Saturday, March 28, 2009

Beating The Odds

Above is a link to a BBC article about a man who survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. In 2009, he is still alive at 93.

What are the odds? Well for Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the odds are 100%. That's the way it works for individuals. Either something happens to you or it doesn't.

It is a different matter for populations of individuals. Identify a group of 1000 American men my age. The probability of death by heart disease for a member of that group is pretty high. Let's say 30%. However, each one of those men will or will not die of heart disease. On a more personal level, I will or will not die of heart disease. We may construct the sentence "Kent has a 30% chance of dying of heart disease." That is actually meaningless. Either I will die of heart disease, or I won't.

What is the probability that someone in the same group of 1000 men will be killed by hand gun? Let's say it is .1% So one guy dies via handgun. That tells me that most guys my age would benefit more from taking measures to avoid heart disease than they would benefit from wearing a bullet proof vest. But what if I am the one guy who will be shot. Dang, should have worn the vest! And I could have eaten all the bacon and eggs I wanted.

Here is another way to look at it. If I can convince 1000 men to change their diet and exercise, perhaps the probability of death by heart disease might drop to 20%. Two hundred men die of heart disease, instead of 300. So one hundred lives are saved, right?


Those one hundred men will die of something else. Perhaps the average age at death might go up a few years (that is not a foregone conclusion). However, I cannot conclude that preventative measures mean that I will live longer.

Hearing what the probability is for a population really can't tell me much about what will happen to me. I may have other reasons for eating well and exercising. I might obtain a relatively immediate benefit. But I shouldn't be surprised if I am hit by a truck, struck by lightning, or choke to death on a chunk of steak.

The good new is that I may be the next guy who lives through two nuclear attacks. I may be the guy standing next to the guy killed by lightning. There are a huge number of possiblities open to me, regardless of how many heart attacks hit the middle aged guys around me. I want to live my life thinking about the possibilities for good stuff happening.

I plan to put more energy into the "immediate benefit" stuff.

Photo Credit: Licorne by Pierre J.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Scene of the Crime

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I drove my mom's 1962 Chrysler back and forth from my job at the A&P grocery when I was 16. Coming home late at night I always looked forward to this corner. I tried for a four wheel drift as a turned off Transcontinental and onto a long stretch of service road.

There were no houses or crossroads along it as there are in this more recent photo from Google Maps street level. So I felt free to floor the accelerator and see how high I could move the speedometer needle before I had to hit the brakes and slide into the turn to go down the street to my house.

I seem to remember 70 miles per hour as about my top speed. Four wheel drifts in a big hog like a Chrysler Newport are a dicey affair. I can't recall any bad consequences, except pretty serious wear on the tires. I remember the thrill like it was yesterday.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Wrap Your Head Around This

"To see a world in a grain of sand,And a heaven in a wild flower,Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,And eternity in an hour"

from Auguries of Innocence
by William Blake

I spent a little time trying to figure out how much computers have changed since I was born in 1950. That was right about when the first commercial version of an electronic computer was developed.

It was roughly the size of a cargo container and cost about $10 million in today's dollars..

Today, all the circuits in that 1950 computer would fit into something roughly the size of a grain of rice which can be produced for around one penny.

Of course, the speed at which the circuits operated would be different. The grain of rice would do math approximately 1 million times faster.

Can computers keep getting faster? Most people think so. In fact, many people think they will get faster faster:

The Law of Accelerating Returns
Ray Kurzweil

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense "intuitive linear" view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century -- it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate).

Spit for Brains

There is a campaign afoot to get Linn Benton Community College students to stop spitting in the water fountains. A crudely captioned picture in the student paper followed crudely drawn little signs taped near the fountains. Now I am beginning to see beautifully printed little signs above some fountains.

It has been more than half a century since I first happened upon evidence that someone had hocked a loogie into a drain designed strictly for unused drinking water. Even then, as a grade school kid, I wondered who would do something so gross. Now that some students enjoy chewing tobacco as a pastime, it appears that even spitting into a disgusting paper cup is not low enough. Apparently either a. they can't figure out that their snoose juice doesn't flow through the drain or b. they don't give a rip. Either way, it indicates an astonishing lack of cranial capacity. For you guys who spit in the fountain, that means you are dumb as a stump.

Photo by arimoore

Friday, March 06, 2009

Living with Poison

Humans didn't invent poison. This two inch frog contains enough poison to kill 10 humans.

There is a lot of poison in the world. Occasionally we feed it to our kids by accident. But are things as bad as they seem to be when we scan the news? Here is some toxic food for thought.

It took more than sixty years for the U.S. to realize that lead laced exhaust was dangerously toxic and phase lead out of gasoline. We also learned that lead paint flakes were poisoning children in older homes. We are still cleaning up that mess.

During 2007 headlines like this one sprouted everywhere: “35 percent of toys contain lead, report says, Testers bought most popular children’s products at large retailers” (AP Dec. 5, 2007). Eighty percent of the toys in the U.S. are imported from China, the same place where "The scandal, in which melamine was added to raw milk to make it appear higher in protein, led to the deaths of six babies and made some 300,000 ill."says the BBC, Jan. 22, 2009.
The Chinese took action on the melamine problem. They executed two men who added the substance to milk. The U.S. congress used a different approach for lead, they passed H.R. 4040: The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. Effective Feb. 10, 2009.

You bet. This is America. We don't just hang a couple of guys. We hit the problem with sweeping legislation.

Not so fast.

The law is absurd and ineffective. Manufacturers, retailers, and thrift stores can't immediately conduct required tests to prove that their products do not contain more than 100 ppm of lead. Too complex. Too expensive.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission began to back pedal in January when used clothing stores were exempted from the testing. In February the commission voted to postpone the testing requirement a year for most children's products. However, you are still culpable if your product exceeds the 100 ppm limit.

Congress demonstrated ignorance. Their law will not eliminate the lead. It took decades to deal with gasoline. One commodity. Easily tested. Engines had to be revamped. Refineries had to create new blends. Gas stations had to buy new pumps.

According the Centers for Disease Control , accidents are the number one cause for children's deaths. Poison is involved in some of the accidents. And the number one poison? Medications. That stuff in the adult proof bottles.


A March 2, 2009 AP article says, "In a stunning improvement in children's health, far fewer kids have high lead levels than 20 years ago, new government research reports — a testament to aggressive efforts to get lead out of paint, water and soil."

Did it take an act of congress to get the lead out? Yes. It also took years of carefully coordinated efforts in an number of industries. Let's not stop now. But, please, can we skip the hysteria.

Let's see a few headlines that say "Thousands Die Because Parents Leave Medicine Laying Around"

Photo credit: Poison Dart Frog by Ucumari

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

How to Make Good Grades: Two Things I Learned In Junior College

I restarted my college career at age 58. My intention was to learn a bit about journalism, but I have learned other things as well.

When I was a member of the Philomath school board, I sat through a lot of awards ceremonies. I hate awards ceremonies; there are so many other things I would rather be doing. I only attend them when socially obligated. I found I was frustrated with successful high school students who were asked to say a word about how they had done so well. Over and over they said some form of "Do your work and turn it in.". I had finished high school, a bachelors degree, and a masters degree back in the sixties and early seventies. I did o.k. but it was not easy. I resented the idea that all you had to do was complete the assignments your teacher gave you. Now, after one course at LBCC, I see that the students were right and I was wrong.

During my first tour of duty as a student, I thought I worked hard. Looking back I see that I didn't have much concept of what hard work was. Oh, I spent plenty of time in the library, but a lot of it was spent sitting at a study table wishing I was somewhere else. Also, I was chronically sleep deprived due to certain lifestyle choices. I often found myself waking up with my head stuck to the table by my own saliva.

Now I realize that I put in a lot of hours but often I failed to complete my assignments. I would have been far better off just hacking something out and turning it in instead of procrastinating while I told myself that I was "studying". I am making the same mistake this time, but I am more aware of it.

All I needed to do to score some extra points in my class was write at least two posts a week.

Adding graphics would have helped. Using the AP style book to check things like how 9/11 should be written would also have helped. Now, a couple of weeks from the end of the quarter, I look back over my posts and wonder how I could have failed to take advantage of those opportunities. It's not that I care about my grade (much), I am just appalled that I could be taking only one class and still fail to do the obvious.

The second thing I learned was how fast a week goes by. Of course, it is a cliche that as one grows older time seems to pass more quickly. I heard a story about a 100 year old lady who asked what life was like now that she had reached the century mark. She said, "I feel like I eat breakfast every twenty minutes."

I posted this quote near my desk in November of 1978: "You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today, then one day you find that ten years have got behind you, no one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun" ( "Time" on "Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd.) I have carried that quote to every desk I have occupied for thirty years. Bit by bit I am learning to heed its warning. Yet I am still surprised to see time fly.

I will end with a bit of good news for anyone who may relate to my failings.
Change is possible.

I was probably already a procrastinator in the cradle. Nonetheless, I have been able to finish school, work for 33 years and help raise four children. Some lessons just have to be learned over and over again.

Do your work. Time flies.
photo credit: Studying Hard by Kyle Kessering

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Three Things I Learned from Stephen King's book, "On Writing"

Three items that particularly stand out are as follows:

1. Write a lot, read a lot: I have always read a lot. I have always thought that I would like to write. However, I didn't write much at all until a few years ago. Writing a blog has given me the incentive to write more often, but I find that I still only write a few posts a month. When I read how much time someone like King puts into a single book, I realize that I need to up the ante quite a bit.

2. King says, “If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that's all.” I was encouraged. A variety of family members, friends, and acquaintances have all taken a shot at making me feel lousy about writing my blog. The most frequent comment seems to be this: “You must have way to much time on your hands”. Often I feel defensive when someone tosses that comment at me.

It is good to know that even a writer of King's caliber has had to endure those sorts of taunts. More and more I realize that we spend lots of time on all sorts of things: TV, fishing, reading gossip columns, collecting stamps, watching sports, playing video games, etc. ad nauseam. I don't want to make other folks fell bad about how they choose to spend their time. I certainly don't want to let them make me feel bad about how I spend mine. It is estimated that King has sold 300 million copies of his books. However, even if he never sold one, writing them is nothing to feel lousy about.

3. There are no great story items hidden in the earth, just waiting to be dug up. I think way too much about what might be the very best thing to write about. I would do better to just watch for ideas that seem decent and then run with them. I won't even have wasted paper in this era of word processors. I may create something that I really enjoy. Perhaps others will enjoy it.

Seldom can I tell in advance which ideas are going to result in a great final product. First I have to write something As King says, “ Let's get one thing clear right now shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, No Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find those ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”