Location: Iowa, United States

61 years old (pretty old for a blogger) proud to be a grandpa

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Our Minds: "Such Manifold Variety"

Every so often I run across a thought that resonates not only because I happen to believe it but because it is expressed with such clarity and grace. I found the one below while reading an extended review of futurist, Ray Kurzweil’s new book, “The Singularity is Near,” in which he predicts the imminent fusion of computer technology with the human brain through a combination of powerful computing power, reverse brain engineering, and the integration of chips and neural networks. In cautioning the reader to be wary of many of Kurzweil’s rather cavalier predictions, he quotes the pioneering neurophysiologist, Charles Sherrington (1857-1952), who wrote in 1940:
“The mind is a something with such manifold variety, such fleeting changes, such countless nuances, such wealth of combinations, such heights and depths of mood, such sweeps of passion, such vistas of imagination, that the bald submission of some electrical potentials recognizable in nerve-centers as correlative to all these may seem to the special student of mind almost derisory. It is, further, more than mere lack of corresponding complexity which frustrates the comparison.”
Amazing that so many advances on so many fronts, do not really change the truth of Sherrington’s statement made 65 years ago.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

This just in...

Continuing its no-nonsense campaign against lighting up, the California Legislature voted today to make cigarette smoking a capital offense. While the law waits for the governor’s signature, which is seen as imminent, anti-tobacco spokespeople around the state, expressed their relief at the tough new law. “Why shouldn’t smokers be put to death?” pondered one grateful citizen. “After all, haven’t they’ve been killing us for decades?” For many the new law couldn’t come soon enough as California’s social and political spokespeople have become increasingly outspoken about the evils of tobacco. One California legislator was quoted as saying, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s been genocide--it’s that simple.” However, some militant activists think the new law does not go far enough. A more radical bill that would have called for smokers to be “shot on sight,” was only narrowly voted down in the California senate. Some lawmakers are blaming its defeat on the powerful tobacco lobby. In related news, scientists at the University of California at Berkeley recently released new research that links smoking to ingrown toenails, avalanches, bat salivary gland fever, the murder of Rasputin, and the continued popularity of Jerry Lewis.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

“Well, back then you were considered an old man at 50” and other half-truths

Thanks to oversimplification and societal innumeracy, it is common to hear this from people of every educational level. A related illusion has to do with how much longer people are living these days. This one has a modicum of truth but is, IMHO,exaggerated. The main difficulty arises when we use average life expectancy AT BIRTH as the jumping off place. While it is true that in 1910 the average life expectancy at birth for white males was only around 50 years old, the reason had to do with the still high infant and child mortality rates that dragged down the average death age. In fact, after a person attained adulthood, the numbers change dramatically. The average life expectancy of a 40 year old in 1910 was another 27 years (average death at 67). A 50 year old would die, on average, at the age of 70; a 60 year old could expect to live to 74. These same age groups today would expect to die, respectively at 79, 81, and 83. While these numbers are significantly higher, they represent a much smaller increase than the life expectancy at birth in 1910 (50) and the life expectancy at birth in 2003 (75.4). In fact, as one would expect, these differences converge as the population group under question is older. An 80 year old in 1910 could expect to live another 5 years. An 80 year old in 2003 could expect to live another 8 years, a difference of only 3 years. In fact, even in the middle of the 19th century, it would not be correct to state that a man of 50 would be considered old even though the average life expectancy at birth at the time was less than 40 years! We are seeing a tremendous number of older people these days but it has more to do with shifting demographics than it does a drastic increase in the adult life span. Anyway, this is my understanding using figures at hand: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005140.html
I’m willing to be proven wrong. What’s surprising is how much we rely on the “at birth” figures when they’re usually irrelevant in discussing our aging population.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

One Thought On Capital Punishment

In the wake of the execution of Tookie Williams the news is awash with editorials and opinions on the death penalty. While reasonable people can differ regarding the morality of this kind of punishment, one argument that always seems to surface seems to me untenable: that the state execution of a criminal is tantamount to murder itself—that the state lowers itself to the criminal’s level by committing the same act and is, thereby, guilty and debased. To see the flaw in this logic, consider this scenario: I walk into a convenience store and, while the store employee is turned away, pocket $100 from the till. I am subsequently caught, tried, and found guilty. In addition to returning the $100, I am fined $100. Does this make the state a thief? They’ve taken money from me against my will, after all. If I’m imprisoned, is the state guilty of kidnapping or involuntary confinement? In fact, our entire legal system is based on the assumption that the state is mandated to perform certain actions for the good of the populace and for the administration of justice that, were they to be performed by the individual, would be felonious. There are legitimate arguments against capital punishment; this is not one of them.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

My Nomination for the most Overrated Event of the 20th Century

In 1927, Charles Lindberg was the first person to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean. Everybody knows his name, his nickname, the name of his plane; his face is one of the most identifiable even by members of the current generation. His accomplishment is always mentioned as one of the greatest feats of the 20th century. I’ve never quite understood the hype surrounding all of this. Why do we know so much about Lindberg and not the other guys who came before and after him. Who knows the name of the first person to fly solo across the Pacific; or across the U.S.; or when the first the first non-stop flight was made across the Atlantic? I don’t get it. I can see why it may have made such an impression at the time since he was competing for a prize and the press sold papers by puffing up the event. I can’t grasp why he remained an icon for so many years afterwards and remains a genuine American hero of long-standing importance, surviving even his pre-WWII appeasement speeches and writings. He seems a good example of someone whose adulation is sustained by sheer inertia.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The College Dream

I have my own theory about dreams: they don’t really mean anything important – they’re just random firings of neurons and synapses that don’t quite work while you’re asleep. Still, I’m intrigued by what I’m calling the “college dream.” The basic, recurring plot is that you’re back in school (high school or college) and at the end of the semester you suddenly realize that you’ve never attended one of the classes you’ve registered for. When you do try to go, you often can’t find the room, the building, or anybody to tell you what’s going on. There are endless variations, of course. When I first described this dream to my dad (who was about 75 at the time) he said, “You know, I still have that dream.” Well, I’m not yet 75 but I expect to have the dream till I die. My own informal surveys have convinced me that you either have the dream on a recurring basis or you’ve never had it at all. What I find particularly interesting is how specific the dream is. There are lots of traumatic and life-changing things that happen to people in college. Why this particular dream with this level of detail?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Me and My New Toy

Just when I thought I was too old to get excited about the new generation of toys, I bought myself a handheld GPS. My model is a Garmin eTrex Vista C and does this baby hum! Well, hum may not be the right word, but it sure is fun. Depending on your generation, it is, in turn, swell, nifty, cool, neat, bitchin’, awesome, and sweet. I bought it in Colorado Springs during a family visit and found that it worked even while was on Amtrak going home. I turned it on in the middle of the night after looking out the window where a blizzard was in progress. My little buddy displayed a color map of central Nebraska and told me precisely where we were, how high we were, how fast we were moving and in what direction we were headed. Now if you’re saying to yourself, “So big deal, how did it help you?” – well, I can only feel sorry that you’re unable to appreciate the sheer “coolness” of a toy like this which can delight, amuse, and gratify without accomplishing anything of value, whatsoever. But, back to my story. When you first turn it on, it “looks” for GPS satellites and locks onto them (the power of each signal is displayed in a series of colorful bars). Then you can click through a series of functions that allow you to view a map, a compass, check routes, speed, altitude, distance from destination, distance traveled, and even retrace your steps (literally). You can even go “geocaching” with it. Geocaching is a relatively recent (also totally useless) hobby that involves someone hiding a box of valueless objects and posting the coordinates on a web site. You then use your GPS to find it, sign a log book, put something in the box, and then post your adventure on the web site. I may wait until Spring to try out that activity. In the meantime, My Garmin eTrex Vista C will be my constant companion – I’ve finally found myself.