Thursday, January 31, 2013

Parental Guidance

It's been quite a long time since I wrote a post about the fine sermons we hear at our church. I hope to do a better job about that in the future. But what I'm going to point out today was a series of six sermons that were given last year from September 16 through October 21. The subject is raising children. The theme is guiding our families to God's best. I know - a lot of people are turned off already. Well, I can't control that. Give me one more argument before you tune this out completely.

Well, two arguments. The first is that I think this fits in with my last post where I stated that there are some things we need to teach our children that we often overlook. We just assume that our kids will figure out how to set up a cleaning routine for their room or apartment and stick to it. And, if they don't, we sometimes think that repeatedly harassing them about it will get them to figure it out. Well, these sermons are much better than that. And this is the second argument for your not just dismissing this series - it is very practical. This is not just a bunch of Bible verses from Proverbs with no application to modern families. These messages were written and presented by our pastor, Ben Feldott, who has raised (and continues to raise:-) four children. Well, I can't just say that. Ben wrote these messages with input from the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Nothing we do worthwhile as Christians comes solely from our own understanding. Anything we do that is lasting and good comes from God.

Here are links to the six sermons with a short description of each one. I've also included links to study notes for each sermon. Those are written by another minister in our church, Ken Hart.

1) What Guides Do, September 16, 2012
As parents, we have "signed on" to be guides for our children. What do professional guides do that we should be doing for our children?
    The message (video)
    The study notes

2) Priorities, September 23, 2012
Is giving our kids the best of everything the best path? We try to give our kids more than we had. We desperately try to have them not miss any experience or we feel they will miss out on life.
    The message (video)
    The study guide

3) Friends and Influences, September 30, 2012
While parents have the ultimate responsibility for their children, they are going to have other influences in their life, too. Whether we like them or not. We have to be careful to not let these other influences reduce our role in their lives. 
    The message (video)
    The study guide

4) Raising Kids Who Live for God, October 7, 2012
We can't force our children to love God and we wouldn't want to. They depend on us to act as role models. How do we get them to depend on God and to love him?
    The message (video)
    The study guide

5) Healthy Discipline, October 14, 2012
Discipline is NOT being beaten into submission. It has three factors, the law of consequences, the power of being forgiven and the privilege of trust.
    The message (video)
    The study guide

6) Prodigals, October 21, 2012
Children must be raised to prepare them for making their own choices. The choices they make don't always turn out well. We can't control their hurts but we can help them when they occur.
    The message (video)
    The study guide

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Learning to live on your own in 31 days

A manly man from the Art of Manliness site
I'd like to let you know about a very interesting website - The Art of Manliness. I'm adding it to my list of blogs (on the right of this page in the Other Blogs list). I mentioned this site once before in my "Chestnuts bursting out the oven door" post. The Art of Manliness had a post about how to roast chestnuts that I recommended in my post. But I'd seen The Art of Manliness before and wanted to write about it but I just forgot. The post that introduced me to this site was its "Heading Out on Your Own: 31 Life Skills in 31 Days" posts. It's a lot of useful information gathered into one place. Some of it may seem silly to those of us already on our own. But to someone heading out for the first time, these are very valuable lessons. How to Do Laundry. How to Make a Bed. How to Shop for Groceries. All simple tasks that most of us take for granted. But what if you'd never done them before? Too often, we just assume our children will pick these things up as they help us and watch us do them. But have you ever taken the time to show your children (or young friends or nieces or nephews) how to do these?

Another manly guy from the Art of Manliness site
There are some items in the list that would be useful for anyone to review. How to Jump Start a Car. Establish an Exercise Routine. How to Manage Stress. Create a Budget - wow there's one some folks in our state capital and in Washington should read! There are some geared toward men (Essential Etiquette for Young Men for instance) but this is a site about manliness. And it wouldn't hurt for young women to know what to expect of a young man. Too often our young women just accept what they are given. I think it would help if more girls demanded that their boyfriends treated them with respect. And the same goes for young men. We've gone too far down the road of acting any way we want and expecting everyone else to just accept it. We all need to learn to be more civil with each other.

Take a look around this fascinating site. Learn four rules to get the most out of life. Or learn how to use a fire extinguisher. The women can skip Testosterone Week. And don't be put off by the preponderance of mustaches to be found around the page. Some of this stuff will come across as old fashioned. And I'm not one of those who says that things were so much better way back when. Some things were better and some things were worse. But we have the good fortune to be able to pick and choose which things we want to believe and which things we want to act on.

Monday, January 28, 2013

This day in enginering history

Today is the day, back in 1986, that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on take-off. It was a sad, terrible day. All seven astronauts aboard were killed. This was not just caused by an engineering error, though. It was also caused by management problems in both a government agency and a private company. You can get a detailed article on this disaster on Wikipedia in the "Space Shuttle Challenger disaster" article.

A special investigation found the cause and it was definitely an engineering error. A joint keeping burning fuel from escaping was poorly designed. But also, an O-ring that sealed the joint failed because it was not designed to work under the conditions in which it was being used. But finally, when questions were asked about whether the launch should proceed in such harsh conditions (the temperature was below freezing while the design called for temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit), the managers decided it was an acceptable risk. The joint had already been flagged as a bad design and was being redesigned. But instead of the Shuttle program being suspended until the new design could be used, flights continued.

It seems that disasters of this magnitude are not usually the result of one mistake. They are the result of cascading mistakes. If the launch that day had been postponed, the mission may have succeeded and no lives would have been lost. But what of the next mission? What if conditions were only marginally bad? Would the future missions have been pushed to launch in bad conditions due to the success of so many previous missions?

This happened 27 years ago and I still get a sick feeling when I think about it. I couldn't watch the taped replays of the launch (ending in the break-up of the Shuttle) for years afterward.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Nellie Bly returns

Nellie preparing for her trip
Today is the day, back in 1890, that journalist Nellie Bly returned home after an around-the-world trip. In record time. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran (later changing the spelling to Cochrane) in Western Pennsylvania (about 50 miles from where I grew up). She got a job in a newspaper in Pittsburgh (where she started to use the pen name of Nellie Bly) but her fame came when she moved to New York to work at the prestigious New York World. Her around-the-world trip was designed to follow the route of the fictional Phileas Fogg (from Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days which was published only 16 years before) and she managed to beat his time by almost 8 days.

You can read more about her in the Wikipedia article found here. She was a fascinating woman. She was one of the first (if not the first) investigative reporters. For another story, she pretended to be insane to get into a "lunatic asylum" (as they were called then) to report on the conditions there without the authorities knowing. Most people didn't know the horrible conditions there but once Nellie's article came out, the New York officials were all over themselves to do something about it.

You can read her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, for free at the University of Pennsylvania library at this link. It's a very interesting read (and I think you'll enjoy the advertisements, too). At the end of that book are two shorter articles. In the first, Nellie looked into how employment agencies for servants were run and in the second, she writes about working in a box factory and describes the conditions of the working women there. I enjoyed her writing style. You can tell these stories were written over a hundred years ago but I promise you will enjoy them as much as stories that were written recently. Her good writing and interesting subject matter inspired others to uncover hidden stories through the decades. We need more people like Nellie Bly.

[ Update - In case you are interested in owning a copy of Ten Days in a Mad House, it is available from Amazon - use this link. Also, the story of her around-the-world trip, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days written by Nellie herself, is also available from Amazon - use this link. ]

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Most of the fun things I do are either my wife's idea or my children's ideas. Thus it was this past Saturday when we all went to the Cape and Islands Orchid Show. We all brought our cameras. The pictures I took are not necessarily the best examples on display and may not have won any awards. These are just pictures of orchids that I found interesting. I didn't keep track of the names of the orchids or the names of the people who cultivated them. I was hoping to go back later and find them in the program for the show. But there were no names and no pictures in the program. I'll know the next time we go.

The first picture (top - right) was the first thing we saw when we entered the show so I started snapping pictures. I was very impressed when I stopped to admire it but I was even more impressed when I found out that it was hand-made of cornstarch and then painted. I've never seen anything so realistic and lovely. When I saw how delicate it was, I was even more amazed that they would display it in such an exposed place. Anyone could have bumped into it and broken off a piece. But it did allow us to see it in its full splendor.

The next picture, on the left, looks like a bunch of smiling faces to me. They actually looked more like smiling faces when we saw them live. My inept framing and camera settings don't show them up very well. I have always liked pansies because they look like smiling faces to me, too, but these smiling orchids were just incredible. I found myself smiling broadly just looking at these happy orchids. Talk about flowers brightening someone's day.

For the next picture (on the right again), I wanted to practice a technique we learned on another fun expedition my wife found for us (see this link for our "Photo tour") called Shooting Through. There were yellow orchids in the foreground (out of focus) that add their tint to the lovely burgundy and gold orchid in focus in the background. I was so intent on getting the effect that I didn't notice what appears to be a little figure in the center of the flower until I looked at these pictures at home. Click on the picture to see it larger and I think you'll see what appears to be a little figure with its arms crossed!

This next orchid (back to the left again) is so flamboyant and expansive. It can't just be sitting there. It has to be doing something. To me, it seems like it has its arms spread wide and is belting out a song. It has some sort of fancy hat on its "head", too. Can't you just see Ethyl Merman singing, "There's No Business Like Show Business" dressed in a flowing gown singing that song? Not a Merman fan? OK, maybe you can imagine Bette Midler singing, "Rochelle Rochelle"!

My final picture is another orchid with what appears to be a small figure in the middle. For this picture, we go back to the right. Are you starting to feel like a cocker spaniel chasing after the pictures? This one looks like someone in a cowboy hat - with a cape. I'd say it's Zorro but he always wore black. Maybe it's a sign I've gone too long with this post. As with all my pictures, click on this one to see it larger and tell me if you don't see someone with a cowboy hat - and a cape!

Monday, January 14, 2013


As we start the new year, many people make New Year's Resolution saying they are going to do this and stop that and change this and ...  The list just goes on. The resolution people are going to be trying to do many things and, more often than not, they try to do them at the same time. They read a book but then stop to answer the phone then cut that short to answer a question and only give a short answer because the program they want to watch on TV is coming on and during the commercials, they try to read a little in the book they started. This is called Multitasking and it comes from the computer industry. A computer is controlled by a specialized program called the Operating System. Most modern operating systems allow more than one program to seem to run at the same time or multitask. This is why you can have a web browser open and see it updating information while you type in a word processor to make out your Christmas list and all the while your antivirus program is checking to make sure no one is trying to break into your computer. The operating system gives the illusion of multiple programs running simultaneously by fitting in some work on one program while another program is waiting for you to hit the next key or another program is waiting for a website to respond. There is always some down time in a program when it doesn't need the full attention of the computer. And, if a program tries to hog up too much of the time, the operating system will suspend one program for a short time while it services another program.

Most of the time, this works pretty well but I'm sure we've all run into times when the computer seems to slow to a crawl as its multitasking gets bogged down. Partly, this comes from the operating system making a bad decision about which program can be interrupted and for how long. Also, switching too often between programs takes a certain amount of time. The operating system has to save the state of one program before suspending it and switching to a second program so that you can re-entry the first program later. Saving the state of the first program then getting the last known state of the second program to prepare to run the second program is called Context Switching and it takes a certain amount of time. If you are switching tasks too often, you spend most of your time context switching which wastes time. You can get to the point where all of your time is taken switching between tasks.

There are a lot of research papers written about this and all the ones I have read point out that people are terrible at multitasking. But you don't have to read a bunch of dry research papers to come to this conclusion yourself. I'm going to tell you about a short test you can take yourself to prove the point. The test came from a training class our entire software department took. We use a process called Agile Development to create our software programs. This is particularly useful for complex development projects that involve teams of programmers. You can read more about Agile Development in the Wikipedia article and at the site of the vendor (VersionOne) who gave our class.

Here's the demonstration. All you need is a piece of paper, a pencil and a way to time something to the second. You do the demonstration in two stages using the example here:

In the first stage, you write the characters in columns. So, you'll write 1, I, A, 2, II, B, 3, III, C etc. Stop the timer when you get to 'Z'. In the second stage, you write the characters in rows. So, you'll write 1, 2, 3 .. 26 then start the second row and write I, II, III ... XXVI and finally start the last row and write A, B, C ... Z. Again, stop the timer when you get to 'Z'. In the first stage, you are multitasking because you're shifting your focus (Context Switching) from one character style to a different character style. In the second stage, you are writing characters of the same type all along the row so there is less Context Switching. I won't tell you how it turns out. You do the timing. But I think you'll find that you're not as good at multitasking as you think.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Rode my scooter to work today

Yes, it may be January but it doesn't feel like it. When I walked the dog this morning, I didn't need to wear gloves and the roads looked dry (no ice from melted water refreezing overnight). So, I thought, "Why not?"

I did leave a little early so I could take my time and go slowly so I could scan ahead for icy patches. The only problem I had, though, was that the sun was so bright and low in the sky, I had to shield my eyes a few times. I did go through some icy spots on straightaways but this scooter handled amazingly well. I wouldn't want to go over ice on a curve but I'm a lot less fearful now that I've seen how the scooter handles in that situation.

So, I've ridden my scooter to work in every month of the year except February. But you never know.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The Enchanted Village - part 3

This is my final post about our visit to The Enchanted Village. The theme this time is music. The first picture shows teddy bears in the music store. I forgot to mention in my other posts that many of the scenes had mechanical animation. For instance, in this scene, the bear playing the piano was moving his hands and arms. It wasn't up to Hollywood standards but it surprised me how just a little bit of movement added so much to the scene. I find this in a lot of things. I remember seeing The Civil War documentary by Ken Burns for the first time. They had interviews with Civil War experts, pictures from battlefield parks, maps and still pictures taken at the time of the conflict. By simply panning around the pictures, they were able to simulate movement to the point where they could be describing a battle with added sounds effects and it almost seemed like you were watching video of the actual battle.

The next scene shows some carolers outside one of the buildings. The boy on the right seems to have either given up trying to read the music or has everything memorized. I don't know if the people who set up these displays had complete freedom in moving the figure or if they were fixed in their body positions (it would have helped this scene if the boy's elbows could have been bent). I would like to find a behind-the-scenes write-up of these displays. If I ever do, I'll post it in this blog. Another interesting things about this scene is the girl in the dark blue coat. When we were first coming up to this display, she seemed to be looking right at me and I was shocked to think that some child had climbed into the display to try to be part of it. Only after she didn't move for a while did I realize that she wasn't alive. She had a more direct gaze than any of the other figures. There's a Twilight Zone story in there somewhere.

The next picture shows a small children's band. I don't know if they are accompanying the carolers or not. That scene was pretty far from the band. Now they've got me acting like this is all real! When I saw this little band, it reminded me of a scene in the Mr. Bean TV series. It's part of the "Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean" episode. Here is the link. You'll have to watch a short commercial before Mr. Bean does his thing.

The final picture shows a couple dancing in a small gazebo. Again, this was mechanically animated with the couple slowly rotating. It added so much to the scene and made it easier to see their faces. We didn't all have to be on one side. With them actually moving, the expressions on their faces took on more meaning. They seem so happy and carefree. We know nothing about their lives but for this moment, they don't have any worries and have nothing to think about but each other. We all need a little distraction from time to time to let us leave our responsibilities and troubles behind - for a while.

My other posts about The Enchanted Village can be found here (part 1) and here (part 2) and, as always, just click on the pictures to see an enlarged view.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Enchanted Village - part 2

As I said in "The Enchanted Village - part 1", we traveled to Avon, MA to Jordan's Furniture the day after Christmas to see their display of The Enchanted Village. We had gone before but this time we took our cameras and I got so many pictures that I wanted to show them in multiple posts. As I also mentioned before, there were a number of displays showing food and they were so well done, they made me hungry. The first picture here shows the bakery. Boy, if I hadn't been hungry before, I was now.

The next picture shows the grocery store. It seemed to have the most parts of all the displays. I could have stood there for an hour looking at all the stuff sold in this store. We used to have a hardware store in our town that reminded me of this. They seemed to have a few of everything you could imagine. And they would spend a lot of time trying to make sure you got what you wanted. I went there to buy paint once. The owner's son spent about a half-hour helping me to get just the right shade. Another time I walked in needing an old style wash tub to give my dog a bath. He walked in the back and bought out two different sizes. I still have the one I bought that day - it's almost 30 years old.

Finally, for this post, you can see a display of a mother reading a story to her children. I think this display would have been better without the snow in the foreground, though. Most of the other displays were of store fronts and the snow was appropriate there. Here, they removed the wall so we could see what they were doing. But, ignoring this minor problem, I have to say that this was one of my favorites. I like seeing all the books in this room.

There is one more thing I like about this scene. Look at the table to the left of the mother and you'll see what I'm talking about. Can't see it? Here's a close up. That pie à la mode looks delicious! So, once again, my hunger grew and here we were in a furniture store. I'd have to wait to eat.

I have one more set of pictures to show in a later post. There are even more scenes that I could show but that's enough. There are other things to write about. Also, don't forget that you can just click on the pictures to see them in a larger form.

[Update: The third, and final, post about The Enchanted Village can be found here in "The Enchanted Village - part 3"]

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

I'm the best bank in the world

Well, not just me - my wife should be included in that. Especially because she used to work in a bank (as a teller). So how can I say, "I'm the best banker in the world?" Because I'm able to offer the best rate of return on investment that I've ever seen advertised. If I put my money in the bank (which to me is like a loan to them), they give me much less than 1% interest plus there are service charges added. When I "lend" money to the bank, I don't charge them service fees. Plus, I go to them to do my business (either in person or to their website). They only came to our house once to finalize a loan.

I'll bet you are a better banker than the banks in your town, too. You and I are also better lenders than credit card companies. Their interest rates are even worse than the rates bank loans get. There is a new trend in credit cards where you put a certain amount of money into a card and cannot spend more than the amount you've put in the card. That sounds like a good idea and would mean you wouldn't be borrowing money from the credit card company and wouldn't be paying them interest. So, how will they make money? Well for one thing, I'll bet there would be fees associated with it. For another thing, they will have your money until you spend it. Do you think you will get interest on the money you "store" on your card? No way.

The other funny thing about banks (I have to consider it funny or I'd cry) is that they seem to have tired of being just a bank. Originally, banks kept our money safe, offered checking accounts for our money (with no interest) and accepted checks that we deposited from other people into our accounts. They also allowed us to have savings accounts where we got interest. The interest rate used to be pretty much 5% everywhere and rarely changed. Now, the lines between banks, investment funds and insurance companies have blurred. The banks weren't making enough money just being banks. Now they charge service fees and charge for investment advice.

This all reminds me of the law of thermodynamics. We need to formulate the three laws of common people dealing with banks and credit card companies:

1) The first law of thermodynamics states that the increase in internal energy of an object is equal to the amount heat added to the object minus the amount of work done by the object. Translated to our first law of common people dealing with banks and credit card companies this becomes:
The amount of money you have is the amount of money you earned minus anything the bank or credit card company needs to keep going
2) The second law of thermodynamics states that when two objects interact by transferring energy or material, the total amount of entropy will almost always increase and will never decrease. Translated to our second law of common people dealing with banks and credit card companies this becomes:
Whenever a common person deals with a bank or credit card company, the amount of money they own will almost always decrease and will never increase
3) The third law of thermodynamics states that as the temperature of an object reaches a temperature of absolute zero, its entropy approaches a constant value (typically zero). Translated to our third law of common people dealing with banks and credit card companies this becomes:
The amount of money a common person has approaches a constant (typically zero) the longer the person interacts with a bank or credit card company
That's it for my three laws. There is one more corollary to these three laws. Here it is:
Dealing with a bank or credit card company is a lot like dealing with a gambling casino