means it represents the maximum allowed punishment, not the minimum required punishment (although that interpretation does not seem apparent to me in the language of the Bible).   The rule is repeated three times in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24D, Leviticus 24:20D, Deuteronomy 19:21D).

The Problem

As I hinted before, the Old Testament does not define Christianity.  Christ (also known as Jesus) defines Christianity.  The Old Testament repeats principles that are shared with half of the (non-Christian) population of the middle east.  But we are in luck; Jesus did specifically address the “eye for an eye” idea.  In Matthew 5:38 through 42, He clearly states

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you not to resist an evildoer. On the contrary, whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go two with him. 42 Give to the person who asks you for something, and do not turn away from the person who wants to borrow something from you.”

(Is this where the Pope got his Communist streakA?)

But What Did Allah Say?

Since the “eye for an eye” idea seemed to be so pervasive, I decided to check one more reference: the Quran.   As far as I can tell, it is only mentioned once:

“And We wrote for them in it: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and an equal wound for a wound; but whoever forgoes it in charity, it will serve as atonement for him. Those who do not rule according to what God revealed are the evildoers.”

I think this mirrors the sentiments of Jesus.  While doing research, I found another interesting story that may support this view:

“A man came to the Messenger of Allah with the killer of his relative.
The Prophet said: Pardon him.
But the man refused.
The Prophet said: Take the blood money.
But the man refused.
The Prophet said: Go and kill him, for you are like him.
So the man pardoned the criminal.”


You can’t have your cake and eat it too.  If you are not going to follow the teachings of Jesus (the Communist), then you can’t continue to call yourself a Christian.

Sometimes I come away from an issue with more questions than answers.  In this case I’m wondering what Mr. Trump is really trying to say:

Is he, like the Babylonians, citing this rule as an upper limit on our retaliation?  And recognizing that since September 11, 2001 we have killed far more Muslims (over 100,000 in Iraq alone) than we lost in those terrorist attacks (under 3,000) and the Iraq war (around 4,400) combined,  is he suggesting we should end our war on terror?

Is the real reason he wants to bar Muslims from coming to America is that they make him look barbaric?

By quoting the Quran, I am not endorsing Islam; nor do I have any intention of converting to Islam.  For many of you “Christians”, however, it sounds like it might be a step up.

How America’s Cup Committee Stole Victory From Kiwis

The America’s Cup, a yacht race between a single defender and a single challenger and first run in 1851 by the Royal Yacht Squadron in England for a race around the Isle of Wight, is known as the oldest international sporting trophyA. The referenced Wikipedia article provides an excellent history of the contest, and notes that the Americans held the cup continuously from the first race until 1983, the longest winning streak in the history of sport. The cup was last contested in San Francisco in 2013, but this wasn’t your father’s America’s Cup. The vessels were now 72-foot catamarans (boats with two hulls) costing well over ten million dollars each with rigid “sails” and foils (short underwater wings) that lifted the entire hull out of the water. Their top speed was over 50 miles an hour, or about twice the wind speed. The whole race was held within sight of spectators ashore and instead of taking all day, as was customary, was required to be finished in less than forty minutes to fit snugly between commercials in a one-hour television format. The series also turned out to have one of the greatest comebacks in sports. Stu Woo of the Wall Street journal did an outstanding job of explaining that competitionA. Stu failed to mention a minor change in the rules that bought the American team just enough time to complete the changes necessary to turn things around.

The 2013 America’s Cup was originally billed as a best-of-seventeen seriesA. A Best-of-T series (where T represents the total number of games to be played and is always an odd number) is widely used in sports championships, although before September 2013 I had never heard of T being larger than seven. In English (for those of you who are not sports fans) it means that the two teams will compete exactly T times (for which we will use seventeen in the rest of our examples) and then count up the points to see who won. One team can declare themselves the winner and send everybody home early if they can accumulate more of a lead than the other team can overcome in the remainder of the seventeen games. In a simple world, meaning a world without ties (in those sports that allow them) or penalty points, that would be nine wins in a best-of-seventeen series (round up(17 ÷ 2)).  Yacht racing, as the references in the first paragraph suggested, is not a simple world.  Before the series started the American team was penalized two points for cheating in an earlier round of competition, meaning that their first two wins wouldn’t really count (except to keep points away from their competitor). And although the calendar continued to list seventeen races (with the caveat “if needed” as appropriate) well into the competitionD, all of the experts were still saying that it would take nine wins for the Kiwis to take home the trophy.  The truth is that after the seventeenth race had been sailed, if New Zealand had only eight wins, then the Americans would have won nine races (17 – 8 = 9), but would only have had seven points (9 – 2 = 7), meaning that New Zealand would have still taken home the trophy.  That is what a best-of-seventeen series really means. And, as you can see near the bottom of the Final Scorecard at the end of Stu Woo’s Wall Street Journal article, that is exactly what happened.  But just before New Zealand earned their eighth victory in Race 11, the race committee declared that because the American team’s penalty shouldn’t affect New Zealand, they would still need nine wins to take home the trophy.  Shortly thereafter Races 18 & 19 were added to the schedule. As we now know, thanks to a brilliant turn-around by the American sailors, New Zealand never got that ninth win; the American’s got that point in the nineteenth and final race. Competition doesn’t get any better than that. Had the Kiwis been able to count up to seventeen or had their English been good enough to understand the meaning of “best of seventeen races”, the ending of this story may have been completely different.

The Art Of Communication

I like the definition of communication given by www.businessdictionary.com that talks about a process of reaching mutual understanding, where participants not only exchange information but also create and share meaning. This is a process that obviously takes more than one person. That point was apparently lost on me as a child.  At that time, there were quite a few of my fellow (North) Americans that spoke Spanish in Southern California, and yet when it came time to choose a language to study in school, as required, and having a choice of Spanish, French, German, and possibly Italian and Japanese, I picked German because I wanted to be different.  I studied the language for six years and like to think I was decent at it, but then again, there were no Germans (to speak of) around to contradict me.  Many years have gone by and I can still count past twelve, but some might argue that I didn’t get the most bang for my educational buck.  Now I am surrounded by people in Southern Florida, some who have been visiting for over fifty years, who still have trouble with English and don’t understand why everybody here doesn’t just speak Spanish.  But I am not the only one who has struggled with the concept.

Several weeks ago I saw a gentleman walking down the street wearing a T-shirt with the following sign: i 8 Sum Pi

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To translate, the first symbol is the square root of negative one, which technically doesn’t exist, but is more commonly represented by the small letter “i” as the basis for all imaginary numbers.  The second expression, two to the third power (2x2x2), reduces to eight.  The third, the capital Greek letter Sigma, is seldom seen alone because it represents the sum of the sequence that follows.  The last symbol is the small Greek letter Pi, which has come to be known as the most famous irrational (meaning it never ends and never repeats) constant – representing, among other things, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.
The common name of each of these symbols resembles an unrelated English word, so the expression can be pronounced “I ate some pie”.   But what was the wearer really trying to say?  Mathematically, the expression is meaningless, so its sole purpose seems to be to announce to a select audience what was on his lunch menu.  Maybe the fewer the people who knew that he went off of his diet, the better, so this may be an attempt at a confession without guilt.  While that seemed harmless enough, it reminded me of another obscure message I had seen before.

While driving down the road ages ago, a Jeep passed me that had the following array of small international maritime signal flags displayed on its back window:International maritime signal flags Each of these flags, which are used by navies and merchant marines around the world, has a name taken from the phonetic alphabet.  Along the top row is Foxtrot, Uniform, Charlie, and Kilo.  On the second row sits Yankee, Oscar, and Uniform again.  Individually, each flag has a meaning (for example, Oscar means someone has fallen overboard), or in small groups they could represent short code words.  Sometimes they just represent the letter at the beginning of their name.

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If you want to try to impress your friends at parties, I just found out the term for that (the naming of letters in an alphabet so that the name begins with that letter) is called acrophonyD.
Although I thought the Jeep owner’s words were clear enough, I wasn’t quite sure about his/her message.  Was this message for general audiences, in which case the owner is an ineffective coward, but was probably getting a chuckle imagining himself (or herself) smarter than every other person on the road and able to insult them with impunity. Or did s/he have some problem specifically with sailors? Maybe that’s what s/he wanted to be when they grew up, but either got seasick too easily or didn’t work well with others in confined spaces, and so was taking their frustrations at his/her own inadequacies out on the very group they wanted to be part of.  Who knows?  I followed the car into a parking lot and after s/he went inside I carved the phrase “Roger, out!”D into their back tire, which went flat when I applied the punctuation.

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Although based on a true story, the ending of the last paragraph was changed to better illustrate the range of possible consequences one should expect for one’s actions.  The truth is that when s/he turned into the parking lot, I just kept driving.  I decided they couldn’t possibly have been talking to me.  (Luke 23:34D comes to mind.)

In radio communications, “Roger” simply means the message was received and understoodD. It does not mean agreement. “Out”, as I’ve mentioned beforeA, means “and this conversation is finished.”.

The Real Reason Teachers Are So Important

When it comes to making mistakes, there are a lot of occupations that envy doctors.  Although the quote by architect Frank Lloyd Wright may well be the most famous,

“The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.”

it wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last.

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Professions Wishing They Could Bury Their Mistakes

The oldest comparison I found was from farmers

“The farmer cannot bury his mistakes out of sight like the doctor; they remain above ground where they are seen and known by all men.”

but then there were journalists (who also envy lawyers)

“Doctors bury their mistakes. Lawyers jail theirs. But journalists publish theirs for all the world to see.”

and engineers

“Doctors bury their mistakes, but mistakes bury an engineer”

– June 1, 2009, Ferd Leimkuhler. An Enduring Quest: The Story of Purdue Industrial Engineers

and even preachers?

“Doctors can bury their mistakes. Lawyers’ mistakes get shut up in prison—literally. Dentists’ mistakes are pulled. Plumbers’ mistakes are stopped. Carpenters turn theirs into sawdust.”

– October 11, 1998, Charles R. Swindoll. The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart

Not surprisingly, I found nobody who envied teachers. Somebody (perhaps a teacher, but more likely a disgruntled voter) quipped

“doctors can bury their mistakes. Lawyers can imprison theirs. Architects plant ivy around theirs. Teachers send theirs into politics.”

– October, 2009, Dristarg

I want to explain why that may not be so funny.

Falling Into A Negative Spiral

During my first stint as a teacher in the 1980s, I developed a few theories, one of which was the possible consequences of an inadequate educational system.  It seemed to me at the time that if we failed to teach important problem solving and critical thinking skills, the student would still go on to graduate, find a job, maybe even get married and have kids, all the while having no appreciation for the skills s/he missed, and therefore unable to pass that appreciation on to their heirs.  Equally important, these voters would inevitably make bad choices on election day which, as their numbers continued to grow, would eventually result in the election of a political candidate completely unfit for their position.

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Maybe someday we will discuss what one should be looking for when choosing a politician.
Should these politicians ever reach critical massD, they could then pass laws or make other decisions (like funding) adversely affecting the educational system.  This would complete what engineers call a feedback loop, where the outcome of a process affects the input, in this case accelerating the negative changes.

“The Proof Is In The Pudding”?

Who would have thought I was such a prophet?  I recently stumbled upon an article about “The 10 Dumbest States in America”.

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but if you Google “smartest states” you will see a number of similar articles based on different criteria. Although the results will change slightly, the trends will remain about the same.
Being naturally curious, I compared this list to a list of red and blue states I found on Wikipedia. As you can see below, the results speak for themselves.
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Or do they? On page 35 of the latest Republican platform under “Attaining Academic Excellence for All” it states

“Republican Governors have led the effort to reform our country’s underperforming education system”.

Based on the map, I would have to disagree.

Smartest & Dumbest States - Which Are Red, Which Are Blue?
The top ten and the bottom ten on a list of smartest states on a map of red states and blue states.

To be fair, one comparison of lists of states does not prove anything. There is more than one way to define “smart”, but I think all the conventional definitions will give similar results. Even in defining “Red States…”, Wikipedia had three different maps, but although the second one gave a better indication of the degree of redness, unless you are planning to study this in much greater detail I’m not sure that really matters. I made this map for illustration purposes only.

But Do We Have ‘Cause & Effect’?

One very important question about my theory (like any other theory) would be that of cause and effect.  When talking about downward spirals, the related question of “which came first” is no longer meaningful.  But to have a feedback loop, the cause and effect issue must work both ways.

Do Republicans Hurt Education?

First, would education suffer in a Republican-controlled state?  Their stated goals of a much smaller government, their rejection of science, and even a blatant disregard of factsA suggest so.  The above map suggests so.  If you have any evidence to the contrary, now would be a good time to present it.

Do The Uneducated Vote Republican?

Second, does stupidity lead one to vote Republican?  If true, it would give the Republicans sinister ulterior motives for their cost cutting policies in the departments of education.  It also gives them a huge conflict of interest.

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Unfortunately, unlike judges, politicians don’t have to recuse themselves in those instances.
 And since the rich are predominantly RepublicanA, it could also help explain their interest in school vouchers and such (if they were deliberately underfunding education in an effort to dumb down America and maintain control, they would want an escape hatch for their own kids and they would have the chutzpah to expect the government to reimburse them for it).

This question is, nonetheless, a hard one.  Even rocket scientists prefer simple solutions.

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The principle, now known as “Occam’s razor” after William of Ockham, a fourteenth century English Franciscan friar and philosopher, actually goes back before the Greek philosopher and teacher, Aristotle, who said “The more limited, if adequate, is always preferable”. Although that suffers in translation, it means that if there are two or more solutions to the same problem, choose the simplest.
 When faced with a tough question like “Which candidate would do a better job of finding real solutions to important problems and working to get those solutions implemented”, someone without the necessary critical thinking skills may not be able to resist an appealingly simple,  but flawed solution.  Conversely, the same person might reject a more complicated solution s/he doesn’t understand, even if the conditions warrant such complexity.  You could say I’m just guessing, however, since I have no studies supporting this notion.   Any evidence either for or against this theory would be appreciated.   At the very least, it seems likely to me that a poor education would make identifying the correct candidate more difficult, making the decision more random, which would increase the chances of an error, but could benefit either party.  It could foreseeably cut the margin of victory of what should be a clear winner (in those cases where such a thing exists) to the point where other nefarious forces could use financial influence to carry the day in situations that would ordinarily be cost prohibitive.

I should point out that even if stupidity does lead one to vote Republican, that doesn’t mean the converse of that statement, that all Republican voters are stupid, is also true.  If you are a “smart” Republican you already knew that, but are probably relying on the gullible to advance your agenda (an agenda for which they receive no benefit).

So Now What?

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to get us out of an educational death spiral. Even worse than alcohol’s ability to impair one’s judgement to the extent that one is more and more unlikely to know when it is time to quit, an uneducated person begins life already impaired; it is the “village”‘sA responsibility to lead (or drag) each of us toward competence (sort of like the first time you pushed your son or daughter’s bicycle until they had enough velocity to maintain balance (and maybe the second time, and the third…).  Obviously, we are not doing our job. Maybe it is a motivation issue.  Are the thrills and advantages of being able to handle life’s problems not clear enough?

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As a teacher, I’ve actually had some cases of the parents not wanting to make an investment in the future of one of their heirs with real potential.  One of these parents was an itinerant farm worker.  Their “reasoning” was (and I’m paraphrasing here) that if ignorance was good enough for the parents, it should be good enough for their kids.
Do we need to hire a slick ad agency to convince everybody that life would not seem so hopeless (and we wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on conspiracy theories) if we actually had the ability to get out of harm’s way? One might argue that coddling our children by downplaying their inadequacies and downplaying the advantages of competence so as not to hurt their feelings, socially promoting them to the next level regardless of effort, etc, may have the serious unintended consequence of reducing their motivation. While I’m inclined to let experts debate these issues, I am convinced that as you shrink one’s universe by throwing out more and more of the inconvenient truths, and as one’s grip on reality becomes less and less firm as a result of that policy, the consequences ultimately become more and more dire.  Maybe you need to grow up so that your kids can grow up.  And then insist that your community invests more heavily in education (and by “education”, we need the broadest, not the narrowest definition).  I’m reminded about that old bumper sticker that said “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”; I don’t have such a bumper sticker because too many people are already eagerly accepting that offer.  Education, however, is not an investment opportunity that we can afford to miss.

If you know the solution to this problem, let me know. Or better yet, send me a copy of the correspondence to your congressperson explaining the path we need to take.  And thank you for listening.

Is An Apology Really A Sign Of Weakness?

I’ve known a number of people who share this belief. Now it has even been spelled out as one of the many rules of Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the protagonist in NCISD, a television program started in 2003 which has been one of the top five shows for the last nine years. It would be unfortunate if Mr. Gibbs’ position as a highly competent investigator and team leader were to give credence to this completely ridiculous notion.  The title idea is useful only to wimps with big egos as justification for their refusal to take responsibility for their actions.

The truth is, it is NOT the apology that makes you look weak.  It is doing something stupid and/or harmful to others in the first place that makes you look like an idiot.  And don’t think, when you discover you have erred, that you can slide on by before others notice.  The perpetrator is seldom the first, and in many cases is the last to realize that a mistake has been made.  Often, everyone else has been laughing at you behind your back for weeks by the time you realize you goofed.  You would be delusionally arrogant if you thought the people around you needed your permission to recognize the folly of your efforts.

Contrary to what these people would have you believe, recognizing, admitting, and correcting mistakes is part of the growth process and can be considered an important step toward maturity.  Mr. Gibbs, then, can only be considered a talented and effective leader in spite of his emotional issues, not because of them.  At least that’s the way I see it.  Let me know it there is a better way of looking at this.

How Much The NRA Cares About Elephants.

I just learned from a number of sources that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is opposing President Obama’s plan to restrict American hunters from bringing home more than two elephant “trophies” a year,

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  • “What does the Republican Party have against elephants?”A2 That’s a good question. In the last line of the article, the author Andrew Wetzler mentions that the elephant is the mascot of the Republican Party.  He may have stumbled onto a motive.  Could the Republicans possibly be thinking that if all the wild elephants were gone, then the law of supply and demand would make their mascot more valuable?
  • “The NRA Is Quietly Fighting For Your Right To Kill Elephants For Their Ivory”A3

ostensibly because that would make it harder for gun owners to get top dollar when they try to sell guns with ivory handlesA.  Does that even make sense? It is interesting to see their priorities.

Here are my comments to the NRA:

  • Since we all know that “guns don’t kill elephants, people do”,
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    I am expanding on the unofficial slogan of the NRAA here. People with rocks, no doubt, kill elephants.  Possibly even people with tomatoes.  That could explain all of those pink elephants you’ve been seeing lately.
  • since the NRA’s job is clearly only to push rifles, as their name implies, then
  • I don’t see how you have any standing in this matter (in English, that means “Why should anybody care what you think about elephants”).

The NRA needs to step away from this important issue on the fate of elephants and let the people speak for themselves.