Monday, November 30, 2009

Musical Expectations and Resolutions

I am writing the first part of this blog entry at 7:00 p.m., shortly before leaving for my younger son's concert at a local pizzeria/bar/music venue. He will be playing violin accompaniment to/with/for a singer/songwriter/guitarist friend of his. I have seen the friend sing and play his acoustic guitar before in an entertaining rock/blues/pop set.

I expect that sprinkling violin phrases on the songs will provide a noticeable, but not striking, improvement: say, an increase of 20% in aesthetic interest. If my son and the friend had restructured the songs to perform as equal partners instead of a lead performer and a sideman, a truly exciting breakout concert might have been possible.

I am leaving now. I anticipate a pleasant concert.


I'm back home at 11:00 p.m. My son's concert was better than anticipated. His long, soulful violin phrases on the slower songs were quite effective: I'd say that he provided a boost of 40% or so in aesthetic interest for these songs. (Take my percentages with a grain of salt, of course.) But pretty playing only gets you so far. It was on the faster, hard-edged rock songs that he really added some punch. For me, the highlight of the set was when he matched the bottleneck guitar growl for growl on one hot number. It was a very balanced and enjoyable set by two enthusiastic musicians.

I stayed to listen to the headliners, a London-based indie band called One eskimO, whose set was a tuneful soundtrack to an animated film. The film told the story of two young Eskimo lovers who were separated and then tormented by the wiles of an evil sorcerer. But by perseverance, hope, and the help of trusty friends, the young Eskimo man endured all trials and attacks and was reunited with his lost love.

The band's pop melodies -- by turns wistful or sunny, to complement the film action -- reminded me of Harry Nilsson's The Point.

I took my leave when the film ended and the band took a much needed break for water and oxygen. (London, after all, is only 80 feet above sea level.) My son no doubt will stay and hobnob with these musical comrades from across the Atlantic.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Preparing for a long winter's read

Winter is coming. In Iowa, the most typical winter scene is a field of ragged corn stalks. Corn stalks are hard to come by in the city, so I have substituted a photograph of ornamental grasses growing beside a nearby highway on-ramp.

I customarily prepare for the coming of winter by accumulating a list of books that I can read when the weather is particularly bad. This year my list begins with books by two of my younger son's favorite authors: Orhan Pamuk and Peter Hoeg. The list continues with Beowulf, the second part of Don Quixote, whatever Italo Calvino stories I haven't read yet, and the Amber sci-fi anthology by Roger Zelazny. Bring on the blizzards!

Nightingales and strumpets

I am reading The Oxford Book of Essays, a fat volume that starts with Francis Bacon writing loftily about Truth in 1625: 'What is Truth?' said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer. The book ends with Clive James sneering at the popular fiction of Judith Krantz in 1980: To be a really lousy writer takes energy. The average novelist remains unread not because he is bad but because he is flat.

In the early 1700s, the great essayist Joseph Addison set the standard for the casual English essay. The depth, precision, and humanity of Addison are represented in the book by four of his Spectator essays. My favorite of the four, Sir Roger at Vauxhall, tells of the writer of the Spectator essays accompanying his friend Sir Roger de Coverley to Spring-Garden. An excerpt:

We were now arrived at Spring-Garden, which is exquisitely pleasant at this time of year. When I considered the fragrancy of the walks and bowers, with the choirs of birds that sung upon the trees, and the loose tribe of people that walked under their shades, I could not but look upon the place as a kind of Mahometan paradise. Sir Roger told me it put him in mind of a little coppice by his house in the country, which his chaplain used to call an aviary of nightingales. 'You must understand (says the knight), there is nothing in the world that pleases a man in love so much as your nightingale. Ah, Mr. Spectator! the many moonlight nights that I have walked by myself, and thought on the widow by the music of the nightingale!' He here fetched a deep sigh, and was falling into a fit of musing, when a mask, who came behind him, gave him a gentle tap upon the shoulder, and asked him if he would drink a bottle of mead with her? But the knight being startled at so unexpected a familiarity, and displeased to be interrupted in his thoughts of the widow, told her, 'She was a wanton baggage,' and bid her go about her business.

We concluded our walk with a glass of Burton ale, and a slice of hung-beef. When we had done eating ourselves, the knight called a waiter to him, and bid him carry the remainder to a waterman that had but one leg. I perceived the fellow stared upon him at the oddness of the message, and was going to be saucy; upon which I ratified the knight's command with a peremptory look.

As we were going out of the garden my old friend, thinking himself obliged, as a member of the Quorum, to animadvert upon the morals of the place, told the mistress of the house, who sat at the bar, 'that he should be a better customer to her garden, if there were more nightingales and fewer strumpets.'

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tinker Bell takes a job

Worsening unemployment had reached even Neverland. Tinker Bell and two of the Lost Boys were laid off. The Lost Boys moved to Florida and got work cleaning cruise ships. Tinker Bell moved to Denver to stay with her aunt and started searching the want ads and applying for jobs.

And so it was that Tinker Bell found herself interviewing for a job as a dental hygienist.

She arrived promptly at the dental office, darted through the doorway when a patient opened the door, and landed on the receptionist's counter. "Good morning, I'm here to see Dr. Sanderson," Tinker Bell announced.

"Hi, I'm Alice. I schedule appointments for Dr. Sanderson. He'll be out in a minute. He's extra busy because we're shorthanded right now. Would you like a cup of coffee?" The receptionist laughed and added, "I'm sorry. A drop of coffee is what I mean to say."

Tinker Bell smiled politely and said, "No, thank you. I'm already so nervous that I'm buzzing like a hummingbird."

"Relax, dear. Dr. Sanderson was very impressed with your resume. He considers you dependable. That's very important here. You'll be replacing a fairy girl from Whateverland who was always late to the work. The girl before her was a young Irish fairy from the leprechaun tribe – a sweet kid really, but the sight of gold made her crazy. She ended up prying loose a patient's gold filling and running off. Oh, here he comes now."

A cheerful dentist in his late fifties entered the reception area. "Good morning, I'm Dr. Sanderson. Please follow me, Miss Bell." He led her back to his office. She flew right behind him at shoulder level. He took his seat behind the desk and said, "Make yourself comfortable."

Tinker Bell landed on the polished desktop, skidded, and had to flap her wings hard to avoid a pratfall . She recovered her dignity and marched over to take a seat on a pad of post-it notes. She smoothed her skirt over her knees and then looked up at Dr. Sanderson expectantly.

"I'm happy to say that your references checked out fine, Miss Bell."

"Oh, please call me Tink. That's what my friends call me."

"Well, Tink, you got an especially favorable recommendation from this Mr. Pan. I'm convinced that you will be a valuable addition to our team and want to offer you a job as dental hygienist."

Tinker Bell kept a businesslike expression on her face but her wings flared up, giving away her elation. "Thank you, sir. I accept."

Dr. Sanderson, by reflex, started to extend his hand for a handshake but caught himself. "So, are you able to start work tomorrow?"

"Yes, I can be here tomorrow."

"Excellent. I'll have Alice schedule a morning session for you with Mary, our trainer. Mary's a wood nymph, a really great lady." Dr. Sanderson reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a tiny metal object shaped like a T. "Have you ever used this kind of dental pick, Tink?" He placed it, ever so carefully, into her hands.

"No, sir," she said as she examined it.

"It's like a miniature geologist's hammer. We have them specially made by gnomes in Switzerland. It has a knurled handle for a sure grip."

Tinker Bell, who was sensitive to language, had to suppress a giggle. "Knurled" reminded her of "gnarly", which reminded her of the slang that the Lost Boys used. "It's a beautiful tool," she said.

"You'll also be given galoshes for secure footing within the patient's mouth. Of course, in accordance with OSHA dental safety practices, you'll be on a tether attached to the patient's incisor whenever you are cleaning the back molars. Needless to say, we don't want you anywhere near the esophagus, do we?"

"No, sir."

"There is one other matter that I always take care to emphasize to our fairy hygienists, Tink."


"You must always be careful of your wings. If you should ever brush against the patient's palate, the patient might cough. That could be dangerous."

"I'll be careful."

"I'm sure you will, Tink. Oh, one more thing. We are putting a new sign out front and we want the community to know that we're on the cutting edge of dentistry and employing the best dental hygienists in the world. Therefore, it makes sense to put a picture of a fairy on the sign. Our other hygienist, Marie, is lady of mature years, quite matronly, and doesn't, um -- well, I'm sure you understand. What I'm trying to say is, would you consider letting us use your picture, Tink?"

Tinker Bell's wings flattened against her body. "Oh sir! I can't possibly –"

Dr. Sanderson raised his hands in a gesture of apology. "I don't want to distress you, Tink. If a picture is too much to ask, would you at least consider allowing us to use your silhouette?"

She put her head down, avoiding Dr. Sanderson's eyes. "I don't know, sir."

"Just think about it. That's all I ask. You can give me your answer later."

"Okay, I'll think about it."

Thanksgiving hospitality

My younger son and I were invited to the home of friends for Thanksgiving dinner. After a stressful period at work recently, it was a true blessing for me to enjoy their hospitality.

By the time that dinner was over and we were all enjoying cheesecake, pie, and ice cream, I felt refreshed and at peace. This should come as no surprise. After all, the word "stressed" spelled in reverse is "desserts".

Friday, November 27, 2009

Beached and becalmed

It was a perfect day for sailing at the reservoir except for two things: all of the boats had been pulled ashore (see above) and there was no breeze. The stillness of the air was demonstrated when a father fired off a model rocket to entertain his young children. The rocket went up a hundred feet, popped its parachute, and then gently descended, landing within five feet of the launching pad.

I walked past the Yacht Club. The word "yacht" has always bothered me. Derived from the Dutch "jacht" and its earlier form "jaghte" from a root related to hunt or pursuit, "yacht" has a pronunciation that has clearly been garbled somehow. It seems to me that the word should be pronounced "yockt". As far as I can determine, "yacht" is the only widely used English word with the silent "ch". (I don't count the word "chtonic", which is rarely used outside of literary or theological circles.)

Weed Sculpture

The photograph is of Christopher Weed's public artwork called Windswept, situated at the nearby light rail station. I don't think of wind when I view the work. Indeed, as the row of poles under the larger red spheres leans to the east and the other row leans to the west, it's hard to conceive of a wind pattern that would produce this result. Instead, I am reminded of the little wooden sticks for a child's xylophone. Weed received a $50,000 commision for this art.

In an earlier blog entry (May 30, 2009 – Giant Purple Bristle Heads), I noted a similar Weed public artwork that placed purple spheres atop long poles. Weed's press release states:

Christopher Weed's sculpture Serenity on the corner of S. Colorado Blvd. and Buchtel Blvd. consists of 18 bright purple spheres, set atop stainless steel "stems" varying in height up to 20 feet. Ten thousand thin steel rods jut out from the powder-coated, iridescent tops to create a thistle-like, or cosmic, appearance, depending on the viewer's interpretation.

Weed's goal was to create a bit of escapism at a very busy intersection. "When placed in a grouping, the sculpture creates a canopy effect, much like being in a forest," he said. "The idea was to create numerous, free-standing sculptural elements, where viewers can lose themselves, if only for a brief moment."

Weed grew up in Philadelphia, PA, earned a fine arts degree from the University of Maryland, studied in Europe for several years, and has installed 15 public art projects in the U.S. and abroad since 1998. His Colorado installations include "Opening Doors" at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, named "Best Public Art in Denver" in 2007 by 5280 magazine, and the popular Windswept sculpture at the RTD Dayton light rail station in 2006. He has also completed projects in Aurora, Lafayette, Boulder, and Superior. He is represented at A New Leaf Gallery in San Francisco, CA., and Shidoni Foundry,Shidoni Foundry, Gallery and Sculpture Gardens in Santa Fe, NM.

Weed has a curious notion of serenity. The bristle head artwork was anything but serene. I considered it ominous and disturbing. These xylophone sticks with their spiky purple heads would mar the xylophone plates.

For Weed's latest public artwork, he has progressed from giant xylophone sticks to a pair of giant paperclips. As stated in his blog ( "Christopher Weed's Red Paperclips, installed at the Plaza of the Rockies in downtown Colorado Springs, consists of 2 larger than life cherry red paperclips, standing 24’ high and weighing 3.5 tons."

I myself am thinking about pitching an idea to the Regional Transportation District. The work will be called Versatility. Imagine a a five-ton Swiss army knife.


To fully appreciate the Thanksgiving holiday, it's best to go back to the source.

Philippians 4.6,7: Be careful for nothing: but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

I have abridged how Martyn Lloyd-Jones expounded this in his book Spiritual Depression, Chapter 19.

Is the apostle just tumbling out one word after another, or is he speaking advisedly? I can show you that he is indeed speaking advisedly, as he shows us how to let our requests be made known unto God.

How are we to do that? First he tells us to pray. He differentiates between prayer and supplication and thanksgiving. What does he mean by prayer? This is the most general term and it means worship and adoration. If you have problems that seem insoluble, if you are liable to become anxious and overburdened, and somebody tells you to pray, do not rush to God with your petition. That is not the way. Before you make your requests known unto God, pray, worship, adore. That is the beginning.

But following prayer comes supplication. Now we are moving on. Having worshipped God because God is God, having offered this general worship and adoration, we come now to the particular, and the apostle here encourages us to make our supplications. He tells us that we can take particular things to God, that petition is a legitimate part of prayer. So we bring our petitions, the particular things that are now concerning us.

But wait, there is still one other thing -- 'by prayer and application, with thanksgiving'. This is one of the most vital of all these terms. And it is just here that so many of us go astray when we are in this condition with which the apostle is dealing. If, while we pray to God, we have a grudge against Him in our hearts, we have no right to expect that the peace of God will keep our heart and our mind. If we go on our knees feeling that God is against us, we may as well get up and go out. No, we must approach Him 'with thanksgiving'. There must be no doubt as to the goodness of God in our heart. There must be no question or query; we must have positive reasons for thanking God. We have our problems and troubles but there on our knees we must ask ourselves: 'What can I thank God for?' We have to do that deliberately and it is something that we can do. We must remind ourselves that He is our Father, that he loves us so much that the very hairs of our head are all numbered. And when we have reminded ourselves of these things we must pour out our heart in thanksgiving.

We have seen what we have to do, we have been instructed as to how we are to deal with it, and now comes the gracious promise to those who do what the apostle has just been telling us. Have you noticed the promise, have you noticed its character, have you noticed that it does not even mention the things that are worrying you? That is the peculiar thing about the Christian method of dealing with anxiety. 'In all things,' says the apostle -- these things that are worrying -- make your requests known and God will banish and remove them all?' But Paul does not say that. He does not mention them; he just says nothing about them. To me that is one of the most thrilling things about the Christian life. The glory of the gospel is this, that it is concerned about us and not about our circumstances. The final triumph of the gospel is seen in this, that whatever our circumstances, we ourselves can be put right and maintained. It does not mention our condition, it does not talk about these things that are harassing and perplexing, it does not say a single word about them. They may or may not happen, I do not know. Paul does not say that the thing feared is not going to take place, he says that we shall be kept whether it happens or whether it does not happen. Thank God, that is the victory. I am taken above circumstances, I am triumphant in spite of them.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving geese

See these elite sleepy sleek geese feed at the beach. (New World Dictionary definition #2 for sleek: well-fed or well-groomed appearance)

There were thirty geese at the reservoir. These three, larger and plumper than the rest, stood apart. There seems to be some sort of hierarchy principle at work here but I don't know what it is.

I fancy geese in their original packaging, walking about, rather than on a platter. Good luck to them all!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The use of fatigue

Lately, I often find myself working unpaid hours at the office. This stems from a faulty balance between duty and self. It is not that I am forced to work more hours than others to make up for being slow or inefficient. Rather, I voluntarily take on the extra work -- not for career advancement, but in order to be seen as a good team player. I donate hours in hope of gaining acceptance. And I persist in doing this even though little notice and even less reward has resulted from this behavior. Vanity of vanities! (I hope my older son is wiser than I am and strikes a healthy balance between work and family.)

But yesterday I found myself alone in the office at 8:00 p.m. for a different reason. I had been assigned to produce a cost estimate for an activity that I had no quantitative basis for estimating. I was in a jam. There was no time or budget to do the necessary research on how long this activity (checkout of computer security settings) had taken in the past, and I had no pertinent experience to rely upon. Gut feel was all that I had. And my gut wasn't cooperating.

Dismayed by the shoddiness of it all, I fretted for three hours, fruitlessly trying to spin straw into gold (or, more accurately, turn manure into a cost estimate). Finally, fatigue came over me and suppressed my nagging professional standards. I was set free to write crap. Within minutes I drafted a slapdash estimate.

My conclusion is that I have a functioning conscience, but I can wear it down and stupefy it by the use of sufficient fatigue.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Experiments in exhaustion

I just finished two strenuous weeks of proposal work. My workday steadily lengthened over this period until I was working 17 hours a day. My hours summed to 175 for the two weeks; I receive pay for only 80.

The work grew very tiring. At first I was successful in staving off exhaustion with caffeine. By the second week, caffeine by itself had no effect, and I began experimenting with consuming different proportions of caffeine, sugar, and fat. I discovered that a generous piece of pumpkin cheesecake, washed down with a diet Coke, gave me 45 minutes of lucidity, followed by a blood sugar dive that rendered me a blithering wreck. I used two successive pieces of pumpkin cheesecake to keep myself functioning until 1:00 a.m. on my final evening. I don't vouch for the accuracy or even the coherence of a single line that I wrote that night.

To find a comparable episode of exhaustion, I have to look back to the time of my graduate school qualifying exams at the University of Texas. Owing to a lack of motivation, I began studying for the three days of exams about 24 hours before the first exam. I devoted the day and night to memorizing engineering equations and working through sample questions.

Pulling an "all-nighter" was a deliberate strategy. I had read somewhere that knowledge remained in the brain's short-term memory until mental processes during sleep sorted knowledge into important knowledge and unimportant knowledge. The important knowledge was routed to long-term memory for retention; unimportant knowledge was flushed. As I needed every bit of knowledge I could muster to pass these qualifying exams, I couldn't afford to give my brain the opportunity to throw anything away. (I realize now that you should worry any time that you are trying to use your brain to outsmart your brain.)

I showed up for the first exam bleary-eyed and dizzy with fatigue. I finished the exam by noon and immediately went home to study for the second day's exam. Again I studied all night and showed up the next morning so wobbly that I could barely hold a pencil. I finished the second exam and went home to prepare for the third.

As dawn rose on the third day, I was sitting at my desk reading a chemical kinetics text. Empty king-sized Coke bottles littered the floor. A transcendent feeling came over me that I had achieved complete mastery of all of chemical engineering. In fact, the principles seemed so obvious to me that I marveled that I had spent four undergraduate years studying such childishly simple material.

Still in the grip of this grandiose mental state, I walked to the classroom to take the third exam. I remember stumbling several times along the way from fatigue. I arrived, took my copy of the exam from the proctor, and set to work. I finished in record time, an hour before the noon deadline.

The results? By all rights I should have botched all three qualifying exams because of my lack of preparation and my ridiculous strategy of pulling three consecutive all-nighters. But I ended up passing all of them handily. (Perhaps it would have been better for my character to have suffered bad consequences from my foolishness. At any rate, my lack of motivation proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. I left the university and returned to industry shortly thereafter.)

Sorry to say, I had no similar moment of faux transcendence from my exhaustion last week. All that I experienced was fatigue headaches and the occasional sour stomach from late night candy bars and cheesecake.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Decline of the West -- Santa Cruz edition

Despite my general fondness for the music of the Grateful Dead, I was taken aback when I stumbled upon this job posting today:

The University Library of the University of California, Santa Cruz, seeks an enterprising, creative, and service-oriented archivist to join the staff of Special Collections & Archives (SC&A) as Archivist for the Grateful Dead Archive. The Archivist will be part of a dynamic, collegial, and highly motivated department dedicated to building, preserving, promoting, and providing maximum access both physically and virtually to one of the Library's most exciting and unique collections, The Grateful Dead Archive (GDA). The UCSC University Library utilizes innovative approaches to allow the discovery, use, management, and sharing of information in support of research, teaching, and learning.

Grateful Dead Archive:

The Grateful Dead Archive documents the band's creative activity and influence in contemporary music history from 1965 to 1995, including the phenomena of the Deadheads, the band’s extensive network of devoted fans, and the band’s highly unusual and successful musical business ventures. The Archive contains original documents, clippings, artifacts, photography, posters, audio and video recordings, publications about the Dead and its individual members, its tours and performances, recordings and productions, and business. Correspondence and art contributed over the years by Deadheads are part of the Archive.

The Archive, which is approximately 600 linear feet, is physically housed in McHenry Library's Special Collections & Archives department. A dedicated area, "Dead Central" (soon to be opened in the newly renovated McHenry Library) will offer the public opportunities for listening and viewing material from the Archive. Material digitized from the Archive will be made in the Library’s CONTENTdm digital collections system and in a separate, Omeka-powered system will form the basis of Virtual Terrapin Station, a web-based digital collections system which will provide access to digitized materials from the collection while at the same time allowing social interaction and the exchange of data with and from the public. The Finding Aid for the GDA will be submitted to the CDL's Online Archive of California, and bibliographic records for all commercial GDA publications will appear in Library's local catalog, CruzCat, and in OCLC's WorldCat.

Under the general direction of the Head of Special Collections and Archives, the GDA Archivist will provide managerial and curatorial oversight of the GDA, plan for and supervise the physical and digital processing of all Archive related material, and promote the GDA to the public and facilitate its use by scholars, fans, and students.

Rank: Associate Librarian or Librarian

Salary: Appointment Salary Range: Associate Librarian III- Librarian I, with an approximate salary range of $52,860-$68,892, commensurate with qualifications and experience.

Position Available: March 1, 2010

A Grateful Dead archive that stretches for two football fields -- what a long, strange trip!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Notice of FTC Compliance

In October the Federal Trade Commission introduced guidelines to protect the public from deceptive endorsements and testimonials. The lowly amateur blogger is subject to these rules.

"The Commission acknowledges that bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in traditional media. In general, under usual circumstances, the Commission does not consider reviews published in traditional media to be sponsored advertising messages. [K]nowing whether the media entity that published the review paid for the item in question would not affect the weight consumers give to the reviewer’s statements….

In contrast, if a blogger’s statement on his personal blog or elsewhere (e.g., the site of an online retailer of electronic products) qualifies as an “endorsement” – i.e., as a sponsored message – due to the blogger’s relationship with the advertiser or the value of the merchandise he has received and has been asked to review by that advertiser, knowing these facts might affect the weight consumers give to his review."

Of especial concern to me are the guidelines on expert endorsements. As a literary poseur and dilettante, I often decorate my little blog entries with the wordcraft and sentiments of better writers and thereby attempt to impress the unwary with a semblance of expertise. This could land me in trouble with the FTC. Consider their guidelines for expert endorsements:

"(a) Whenever an advertisement represents, directly or by implication, that the endorser is an expert with respect to the endorsement message, then the endorser's qualifications must in fact give the endorser the expertise that he or she is represented as possessing with respect to the endorsement.

Example 1: An endorsement of a particular automobile by one described as an 'engineer' implies that the endorser's professional training and experience are such that he is well acquainted with the design and performance of automobiles. If the endorser's field is, for example, chemical engineering, the endorsement would be deceptive."

I am always expressing my likes and dislikes about things in this blog. And so, to avoid problems with the FTC and a possible $11,000 fine, I give notice that any opinions, endorsements, or testimonials recorded in this blog should be considered the inexpert thoughts of a mere "chemical engineer" and ignoramus.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It's all their fault

Comes a time in a man's life when he must pause and take stock of his accomplishments. If fame and fortune have eluded him, he is apt to cast about for something or someone to blame. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, I can attribute my lackluster achievement in life to my ancestors. It's all their fault.

Gladwell argues that a man's cultural background largely shapes his approach to life and his odds for success. As Cassius should have said: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars nor in ourselves, but in our ancestors, that we are underlings." Gladwell devotes one chapter, called Rice Paddies and Math Tests, to showing that Chinese perseverance and mental agility can be attributed to centuries of rice farming, which requires continual effort and attention to detail. In another chapter, one unlikely to endear him to the Appalachian backcountry, Gladwell explains that many Southerners are noisy and emotional and violent because of their descent from irascible 19th-century herdsmen in the English borderlands.

Gladwell could have used my father's lineage to support his cultural argument. My father's family chronicles extend back to a German ancestor born in 1641. This earliest recorded forefather was a cowherd who settled in the little northwest German town of Stockse as a Brinksitzer, that is, a cottager with a small garden. In modern terms, he was like a laborer living in a modest trailer park. He found himself a trailer park sweetie and married. They struggled along and had a daughter and a son.

The son was unable to improve upon his humble origins by industry or by currying favor with the town burghers. So, with an eye toward escaping the Brinksitzer life via matrimony, he made a match with an old maid (31 years old!) from a higher rung of society. The old maid's family owned a large shop, probably for knife sharpening. (Grosskotners, they were called in the Lutheran church records). This attempt at social climbing apparently failed, because the son remained a Brinksitzer until his death in 1701.

Throughout the 1700s my father's family remained poor but respectable Brinksitzers. Then in the early 1800s, owing to a family scandal, the family dropped to the lowest rung of society and showed up in the church records under the label of Anbauer, which signifies a planter with no property or social standing -- a squatter, in other words. In 1852, my great-great-grandfather, eager to leave all this poverty and stigma behind, emigrated with his wife and young children to America.

America was a wonderful place for the Brinksitzer. In spite of the Brinksitzer's cultural weaknesses in social graces and business savvy, the Brinksitzer strengths of frugality and hard work led to steady advancement.

So, how should I view my life? I am the product of a long line of Brinksitzers and it is appropriate to measure myself against the standards of my Brinksitzer culture. Well, all in all, I feel that I measure up okay. I'm a pretty good Brinksitzer. I am frugal and work hard. While I may lack property and prestige, I am far from being a squatter.

But being a Brinksitzer has its trials. I am continually outmaneuvered by glib and crafty people at work. And I face the usual Brinksitzer obstacles to improving my standing in society. Perhaps I could revive the old family tradition and find an affluent 31-year-old spinster to court. It's got to work eventually.

Monday, November 2, 2009

10,000 hours to mastery

I just read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. Gladwell is a talented explainer of scientific ideas. In this he joins a distinguished company of popularizers of science such as H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, James Burke (famed for his BBC television series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed), and Carl Sagan. If Gladwell hires a bigger research staff and publishes several more books, the media may begin to refer to him as a science historian instead of a mere best-selling science journalist.

I was intrigued by the second chapter of Outliers, called The 10,000-hour Rule. Gladwell wrote about research conducted in the early 1990s by K. Anders Ericsson while at the University of Colorado at Boulder. (After making a reputation for himself, Ericsson jumped to a position at Florida State University -- a noted football power.) Ericsson and two German colleagues had evaluated the skill of violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music and found that musical skill correlated closely with the student's total accumulation of practice hours. The elite students had put in about 10,000 hours (roughly 3 hours per day over 10 years); mediocre students had put in about 8000 hours; and students destined to be music teachers in the public schools had put in a paltry 4000 hours. Ericsson found very similar results with piano students. Other researchers found that the 10,000 hour rule was generally applicable to ice skating, chess, writing, and a variety of other physical and intellectual skills.

My own experience jibes with these findings. Both my sons started practicing violin at a young age, accumulated their 10,000 hours (at somewhat different rates), and have attained violin mastery. I myself watched a great deal of television in my youth -- easily more than 10,000 hours by the time I started college -- and thereby achieved a double mastery: television watching and sitting. My television mastery has given me a Zen-like ability to transcend time. I can watch television for an entire evening without fidgeting or losing concentration. My sitting mastery has proved to be the foundation of a long and stable career in the aerospace industry.

Future mastery is in store for me. By the end of the year, I will have devoted nearly 400 hours to writing blog entries. If I can keep up this torrid pace for another 25 years, I will achieve blog mastery in 2034. I invite my loyal readers to observe my progress over the next quarter century.