Google+ Followers

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

My take on "Wait, What?"

This is not an actual review of James E. Ryan's book Wait, What?: And Life's Other Essential Questions. You can read 70 or so of those on Amazon. It's just some of my impressions, the kind of things that my husband would likely dismiss as nitpicks.  He's the one who told me to read the book after he finished himself today. I agree it is a good read, though I wouldn't consider it really life-changing.

Here's my most nitpicky nitpick: it's about a question marks. The book is set out as an exploration of 5 essential questions, and most are set as such like the question in the title. Among them is a paired set: "I wonder if .../ I wonder why..." He believes those are essential to remaining curious and engaged in life, and I do agree with the thought. I just don't agree with the punctuation that he opted for. He placed question marks after each of them, and I would punctuate them as statements because they are not really formulated as questions but as assertions about what one is thinking about.

There is a way to set the equivalent as a question, and that would be, "What would happen if ....?" or "Why does ...?"  Those are expressions of curiosity that are about the things happening rather than how one feels about them -- wondering.

He brings up that kind of curiosity as resulting in positive benefits in recounting the story of finding his birth mother. It's a nice story, though I didn't really find it as surprising as he made it out to be. What actually did surprise me is that he could claim credit for his pursuing this out of curiosity when he admitted to being perfectly content not to find out until he was 47.  I would think a really curious adopted child would have thought about finding his mother at a much younger age.

And now my final nitpick, which is not really a nitcpick but an understanding of reality that eludes the author. One of the key questions is "Could we just...?" He presents that as how his wife gradually won him over to considering having a fourth child. Now here's the thing: generally if a woman is the one who really wants the child-- barring fertility issues -- it will happen. The odds of his thwarting her ambitions in that area were slim to none. In that area the mother's wishes carry a lot more weight than the father's, so it was not really a question of if but merely of when he would agree with her.  In retrospect his agreement extends to her observation that until then the family did  not seem complete. But in reality, parents (who are not averse to being parents)  would feel that way about any child, whether it was the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, or even twelfth, as the case may be.

In terms of really useful advice, I'd say the sections on asking people how they want to be helped and the insight he gained from being shown what to do by a girl named  Cindy are worth noting.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

History in Einsenhower Park

On a visit to Eisenhower Park, I went into the the Veterans Memorial section. You can read about it here. Some have distinguishing features, like the one with an attached helmet pictured below:
Others are reminders of some aspects of history that are not included in standard curricula on WWII, like the memorial to the 4 chaplains. 

picture and text from
The information on the memorial is the following:

To learn more about the 4 Chaplains, read this: While there are over 300 memorials to their self-sacrifice, it appears that no one has ever dramatized the event.

Should you find yourself in the vicinity of the park, you can see the various memorials in person. They now extend recognition to those outside the usual parameters of army duty that were victimized,  including the "Comfort Women."

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

To Boldly Go Beyond Barriers

In the 1964 picture below, the computer is on the right, and her name is Melba Roy She went on to become Program Production Section Chief at Goddard Space Flight Center. The machine next to her was referred to as an IBM then.
pic from

Melba Roy does not appear in the film Hidden Figures, which concentrates its attention on just three of the African-American women who worked as computers in the space program, though she is mentioned in Margot Lee Shetterly's book on which the movie is based. The book covers a much longer span of time and more characters than the main three: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.

One female of color who doesn't make it into either the film or the book is Janez Lawson. In fact, it's hard to find anything about her at all beyond what has already been unearthed by Nathalia Holt in her book The Rise of the Rocket Girls.  In truth, I found Shetterly's book a faster read, but there is more information in Holt's about women in the industry and how the role of computer became a sort of pink collar career.

In fact, though,, you need to go even further back in time to see women emplolyed as computers. And they were also focused on the stars. That's the topic of  Dava Sobel's book The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Sky . Working painstakingly through photographs of telescopic view of the heavens, these computers observed differences in spectra and worked out the classification system that shifts the alphabet around. The mnemoic device became "Oh be a fine girl, kiss me." New discoveries have contributed to new letter placement, leaving some question as to how to complete that famous mnemoic. I have to admit this book can be slow going, though it does have some nice photographs to illustrate the history, something that is also in Holt's book but missing in Shetterly's.

Another thing in those two books that Shetterly doesn't detail are some details about what the women were paid. One of the key women in the Observtory notes that she was only paid $1500 when men in comparable positions were paid $2500. Other women employed as computers were paid hourly, at the rate of 25 - 30 cents. This hourly rate must have remained the standard, as Holt says that's how the women working at NASA got paid. As a result, some of the women earned more than their husband because of the long hours they had to work. In contrast, Shetterly's book always states their earnings in yearly amounts, and the film indicates that Katherine would not have been paid any more for staying later at work. It is possible that her pay grade was changed even though she was still called a "computer."

As the Hidden Figures  book picks up the history of the computers in the 40s, it includes Miriam Mann, a contemporary of Vaughan who is described as a woman as petite and fearless. Mann repeatedly ripped down the paper sign designating a section of the cafeteria for the "colored" women. It would go back up, and she'd rip it down again until it stayed down.

Katherine Johnson with celestial Training Device
Pic from

 If you've seen the film, you'd realize how her defiance was translated into a somewhat different context with a great deal of dramatic license. For instance, Katherine Johnson achieved major recognition as the first female computer to get her name on a report as early as 1959 (published in 1960) that predates the movie. But as the center of the film, her character is subjected to Jim Crow practices in ways that didn't happen in real life. In the book, she is the "unflappable" Katherine who was never driven to an outburst about the bathrooms because  didn't question her own right to use the restroom in the building in which she worked. In light of the fact that Shetterly comments on the myths that have arisen about what Johnson encountered because the film ends up reinforcing some of them and inventing new ones.

In point of fact, it was Jackson who experienced that kind of humiliation. But she only put up with it once (Shetterly 108). Once was enough to get her to rant about her situation (not in a room full of people) in front of one man who offered that she work for him. She accepted. One really cool thing about Jackson's achievement as an engineer was not  breaking the color barrier at the school for her classes, but serving as an inspiration for her children. It's a pity the movie didn't include this episode in the book. When Jackson's son won the Virginia Peninsula Soap Box Derby, he declared, "'I want to be an engineer like my mother'" (200).

Dorothy Vaughan gets a lot more coverage in the book than in the film, as she began her computer career about two decades before the the movie opens. She actually did earn official recognition as head of the West Ara Computers unit" but lost it at the end of the decade when the unit was disbanded.  It's ironic to note that near the end of the book (264) Shetterly notes that Vaughan never learned to drive, making the carpooling scenes thrown in to show the closeness of the characters to have been historically impossible.  The library book event is not in the book either. FORTRAN was actually taught to the employees, and the on-site classes were open to all races (139). But again, that's dramatic license for you.

Dramatic license isn't necessarily bad, one just has to realize that events were a bit different in fact. On the plus side, the film is very engaging and actually presents the story in a way that works well as an introduction of the subject that can work even for young children. They would not be subjected to hearing racial epithets and they won't even see a single character smoke, though the sixties was a time when most people held a cigarette at some point during the work day.

BTW the title's Star Trek reference is deliberately placed because Shetterly refers to the popularity of the show with the NASA set as well as with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She refers to his encouraging Nichelle Nichols to stick with her role as Lt. Uhura  when she wanted to quite the show because he saw her as such a positive role model. That's somethine the actress recouted in her autobiography and even gets quoted the Wikipedia entry about her. Fictional characters can be inspiring, but sometimes real people prove equally impressive.

Additional online resource: 

 Interesting link about other women's roles in space:

On the Hidden Figures Exhibit

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Decisions, devices, data, and doctors: should you keep them away?

Some time ago, I read Eric Topol's  The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine is in Your Hands.  I also read the somewhat less bullish on technology  Robert Wachter's
The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age. Now I've just completed H Gilbert Welch's Less Medicine More Health: 7 Assumptions that Drive Too Much Medial Care with its even less sanguine view of the possibility of generating a lot more data on one's health.

It's good to read all three to get a sense of the developments in the brave new world of digital health (see Healthcare Analysis: Doctor vs. Deviceand why it's not all good.  When someone first told me about Welch's book,I envisioned something like this:

Dr. W: One of the best things you can do to improve your health is to engage in regular exercise. My father, for example, walked 2 miles to and from work each day.
Random person: That's great, how old is he?
Dr. W: He died at 60 from pneumonia he developed after becoming sick from colon cancer.
Random person: ??

That may be your intitial reaction, but if you think about it, you realize his father's early death doesn't disprove his general guidelines for health, which also include the old wisdom of "everything in moderation and nothing in excess." Dr. Welch wasn't claiming that anyone who walks is guaranteed a long life. It is just one of the factors that contributes to good health. Cancer can happen to anyone, and that doesn't disprove the fact that walking is good any more than the smoker who lives to 100 proves that smoking is not at bad for you. People have to remember that there are general rules and loads of exceptions. Dr. W. bets on the rules and what you can do for your health without taking extreme action or obsessing over every bit of health data you can access. 

He certainly offers a contrast to Topol's celebration of increasing patient access to their health data with technology. For example, Topol was thrilled with the fast blood lab analysis offered by Theranos, which has since the book's publication fallen very much out of favor with the public and the law. Topol also consider Angelina Jolie effect a very good thing, a sign of women taking charge of their health. While Welch doesn't say the star was wrong for her own situation, he argues that that kind of testing and pre-emptive surgery doesn't make sense for most people.  

Welch devotes a great deal of his book to the downside of too much data,  not just because of the irrevelant noise, but also because the information it provides can prove more harmful -- in raising anxiety level and prompting invasive actions that don't really improve one's health or wellbeing -- than helpful. This is particularly the case with breast cancer which has been selling "early detection saves lives" to push yearly mammograms on the entire female population, screenings that often raise alarms, prompty biospsies, and sometimes lead to removal of what would not have spread to pose a real threat in any case. 

Some of these issues have already been explored in books like Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health (Oxford University Press, 2011). They also have gotten those in the know to change the recommendations for women's mammograms. Nevertheless, the most recent government guidelines for women's health still push that outdated information in its guidelines that allow for regular mammograms for all women 40 and up and that states unabashedly, "The good news is that mammograms can help find breast cancer early. Most women can survive breast cancer if it’s found and treated early." This dangles a false promise of saved lives that often were not in danger at all and completely ignores the harm that can result, something more and more experts are admitting as studies like this one covered by PBS, "One in three women may receive unnecessary mammograms, study says" come to light.

What's true of screening for breast cancer is also true for other forms of screening that lead to invasive tests and treatments in the attempt to "fix" problems that would not cause any ill effects if just left alone.  But even when the screening doesn't necessarily entail harm, Welch says, we should ask if it does actual good. This is important to know because the right to say "no" to  a suggested test  because there is no benefit to be derived because the information is not going to be actionable in any case is empowering for patients or their caregivers.

Here's a case in point: a couple of years ago, I brought my son in to a doctor when he had signs of a cold just to be sure it wasn't strep or something else that would require medication. The doctor decided to also test him for flu. Though both rapid tests were negative, he wanted to be sure and put in for overnight lab test for both. They, too, were negative. Now here's the thing: it may have made sense to do the strep test in case the rapid was inaccurate because someone with strep should take antibiotics, but the extended flu test made no sense at all because the results take days, and by then 1) it's too late to try to take Theraflu or any other prescribed medication to mitigate symptoms and 2) you'd know you'd have the flu or not yourself at that point based on the extent of your suffering. So the doctor had put in for a test that cost over $10

0 (not covered by insurance because after ACA went into effect, it added on a deductible for all diagnostic labs)  with no tangible benefit for the patient. The only ones who stood to benefit from the lab data are the people in NY state who collect data on flu. But they were not the one given the bill.  

It's very hard for some of us to resist the recommendations of doctors for tests, treatments, etc. That's because we have to break through our own biases that convince us the doctors know what they're doing and always acting in our own best interests. That's not to say that doctors are completely ignorant or that they are deliberately jacking up their incomes with more procedures (though some are or do them to cover themselves in case of suits)  but that they are conditioned to automatically run these tests and make the standard recommendations in a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine. It's up to individuals to get informed and empowered.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Human nature in a box of crayons

photo credit
If you were anticipating something along the lines of "Life is like a box of crayons; you never know what you're going to get," you may be disappointed. This blog doesn't go there. It's something a lot more concrete than that.

I have a very vivid memory of my oldest child's entry into kindergarten. The school sought to save money by giving parents a list of supplies required for each child. That included a box of crayon. On the day we brought in our children and their supplies, the assistant teacher opened up each box of crayons to empty the contents into a container. That's when we learned that we were not buying the crayons for our own kids the way we bought them a knapsack or the like; we were buying crayons that became general classroom supplies.

 Those of us who had not been through this before were a bit surprised. One mother even said, "Had I known that they would do that, I would have bought the cheaper crayons rather than the thicker, more expensive ones."

This mother didn't mind having to buy her child the crayons to use for schools. She even spent more than she had to because she wanted her child to have the best ones on the market. So she felt letdown that her kid would not even get to use those crayons any more than any other kid in the class whose parents may have just bought the cheap, thin kind of crayons.

From her perspective, it may be like lovingly preparing a carefully planned out lunch for her child, only to discover that all the lunches are mixed up together, and other kids have brought jelly sandwiches.

That encapsulates much about human nature. We are motivated to do more when we feel that we -- or our children -- benefit directly. If we find out that they benefit only indirectly we would not have  enough motivation to put in more than the bare minimum. Consequently, the parents who had already been there, done that knew there was no point in buying the special crayons as they might have if each child kept his/her own pack of crayons.

 That is not to say that people aren't generous. I'm certain that mother would have willingly contributed several dollars for a fund to provide families that could not afford school supplies with what they need. It is rather the sense of futility of seeing your extra effort disappear in the sea of average that is demotivating.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Isaac Asimov on Creativity

Clearly Isaac Asimov lived before "synergy," now displaced by "collaboration," was  buzz word. A few years ago MIT Technology Review ran "Isaac Asimov Asks, 'How Do People Get New Ideas?'

Like Woz, quoted in Susan Cain's Quiet and here, he does believe "isolation is required" to achieve creativity. His dsecription of a creative mind also corresponds to how introverts operate: "His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it."

What's interesting, though is his describing the intrusion of others as not being a problem due to distraction but to intoroducing self-consciousness that would impede progress: "For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display."

However, Asimov doesn't go so far as to say that you should shut yourself off from society altogether. He explains that interacting with others has other benefits for the mind

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.
Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another the unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.
Yet that doesn't mean that he considers the group dynamics to lead directly to new creative insights. Instead they "educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts." For the group to work in that way, he warns that the group has to not be at all censorious. He explains that even one person can poison the atmosphere in which all creative expression is unimpeded:

If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.
If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest.
He also offers advice on capping the number of group members. Any more than five, he believes would be counter productive because of "the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating." But even more important than that is the question of expectation. In other words, one's official job should not be to what today is called "ideate."

The way he puts it is this: "The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all." The ideas just came while they purusing other things, which, he feels is important to remove a sense of obligation: "To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either."

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jane Austen and Capability Brown

The 50 miles of good road in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy's 10,000 a year, and the "ha-ha" in Manfield Park are all features of the times and background for Capability Brown's influence on English gardening.

August 30th 2016 marks the tercentenary of the baptism (his date of birth is unrecorded) of Lancelot 'Capability’ Brown (1716-1783). If you were in England this year, you may have seen certain events dedicated to this man who transformed the British landscape with his vision of naturalistic gardens See The genius of Capability Brown. People in Britian can even buy special stamps to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown's birth. 

I only heard about him on this side of the Atlantic because on one of the tours of Old Westbury Gardens  (which were designed to emulate English estates to appeal to the taste of the owner's British bride) the guide mentioned Capability Brown as the designer. Of course, he couldn't have designed the Long Island estate directly, but his influence came through in the play of lawns, trees, and water to be found even on Long Island.

thatched cottage at Old Westbury Gardens

Curious about the person who shares our last name, my husband looked for books about him in our library system. We only succeeded in obtaining one: Roger Turner's  Capability Brown and the Eighteenth-Century English LandscapeThe History Press Rizzoli International Publications, 1985. While Turner frequently quotes the poet Alexander Pope to give some literary background and one time quotes the writer Hannah More, he fails to mention Jane Austen in connection with the transformation of the landscape at all, and this is an omission I intend to rectify here. 
In Ch. 32 of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy tells Elizabeth,  "`And what is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a day's journey. Yes, I call it a very easy distance.''  Darcy was particularly appreciative of "good road"  because it was still a relatively recent convenience that made a dramatic difference to travelers. As Turner writes on p. 17,  "During Brown's practising years, 1750-80, the time taken between London and the major towns was halved. Before these improvements bad weather and wintry conditions made travel impossible for wheeled traffic."  

Earlier in the book, we have the famous pronouncement about Darcy's wealth amounting to 10,000 a year. That figure is also one that Turner mentions as requisite for an estate owner to really maintain a good figure in society: "At least five or six thousand pounds a year was required to support a great house, to allow for the expenses of the London season and to enable the owner to patronize the arts. More comfortably it required ten thousand a year" (p. 17). 
Awareness of garden features gains prominence in Austen's Mansfield Park. In chapter 10, Maria Bertram complains,“Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,' as the starling said.” Refusing to remain restrained, she goes through, ignoring Fanny's warning of the danger of slipping into the ha-ha.

 Of course, all this foreshadows Maria's breaking through the set boundaries of her marriage and becoming a fallen woman. But there still had to be a physical ha-ha, a type of sunken fence that created a barrier between the extended grounds of the estate where animals could graze and the gardens near the house without obstructing the view. This was not a feature that Brown invented but one that he did use. 

Taylor refers to this device and the explanation for its name on p. 29 in  quotes Horace Walpole's 1770 essay On Modern Gardening: 
"The capital stroke, the leading step to all that has followed, was (I believe the first thought was Bridgeman's) the destruction of walls for boundaries, and the invention of fosses -- an attempt then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them Ha! Ha!s to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk."
In fact, though, Charles Bridgeman (1680?-1738) could not have been the first to make use of this 
sunken fence, as it already was in use in Versailles before it appeared in England.  Howeve, it appears to have become increasingly common in England in Jane Austen's time, enough so that she could safely assume her readers would be able to picture the obstruction posed by the ha-ha she references several times in Mansfield Park

 The woman writer Turner does quote, Hannah  More (p. 78) was already quoted by a prior biographer of the master gardener, Dorothy Stroud. She records what the writer said about here"friend Mr. Brown" who "illustrates everything he says about gardening by some literary or grammatical allusion."
She said:
"He told me he compared his art to literary composition. 'Now there," pointing a finger, “I make a comma, and there”, pointing to another spot, “where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon, at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis, now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.”

While Taylor doesn't like the literary take on landscaping, it strikes me as an inverse of what Austen said about her own writing in the expression about her own miniature scale. The quote comes from a letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh: "What should I do with your strong, manly, vigorous sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?"

Capability Brown's landscaping took a great deal of labor to produce subtle effects that could be appreciated many years later. The same can be said of Austen's novels.