Practical Joke #6

Photo by Greg W.

(Inspired by the little blizzard that blew through here a couple of weeks ago.)

1. Acquire an arm from a department-store mannequin.

2. Wait for a fairly big snowstorm.

3. While shoveling snow, place the arm in an upward-directed position and then pile snow around and on top of it.

4. Wait several weeks or months until the outstretched hand emerges from the melting now.

Dressing the arm in a coat sleeve and mitten is optional.

A Mind-Control Conundrum

"Mind control" as in advertising, that is. This and similar TV commercials have me bewildered:

Ostensibly the idea is that a man is supposed to go out and buy some expensive jewelry for the woman in his life (and hey, I'm all in favor of that). So why then is this ad designed to be so uninteresting to men? Trust me, ladies, on this one. Learning sign language would be interesting but in every other respect this insipid, charisma-deficient man-child is the opposite of what every man aspires to be. It's easy to predict the eventual fate of this couple: to be accosted by a gang of motorcycle toughs while walking a city street one night. The man winds up flat on his back from a punch in the nose while the woman rides off on the back of a motorcyclestill wearing her new jeweled wristwatch.

And it's not just this one. In other jewelry commercials the excited girlfriend shows off her new diamond to her envious friends. Apparently this is more rewarding than actually spending time with her pathetic loser boyfriend (nowhere to be seen), whose sole important contribution to the relationship now sits on the girlfriend's finger.

So what's the story here? Is it mass incompetence in the advertising industry or rather some subtle psychological master-stroke way too clever for me to recognize? Has the jewelry industry decided appealing directly to men is a waste of time and chosen instead to encourage women to nag their men into buying something? Or maybe buy things for themselves and then pretend to have received them from an admirer?

Not being a woman, I hesitate to judge the appeal of messages such as this to women. On the other hand I see perfume commercials, which I assume are targeted to women, and those (unlike jewelry commercials) are usually charged with some real sexual energy.

If you want to sell men on doing something nice for women, here's the right way to do it:

I don't drink vodka, but I like the message here. Gallantry is cool.


Photo by katiew.

My train of thought while showering this morning...

...was provoked by Gershwin's "Concerto in F", to which I was listening at the time. Gershwin reminded me of "Porgy and Bess." I listen to this occasionally, but I haven't seen it since watching the film version on TV as a young impressionable child. My visual impressions of the story are therefore hazy, selective, and imperfect. These conflict with my listening knowledge of the opera, which carries a pretty grim plotline. My distant childhood impression, on the other hand, is of something altogether more playful and frivolous. Hmmm... whence the discrepancy?

Then again, some years back, I was on a hike with the Boy Scouts, along a trail which went through the wilderness in stretches, and along a highway in others. Crossing a bridge, we saw riverfront homes. One such was particularly interesting to see, having fallen victim to the encroaching river, radically slumped over, roof caving in, one wall missing. On seeing this, my main emotional reaction was not I'd hate for that to be my house, but more: Gee, that looks like a fun place. Seems an odd reaction, right?

And then I had it--one small piece in the puzzle of the human mind. Maybe it's not such an odd reaction. The characters in Porgy and Bess live in a rather seedy world (as I recall) of houses with sagging roofs and leaning walls. What previous experience would a child have had in such an environment? The closest would have been the world of Lil' Abner (this is an old-timey comic strip about hillbillies, for you young punks out there), or maybe Pogo (another classic old comic strip)--which were fun places. Only slightly farther removed would be the world of Popeye. And a bit further down the road is the world of Dr. Seuss.

In comics, cartoons, and children's books, houses show curves and bulges. Dr. Seuss's architecture never makes use of a straight line. In the real world, on the other hand, houses are rigid, straight, and angular. Except on the rare occasions when you come across a deliciously ramshackle old ruin--and then you never know--Popeye or Daisy Mae might come strolling out.

I ought to watch Porgy and Bess again. Although I rather hate to lose the child's wacky fun version....

No Fun, No Gain

As a regular gym-goer, I can report (just in case any of you were wondering) that the experience of working out is not all that interesting. Why else do so many have such a hard time making exercise into a regular habit? Any sensible program necessarily entails a lot of repetition.

Imagine, on the other hand, if your gym experience went like this: maybe you're hanging from a pull-up bar, going for your nth rep. The walls around you carry a projected image of a craggy landscape, while beneath is a yawning chasm. In front of you is a cliff face. You hear the howl and feel the bite of a chill breeze. With each rep, the images show you climbing a little higher up the cliff face. Wouldn't this make work-outs a little more diverting?

Here you have this week's million-dollar idea, something I call the fantasy gym. How about working out on the Stair-Master and seeing yourself approach the summit of Everest? The summit is attained only by reaching your goal. The actual level of difficulty is up to you. Oxygen deprivation is optional.

Swim in a pool with sharks. Run around a track with CIA assassins chasing you. Build a pyramid by lifting stone blocks into place. The possibilities are endless.

There are plenty of gaming arcades out there, and plenty of health clubs, but so far as I know no one has attempted to combine the two. I find this a little hard to believe.

On the other hand, perhaps this idea fails from a business standpoint. Perhaps gyms would rather have you sign up for a monthly membership and then not show up--it let's them collect more money with limited facilities.

Huh! For Real?

Sleep teaching is a popular culture meme. I'm not sure where I first encountered the concept but it must have been some TV show wherein a character goes to sleep wearing headphones and wakes up speaking fluent Spanish or something. Were I a more pretentious person, I would claim to have first encountered the concept from Huxley's Brave New World, in which sleep teaching is used to render the various castes content with their place in society: "I'm so glad I'm a Beta." I rather suspect that Brave New World may be the well-spring of the popular meme.

According to Wikipedia, a study in 1956 concluded that sleep-teaching is hogwash, which has been the scientific consensus since that time. Now guess what--a new study finds evidence that sleep teaching actually does have an effect.

The new study was undertaken by Ph.D. student John Rudoy and colleagues and Northwestern University. It differs perhaps from earlier studies in combining awake learning with sleeping review. The subjects of the study learned (while awake) the randomly assigned positions on a diagram of 50 objects such as teakettles and wineglasses. Each object was accompanied by a relevant sound such as the whistle of a kettle or the sound of breaking glass. Then the subjects took a short nap, during which the associated sounds for 25 of the 50 objects were played--at a level too low for conscious awareness. Afterwards, the subjects were tested on recalling the locations of all 50 objects. Recall was 15% better for those objects whose sounds had been played during sleeping.

Note that the sounds played have no direct connection to the locations of the objects--the sleep-teaching apparently only functioned as a stimulus to the subjects to rehearse what they already knew.

15% is a significant margin. I could wish for a larger sample than the twelve subjects that were actually used, but certainly this is intriguing. How can we make use of this effect? Well, one easy approach which comes to mind is to study a language during the daytime and then use audio to review vocabulary or other while sleeping. Perhaps, if I find the time and inclination, I may pursue my own little one-person experiment.

Product Review: Read My Lips! DVD series

One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to learn to read lips. This was provoked by a visit to a nightclub where the music is far too loud for conversation (a kind of place I don't visit often - otherwise I would have thought of this years ago). My friends and I were attempting conversation by screaming into each others' ears. My first thought was: this is why everyone needs to learn sign language. But then lip-reading appeared a more practical choice - sign language only works with a proficient counterpart, whereas you can read others' lips with no special skill or effort on their part.

And then lip-reading can be useful for other purposes besides, as you know if you watched Tom Cruise in MI-III. Or as Jerry Seinfeld says: "It's like a super-power."

So now most of the year is gone, and I haven't realized this resolution as yet. I did make some attempts. My first idea was to gradually turn the volume down on the TV so I would need to rely more and more on the visual. The problem I found with this approach is that in almost all TV programming, for a large proportion of time the person speaking is not actually on screen - the possible exception being talking-heads shows. I then tried the same thing with carefully selected Web videos, but still found it difficult to make progress.

So I decided to take the plunge and buy the Read My Lips! DVD series from Amazon. This is an early review, based on initial experience. The real proof is in the learning; I'll post a follow-up report when I'm done with the series.

The series is produced by Speechreading Laboratory, Inc. It is a remastered version of a videocassette series. The six DVD's are spartan compared to the typical Hollywood production (which is just fine with me), and the actors and settings are very 80's (also just fine with me). The approach is simple, but looks promising. An actor says something. You can't hear the voice. (Instead there is an 80's musical soundtrack - I suspect I'm going to subconsciously associate lip-reading with light jazz from here on.) After a pause a subtitle reveals what was just said.

The level of difficulty gradually increases. The first lesson, for example, consists of single words for months and days of the week. The actors speak normally, but the restricted area of discourse makes the task just difficult enough. I skipped ahead to the sixth disk and found a rather entertaining discussion between a mother and daughter about the daughter planning to marry a much older man who has been married three times already. And, more important - quite beyond my present lip-reading capability. So if I reach Disk Six and am able to understand it, I will know I will have learned something nontrivial.

The set includes a small booklet with some analytical tips for lip-reading. I've noticed already that the "th" sound is one of the easiest to recognize. And I know a few tricks that aren't in the booklet. The booklet points out that "mom" and "pop" rely on the same mouth motions and are almost impossible to distinguish visually. This would be true, except for the timing. "Mom" takes about twice as long to say as "pop." Try it. They recommend 15 to 20 minutes of practice per day, which seems quite doable. Especially as lip-reading is inherently a passive activity, I suspect it won't require as much energy as, say, going to the gym.

So, preliminary impression: I'm pleased. The system seems well-designed. I think this is going to work. I'll let you know in a few months.

Lost Continent Discovered

In our jaded age, an increasingly rare pleasure is the thrill of discovering something new - like maybe a nifty restaurant in your own neighborhood that you had overlooked for years, or a piece of classical music that stirs you.

I sometimes wish I were living 100 years ago, when the world was a much bigger place, with many more exotic and hard-to-reach corners. Good old pulpy stories like Allen Quatermain, Lost Horizon, or Terry and the Pirates can't take place in the modern world; everything is too familiar and too interconnected. In those days you could almost believe there might be an uncharted island somewhere inhabited by dinosaurs and an enormous gorilla.

In the mid 1930's the pulp writer William L. Chester published a series of wilderness adventure stories about the hero Kioga, sort of a pseudo-Tarzan, who inhabited an uncharted land called Nato-wa, north of the Arctic Circle. Imagine my surprise to learn (just yesterday!) that there is in fact an inhabited landmass close to the North Pole, called Svalbard. When I found it on the globe, I went whoa. It is the farthest-north permanently inhabited location on Earth. This instantly made it onto my list of "must-see" places.

This is the lost continent. Okay, okay, both "lost" and "continent" are exaggerations. But - although officially discovered in 1589, it's new to me. And it's big enough to keep me busy for the all the time I might be able to spend there.

What does Svalbard have to offer? Well, for one thing, it gives you a chance to combine adventure with relative comfort. It's practically the North Pole, and offers plenty of arctic-type scenery such polar bears, walruses, and glaciers. Check out this bit of local color (courtesy of Wikipedia): Since polar bears are common on Svalbard and hunt humans on occasion, people need to take precautions when outside the settlements: this includes carrying a rifle. Nevertheless, the law protects polar bears, forbidding anyone to harm or disturb them unless it is necessary to avert personal injury. At the same time, they have a tourist bureau. They have commercial air service. They have hotels. They even have ATM's.

One slightly spooky but interesting landmark: Svalbard is home to an underground doomsday vault holding samples of all kinds of crop seeds in case the crops are wiped out by some kind of plague.

The "Mexican Sushi" Phenomenon

I just coined the term "Mexican sushi" to describe a phenomenon that I witness around me more and more frequently. I doubt that it is really happening more frequently, but I am probably becoming more attuned to noticing it. It's based on the following little parable:

Suppose you own a restaurant--a Mexican restaurant, with an excellent native-born Mexican chef, but business has been falling off. You do some research and discover that nobody eats Mexican food any more. Sushi is all the rage. So you decide to switch over to sushi. You gather the restaurant's staff together to discuss it and they all show 100% enthusiasm--especially the chef: "I've never had sushi but I'm ready for a new direction in life." So you fax her the recipe and she goes out to buy the ingredients and puts her first order of sushi together according to the directions.

How much do you want to bet that somehow the sushi will not be what you are expecting. There are just too many unconscious assumptions made while cooking. Maybe the rice will have cumin in it, or the chef won't have wasabi on hand but figure jalapenos to be a good-enough substitute.

Can a native-born Mexican learn to make authentic sushi? Of course, but it's going to take more than just a recipe. Maybe someone needs to be looking over her shoulder on the first attempt. Maybe you need several cycles of try-taste-feedback-try.

[End of parable.]

Then again--a real-life story--about ten years ago I was at scout camp with my son. He was working on a Scouting requirement, something about constructing a useful device by lashing together sticks. Some of you may not know that in order to lash two sticks together "correctly" you don't just wrap a rope around until it looks "pretty good." Rather you make each joint according to one of several precise recipes depending on the type of joint desired. For example, a "square lashing" (see video above) is designed to connect two sticks at right angles and is constructed according to the formula: clove hitch--three wraps--three fraps--clove hitch.

I sent my son off to practice constructing something and after a while he brought back his creation. Sure enough, the lashings were made according to the "wrap a rope around until it looks pretty good" method. Thereupon followed the following exchange:

"What is this here? How many times did you wrap this?"

"I don't know. It doesn't matter, does it?"

This illustrates one contributing factor to the "Mexican sushi" phenomenon--a human penchant for interpreting a requirement in a set of instructions as a mere "guideline." Conversely a statement intended as a guideline may be interpreted as a strict requirement. Or the instructions may be incomplete and the listener interprets the ambiguity in an unexpected way. Surely you have had experiences such as this when giving directions to the driver of a car: "Take the next right... no, not that one! That's just a parking lot!"

As a rule, getting and giving advice or instructions is a much subtler art than is usually appreciated. I am particularly interested in the Mexican sushi phenomenon as it applies to learning how to make major life changes--weight loss, confronting phobias, financial planning. It's probably both more common and more destructive in such contexts because fundamental attitudes come into play.

It's Moments Like These You Cherish

(This isn't really about politics....)

I just love this picture from Obama's health-care speech last night. What were these guys talking about?

I like to think that Al Franken just made a really obscene joke about Harry Reid's wife. It's the romantic in me, I suppose.

Obama's Big School Speech

You know - the speech that enraged right-thinking parents around the country with the prospect of a socialist outlook being foisted by the President on their helpless children.

Well, doesn't fairness demand that the Republicans be allowed to broadcast a rebuttal?

Obama: "Every single one of you has something to offer."

Republican response: "Every single one of you has something to offer. Except you, Billy. You got nuthin'."

Obama: "And no matter what you want to do with your life - I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it."

Republican response: "Education is for suckers. Look where I am - and I didn't need no stinkin' education."

Obama: "Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn’t speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez."

Republican response: "Jazmin Perez is not from Roma, Texas. I have here a copy of her actual Kenyan birth certificate."

Now that's a speech I would enjoy listening to.

Always Look for a Better Way

Leonard Pickel was my college roommate a long time ago, and a childhood friend before that. I'm pretty sure he would win a contest for the person I know with the most interesting job.

There are two morals to this story--a small one and a large one. The small one is: When you go off to college, live in the oldest and shabbiest dorm available. Leonard and I did this, unwillingly to begin with but by choice in successive years. The oldest dorms had the largest rooms (with wonderful high ceilings). Sure, we had to go down the hall to use the shower, but that also meant others were paid to clean it. And since the dorm we lived in was always on the verge of being condemned, we had a lot of license to paint our rooms any color we wanted and generally abuse the premises. (That's a photo of our dorm below.)

At Halloween, we made use of this freedom to put on a little haunted house. At 50 cents a head, we made enough to have a nice little pizza party. This being the late seventies, we furnished our haunted house with items such as a Star Wars cantina. The creep down the hall who was into martial arts put on his leather suit and a gorilla mask. While he stood perfectly still everyone was sure he was a mannequin, until--Hah! Got you! And one of Leonard's inspirations was a corridor with multiple doors that characters could run in and out of (ideal for a dormitory setting, and in retrospect probably inspired by Yellow Submarine).

After graduation, Leonard and I went our separate ways. Leonard, with an architecture degree, went to work for an architectural firm doing, you know, architecture stuff. But he still put on a haunted house now and again on Halloween. And then, after some years, he decided to chuck it all and do haunted houses full-time. As his dad said, his working capital was a trailer full of 2x4's.

Now here comes the second large moral. Leonard didn't just put on haunted houses; he thought about what he was doing. He kept looking for a better way. How do you keep people from bunching up so you can maximize the number of customers you can put through in an hour? How do you protect your actors from the obnoxious lout looking for an excuse to punch someone in the nose?

Now Leonard is not just a haunted-house guy--he's a leading authority in the independent haunted-attraction business. People in the field talk about the "Pickel theory" of haunted-house design, which encompasses both practical considerations and an aesthetic philosophy: Leonard cares little for blood and guts, preferring instead to rely on good old-fashioned startles.

Thanks to Leonard I have a window onto a fascinating little industry I would otherwise know nothing about. Some years ago my family and I visited the attraction Leonard was operating in Myrtle Beach and got a behind-the-scenes tour. We were also Leonard's guests at a haunted-attraction convention where I was fascinated by the seminar he gave.

Leonard's website: Here's one of his designs:

P.S. Leonard, I always thought "Pepper's Ghost" would make a good title for a short story with some kind of ironic twist at the end.

Comforting Lie of the Day

Photo by Faeryan

From TIME magazine:

Ah, yes. We'd all like to believe this, wouldn't we? So Michael Phelps ingests 12,000 calories a day and yet doesn't get fat because of--just dumb luck? Some obvious issues with the article:

1. "Weight" is probably not the metric that most people are really interested in. Dropping fat and adding muscle in some cases leads to an increase in body weight while the individual slims down. Body measurements or percentage of body fat might be more meaningful.

2. Even the most strenuous exercise group in the study worked out for less than 30 minutes a day. Puh-leeze. It takes me longer than that just to drive to the gym.

My own theory is that a major factor in the success (or lack thereof) of an exercise program is mindset. If you're going to spend 20 minutes on the Stairmaster while flipping through a magazine and then whine about how much willpower you've used up, it's probably not going to happen for you. (Willpower is required for this type of exercise program, because it's just so damn boring.) On the other hand, if you're really interested in finding out what your body is capable of, and pursue the goal intelligently, it will be far more enjoyable and effective at the same time.

Quote for the Day

(More useful than the last one.)

The man who will get up will be helped up; and the man who will not get up will be allowed to stay down.

Frederick Douglass

Interesting Quote of the Day

From Sarah Palin, at her farewell party (thanks to Politico):

"By the way, Hollywood needs to know: We eat therefore we hunt.”

Really? She eats wolves?

Apollo 11

Thoughts on the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing...

I am so glad this happened.

I like the Moon. I like spaceships--but the Apollo program means something more philosophical to me. When Kennedy set the goal of sending a man to the moon and back within ten years, we (the Americans) were trying--and failing--to send a man merely to the edge of space. Now that's boldness.

The proper way to think about the moon landing was summed up by James Lovell (as quoted in the move Apollo 13) :

"It's not a miracle. We just decided to go and we did it."

The lesson of Apollo is this: Set a dream, an ambitious dream, and pursue it: with boldness and tenasciousness and with intelligence--think about what you're doing, what's working, what isn't. what you could be doing differently. You'll be amazed at what you can achieve.

What came after Apollo? The Seventies--the decade of our national malaise? I frequently reach back to memories of Apollo for inspiration. What has happened since then as inspiring?

Suggested viewing/reading

(Note 1: Then again this new Obama guy seems to have a bit of the spirit about him. Perhaps the next few years will yield something exciting and inspiring.)

(Note 2: On the other hand, history also provides examples of what happens when you set an ambitious dream and pursue it blindly. I'm thinking Great Leap Forward, Iraq War....)

Biker Season

Photo by Stuck in Customs

In summer the bikers frequently turn up downtown en masse. I'm not one of them (so far) but I enjoy their presence. I'm always struck by a contrast--I'm tempted to call it a paradox, but perhaps that says more about my own prejudices than about reality.

If you look at the bikers themselves, many of them exhibit what could charitably be called an easygoing attitude towards their personal appearance. I can't imagine they invest much time nor effort into it. And yet the bikes--they're spotless, meticulously polished--really beautiful. There's nothing in my own life that I put so much effort into maintaining in peak condition. I'm tempted to say it proves everyone has a sense of beauty.

(A second observation: I'm grateful to motorcycles for preserving a gleaming, chrome-heavy esthetic that went out of style with cars 40 years ago. )

Thoughts on "Affirmative Action"

(Stimulated by a discussion of Sonia Sotomayor...)

I suggest that we retire the term "affirmative action" due to its extreme amorphousness. Does "affirmative action" mean a strict quota system for Supreme Court justices, or hiring preferences for members of historically disadvantaged groups, or aggressive recruiting by law schools at historically black colleges? I guarantee that each of these (among others) is the meaning of "affirmative action" to at least some. A favorite tactic of dishonest argument is to let the meaning slide back and forth in the course of a single discussion.

The test scores and certificates that proponents of strict meritocracy would have us base decisions on give an illusion of precise measurement. Does anyone seriously think we should choose Supreme Court justices based on the highest SAT score? SAT scores are a crude predictor for some things but an exact predictor of nothing, not even an individual's performance on the next SAT.

My personal view on the issue: All the measurements and data in the world provide only a rough estimate of an individual's likely performance in any job or academic program. In reality there is no "best candidate", only a pool of candidates who are all the "best qualified" given the imperfect state of our knowledge. History shows that predictions of future performance for Supreme Court justices are especially imprecise. Acknowledging the level of our ignorance in such matters yields freedom. Given that there is no uniquely determined "best candidate" why should we not choose from among the best with some secondary goal (such as diversity) in mind? This does not unfairly disadvantage anyone, and I think an honest assessment of our level of ignorance leaves lots of room for encouraging diversity and remedying past injustice. If this is what is meant by "affirmative action", then I'm all in favor.

Movie Review: "Pinocchio in Outer Space"

I couldn't resist. I like quirky things. Besides I remembered watching this when I was a kid (funny how the memory and the reality can be so different).

Forthwith the review I posted to Amazon:

If you have always had the urge to see Pinocchio incinerated by an atomic mushroom cloud, then this is the movie for you. It starts out as a rather lame remake of the Disney story, complete with second-rate songs (Geppetto in particular looks suspiciously similar to the Disney version) except that Pinocchio is for some reason now living in contemporary New Jersey. Once Pinocchio makes it to outer space, though, they junk the musical stuff and the story turns into a fairly decent kid-level space opera. The underground scenes seem inspired by Forbidden Planet with some overtones of The Jetsons. Although the story is a fantasy, various serious science facts are scattered throughout. It's the kind of movie with dialog such as, "They've been feeding the animals radioactive food to stimulate mutations!" followed by an explanation of what mutations are. According to the producer's commentary it seems the outer-space part came first, and it was later decided to make Pinocchio the main character because he is the one fairy-tale character who ponders moral issues. You have to admire the audacity of the concept. The ending seems to promise a sequel, but so far as I know this was never made. What would have come next? Pinocchio versus Frankenstein? Beverly Hills Pinocchio?

Practical Joke #5

Photo by digitaura.

This is fun when you are interviewing job candidates, preferably for something in the coporate universe:

Greet the candidate warmly and guide him or her to a small office. The office door should have a small peephole suitable for observation--the more obvious the better. Invite the candidate to have a seat while you make some preparations. Close the door of the room, leaving the candidate to sit by himself/herself.

Slide a ceiling tile to the side and lower a banana on a string--just out of reach. Then go to the peephole and watch the candidate's reaction.

Here's a deep thought

Isn't it interesting that a lot of the same politicians who find it impossible to believe order can arise from chaos in the context of evolution have an unshakable faith in the ability of uncontrolled markets to solve any economic problem?

The TV Commercial I Want to See

Photo by Michele Catania

Fantasized about while watching ads on the TV news...

Patient in eye doctor's office: Gee, Doc, I don't know what to do. My eyes are itchy and irritated all the time because they don't make enough natural tears.

Doctor [who manages simultaneously to exude reassurance and competence while being extremely good looking]: Your problem is not unusual. Fortunately medical science has discovered a simple treatment.

The doctor forms the index and middle fingers of his/her right hand into a V and pokes the patient in both eyes. BOINK!

Fade out as the doctor runs circles around the examining chair.

Doctor: Nyuknyuknyuknyuk...

Photo by NYCArthur

Mental Maps of the Abstract

Polymath and Renaissance guy Sir Francis Galton published an article in the journal Nature by the title of "Visualized Numerals."

The year in which he did so was 1880.

Now, hold it right there. When you read that last sentence, what image formed in your mind to represent that piece of information? "The year in which he did so was 1880." I suppose one could visualize a copy of the journal with the article in it and at the same time a calendar on the wall that says "1880." That would be quite logical, but it's not how I see it. I see rather a sort of chart of the centuries laid out, and in a certain spot late in the 1800's is a little image of Sir Francis Galton writing his article.

(If you need to know what he looks like in order to form such an image, there is a very nice picture of him at, but take my word for it--he looks exactly like someone named "Sir Francis Galton" ought to look.)

Here's my point: you might expect that my mental chart of the centuries simply consists of one after the other, but it isn't quite like that. It has a few peculiarities. All the centuries from antiquity to the 20th century are laid out in a series running from right to left. Each is a rectangle something like a page of a book. Within each century, the years run from bottom to top (with a few zigs and zags of their own). But, for no particular reason that I can tell, the 21st century sits on top of the 20th century rather than to the right, and the 22nd and successive centuries are then laid out to the left of the 21st. So, for example, when I read the end of The Time Machine, when the Earth in the far future is inhabited by giant crabs, I picture this happening way out to the left of the diagram.

In the distant past, somewhere beyond the beginning of history, the pages blur into a time line. Somewhere around the emergence of Homo Sapiens, the line makes a bend so that one is heading upwards in order to go back in time. The line is populated with images of the animals that existed in any given era. During the Age of Dinosaurs, the primitive mammals are running along a smaller timeline to the left of the main time line.

The line extends up until about 4 billion years ago and then takes another bend so that again one is heading rightwards in order to go back in time. This part of the line is populated with vague images of galaxies and nebulae until it runs up against a hemispherical cul-de-sac, which is my mental image of the Big Bang (the universe closing down [as time runs backwards] to a point).

This image has been my mental map for the flow of time since a very young age. I'm quite sure no one else's is quite the same. But does everybody else even have a map? From time to time I have tried asking others how they visualize the flow of time, but usually can't get much of an answer. I've never been sure whether this is because they have some fundamentally different mental mechanism at work, or they are just not good enough at introspective thinking.

That's why I was so fascinated to find this article. It concerns the visualization of numbers rather than the flow of time (I use a different mental map for numbers, still another for the months of the year), but the essential concept is the same. The article includes several interesting diagrams of the mental number maps of various individuals. One is above. Here are a couple more:

This has the same fascination as those idle thoughts you have: "I wonder if everyone else sees the same color red as I do?" Well, maybe not you--I find that certain people never think about such things. Here is a similar issue, except in this case you can find that what different people "see" is very different.

These diagrams are called "number forms." For some reason they are often discussed in connection with synaesthesia, which is a cross-linkage between different senses--experiencing colors as sounds, for example. (See, for example, the Wikipedia article on "Number forms.") I have no such tendencies that I am aware of.

Galton pursued an introspective, subjective type of psychology that seems to have gone out of style. His interests extended far beyond this: "geographer, meteorologist, tropical explorer, founder of differential psychology, inventor of fingerprint identification, pioneer of statistical correlation and regression, convinced hereditarian, eugenicist, proto-geneticist, half-cousin of Charles Darwin and best-selling author", according to I recommend perusing their publication list.

The Ultimate Test of a Woman's Character...

Photo by sparktography. planning her wedding.

I view large, elaborate weddings with a touch of amusement. It's gone too far (as it usually seems to do) when the bride spends the weeks before the wedding stressed out over dresses and menus, rather than in pleasant anticipation and having fun with her fiance. And it's interesting how the groom plays merely a (minor) supporting role in the wedding planning.

It's been some years since the term "Bridezilla" entered the language. Thing is, the bride is encouraged by everyone around her to think of the wedding as her day (again, the groom is an afterthought). Everyone else steps back and the bride is bound by nothing but her own self-restraint. Surely this is revealing, to see where she goes when driven purely by her own impulses. See this article which mentions a bride who expected her bridesmaids to have breast-enhancement surgery. Not every bride does this--that's the point. It's a test.

One could imagine a whole new branch of psychoanalysis, which analyzes women's psyches by their wedding arrangements.

And, of course, there is a corresponding occasion for men, which reveals the core of their character. I just haven't figured out what it is yet.

Practical Joke #4

Photo by marie b.

1. Go to a car dealer and tell them you're shopping for a new car. Tell them you want to take a test drive. The smaller and lighter the model of car, the better.

2. Once in the car, out on the open road, with the salesman seated next to you, start making some idle chit-chat.

3. Segue into the Christopher Walken speech from Annie Hall. If you don't recall, it goes something (very loosely) like this: "Sometimes when I see a big truck coming I get this sudden urge to swerve into its path. I imagine the purifying flames coursing through my body...." It helps if you let your eyes glaze over and speak in trancelike tones.

4. For bonus points, wait until you see a truck coming and make the slightest of feints toward the left with the steering wheel.

The World's First Nerds?

Photo by mrtwism.
One of the stories I was forced to read in middle school has stuck with me: "Bargain" by A. B. Guthrie. A recent train of thought motivated me to track the story down and buy a used edition of the Guthrie anthology containing it. (Warning: spoilers ahead--my search started with just the clues "wood alcohol" and "story" on Google.) The story takes place in a small town in the old West. The two main characters are a somewhat bookish shopkeeper and a big, drunken, illiterate (both important plot points) town bully who, among other obnoxious behaviors, refuses to pay his bills. Over such a dispute the bully crushes the shopkeeper's hand beneath his boot. Thereafter, the shopkeeper gives up on collecting his bill and even gives the bully a job as a deliveryman. At the end of the story the bully is found out in the winter wilderness, dead, along with some barrels of wood alcohol (clearly labeled "POISON", but... aha! you see?) which he had been transporting for the shopkeeper.
Perhaps no masterpiece, but it is a nicely plotted little story, and I think it relates to an underappreciated theme, which is the unending struggle between two elements of humanity which we currently call the jocks and the nerds. Although both these terms are of relatively recent coinage, I suspect the distinction is psychologically innate--at least for men--I'm not sure about women. The jock-versus-nerd struggle provides a subtext for a lot of other things going on, like certain disagreements I witness at the office, or Republicans versus Democrats (surely you can see which is which), or the relationship (if one may call it that) between the Sam and Norman characters in Psycho.
And then there is this... consider the relationship between the Greeks and Romans during the Roman empire. The Romans kept Greeks as slaves. Greek slaves made excellent tutors for one's children. Greek academic achievements were highly respected, to the point where they were practically regarded as the source of all higher knowledge. Nonetheless they were slaves; they can't have been completely respected.
(By the way, there is a remarkable contrast, which I don't fully understand, between the Roman and American attitudes toward slavery. Romans were happy to educate some slaves and arm others [the gladiators]. American slaveowners considered that their survival depended on keeping their slaves ignorant and unarmed.)
My layman's reading of the situation: the Romans respected the Greeks for their knowledge and at the same time looked down on them for having been conquered by force of arms (although the Greeks had been empire builders in their own day). I therefore view Greeks as the original nerds, Romans as the original jocks.

Depression-Era Hobbies

Here's a short list of hobbies--activities that are fun, interesting, and potentially challenging with the potential for personal development--which require little or nothing in the way of resources and money. DISCLAIMER: Some of the activities described herein carry risk of harm, ranging from a cut finger to paralysis and death. All are reasonably safe if practiced with prudent caution. Become informed, and take responsibility for your actions. If your head gets cut off don't come crying to me!

1. Budget backpacking. The secret appeal of backpacking is that once you've mastered it, theoretically you can go anywhere on Planet Earth--roads no longer necessary. As a hobby, it can eat up as much money as you want to pour into it, but it doesn't have to. Every Appalachian trail hiker knows the story of Grandma Gatewood, who hiked all 2,168 miles of the trail three times, at ages ranging from 67 to 75, equipped with little more than sneakers, an old Army blanket, and an old shower curtain.

You can spend hundreds of dollars on a backpacking tent, or you can sleep under a sheet of plastic costing at most a few dollars (that's mine pictured above). The latter will give you more space, and--if you know what you're doing--may well keep you drier. You can make your own backpack out of a mesh laundry bag and a old book bag for another handful of dollars (check out the "Sgt. Rock Rucksack". You can make your own alcohol stove out of three empty soda cans, eat cup noodles, carry (and refill) a store-bought liter of water rather than a canteen, and so on. At online forums, others are more than happy to help you get started.

2. Paper modeling. Also known as card modeling, or papercraft. Cut paper, glue it together, you get a ship, an airplane, a funny animal, or whatever your passion is. See some examples at the Gallery. Basic resources needed: a computer and printer, some heavyweight paper, a hobby knife, some white glue. Difficulty ranges from slightly glorified paper airplanes to complicated patterns with hundreds of parts. Thousands of patterns are available on-line for free, others for sale. You can buy books with preprinted patterns.

Or go hard-core: just you, armed with a knife and glue, versus a blank stack of paper. If you want to go a little deeper you can design your own patterns (and perhaps share them on-line).

Here's some places to start looking, just a few out of a large universe:, Lower Hudson Valley Gift Shop (despite the name, everything is free, although they do accept donations), Papercraft Paradise.

3. Parkour. Also known as free-running. If you've never seen this, it is difficult to explain. It's a sport with no rules, a game with no winners or losers. The objective is to get from point A to point B as gracefully and athletically as possible. You can find some in the movies--the big chase seen at the beginning of Casino Royale features parkour practitioner S├ębastien Foucan as the bomb-maker. Or check out the following video:

Obviously parkour can be extremely athletic (I've never tried it--as yet), but even these guys had to start small.

4. Chess. Sixty-four squares, sixteen pieces, and after several hundred years the possibilities are still endless. You can score a set for a few dollars (I've picked up some at the dollar store), and there are plenty of resources on-line to teach you how to play and how to play better. If you have no friends, you can download free software to play against (and you may not need a board). You can find an adversary on-line at any time.

5. Dancing. In my misspent youth, I did the standard backpacking trip to Europe, during which a friend and I made a side trip to Morocco. During this time we stayed for three days with a family in Casablanca. This says something about variations in standards of hospitality around the world. We had never met them before but they insisted, notwithstanding there were seven of them living in a (clean and dignified) three-room apartment (and even though, as we later discovered, they had other house guests arriving in the middle of the night).

I mention the size of the apartment to emphasize that these were not people who had extra money to waste on frivolities. One of the neighborhood kids did have a hand-held cassette player, along with two cassettes--I recall one was Simon and Garfunkel and the other was the soundtrack to Grease. Dancing was an everyday activity, taken up at the spur of the moment. They danced with a natural grace that comes with a lot of practice. And they had fun.