Isn’t it interesting how epiphanies occur around clusters of events or stimuli? It seems that I sometimes ‘discover’ something I’ve been aware of for some time but have never really ‘known’ until that moment of revelation. Perhaps that’s why I’m so tempted to give credence to Jung’s concept of synchronicity.  

image courtesy of pbrnews.com

image courtesy of pbrnews.com

As you’ve probably guessed by now, there has been a recent ‘event’. The catalyst was applied today as I turned  on my online music streaming service (no names please!).  I have a channel named “Harlem Nocturne” for when I want a deep, retro blues sound. Somewhere toward the beginning of the queue it served up a piece played by Roy Buchanan. It was a long, languorous, smokey piece filled with glorious improvisation. Because I loved it so I did something quite unusual for me – I ‘liked’ it. The change in the usual mix occurred almost immediately. It was as if Pandora’s algorithm was as anxious to anticipate and please as our golden retriever usually is.

This isn’t a complaint. Merely an observation. And that observation  combined with two articles I read this week lead me to that “Aha!” moment. One of the articles had to do with how our reliance on technology may be affecting our long term memory. The other how we’ve lost the fine art of (and spontaneous wonder to be had at) getting lost due to the profusion of GPS enabled devices.

image courtesy of hespiritscience.net

image courtesy of hespiritscience.net

This episode of synchronicity caused me to realize how much we’ve traded a lot of self reliance and learning to deal with the unexpected for a bit of convenience. Moreover, it frightened me to recognize how much this anxiousness to provide us with exactly what we want, all the time is narrowing our experiences and viewpoints at a time when it’s critical to have a broader, more diverse outlook.

Consider the experience of getting a gift that initially seems inane or useless which then become eminently useful or even treasured. Or on your way somewhere, you turn down the wrong street, aisle, or whatever and discovered something wonderful that you would have missed had you proceeded flawlessly to your initially intended destination.Not only that, when we’re so focused on adhering to the electronic instructions, we lose all awareness of our surroundings and the surprises they may have in store for us.  And what if you forgot your mobile device and needed to call someone? Wouldn’t there be great joy and pride in being able place the call without having to look it up?

image courtesy of usatoday.com

image courtesy of usatoday.com

Make no mistake, we’re not technophobes or Luddites. Quite the opposite. But this epiphany has caused us to reconsider or use of and reliance upon data devices. We’re resolved to work harder at recalling information without recourse to Google and the like. We’re breaking out the old paper maps and occasionally relying on them instead of our GPS devices. And, we’re working especially hard at getting lost now and again so we can experience the excitement of discovery.



I’m an inveterate fan of the social science commentator Shankar Vedantam. His stories center around the things we do and why we seem to do them. They are all backed by
research findings and help us understand the deeper meanings and motivations behind our actions and choices. Today’s commentary was on the apparent contradiction in the
behavior of people who carry their purchases in reusable shopping bags.

That got me wondering. How did something as prosaic and ubiquitous as the disposable shopping bag come about anyway? I found a surprising number of sites with information about the history of these indispensable aids to modern consumerism.

Though smaller than their grocery bag, this is very similar to the first mass produced bags introduced by the Wolfe brothers in 1852. - image courtesy of judyspostcardsplus.blogspot.com

Though smaller than their grocery bag, this is very similar to the first mass produced bags introduced by the Wolfe brothers in 1852. – image courtesy of judyspostcardsplus.

Although the first recorded use of a paper grocery bag reaches back to around 1630 CE their real popularity and practicality took off after the industrial revolution. Before
then shopping was either carried by hand, in baskets, or in canvas bags with straps or handles. Of course there was no such thing as modern packaging. Most goods at the time, if packaged at all, were generally wrapped by the seller in paper and tied with string. The porous nature of the packaging along with physical pressure of carrying all one’s goods along with one’s groceries generally lead to unhygienic results. Additionally, there was a lack of understanding about microbial contamination. Public sanitation particularly well developed. These factors combined with the lack of ready facilities for easy washing meant that most items used in the daily transporting of goods were quite literally biological time bombs just waiting to go off.

A fine example of Margaret Knight's square bag. - image courtesy of librarycompany.org

A fine example of Margaret Knight’s square bag. – image courtesy of librarycompany.org

Around 1852 a Pennsylvania school teacher named Francis Wolfe and his brother invented the first practical paper shopping bag. It was subsequently improved upon by Margaret Knight who, while working at a paper bag factory, invented a machine which allowed bags to have a rectangular, flat bottom to them. By the 1870s paper bags were quite in evidence and generally looked upon as a very desirable hygenic substitute for the traditional canvas bag. They were so desirable that initially, retailers charged customers for their use.

The next evolutionary step came shortly after the turn of the 20th century when the owner of a small Minnesota grocery store named Walter H. Deubener sought a way to improve the volume of sales in his establishment. He noticed that people tended to limit the volume of their purchases to what they could carry in their arms. His genius idea was to make bags reinforced by string which also formed convenient handles. Each one of these new bags could safely hold up to 75 pounds of groceries. Needless to say, this was not the genius part of the idea. No, it was the fact that the bags, now equipped with string handles, allowed shoppers to carry more than one bag in each hand.

The string handled shopping bag, still found today but which started with Walter H. Deubener. - image courtesy of lombard.com.au

The string handled shopping bag, still found today but which started with Walter H. Deubener. – image courtesy of lombard.com.au

The familiar sight of modern shoppers everywhere. - image courtesy of hipkingdom.com

The familiar sight of modern shoppers everywhere. – image courtesy of hipkingdom.com

Since wood pulp, string, glue and water were all cheap commodities in the early to mid 20th century, the paper bag in that iteration reigned supreme for a half century or
more. However, by the 1950s wood pulp products were becoming increasingly expensive. Retailers did not want to return to the days of limited buying so they cast about for a ready replacement. Enter the plastic disposable bag. It was lighter, cheaper (due to the low cost of oil as compared to wood pulp) easier to manufacture, and easier to store. The major retail and grocery chains of JC Penney, Sears, and Kroger were among the first to introduce plastic shopping bags in 1975. Which pretty much brings us to the current day.

Like everything else, there are both benefits and consequences to every action or invention. In less than 40 years since its introduction, the disposable plastic handle bag has given rise to concerns about its possible detrimental effects on marine life, wildlife, landfill volume, oil consumption, etc.. A growing movement for the return of reusable bags gained traction. Now we see retailers giving a reusable bag refund to customers. Several cities have outlawed the use of single use plastic bags. There are even some ‘reusable’ heavy plastic bags given out by a limited number of retailers. Of course, there are displays of low cost reusable bags near the check out stands in most major grocers as well as several smaller vendors.

The oft maligned but enduring reusable shopping bag. Nylon or canvas, it has managed to make a resurgence. - image courtesy of parade.com

The oft maligned but enduring reusable shopping bag. Nylon or canvas, it has managed to make a resurgence. – image courtesy of parade.com

And so the wheel has turned full cycle. Fortunately, we now understand the role microbes play in illness and we have ready methods of regularly cleaning and sanitizing our bags. But time has had its ironic joke on us. We’re back to where we started over a century and a half ago. We’re putting our purchases into reusable canvas bags. Maybe that’s the true lesson of progress.


It is almost a certainty that I will incur the wrath of pedagogues everywhere but I draw a distinction between teaching and education. You may very well ask, what has prompted this sudden and possibly paraniod claim? Quite simply, it was a game of solitaire.


Coffee. Caffeine and anti-oxidants in one! Nature's perfect breakfast food.

Coffee. Caffeine and anti-oxidants in one! Nature’s perfect breakfast food. – image courtesy of dreamatico.com

Permit me to explain. Each morning, as I guzzle coffee; attempt to sweep away the fog of sleep; and assume a state suitable for human interaction;  I engage in a meaningless and mindless activity – I play solitaire. Being of a frugal nature, I play a version on my tablet which is free – assuming that there is no cost experienced by a regular barrage of advertisements between games.

After hitting the ‘Random Deal’ button for the umpteenth time (it was a REAL foggy morning inside my cranium) an ad popped up for an app which claimed that you could get smarter by using it to get summaries of the important parts of books. Now, as I said, I was really foggy this morning but, that ridiculous claim churned around for a while until it hit me as a subject for this blog.

Back to my argument that there is a difference between teaching and educating.  Let me be clear, these are personal definitions for the terms. You won’t find them in Webster’s or even the Urban Dictionary. To me teaching is the process of conveying and ingraining facts or skills via instruction, practice, repetition, and other similar techniques. We teach children their letters. We teach mathematic skill. We even teach our pets to sit, fetch, speak, etc. Teaching inculcates the basic or desired skills. Pets aside for the moment, those basic skills become the building blocks for education.

I believe that education is the process of taking the building blocks and learning to apply them in new and diverse ways. We take the taught skills of spelling, grammar, and composition and, through education, learn to apply them in new and ever changing ways to perhaps engage in screen writing, poetry, technical writing, and all the myriad other means of written communication.

Pantyhose. From micro filter to emergency fan belt. Never leave home without them. Now that should get you thinking!

Pantyhose. From micro filter to emergency fan belt. Never leave home without them. Now that should get you thinking! – image courtesy of davids.net

To me, education is the process of learning to abstractly, critically, and flexibly apply basic skills to diverse situations or needs. Before pressing on, I want to be clear that I am not speaking merely of academic education. There are many instances where other skill sets can be applied in new and innovative ways. One of my favorite examples comes from the First Gulf War. The M1 Abrams tank had tremendous problems with sand infiltration causing breakdowns. The engineers and other academically educated folks couldn’t come up with a solution but a maintenance non com, educated in the real world college of hard knocks solved it almost immediately.  His solution? Pantyhose. They acted as micro filters not only for the M1 but also for helicopters and reportedly, even the troops. (They kept the sand fleas away from their skin.)

By now you’re probably asking, what does this have to do with that app?

Mynah bird with nothing to say. - image courtesy of flickriver.com

Mynah bird with nothing to say. – image courtesy of flickriver.com

It’s simply this; how does using an app, generated by an anonymous someone, who distributes subjectively selected parts of subjectively selected works make you “smarter”? Granted,  you might be reminded of something you once read or even learn a new quote or a clever turn of phrase but those things certainly haven’t made you smarter. If becoming smarter were that easy, all I’d have to do is teach a mynah bird to repeat, “To be; or not to be. That is the question.” and I’d have made it smarter. Uplift would be frighteningly easy; and then where would we be?

Superb reading. Anything by David Brin. Scientist, amazing writer. SciFi at its best. - image courtesy of davidbrin.com

Superb reading. Anything by David Brin. Scientist, amazing writer. SciFi at its best. – image courtesy of davidbrin.com

Becoming smarter requires work. It means reading and studying to become educated. To extract the universal truths. To look back and understand that the foibles and tribulations of our society may be reflected, as Barbara Tuchman said, in a distant mirror. By reading entire works we may learn to abstract lessons which may, in turn, serve to lift us out of a problem or envision another way to approach a situations. At the very least, we may learn that we are not alone nor the first to be subjected to the situations we perceive.

In my completely subjective opinion, if you want to use an app to get smarter, use one that provides you with complete texts. Read them. Study them. Find someone to discuss them with. Take what you find important. Share it. Defend it with logical argument. Then you’ve found an app to make you smarter.



Road's going straight ... Bike's going straight ... Time to look for beach umbrellas, right?

Road’s going straight … Bike’s going straight … Time to look for beach umbrellas, right?

This morning’s news had a story announcing that our state is amending its distracted driving laws to include specific prohibitions against using smart phone functions while driving a car. In addition to texting and talking, the new amendments now delineate prohibitions against driving while surfing the Internet and engaging in social media; among other activities.

(SARCASM ALERT!) But wait, isn’t this an infringement on our individual rights? I mean, what’s wrong with shopping for shoes or updating my social media site while whizzing along at highway speeds (or while negotiating overly congested traffic)? It’s not like I’m a dunce or anything (or my personal favorite, I’m a responsible person – it’s everyone else who’s a cretin.) Really, I’m just practicing for how I can “optimize my time” and “multi-task” once those self driving cars arrive on the scene. No need waiting to the last minute, right?

Make no mistake, we’re all for individual rights. If we weren’t, several of our peccadillos might put us at risk of censure.

But along with rights come responsibilities. After all, we live in a society. We live among other beings. We enjoy individual rights but we also share collective responsibilities. Chief among them is the obligation to not permit our rights to put others in peril. When we ignore or abrogate those responsibilities, someone needs to step in – for the common good.

This concept is so integral to the principals of our nation that the Founders enshrined it in the very first sentence which is the preamble to the Constitution.  They wrote, “We the people of the United States, in Order to … promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”.

Articles_of_Confederation_1977_Issue-13cIs it really a caprice that promoting the general welfare precedes securing the blessings of liberty? Probably not. The country was founded because the pre revolutionary government failed to promote the general welfare.  When the Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Congress in 1777, they took a stab at redressing this but the mention of common good did not appear until Article III. It was a wartime document by a revolutionary body and, as such, mutual defense and setting aside the threat of oppression came well before things like common welfare.

Following independence from Great Britain, the Articles, which still defined us, provided no over arching authority to help shape the common good. The accent on states’ rights and local interests lead to interstate rivalries and conflicts which threatened to severely damage or even sunder our new nation.

It is probably reasonable to infer that the framers of the Constitution, fearing the possible loss of all they had fought for, recognized the clear need to provide an arbiter to calm the rising tide of discord among the increasingly fractious “firm league of friendship” created under the Articles. Hence, the positioning of the the common welfare in the preamble rather than the body of the new document.

It's tasteless but funny. Admit it, you laughed at the same joke in the first Police Academy movie!

It’s tasteless but funny. Admit it, you laughed at the same joke in the first Police Academy movie!

What saddens me is that, in a world where we want to save the whales and eat granola; where we’re “one Nation under God” with all the moral principals provided for in Scripture; where we think ourselves as being so advanced and civilized; we can’t seem to acknowledge that our individual acts may have far reaching consequences for others – even those nearest and dearest to ourselves.

I had hoped that by the time we reached the 21st century we would have evolved (and I’m speaking of socially here) to a point where we might actually be able to act upon our higher principals and delay gratification long enough to not wreak havoc on our fellow beings – without someone having to write it into a specific law.

I challenge all of us to rise to the aspirations of those who gave birth to this nation . Let each of us, in our daily lives; our personal actions, provide for the common good by acknowledging our responsibilities toward one another.


New Year's Resolutions: or The Origin Of Multitasking - A Guide to Across The Board Failure

New Year’s Resolutions: or The Origin Of Multitasking – A Guide to Across The Board Failure – image courtesy of rack.3.mshcdn.com

As we wind down to the end of the winter holiday season we find ourselves thinking about the tradition of New Year’s Resolutions.  You know, that time wherein we repave the road to Hell with a new layer of good intentions; many of which are liable to fall by the wayside in fairly short order.

Most of us compose lists of reforms and aspirations that are exhaustive to say the least. We cast an eye back on the preceding 11 months and tend to define our next year’s efforts based on the past year’s shortcomings. We resolve to diet, get more rest, avoid junk food (I recently saw a posting that asked, “If it’s truly junk food, why don’t they make it taste like junk?” – good question – that could be a real boon to dieting), get more exercise, etc., etc., etc..  Shortly after we make these solemn declarations, we all too often find ourselves straying from them (i.e. abandoning them) because of some situation, temptation, justification, etc., etc., etc. (is it just me or am I in close touch with my inner King of Siam s portrayed by Yul Brynner?)

This topic came up at our recent open house. (DIGRESSION ALERT!) We invited our friends and neighbors in for a bit of light refreshment and conversation. These kinds of things are always a bit nerve wracking for us because, as in all else in our lives, we have a fairly diverse and eclectic group of associates. One always wonders, “Will ‘A’ get along with ‘B’?” or, “Will ‘C’, who is very shy, come out of obligation but feel left out of the festivities?”

What it really looks like for most of us. - image courtesy of getfitblackgirl.files.wordpress.com

What it really looks like for most of us. – image courtesy of getfitblackgirl.files.wordpress.com

Anyway, despite our fears of generating a social faux pas of epic proportion, the event came off quite nicely. People seemed to enjoy meeting each other, exchanging ideas, and so forth. Somewhere along the course of the evening one of our neighbors, a woman of considerable life experience and wisdom gave us something to think about. As I said above, before becoming self distracted, the topic of New Year’s resolutions came up.

When asked if she had her list drawn up, she calmly replied, “Oh, I don’t do that anymore.” It was almost like an old E. F. Hutton commercial. Conversation ceased. Everyone cocked an ear toward her at the pronouncement of such a cultural heresy.  Unfazed by the sudden silence, she announced, “I don’t make a list anymore. I just choose one thing.”

Now, this is the point where most people went back into party mode and resumed their conversations or started new ones. I think they did that because she and her husband were the people most advanced in years of all the attendees. Perhaps there was the assumption that:

  1. People of advanced years have their act mostly together, OR
  2. People of advanced years don’t have time for long lists of reforms, OR
  3. People of advanced years don’t give a squat. They’re set in their ways.

Any way you slice it, the people who ceased listening at that moment missed one of life’s true pearls of wisdom. She went on to explain to a few of us that she doesn’t make a “list”. Instead she makes a single resolution and then spends a year focusing on it. In doing so, I should imagine she builds a solid habit from the reform and thoroughly integrates it into her life.

Imagine how much we could improve and reform our lives if we spent a whole year, single mindedly pursuing such a course. It takes 6 months to form a habit. So what would happen to our exercise regimens, our diets, our self improvement schemes if we took them in turn, devoting an entire 12 months to them?

A New Hope (for real personal success and reform) - image courtesy of optimistnet.com

A New Hope (for real personal success and reform) – image courtesy of optimistnet.com

And how much more successful would we feel about ourselves if we actually succeeded at our “short list” agenda rather than looking back next December, and seeing the litter and wreckage of this December’s list?

We don’t know about you, but our list just got pared down to a single thing. Which is good because, not only does it help ensure success in the coming year, but it gives us more time to pop another cork on a bottle of bubbly.

We thank each and every one of you who have read our rambling thoughts this year. Here’s wishing you a truly prosperous and successful 2015.


image courtesy of tcdn.teacherspayteacher.com

image courtesy of tcdn.teacherspayteacher.com

Thank you.

You’re welcome.

Pretty easy, right?

At one time or another we were all taught that the proper response to ‘Thank you’ is ‘You’re welcome’.  It’s one of those basic  tenets of our society; like washing your hands – which is another rant but let’s save that for another day.

So why is it that we’ve lost (abandoned?) this simple convention? If you listen to any interview, from any source, you inevitably hear the interviewer say. “Thank you (fill in the name, position, etc., etc. HERE).

To which the interviewee replies, “Thank you (fill in the name of the interviewer, etc., etc., HERE).

When this happens – and it almost always does – my poor brain gets trapped in a waking nightmare of an ever escalating spiral of ‘over gratitude’.

I have been told that, in some cultures, there is a conscious effort to gain ascendancy over another person through lavishing every more elaborate gifts upon each other. Finally, the party which does not go bankrupt achieves the undying servitude of the ruined party (or some such nonsense. I love hyperbole because it helps me be lazy and still make my point.)

We’ve all seen the same thing happen with the payment of compliments. “I love your hair.”

Is met with, “Really? It’s not as long and silky (not silken -as it should be- but silky, kind of like mouthwash is ‘minty’ rather than  mint flavored, etc., etc., etc.) as yours is. I love your silky hair.”

This then prompts the next oneupsmanship salvo, “Silky? Really? I think it’s too limp. I wish I had your hair’s body.”

Well, enough of that but, you get my point. No one can let it rest. We HAVE to keep escalating. It’s as if we are driven to prove that we’re humbler, kinder, more grateful, more complimentary than anyone else.

Helpful hint here folks: It’s not a competition. There are times when we’re going to be on top and times when the other person is going to be there instead of us.

Unfortunately, because this habit has become so pervasive in our culture, I find myself slipping into it. When I do, I almost fall down kicking myself in the backside. I’ve even been known to backtrack and apologize to the other person before responding again with the appropriate rejoinder.

Perhaps that’s the attraction of Steampunk for us. It hearkens to a time when it was fashionable to exhibit more genteel manners. When paid a compliment, the recipient merely replied, “Thank you.”

In cases where a soupçon more gratitude is required the respondent may add, “You are too kind.” or some other such enhancer. But that’s the limit. Once the compliment is paid and acknowledged, the conversation moves on (or ends, as the case may be).

But in today’s ever more competitive world we can’t seem to do that. However, if and we realize this is a fantasy, but if you wanted to break the oneupsmanship of gratitude cycle, how might you respond?

We’d love to hear an exchange where the interviewer says something like:

“Well John, that’s all we have time for today. Thank you so much for coming on our show and discussing your new book, All About Conversation.”

And John replies:

“You’re welcome Melissa. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.”

And that’s it. Nothing more is said between them. Melissa may go on to explain that John’s book is available at bookstores, published by so-and-so press, available in ebook form, or whatever else but the conversation with John is at an end. And a gracious end at that.

As a parting shot, I want to make it clear that this is not a new problem. It stretches back for quite some time. If you don’t believe me, watch the clip below. It’s from the 1937 Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races. (The true insanity begins about 57 seconds into the clip.)

Actually, it doesn’t matter if you believe me or not. Watch it anyway. You probably need the laugh.

Thank you for reading this.


The Onion headline. Hey! I believe it! - image courtesy of sfgate.com

The Onion headline. Hey! I believe it! – image courtesy of sfgate.com

I’m having a problem with something I read this morning’s BBC News. Rather than trying to paraphrase it, let me quote the opening sentences from the article.

Facebook is testing a new feature that warns users of satirical content posted from sites like the Onion.

Stories posted in users’ feeds are being tagged as “[Satire]” in an apparent move to prevent them being mistaken for real news stories.”

I am sure that the great satirists are spinning quickly enough in their graves that, if we had wrapped them in copper wire and placed them in magnetized coffins ahead of this development; we could produce enough energy to offset the Russian embargo.

I'm too sexy for my bomb, too sexy for my tank... - image courtesy of  literallyunbelievable.org

I’m too sexy for my bomb, too sexy for my tank… – image courtesy of literallyunbelievable.org

REALLY! Is there anyone out there over the age of 8 (and is not a Chinese newspaper editor in 2012) who does not know that The Onion is pure satire?

Obviously this is a stupid question. It is equally obvious that there is an under curious, overly preoccupied, excessively lazy crowd on social media which does not take the time to check things out through other sources.

You would think that they could take the time (while they’re Googling pictures of celebrities without their makeup or the latest fat burning miracle food) to take a quick look on Wikipedia for some info.

Trust me, it’s not that time consuming. Here’s the first line of the Wikipedia article under the title for The Onion. “ This article is about the satirical news source. For the vegetable, see Onion.

You see? Easy-peasy. You don’t have to get eye strain or struggle through a lot of annoying (and probably confusing) facts. Your attention only needs to focus on the FIRST EIGHT WORDS to figure out that you should take articles from The Onion with a grain of salt.

But nooooo. Sadly, there are some folks out there who willingly subscribe to anything that appears on social media. I guess it’s kind of the 21st century version of, “If it’s in print it must be true.”

He's not just Jeeves. Read one of his wonderful books sometime. - image courtesy of blog.interworkscloud.com

He’s not just Jeeves. Read one of his wonderful books sometime. – image courtesy of blog.interworkscloud.com

Enough said. If they haven’t read Cervantes, Clemens, Bierce, France, Voltaire, Petronius, Swift, Aristophanes, Rabelais, or Huxley (Aldous not Thomas – although Thomas is fascinating in his own right), Vonnegut, or Burgess – maybe they should. At the very least they should listen to Lenny Bruce, Bill Maher, Stephen Fry, or George Carlin to get a hint.

Shrine of Dreams;  filled with interesting stories - a blog worth following. - image courtesy of shrineofdreams.wordpress.com

Shrine of Dreams; filled with interesting stories – a blog worth following. – image courtesy of shrineofdreams.wordpress.com

Finally, speaking of satire, I commend to you one of my favorite blogs. The Shrine of Dreams is filled with wonderful esoterica. I first stumbled across it while researching Russian religious cults for our upcoming novel. Since that time I have become an avid reader. On August 8th he featured a wonderful piece that, in my humble opinion, would have made Jonathan Swift grin with glee. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, you should get a hearty laugh out of his treatment of it.

I said it in the comments and I’ll say it again, “Spot on [mate]!”