Fall at Last

The clock ticks. The fan whirs. There is the ring of silence in my ears. I hear footsteps on the stairs outside the door. It is the neighbor going home to the flat upstairs. The caramel is soft and sweet in my mouth. I smell the coffee in my cup. The couch is soft and comfortable. The blanket on the back of the couch is fuzzy and warm. The nights are getting colder. It is October after all. The days are still warm though, unless it is raining.

I like rainy afternoons in fall. The leaves cover the streets where the wind has blown them off the trees. The puddles splash as cars drive through them. It reminds me of the falls of my youth. School has been back in session for a month or two. I am starting to have the feeling I would eventually identify as ennui. Leave it to the French to have a rich vocabulary for the shades of feeling depressed.

It has taken me most of my life to realize that the feeling is a chemical reaction to the change in the amount and quality of the light. I’ve even started to look forward to it as a change of pace from the manic mood of summer. Winter will be too cold for depression, at least of this sort. I never had a whole lot of problem with depression in the heart of winter.

It makes me want to watch old black and white movies and close the blinds on the blowing rain. Movies have helped people forget there troubles for well over a hundred years now. It was always my dream to make a full length movie and give back some of those feelings of wonder that have helped to pull me up out of the blues of fall.

Sometimes the best way out of depression is to tell the story of someone else’s troubles. The twelve bar blues consists of a statement of the situation in the first four bars, The second four bars repeats the first, usually verbatim. The last four bars elaborates on the troubles and rhymes with the first four bars (and second). For example:

I woke up this morning with an awful aching head.

I woke up this morning with an awful aching head.

My new man had left me, just a room and an empty bed.

— Bessie Smith, “Empty Bed Blues”

I think it has something to do with realizing that other people have problems too and your problems may not really be as bad as all that. It is just the time of year. The quality of light. The sound of the rain on the window and the street light shining through the  rain as it streams down the pane.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Deep or Wide Or Somewhere Inbetween?

At one time it was possible for one person to know most of what was worth knowing. An education consisted of first learning to read, then reading a small core collection of books. That was it. You were now a learned person. Let’s be honest, you were a learned man. Women were not generally taught to read or allowed access to the precious hand written books.

Then, the printing press was invented and books became cheaper and much more plentiful. The subjects that were studied and written about also became more diverse. But a reasonably fast reader could still manage to stay abreast of most of the new discoveries that were added to the corpus of knowledge. There were even a few women, mostly wives and daughters of wealthy men, who were allowed to read and become knowledgeable of the world, so long as it didn’t interfere with their duties of bearing children and keeping house.

At some point it became increasingly difficult to read widely in all the domains of study or for that matter to be an expert in more than a narrow field of study. When that happened, a great oscillation began in institutes of higher learning. For a while they would emphasize a broad general curriculum for undergraduate students. Then the pendulum would swing the other way and undergraduates would be encouraged to dive deep into an area of specialization, give general education a lick and a promise. After a while, seeing the error of their ways, the educators would shift the emphasis back to a well rounded undergraduate education and the cycle would start all over again.

The ideal actually lies somewhere in the middle, neither too broad nor too deep. The student will discover what they are interested in and dive deep into it soon enough. It is good to give them a broad selection of intellectual tools with which to attack any subject. That is not to say that an undergraduate should not pursue the in depth study of a particular subject, just that it should not be done at the expense of a broad, generalized education.

Alas, I matriculated at a time that emphasized specialization. I have a lot of course work in Computer Science, Mathematics, and Physics. I have virtually nothing in history and the humanities. I have made up for it to some extent with personal reading but by the time you find yourself working at a full time job, there is not nearly enough time for personal study. Especially not when there are a host of novels that you want to read in addition to the various non-fiction topics. And it is assumed that you have to stay abreast of your area of specialization.

Better to lay a broad foundation in college than to try to fill in the gaps in your general educations later in life.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Silver Lining

I was in an accident on the way to work this morning. No one was hurt. If my car wasn’t totaled, it was close to it. I’ll find out when I get estimates. I had been planning on buying a new car soon. This just accelerated the schedule for that. A quick trip to the credit union and a long trip to the car dealership and I ended up driving a new car home.

Although I was not hurt by the accident, I am exhausted after the day of aftermath from it. I won’t be writing a conventional blog post tonight. I may or may not make up for it by writing a bonus blog tomorrow night. I will definitely be back in the saddle with a regular blog post on Friday.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

The Beatles

I have spent the last several weeks since SiriusXM inaugurated The Beatles channel studying their music. It has proved to be a rich field of study. The earlier songs had simple chordal structures and rich but simple harmonies. As their careers progressed so did the sophistication of their music and lyrics. They were motivated by an attempt not to repeat themselves.

We often get to hear interviews with contemporaries. They tell some of the behind the scenes stories that may not have been public knowledge when they happened. But now that we’ve lost John and Paul it is much easier to get permissions for constrained material.

As it turns out, we all were a lot more naive back then. Things that wight have been scandalous in those days would hardly cause the batting of an eyelid these days. They smoked marijuana with Bob Dylan, took LSD with Timothy Leary, and meditated with the Maharishi.

They started out writing simple love songs but soon moved on to break new ground writing more experimental songs often contrasting the lyrics of their songs with the simplicity of their songs. On the other hand, their songs explored many topical subjects. For example, Blackbird was about a young black woman. Sexy Sadie was actually about the Maharishi.

There is Breakfast with the Beatles, The Fab Forum, and Peter Ashley’s From Me to You. And there’s the feature they call “My Fab Four” where a listener sends in a list of their favorite Beatle songs along with why they like them. Then the get to actually guest DJ those four songs.

There is also much to be learned by listening close to the various instrumental parts of their recordings. I recently bought an acoustic bass guitar and have been listening closely to Paul’s bass parts. He was so good that you hardly notice what a fantastic bass player until you focus on listening to him play.

Some songs are clearly written by McCartney while others are just as inarguably Lennon compositions. Of course they all bear the Lennon/McCartney writing credit. The most exciting ones were those where they truly collaborated and you couldn’t tell who had written which parts of the song.

This is not to slight Ringo or George. They both wrote their share of incredible songs. I particularly liked Ringo’s Octopuses Garden and George’s The Inner Light. All four of the Beatles had successful solo careers after the band broke up. That was just one more testament to how incredibly talented they each were and how well that talent blended while they were together in the band.

When I first started listening to The Beatles channel and studying their music, I thought I would get burned out on the Beatles in a couple of week or maybe a couple of months at the longest. After a couple of months it has become apparent that I will still be discovering interesting musical details about their music after years of study. And they will be years well spent. I hope to learn to play bass as well as Paul.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

A Tale of Two Pizzarias

Today I ate chicken and artichoke flat bread for lunch. I typically avoid pizza and similar foods since I am working toward a long term goal of weighing two hundred pounds or less. But there wasn’t much on the menu that looked good so I decided to give it a try. It was delicious and the portion was adequate but appropriate for my diet. It was delicious. It reminded me of the pizza at Gabatoni’s in Springfield, IL.

Gabatoni’s was a legendary spot from my childhood. I think I was six when we moved away so I must have been pretty young most of the times that we ate there. But I remember the flavor of the pizza sauce they put on their pizzas. It was secret blend of spices known only to the Gabatoni family. It set the bar high for my standards in Italian food.

The crust was also especially good. It was very thin and crispy except for the tenth of an inch or so right beneath the sauce and toppings. There it was soft and flavorful. And the cheese on top was always brown but never burned.

They cut there pizzas into trapezoidal pieces instead of the more traditional wedge shape. They were also smaller than the wedge shaped pieces but there were more of them. This made it seem like there was an endless supply of pizza to me.

Later, the summer before I was a Junior in high school, we moved from Paducah, KY, a town that didn’t have any notable mom and pop pizzerias that I was aware of, to Murphysboro, IL. Murphysboro was the county seat of Jackson County Illinois and as such was home to the County courthouse. Across the street from the courthouse was an establishment called The Jackson Bench. In spite of its overly clever name, it too featured extremely good, rectangularly sliced pizza. For quite a while, several months actually, we ate dinner two or three nights a week at the Bench.

At first the excuse was that we were still moving in, then it was that mom and dad were having a beer with the Spanish teacher at the high school, one of dads colleagues. It seemed strange that no one seemed to find high school teachers drinking in public scandalous. My dad didn’t drink because he was diabetic. My mom did drink because she wasn’t. The other couple were ten years or so younger than my folks, probably in their twenties. They both drank. It was a social context that I had never seen before. I enjoyed hearing the stories they told as we sat around a big table and shared a large pizza.

There have been other outstanding pizza places that I have known in my life but none made quite the impression on me as these two establishments did. I intend to go back to Springfield some time and see if the pizza at Gabatoni’s is as good as I remember. I’d stop by the Jackson Bench but it is nothing but a concrete slab.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Book Stores and Stationary Stores and Libraries, Oh My!

I was on my way to the store the other day when I noticed that another one of our local brick and mortar bookstores had closed down. It was all fairly abrupt. I had been in to buy a book and a cup of coffee just a few months ago. I don’t think the chain has gone under yet but this is the second store of theirs in town that has closed down in the last couple of years.

I have a weakness for bookstores. I love to browse through them. I love to smell the smell of printers ink and paper. In recent years the smell of coffee has also been common in book stores.

I also like stationary stores. I love browsing through different types of pens, pencils, and notebooks. I love the rulers and triangles and French curves. Recent additions have included printer paper, printers, ink cartridges, thumb drives, laptops, and other digital accessories. The frustrating thing is that they often don’t have exactly what I want in stock. I have to order that from their web site. But that gives me a chance to realize that I don’t really need it after all.

And then there are libraries. They aren’t as much fun as bookstores and stationary stores are. But they have other draws. First of all, they’re free. They have large collections of books that you can browse through and borrow. They have lots of interesting literary programs. You meet lots of need people there. Some of them have similar interests.

Best of all for me is the Downtown Writers Group. I have learned more about writing from these folks than I ever did from a book on writing. Once or twice a month we get together and share what we’ve written with each other. In turn they express their impressions and ideas on what has been written.

The results are magic. You find out what you are doing wrong that you couldn’t see because you were two close to your own piece to see what is wrong with it. You learn what works and what needs clarifying. You find logical inconsistencies. It is a remarkable time.

The thing that concerns me is that these places may become extinct. As more and more people shop online, small, locally owned shops are disappearing one by one. The internet and computers are powerful tools but they are helping to undermine local book  stores and stationary shops.  Support them before they are all gone. Buy locally when you can.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Rant on Education

There have been so many advances in the past twenty years but we still haven’t learned how to distribute this new knowledge evenly. For example, Sol Kahn of Kahn Academy discovered that math instruction was exactly backwards from how it ought to be. Instead of instructing the students in the techniques of mathematics during their daily classroom interaction and then assigning problems as homework, it was much more effective to assign tutorial videos on You Tube and have the students work problems in class where the teacher was available to help them if they were having problems.

This model isn’t appropriate for instruction in all subjects but it illustrates the arbitrary nature of our teaching techniques. And in many cases, we know how things ought to be done but because of resistance to or lack of awareness of advances in pedagogical techniques, students continue to suffer through ineffective classes often learning the subjects in spite of the instruction they are given instead of because of it.

Someone suggested that someone who was going to college to be a businessman shouldn’t be required to take Chemistry or Biology. I disagree. I think we should concentrate on providing a good, solid general education to our college undergraduates and leave specialization to graduate school.

I also think we should put more emphasis on mastery of material in primary and secondary school. How can we expect people who haven’t entirely mastered algebra, for instance, to succeed in advanced algebra. In the current era of education there seems little justification for teaching students in classes stratified by age. They should be allowed to progress through the curriculum at their own pace.

These issues often arise because in many places we have an inadequate supply of properly trained, enthusiastic teachers. And why should we have enough good teachers when we fail to pay them a competitive wage. Teachers can make more money working in industry than they can doing the most important job in the world, teaching our children. This has been the case for the last forty years with no sign of improving. Until we value our educators and reward them when they do a good job teaching our children, we will continue the inevitable slide into widespread ignorance.

In the final analysis, education must happen in the student. Teachers are at best midwives for the knowledge that is brought forth in their pupils. But so many teachers in schools currently are glorified baby sitters.

I hope I am wrong. I come to these conclusions with limited observation of the schools from the outside combined with my observation of the quality of education that they produce. There are still well educated people in our society but in general it is in spite of the schools they attended.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.


The idea for this post came to me in a dream last night. I realized that one of the problems that plagues modern society, largely because of television and the internet, is impatience and shortness of attention span. We want pictures instead of words. If an article is too long, we want someone to read it, summarize it, and tell us what to think about it.

Articles that have any length to them are often pointed to along with the annotation TL;DR, which stands for Too Long; Don’t (or Didn’t) Read. This is sometimes accompanied by commentary on the article. There are any number of things wrong with this. First, how do you know the person that is summarizing the article in question isn’t leaving out significant points/ For that matter, how do you know that they aren’t injecting their own spin that wasn’t even in the original article? Maybe they don’t mean to do these things but they do it unconsciously because that is the way they interpreted (or misinterpreted as the case may be) the article.

By not reading it yourself you are not filtering the ideas through the lens of your experience. You have a unique perspective on the world based on your experiences and values. If you are interested in the topic that the article is written about, you should take the time to read it so that you can understand it in your own personal context.

We need to spend more time reading succinctly written articles from many different points of view. When we have this fodder to think about, we can come to our own, personal conclusions. We may even have our own ideas to contribute to the discussion. This is the way that rational people decide issues of profound importance.

We have become a society of impulsive behavior. Instead of thinking about a topic and writing their considered thoughts, we read a summary and write a 140 character tweet. Or even more likely, we just retweet someone else’s 140 character tweet. Few profound thoughts can be expressed in 140 characters or less.

We don’t teach critical thinking in our schools any more. We haven’t done so in most schools since I was in high school forty years ago. We rarely require students to read things, think about them, and rationally express their opinions on them. Critical thinking, if it is developed, is left for individuals to acquire on their own. The vast majority of people never bother.

TL;DR – most people are ADHD, semi-literate, and impulsive. Go read a book.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Life Revision

I watched a TEDx talk by Felicia Ricci about revising your life. Her point was that you learn what you want to do by doing it. She also maintained that life wasn’t ever completed but was in a constant state of revision. This coincides with the conclusion that I have come to as well.

I have spent over forty years working with computers. I have repaired them, built them, programmed them, and taught courses about them. I have enjoyed doing all of these things for the most part. I have become a master computer scientist.

Lately I have been developing my skills as a writer. I have written at least seven hundred and fifty words a day for over seven years. I have twice written fifty thousand words in a month. I have written over fifteen hundred words a day for the past year. I am approaching a modest level of achievement as a writer.

I have been a musician since I was eight years old. I even worked as a professional musician for three summers while I was in college. I have taught guitar lessons on a couple of occasions. Now I am thinking about teaching guitar again.

I am feeling the need for a change. I’m not sure which way that change needs to take me. I am trying as many things as I can. I am listening to my reaction to each of them. Nothing has struck a chord with me yet. That means I just need to keep looking.

I have an unrequited urge to accomplish something great. I am not afraid of hard work. I am afraid of failure. I am afraid that I have nothing great within me to create. I confront that fear every time I write a blog. I confront that fear every time I write a story.

I confront that fear every time I go to work and continue to practice my profession of computer science.

I think perhaps I’m all these things, a computer scientist, a musician, a writer, and a teacher. The challenge is to be all of these things without fear. I need to do the best that I can whatever I am doing at the moment and accept that with joy and humility.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Some of the Reasons I Am a Ham

Every fall the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) holds their annual Simulated Emergency Test (SET). One Saturday in October we “hang out” on the air like we might on any typical weekend. Of course we know that this day won’t be a typical day but we try to act like nothing is up. At a given time the exercise director will make a call on one of the local repeaters declaring the beginning of the exercise.

The call will go out for an operator capable of acting as Network Control Operator or NC. The NC is in charge of directing traffic during the exercise. Communication is directed to the NC by transmitting your call sign. The NC responds by identifying the station that he wants to communicate with. They conduct their business and then the NC will call on another station. This helps keep everyone from trying to talk at once. That could have bad consequences in the case of an emergency situation.

We train all year so that we will be ready to operate in an emergency but there is nothing like an exercise like the SET to see how well you have prepared. We are checking to see how quickly we can get into place and set up in the case of an actual emergency. We establish relationships with the local representatives of our “served agencies”. Served agencies are everything from volunteer fire departments, organizations that operate shelters, to governmental agencies that have larger scopes of responsibility than they have budget to exercise those responsibilities.

Our national ham radio advocacy organization, the Amateur Radio Relay League, has a slogan that they are quick to use to describe the role of Amateur Radio, “Amateur Radio, when all else fails.” It is a testament to our ingenuity, our attention to detail, and our dedication to our families, our neighbors, and our communities.

I often hear people, especially younger people who have grown up with the internet, ask what is special about ham radio? I can do all that with my cell phone and the internet. While much of what they say is true what they don’t realize is that cell phones and the internet are dependent on infrastructure. Ham radio prides itself in its ability to operate in the face of massive failure of communication and power infrastructure. We have batteries and generators. We don’t depend on cell towers or fiber optic trunks for communication.

We also have a culture of life long learning. We teach each other new technologies and new techniques. We build kits so that we understand the technology that we use from the ground up. We build antennas, radios, compact racks to facilitate our ability to grab our equipment and go. It’s an inspiring activity to be involved with.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.