Vinyl memories

In 1985, at the age of 12, I left the US for the first time and travelled with my family to Germany and Austria.  I was a member of the Cincinnati BoyChoir (yes, 2nd soprano and everything…) and we were “competing” against the still world famous Vienna Boys Choir on their home turf.  In the end we “sang hard” and won a “superior rating” and a special trophy.  But we were no match for the pros ;-).

I’ve had the album of our performance on my bookshelf for decades (many different bookshelves actually) and never had a way to play or record it.  For what ever reason, my son took a recent interest in LPs and used some of his Christmas money to buy a vinyl disc spinner.  I hooked up my Edirol, set it to max bits and recorded what you’ll hear below.

The first track is the recording from the actual competition.  The B-side tracks are from some other performance – not sure when and it doesn’t say on the back of the album.  Hopefully I’m not breaking any copyrights by posting this here.  Hopefully my blog is popular enough that if I am, I’ll get a takedown notice.
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Should have remembered my HDT…

It may have saved me a little bit (or maybe a lot) of wasted time – the worst thing to waste.  (HT to Hamlet’s Blackberry for bringing these back to me):

As with our colleges, so with a hundred “modern improvements”; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey.



Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.

– HDT, Walden

Evolving ourselves out of existence

Still reading quite a bit. Just finished “Lies My Teacher Told Me” (it was OK – not sure I reccomend it though) and then finally started and finished “The Lean Startup” which if you have tough projects to get done is a must read IMHO.

Now I am on to “Hamlet’s BlackBerry” which describes the problem and some solutions to being over connected and/or over stimulated by information. I’m about 1/3rd into it and so far so good. One point the author brings up its the research that shows we get a small “squirt” of dopamine when we get a new text,  email or status update. This is seen by neuro scientists as an evolutionary artifact from when we needed to pay more careful attention to our surroundings, both to watch for something that might be trying to easy is or for something we might be able to eat.

This for me wondering. What happens in an evolutionary cycle or two when that response has been weeded out of the gene pool and we are no longer as aware of what’s found on around us after too many tweets, pings and beeps over too many generations…and then for whatever reason we need it again?

IDPA Matches this year

As some of you may know, I am the match director at a local IDPA match that I helped to get started a few years back at the shooting club that is a few miles from home.  It’s something that I really do enjoy doing although it is a lot of work.  Finding stages, working with new shooters and the discipline of going at least once a month to hone my skills are the highlights.  Scoring the matches – meh.

Anyway, if you’ve shot our match before, want to hang out and shoot with me this year, or have just wondered about IDPA, check out the schedule for our matches on the IDPA website (click on the “Events” tab).

To the three old guys arguing in Starbuck’s this morning

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I’m on a business trip this week and have made a habit of stopping at the local Starbucks for a coffee each morning before I head into the office.  Every morning the same group of 3 “old guys” (in reality they are probably only a few decades my senior) sets up shop in 3 of the corner chairs and starts to argue. It was hard to catch all the topics since they ranged so rapidly, but in a 15 minute span they touched on income inequality, gun control, taxing 529 plans and the state of the union speech more generally, the war in Iraq, ISIS, free college and the Patriots under inflating their footballs.  The “discussion” was loud, aimless and seemingly without end.

Based on how quickly they got into it, I would say they know each other pretty well and have been at this for a while.  And I have to wonder why?  They weren’t solving anything, they weren’t learning anything, they weren’t constructing any logical arguments.  It was just a stream of non-sequitors and ad-hominems.  Although I found it mildly entertaining, I am still wondering what they got out of it.  It seems to me that they are just practicing recreational bitterness.  While that may feel good at the time, I think it’s doing you more harm than good.

A valuable dialectic

Dialectic is often used in the Hegelian sense to drive people to a pre-determined synthesis.  I heard this on a podcast the other day and thought it was a really good explanation of a valuable form of dialectic.  From Tao Te Ching:

When the world knows beauty as beauty, ugliness arises
When it knows good as good, evil arises
Thus being and non-being produce each other
Difficult and easy bring about each other
Long and short reveal each other
High and low support each other
Music and voice harmonize each other
Front and back follow each other

I should be finished up with my initial survey of stoicism in a few weeks.  I may order a few books on Taoism to balance that out.

Stoic ponderings

I finished The Guns of August over the weekend (which, BTW, is a great book that actually spans July, August and September of 1914) and so was looking for something to bring with me to read on the plane and in the evenings this week when I was out of town on business.  I ended up grabbing one of the philosophy books I added to Mr library recently: The ancient art of stoic joy.

I’m only about 100 pages in, but so far so good. I was a fan of some of the principles of stoicism, before I had even actually heard of it as a philosphy from my reading of the 7 habits of highly effective people. The concept in that book of circle of influence vs circle of concern seems exactly the same as the stoic notion of only focusing on things you can control and  it wasting energy on things you can’t.

Stoicism has a lot more to offer than just that one idea though which is one reason I had picked up the book. One interesting practice promoted by the stoics is that of negative visualization. The idea is that you should spend a little time every so often imagining what would happen of your worst fears came true.  By doing this, the stoics believe that you will appreciate what you have and not be so affected by grief when you do experience a loss.

It strikes me that there is some value to negative visualization, but one of the illustrations given by the author got me thinking. He uses the example of how children approach the world with constant wonder. One reason for this is that they still haven’t figured out how the world works so everything is somewhat of a suprise and they have no expectations of whatever they are sewing ever happening again. To me, this seems like another example of one of the things that makes us just a little different from all the other animals getting the better of us. Just like our ability to group things that are similar together and different apart lead to great things like language and communication but also terrible things like collectivism and racism, our ability to be rational and build a mental model of how the world works helped us develop math and science, but also  lead us to loose the ability to take in every present moment with wonder.

When Androids build the roads who will be able to afford a car to drive on them?

Two articles showed up in my feed this week both dealing with the impact that automation is having and will have into the future on the workforce and humanity as a whole.  Almost everyone can point to a gadget in their house, car or workplace that automates something they would rather not do. From the lowly dish washer to the bossy vehicle GPS to the copier/sorter/stapler/expresso maker, there are plenty of examples of machines that have automated tasks that make us more productive.  But both of these articles ask the question: what happens when jobs that people want to do are automated?

The first article, from the NYT, is a wide ranging post covering everything from automatons in literature from ancient Greece to futuristic sex bots (seriously – read it!).  It appears, at first glance, to be rather “light”, but it concludes with a pretty important thought that is often left out of this discussion:

More to the point, how will we power that future? Every modern robotic form that exists, and every one still to come, depends on a supply of cheap energy. If the energy disappears, so will the robots. And, to a large degree, so will we, since the lifestyle we have built and come to depend on floats on a sea of electricity. Hephaestus’ bronze giant was powered by the ichor of the divine gods; we can’t use that, but we need to think up another energy source that’s both widely available and won’t end up killing us.

This is one of the constraints not often discussed in either the optimistic or the skeptic view of automation: we’ve been living on millions of years of stored sunlight for the last century and a bit – that can’t continue, so when that ride is over, where will we get the energy to power all of this automation?  Of course it’s true that automation can be used to be more energy efficient.  The long term question is can it be so efficient that it can run on current sunlight only?

The second article, from the Institute for the Future, is a dense review of a number of data points (all footnoted / sourced) that point to a future where automation reduced the overall number of good paying jobs available.  While the data and the analysis in this article is quite good, the story it relates at the end had the most impact on me (although I also quite like the story about the origin of the term Luddite – etymology is fascinating!):

This is where the economics get weird: It’s said that Henry Ford II once showed Walter Reuther, the leader of the United Automobile Workers, around a new automated car plant. “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues,” said Ford. Reuther quickly replied, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”  Many companies I’ve spoken to are focusing growth on emerging markets, in South and Central America and mostly Asia.  In many of these places, the middle class is actually growing. But as we’ve seen, in the long run, that’s not a sustainable strategy for anyone.

This is, in addition to the energy question, is another of the big long term questions: if we automate almost everyone out of a job, who will be left to buy the things that the automation is creating?  Reuther asked the question in the middle of the last century and there are still no good answers.

Here’s my take based on what you accept as being true:

  • If you believe that all human needs and desires can be fulfilled by automatically manufactured items, then the education path is the only viable escape.  There will always be “something” to do and the person that has the right skills (not necessarily always the most education) will get those positions.  Just make sure the skills you are learning actually line up with something the market will demand in the future (don’t get educated for “yesterday’s wars”) and avoid the debt trap that most post secondary education has turned into.
  • If you believe that there is more to life than mass produced (or even mass customized) everything, then another path opens up to you.  Become an artist, a designer, a farmer, a musician, a builder, or a carpenter.  While automation is a fairly recent trend, the value people place on locally produced items that have “soul” has persisted for millennia.  The slow movement and the eat local movement are scions of a reawakening of the need for connection as part of consumption.
  • If you go one step beyond the previous, and believe that its not consumption that should define us (I know, strange thought to most Western minds…and increasingly Eastern minds as well, sadly), then the swell of automation doesn’t really matter one way or the other since (so far) you can’t automate virtue.

The old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” comes to mind when I think about where automation will take our species in the next 100 years.  I suspect, that like every other “scary” technology before it, that automation is neither innately bad nor good – rather its what we decide to do with it that makes it so.

Update on our experiment in Home Education

As I mentioned previously, this fall my son made the courageous decision to pursue home education.  We’re 5 months in now so I thought that a mid term update was in order.  Overall I would rate the first “semester” as a success, but there are a few things we have changed for the second half of the year.

We started the year by putting together a daily calendar with time blocks allocated to the subjects of the day.  The idea was two fold: to provide some structure for the day and to provide documentation of what was covered should the county ever want to do an audit. It worked reasonably well, but we’re reaching back to his Montessori days to add a little more flexibility and take advantage of the spark of interest that happens now and again and that school bells always seem to ruin: contracts.  Each week my son creates a draft contract that is focused on what he’ll get done that week.  My wife and I review it, add (and sometimes remove) a few things and then we all sign it.  This should keep us all focused on results instead of watching the clock.  We just started back a few days ago, but so far this is a big win.  He still fills out the calendar to provide a record of what was done (in case of audit), but at the end of each day as a record keeping exercise instead of a guide for his day.

Another structural change is the work space.  We started last fall by building him a small office in his bed room.  That was OK, but over the Christmas break we setup a dedicated space next to my home office in the basement.  I think the dedicated space will help separate work and play a little better and let him ask simple quick questions as they come up when I’m working from home.

As far as curriculum, the independent reading program, the Intensive Writing Course, the Life of Fred Pre-Algebra course (finished Physics, moving on to Biology and Economics), the Ron Paul Curriculum, art (water colors mostly), and Rosetta Stone Latin will all continue.  We’ll also continue to supplement with Kahn Academy, Hardcore History and iTunes University.  And the blog and podcast will continue as well.  In terms of changes, the only thing that got dropped was Liberty Classroom.  He tried a few of the courses and for whatever reason just didn’t find them all that engaging.  The subscription lasts for another 7 months and I like the courses a lot, so I’ll be taking a few via download and viewing on some of the international travel that I have coming up.  In terms of additions, we ordered a critical thinking course last fall, but never got around to starting it so that will be something he’ll spend some time on in the next few months.  We’re also might try a week or two unit study around WWII and cryptography (inspired by our New Years Day viewing of the Imitation Game).  I’m also trying to get him to start a small business, even if its for a week or two – we’ll see how that goes.  As for his own extras, he wants to try his hand and computer animation (2D to start) so he’ll be sketching out a few videos he want to produce.

All in all I think he made a took a good decision for him.  He did take the entrance exam for the local private schools in December (at my request – he didn’t fight too hard ;-)) and we’ll get the results in a month or so.  While we all took the decision to pursue home education for what would have been his last year of middle school seriously, I think the stakes are a little more significant after this year.  Not necessarily for High School itself, but rather what lies beyond.  I know there are plenty of great stories about home schoolers auto-didacts doing all sorts of great things in college or skipping college and getting on with it and doing great things in life.  But the “burden of proof” gets a little higher to get into college or to get someone to give you a shot either as an employee or as a business.  While I don’t buy into the piece of paper you get on HS graduation day really meaning much of anything (and honestly it means less and less each passing year), there are still lots of colleges and employers that put a lot of (misplaced) faith in that.  As I heard it told a while back “at least it shows you can show up.”  Absent that, he needs to develop a way to document that he can at least “show up” (and hopefully a lot more) so he can take whatever steps he wants to next.  Figuring that out is what the next 5 months are all about.