Smilin’ and Dialin’

If you’re anywhere near my age the first telephones you used had a dial that looked much like the one below, with number and letters visible in the finger holes on the dial.
The next evolution of Telephone dials happened around the same time that the US switched to all numeric direct dialing, abandoning the alphabetical prefix.  The numbers and letters were moved outside the dial, which not only made them easier to see, but people were able to dial “more efficiency” according to experiments conducted by research psychologist Dr. John Karlin, the director of the Human Factors Engineering Group of Bell laboratories in New Jersey.

Not only were the number easier to see, but experiments proved that people made fewer dialing mistakes if they had a little dot in the middle of each finger hole to aim for.   But Dr. Karlin wasn’t done yet.  Bell labs were working on a device that would cut the time one would need to “dial” a number virtually in half.  This would save the average person who (making an average of ten calls per day) nearly 3 hours a year in time spent dialing.  I figure Dr. Karlin has already saved me nearly a week over the course of my life.   In addition it was determined that it was easier for those with short term memory spans to actually remember a phone number for the time span it takes to dial it, so all you stoners out there also owe a debt to Dr. Karlin.
The first time I saw one of these keypads was at the Bell Telephone exhibit at the Seattle Century 21 World’s Fair in 1962.     They had a display set up where you would be timed dialing a telephone number.    Myself, I was more than twice as fast with the push buttons and I also enjoyed the musical soundtrack that came with each button press.   I could hardly wait for the future to begin.

As you’ve probably come to expect by this time, Dr. Karlin was his usual thorough self and  didn’t just place the buttons in some random fashion dictated by tradition: he came up the an arrangement that was the most efficient.
The size, color, shape, and even resistance to pressure and how far you had to push the button to make it work were all decided by a series of experiments.  They studied speed, number of errors and user preferences.
The final decision was between the traditional “calculator” (also like the one on a computer keyboard) layout, shown to the left, above, and the layout you see on the right in the above photo, which is still in use today.

I do find it interesting that the layout on my I-phone is the same, although it uses a touch screen.  It’s also amazing to me that the relationship between the numbers and the alphabet is the same as it was on the first dial phones that appeared in the 1920’s, although instead of dialing an alphanumeric prefix, people are dialing 1-800-GET-RICH.
Myself, I’m happy Dr Karlin got to see all this play out.  He passed on in 2013, in his early 90’s and knew his hard work had paid off.


Let’s take a trip down the Middle of the Road—–

Compromise has always been a part of our political system.  The best example of that is in our Constitution.   The Founding Fathers needed something to replace the weak Articles of Confederation, and the chief attribute this document needed to have was the ability to get ratified.   Hence, it is filled with examples of compromises too numerous to mention without getting sidetracked.

Lately, however, our legislators have gotten into the habit of treating “compromise” as a dirty word, a sign of weakness in the ongoing battle to create a one party state.    There is another word for a one party state that everyone knows: dictatorship.   This is the very reason the Founding Fathers were concerned with having strong minority rights.  It’s also why we have three branches of government.

For whatever reason, our nation is now split into two halves that view each other as the enemy.   If you are a citizen, the only way you get representation is if you happen to share all the views of the party that is in power in your particular district or state.  Widespread gerrymandering only intensifies this.   49 percent of the population may have a view that is never even presented in any deliberative body of government.

Truly Bi-Partisan efforts are so rare as to produce headlines when they do happen.   Politicians also seem further to the right or the left than the actual people they represent.   Our primary system is currently functioning as a device to ensure adherence to the party line with politicians who always seem to tack to the center during general elections.

I’m thinking if our representatives can’t see there way to reach compromises I think we should supply some for them.   Most of you have probably heard of A.L.E.C., the American Legislative Exchange Council.   They are a conservative non-profit group of mostly state legislators and Corporate members who draft model legislation that members can introduce in their own state legislatures: this type of legislation is quite common in  Arizona, Wisconsin, Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Maine, as well as other states.

I keep hearing people say “We need a new party!” that looks out for the interests of ordinary people.   The two party system is so entrenched in our country that starting a new party is practically impossible.   The Green Party and the Libertarian Party would be good examples of this, with  little chance of accomplishment save for getting the party with views furthest from their own elected.

What I’m proposing, and it’s more “food for thought” than anything else, is to form a non-profit and find young, politically minded and idealistic attorneys and others with political interests, (such as retired legislators, attorneys and even lobbyists) and charge them with developing model legislation with the interests of ordinary middle class and working folks in mind.  I’m not talking about a political party, but a national clearing house for ideas.

Make it a real grass roots organization and focus on small town city councils, county commissions and small states with economic issues.    I’d start out with economic issues to start, as voters do tend to “vote with their pocket books”.    This would require some research and some real nosing around to find other places that have tried some new things and had some success with them.   Also, some of these smaller entities already function in a mostly non-partisan fashion and there are some great examples out there to examine.   There are many organizations that exist for foster civic leadership, in many corners of the country.

Just as ALEC tailors bills to a conservative audience, the organization would be aiming for the middle of the road.  You might have to take a few conservatives and a few liberals and lock them in a room until they came up with a compromise that would appeal to the middle of the road: something of a lost skill that successful legislators used to apply, when compromise was the order of the day.

Since the audience is going to be the public, rather than legislatures, a good social media strategy would be key.    Take surveys, ask the public for input, find volunteers and ways to address issues with that information in mind.

For all I know, there may already be an organization or several such as I’ve mentioned that I just don’t know about yet.   My instincts tell me there is a lot of room out there on the wide open road, a largely vacant spot if you will.     It seems to be a niche that nobody is bothering to even try and fill.

“If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try to talk with one in real life.”

One of the best lines in Obama’s speech. Thousands of generations of humans have evolved being able to look each other in the eye, observe body language and listen to the tone of human speech.

Back in the day, people who were hard core “letter writers” learned a set of rules and skills about communication involving a time and distance factor, elevating this form of communication to an art form.

Governmental and legal correspondence and documents don’t sound like every day language, because of a need for precision far beyond casual communication.  This had lead them to be rather formal, but it does show the need for precision where things might be easily understood.   Naked words, unless carefully defined and agreed on by both parties,  often fail to convey the intended meaning.

Political discourse has changed since the rise of the internet, and part of it is what I call the “finger factor”.

I grew up in a small town. If someone cut you off driving down the street, giving them “the finger” might result in some “unintended consequences”: they might be your kids third grade teacher, or you could end up sitting next to them in church or at a bar.

The internet isn’t exactly like this, but the electronic distance seems to keep people from looking at whatever common ground they are both standing on. In person, from a very early age, we either learn to find the common ground or spend our lives in isolation watching people stomp off in a huff.

Communication doesn’t seem to happen in the same way it did just a few years ago. And it’s not just verbally.  There does seem to be a large variety of music formats on the radio, but they all narrowcast, and young people seem to use them to help define themselves as part of a particular tribe.

Remember what top 40 radio was like? Growing up in a small town in Oregon, I got to listen to Marvin Gaye, the Beach Boys, Cream, Roger Miller, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra and Jefferson Airplane: often one right after one another.  When I met kids from other parts of the country as a teenager, I always noticed we had far more in common than any differences we might have.

I think that is how it is for most people, and it’s actually fairly rare to find someone you  can’t find something in common with.

I know I repeat myself by posting this but I can’t help thinking Dr. Martin Luther King was sending us a message from the past when he said:

“We must learn to live together as Brothers, or perish together as fools.”

Who is Your Tribe?

We’re tribal animals.    For most of the time people have been on earth, the Tribe, out side of our immediate family, has been the most important group.    This developed long before we had language as an instinctive tendency.  Like wolves, we have always been pack animals.   We are stronger as a group than we are on our own and survival is much more likely if we band together in a group.    We have evolved both competitive and cooperative instincts as mechanisms to enable working together.

The competitive aspect is important to allow those with “leadership” capabilities to develop and rise to the “top” while the cooperative nature is required to ensure every one of the tribal members gets part of the tribe’s “spoils” as well as ensuring full participation in tribal activities.

We also have a long history of “Tribe” to “Tribe” competition.   Obviously, if one tribe gets carried away with this and proceeds with the annihilation of all rival tribes, the ability of the species to propagate would be severely compromised.   This ongoing struggle has undoubtedly been a major factor in the migration of our species to all virtually all continents on the planet.

Language developed along tribal lines as a means of furthering the organizational requirements of increasingly sophisticated hunting techniques and the development of agriculture pushed this even further.

It should also be noted that we’re talking about a spectrum of circumstances and conditions, climates and just plain fate.   A brilliant leader might even find a way to consolidate several tribes, form alliances and conquer a large territory.

Psychologists and sociologists vary in the estimates of what size the typical Tribe was, but it probably enlarged over time along with increased specialization and organizational capabilities, as well as some means of long term record keeping and the passing along of “tribal knowledge”.

Somewhere in all of this development, the concept of “us and them” appeared, when encountering other Tribes and encountering disputes.  It was easier to deal with certain unsavory actions in dealing with “them” if they were viewed as being lesser in some way, or perhaps characterized as “evil”.

A huge range of practices could be seen as evidence of this.  Ranging from the way another Tribe buried their dead, taboos concerning sexual practices or the ingesting of forbidden substances or unclean food, certain behaviors were viewed as proof of the malevolent nature of the “enemy”.

Undoubtedly, some of these characterizations carried on for generations with people forgetting exactly why they hated each other or what would result from eating forbidden fruit.    There is a fine line between instinct and emotion, with it being difficult to define where one stops and the other starts.     We’ll probably never know exactly how much behavior is innate and exactly what is learned.

As the size of our Tribes has increased, some of the behavior may no longer be functional or be adapted to other purposes.  Anyone who has witnessed a fight break out in the stands at a football game between rival fans knows this is true.  Or political arguments on Facebook

In a recent study, Yale behavioral economist Dan Kahan asked over 1,500 people if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “There is solid evidence of recent global warming due mostly to human activity such as burning fossil fuels.”  Kahan also collected information on their political beliefs, and measured their “science intelligence”— based on answers to questions developed by the National Science Foundation, Pew Research Center, and others. These questions are intended to gauge a combination of scientific knowledge and quantitative reasoning proficiency.

If you take a look at the chart below, you’ll find that rather than reach some scientific consensus, the more people knew about science the more they used their knowledge and reasoning skills to “prove” what their political beliefs required.

We’ve all heard the phrase “Confirmation Bias”, but I think this goes beyond that.    Kahan observes: “A person who forms a position out of line with her cultural peers risks estrangement from the people on whom she depends on for emotional and material support”.   For most people coming to a conclusion that fits the pre-conceived beliefs of their “Tribe” is much more likely than one reached using the scientific method.

Referring to this sort of behavior as “tribal” might be a bit of a stretch in some circles, but I do think it tends to explain the psychological basis of this sort of “Motivated Reasoning”.   In my opinion modern “Tribes” don’t always claim distinct geographical territories, but denote groups with similar beliefs, religions, political notions and even certain product brands: Harley Davidson might be an example of this.   I’ve already mentioned loyalty to a particular sports team.

There is a school of thought (Propagated by Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman) that divides decision making into  “System 1” thinking, which is more intuitive, automatic, emotion driven and quick, and “System 2” which is a more deliberate, reason driven analytical decision making processes, that adds learned behavior such as the “scientific method” and advanced math skills.

My take on this is that for much of our history, human beings evolved in Tribal bands that also evolved processes of settling disputes and developing behaviors that became more or less innate: enabling quick decisions that needed to be made with little deliberation and also encouraged maximum Tribal participation.   There would be a strong bias towards proven  methods that caused little disruption.   These eventually evolved into cultural norms.

It would seem that “System 2” type thinking often ends up merely re-enforcing decisions that have already been made using “System 1” processes and/or have become cultural identifiers.

One of the modern organizations that have taken on a “Tribal” nature are political parties.    For a long time in the United States they managed to function like a couple of neighboring Tribes that had formed an uneasy alliance, casting wary eyes at each other while trying to find ways to work together.

It’s now like they’re not even on the same team.   Both parties stop just short of labeling each other as “evil”, and some of the candidates have moved beyond that.   And some people follow along with them.

The danger in all of this is when decisions are primarily made from emotional, instinctive positions: especially if they tend to draw people into “Us Vs. Them” postures, is not likely to result in any sort of the compromises needed to allow large groups of people to live together.

Our Constitution was carefully calibrated to encourage the compromises necessary to allow 13 vastly different states to form a Union.     Our former national motto:  “E Pluribus Unum”, “Out of many, one”, illustrates this nicely, using precisely 13 characters to make it’s point.

We need to learn how to do this again.

Not only the Father of his Country

  1. One of the things that becoming an “experienced” human grants you is the ability to look at things you thought you understood and make corrections.
         I’m forever astonished when I study something I thought I understood and discover something I’d completely failed to see the significance of.
         I’ve always been fascinated by the “founding fathers”. Washington has long been a person who I’ve never fully understood despite reading at least 3 biographies about the man.
          Maybe it’s just the sheer number of astonishing facts about him that obscures his level of greatness, you just come to expect amazing things out of him.
         One can pick from any number of events that would have resulted in failure for a lesser man, and it’s long been obvious to me that world is a much better place because of him.
         The famous painting by John Trumbull at the top of this page probably is familiar to most of us: it finds it’s way into every book that even casually mentions Washington and a google search places it in the top row.It depicts Washington resigning his commission as commander-in-chief on December 23, 1783.

         This was something the rest of the world was astonished by.  And yet, it never struck me how revolutionary this was.
    Nearly all Europeans had simply assumed that being the conquering General, Washington would just assume leadership, citing examples from Julius Caesar to Oliver Cromwell, of the fledgling nation. They all assumed that the “revolution” would, in fact, turn into a military coup.
    After eight and a half years without pay or leave and defeating the world’s most powerful nation against seemingly impossible odds, he has the conviction to surrender all of that to return to his plantation in Virginia. Wow.

    He understood that for our nation to live up to the ideals of it’s revolution, power would have to come from the people rather than from the end of a gun. The fact that he did not become president until nearly 6 years later is a testimony to how dearly he held the notion of civilian governance.

    Last night, (the 217th anniversary, to the day, of Washington’s Passing on Dec 14th, 1799) I was reading a passage in Edward Larson’s book on “The Return of George Washington 1783-1789” when the full impact of that act struck me.

    Washington handed us a precious gift at that point. I’d just never fully appreciated it.

Thoughts on turning 65……..

In a sense I’ve waited for this all my life.   When I was a kid, I remember asking one of my Uncles:  “What does life expectancy mean?”    He looked a me for a minute or two and then produced an Almanac and showed me a chart.   It told me that for those born in 1951, the “life expectancy” was to live to be 65 years old.   I remember doing the math and coming up with 2016.  This sounded impossibly off into the future and visions of the Jetsons danced in my head.

He also explained that I would also expect to retire at the age of 65 as well.  (He had a real mean streak.)  Not something to look forward to with expectant anticipation in any case.   It also explains a lot…..  As I’ve gotten older, my life expectancy goes up with it, and so I can now reasonably expect to life to the ripe old age of 80, but the idea that I was going to die in 2016 has been with me so long that if I manage to survive until 2017, I’ll think of myself as a winner……

The age of 65 also was for years the popular notion of when one became a “senior citizen”.    It was also an event that was going to happen in the next century, which made it sound so distant that even trying to grasp it seemed pointless.   I don’t have a very good sense of time much beyond tapping my feet.

Being a member of the generation that wasn’t supposed to trust anyone over 30 was also a factor in this sort of contemplation.   As the date crept nearer to actually happening it also occurred to me that I’d have a few years with a gap in role models, since my father passed on when he was 45 and neither my stepfather, nor my other male role models lived beyond the age of 56.  I didn’t meet my grandfather until he was 72 and so I’d have a gap where I was just making things up.  What if someone were to tell me: “Why don’t you act your age?”

Since I’ve never understood exactly what that means in any case, this probably wasn’t a problem.

By the time you get to be this old, you’ve already faced a number of milestones, which passed by in a flash, and left you feeling no different than the day before.  So far I’ve been 65 for all of 14 hours and I haven’t noticed anything different.  Maybe some of my more experienced friends can clue me in?

All of the above should actually be viewed as a testimony to the fact that I’m quite happy just to be here.   Somehow I find it amusing, if that hasn’t been apparent.    That doesn’t mean that I treat this lightly.

In the late 80’s I was hit by a drunk driver while walking across the street and a good friend of mine (who I shared a birthday with) ended up in a coma and then passed on.   The next morning I managed to find my way outdoors and when the sun hit my face, I told myself that for the rest of my life I would not take a single day for granted.

I’m certain I have failed to live up to this more than a few times, but in general, it remains my mantra.   I try to turn all the day to day events into little life affirming rituals that at some point I will wish that I could still perform.

One thing I’m really happy about is that I’ve noticed I’ve become more aware of the little things that make life worthwhile.   I’m sure many of you have noticed this as well.  Anything worth doing is worth doing as if was the very last time you are going to do it.   All that means is that you are paying attention.

What more could one ask?

Animal House?

This is 292 Monmouth Avenue, in Monmouth Oregon, a sleepy little college town.    This is where, nearing the end of my extended adolescence, I not only lived on December 15th, 1976, but also celebrated my 25th birthday.

It was an unusually warm day for December, a Wednesday if I remember correctly.   We had installed a volleyball net just to the right of the house and by mid afternoon we had a pick up game going.   We had the doors and windows open and were playing a party tape on the reel to reel.   I’m certain the neighbors hated us. We also had a basketball hoop in the parking lot and a ping-pong table under the carport.

City employees were also installing a new sidewalk to replace a couple stretches where the concrete was crumbling.    After they left, we couldn’t resist the temptation to write in the fresh concrete and left a number of messages, many of which are not fit for publication in a family oriented blog such as this one.

I was virtually finished with college at this point and would start student teaching the next semester.   It would seem that I should have had classes to study for, but, but most of them, were “Education” classes that really didn’t have a traditional final exam.

On learning it was my birthday, one of my friends deemed that my birthday theme should be “25 and still alive”, which someone memorialized into the concrete.

The first time I was inside this house was for a keg party when it was occupied by a group of college students.   The house was owned by the same people who owned the adjacent apartment house and the apartments featured a swimming poll that is located in the backyard of the house.   I remember that after this party, there were a few pieces of furniture bobbing around in the pool.  I think this may have produced the vacancy that allowed my roommates to move in.

I moved in shortly afterwards and became the fifth resident.
During the period I lived there it was known as the “Dead House”.  This was due to the fact that everyone that lived there belonged to the same intramural mushball team, the Dead Babies.   (70’s humor)

I won’t be explaining the details of much of the activity except to say that we had a lot of fun.    We celebrated the bi-centennial daily.

It’s a little hard to fathom this was all 40 years ago.   The last Time I was in Monmouth was in 2005, to view the graduation ceremony of a good friend of mine’s daughter.   I couldn’t resist the urge to walk down the street to take a peek.   Most of what was written on the sidewalk was still legible enough to read, and I wondered how many people had WTF moments trying to decipher some of them.

Myself, just looking at the sidewalk to me back to an era in my life that now seems impossibly care-free.  (I picture my 62 VW Van parked in front of the house.)  Going to college was not such a huge financial burden back then, and I do think the sense of freedom and removal from the “real world” contributed to my education as much as the formal parts.   It’s hard to absorb some things if your main concern is if you have enough money to put food on your table.  Sometimes, just having fun is it’s own justification.

Lennon & McCartney

One of the cool things about these two is they were actually greater than the sum of their parts when they worked together.    They were both, individually, great musicians, singers and songwriters, but what they achieved together was amazing.

I find that if you can get more than one angle on solving a given problem, your chances of success increase exponentially.   You also run less of a chance of failing to see some problem you might not be able to see.

In my experience in life, enterprises that have two different guiding lights often outperform those with a single beam of illumination.

One of the problems of our system of government is that we’ve lost the Lennon/McCartney aspect of the two party system.   The Republicans and the Democrats have forgotten they supposedly work together running the government.   Rather than focusing on what they have in common and working with that, they seem to have become bent on becoming the sole proprietor, and have proceeded to start drilling holes in the lifeboat.  And since we also share that lifeboat with them, they are threatening to take us all down.

Instead of reaching a compromise and thus allowing us the benefits of the best of both worlds, our representatives seem determined to sink the lifeboat if they don’t get their way.  Creating a permanent dynasty for your particular party seems more of a goal that providing effective representation for your constituents.

The puzzling thing is that things have not always been this way.   While it’s true that to a certain degree politics has always been a nasty business and you can find instances of that through our nation’s history, but things have usually managed to get done.

The period from 1946 until sometime in the 80’s saw a lot of bi-partisan efforts come to fruition.    The legislative branch and the executive branch were often from different parties, but they lead us through the period where the United States lead the world by most every measurable standard.   They must have been doing something right.

Part of the blame needs to be laid at the feet of the voting public, as we have a large tolerance for this kind of thing and don’t insist that our representatives actually do anything.    Young people probably don’t even remember when this was an expectation.

A large number of people have gotten into the habit of just not paying attention and they also feel that they aren’t represented by anyone.  They have little faith in most of our legislators.   Congress has a job approval rating that would get anyone in a real job fired, and yet, things never really seem to improve.

Oddly, I find it interesting that as our representatives have become more ideological and less pragmatic as fewer and fewer people can tell you exactly what our political parties stand for.   About the only thing people car articulate is the “big government” vs “small government” issue.

The reality is the size of the government should depend on what it takes to have effective government, and  if something isn’t working but needs to be done, it should be fixed rather than just discarded.   Few things in life are black and white and that gets us back to the beginning.

Right now, it would seem that the country is divided about 50/50.   In reality, though, I doubt that most of us are hard right or hard left on all of the issues.   Most people are neither Anarcho-Capitalists nor Communists.   There have to be solutions than can make most of us happy, and those are most likely going to be compromises: it used to be the job of our legislators to work out the details of those compromises for us.

We either start to find the common ground, or we won’t have any ground to stand on.

I think I’ll open up a Chain of Small Towns….

  • If you look around the various small towns and rural areas that are in decline, you not only discover that the major industry that used to sustain the area is gone, but that locally owned industries have also disappeared. This country is filled with “Main Streets” with abandoned buildings and decaying downtowns. The locally owned businesses were also a vital link in promoting a sound economy as dollars passed through many hands rather than scampering off to Bentonville or China. And it’s not just all the retail shops that have been replaced by Walmart and Amazon. For just one example: Go to any small town and you’ll find that the number of car dealers have drastically decreased or just plain vanished. Local banks have practically disappeared as well.

    Looking towards the future, things look bright for smaller businesses, as the economies of scale that created enormous corporations, factories, and governments and the entire support system geared to the needs of giant enterprises are likely to fade away. The rate of change will become so rapid that large capital investments will seem foolish if they are just going to become quickly obsolete.

    The future is going to just happen, the world is a changing place and the economic conditions that the world’s economy will dictate are quite out of our hands. Regardless of what we believe, there are a number of forces that weren’t a factor as our system evolved: big changes in the environment, energy sources, population growth, aging demographics and automation, just to start with, and they are all going to have way more impact than any government officials are going to be able to have.

    The United States has thrived because we adapted better and faster to industrialization: we took advantage of the changes in economic realities as our main rivals made vain attempts to stay in the 19th century. 20 years from now, we’ll be able to see which countries adapted to the new realities, and which ones were left behind trying to recreate the 20th century.
    There are voices talking about “sustainable local economies”, and I encourage you to explore them and see what they have to say. Looking at all the factors that made America Great during the period between 1946 and 1975, one should note of the fact that those conditions are NOT ever going to return. But, we also need to note that we do have control of what happens within our boarders, and doing what we can to encourage local economies that can stand on their own is certainly one way we can control our own destiny.