Monday, June 29, 2009


This is a bit long today, and rambling. But bear with me, and it will all become clear.


I do so wish I could knit the words together like Twain. For that matter, I wish I could steal a march on the words of Bradbury. Alas, it is not to be: I am my own fool. My words are so much dirty foolscap. And yet, maybe there is a turn or two within the letters, such as might echo in the realms of dusty thought.

Continuing, the above men are my countrymen, as is Emerson. Moreover, Emerson is my kinsman. Too long have I rested on the laurels of that relationship. Self reliance, if not the key (which it may be), is certainly crucial. Emerson’s essay has opened my eyes a bit. He writes from the conviction that all we depend on, outside of ourselves, becomes a crutch, a leaning post. If we add to our capabilities by means of some aid or other, we remove an ability.

I can see that. How many people know more than just the rudiments of arithmetic? Most of us reach for the calculator. My personal classic example of this occurred one day as I was ringing up a sale. The total, with tax came to something like $13.61. The youth (of about 14 years) handed me a twenty and almost immediately I spoke the value of what the change should be, namely $6.39. Then I asked,

‘Did I do that right?’

To which the youth replied, ‘You tell me, you have the computer.’ I told him I hadn’t punched in his twenty, yet. Then I asked,

‘Do I get to keep the change if I’m right?’

He wisely declined my offer.

Throughout our society people have lost such a basic skill, instead, replacing it, and none-too-steadily I might add, with skill of using a calculator. My grandmother used to add figures faster that I could punch them into a calculator, and my mother was almost as good. I practiced that skill, and added the running total of my grocery list in my head as I added things to my cart. At the checkout, while waiting in line, I amused myself by calculating the tax. Quite often I would hand exact change to the checker before she even began her totals. Imagine having anyone do that nowadays.

What have we replaced it with? Well, something that is useful: a virtual Library of Alexandria at our online fingertips. Calculators of wonderful, though sometimes useless accuracy. I mean, who cares if you can multiply a quantity of items by the price, and add in a fractional tax rate and get an answer that continues to ten decimal places to the right of the decimal? You are just going to have to round the number to two decimal places anyway.

Speaking of that, I get a laugh every time I pick up a bag of this or that that says something like: "NET WT 19.20 OZ 544.3g." First off, it might be nominally 19.2 ounces, but saying that that is 544.3 grams just shows that you can work a calculator. In all reasonableness, that bag would be labeled 544 g, or even 540 g, or perhaps 545 g, and still be just as true from a practical standpoint. After all, three-tenths of a gram isn’t much. For comparison, a penny weighs about four grams, and it takes about 4 M&Ms (plain) to balance a penny. An M&M, therefore, masses (very roughly) about a gram. Are the folks at Mars Candies trying to tell me that they weighed each bag meticulously, then added a fractional M&M to bring the bag to proper weight?

Please be serious.

The packaged product is weighed to make sure it contains the amount labeled on the package, within a certain tolerance. When I was packing potato sticks, it was something like plus/minus a gram out of 28 1/3 grams (approximately one ounce) for a one ounce individual serving package. It may have been we were allowed to go ‘heavy’ rather than ‘light’, but I frankly do not recall.
So, instead of using a false precision, why not just say ‘545 grams’, and make sure you adjust to load the bag a bit heavy on the average?

Because that would make too much sense. There would be someone who knew how to operate that calculator, but didn’t know what the answer truly meant, and take issue with the producer and his/her/its product.

For example, when I say ‘About a hundred yards,’ and someone wants it in meters, I’d have to tell him ‘About ninety-one or ninety-two meters.’ No amount of badgering will get me to say that ‘About a hundred yards’ is equal to ‘About ninety-one-point-four-four meters’, especially since I probably paced it off as ‘one-hundred-twenty steps’ (my step averages about 2-1/2 feet on smooth and level ground), and the ground I needed to cover may have required shorter steps, or I might have felt the need to stretch my legs more, or something. ‘About’ in this case means ‘Something close to’, and the unit measures used cover the ground (no pun intended) adequately for that, whichever is used: ‘About a hundred yards’ or ‘About ninety meters’. The exactness of the calculation is falsified by the inaccuracy of the original data.

Back to the sack of M&Ms. The manufacturer cannot say ‘about so much’ regarding the quantity, else they would face FTC problems, despite the fact that they do not, as a practical matter cannot, know the quantity in the bag precisely to the nineteen-and-twenty-hundredths of an ounce. Likewise, they cannot know the mass of said M&Ms to 544.3 grams. The best they can do is try to keep the variation from bag to bag from getting too large.

Soapbox time: weight is not mass, the conversion is not proper in any case. Okay. I’m off my soapbox.

Our almost instant availability has brought an awareness of what might be out there, information-wise, but it hasn’t really brought us much in the way of knowledge. We leave the knowledge in the books, as it were, and get it when we need it.

I admit I hold a little of that attitude as well, and have told my students (in chemistry) that they don’t have to memorize the Periodic Table. But, they had better be able to use that table when asked to apply it to calculations required to balance a chemical equation. And that is just the beginning.

Having said that, I do want you to know that, to perform the above calculation I used my memory: I recalled the mass of a pre-1980 penny (which I had in my pocket), grabbed the bag of M&Ms at my desk for the Net Wt quote (I could have used the ‘1 lb, 453.7gm’ from the past bag size, also from memory), I constructed a simple balance from a pencil and a ruler at my desk, and carried out the comparison to find the mass of a single plain M&M. I didn’t look it up. Why should I, when I can discover the facts directly for myself from first principles?

The look-it-up culture has lost a bit of the experimental, experiential experience. Now there is a certain sense in this; why duplicate effort? My answer to that: check and balance. Did the first experimenter get it right? If your results do not compare to everyone else’s, who’s right? And how do you check? Do you merely capitulate, say everyone else is right and you are wrong? Or do you do the opposite, say that everyone else is wrong? And again, how do you check?

Your direct experience has a more immediate value. The best expression of experience is from an old guy:

"Experience is that thing you get five minutes after you need it."

That says it all, really. The value, the need, the learning curve. If you can learn from someone else’s experience, do so. A young woman I know had two examples to follow on how to live her life: one, get married, be true, work hard, live a fairly successful life; and another, sleep around, get pregnant, convince all the boys slept with that it (the child) is theirs, and get each of them to pony up support. The first example was her parents, the second a ‘friend’ who was doing the very thing, and living just above poverty. The young woman chose the advice of her ‘smart’ peer, and not of her parents. To be sure, she was rebelling against her parent’s ideas and saw their way of life as too hard, when she could just be a sponge. A sponge doesn’t have to think too hard; on the other hand, a sponge is dependent on the currents to bring sustenance to itself; it cannot ‘go get it’.

This young woman’s story is not finished, and she may come to herself and find a better way than just subsistence living as a sponge. I hope she does. She has had much personal experience to learn from.

Experience gives you grit, the stuff you need to keep on grinding on the problems of life.

On the one hand, the instant-look-up of today’s culture/infrastructure does give us new opportunities. What was impossible or extremely expensive a few short years ago has become relatively cheap, easy and of equal or better quality (allowing for the material being worked on being quality to begin with) than what was to be had not so many years ago. To help you with that notion, I direct you to An Army of Davids; by Glenn Reynolds, of fame. Our technology is enabling people to do so much with very little. The real problem is becoming separating the wheat from the chaff. In truth, it has always been so, but there is so much more of it to weed through now.

It has become easier to be self-reliant; the tools are so available. But, without the divine spark, the drive, the fire in the belly, a body can still go: nowhere, fast.

So, where to get that spark?

Ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it?

What do you blame the lack on? Go ahead, think about it, I give you leave. In your secret place, in your heart of hearts, you hold something or someone, human or Divine, or just plain damn misfortune responsible for your lack of success.

Me, too.

But, we’re both wrong. Look in the mirror: that’s whom to blame. Now that you’ve faced the fact, put it out of your mind, don’t dwell on it. Once you know whom to blame, don’t waste time blaming. Spend your time improving, working on a different outcome. Until you die, your book hasn’t been completed. So what if the story hasn’t had much of a plot so far. Be purposeful, give yourself a plot to follow, make it a good one; make it yours. If you need help, consult that Divine Counsellor. I guarantee He's got something in mind for you. My plot isn’t the one you should follow; it’s only the one I should follow.

What is your voice?

I asked that question some time back. A better question:

What is your song?

Karen Carpenter sang the lesson many years ago:

"Sing, sing a song./Sing it clear, sing it strong./Sing of good things not bad,/Sing of happy not sad./ … Make it simple, to last your whole life long./Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear;/Just sing, sing a song."

Did you hear that? ‘Don’t worry that it’s not good enough…, Just sing…’

Nike said: ‘Just do it’.

Follow their lead.

Yes, you can!

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