Saturday, April 28, 2007
Went to a mosque earlier today.

I live in an apartment building where across a busy street and past the 7-11 is a mosque for the community. They put a flyer on my door saying there would be an open house on Saturday.

Since ignorance of any group or culture leads to misunderstanding, and because I'm sure that many Americans look on the clothing of a Muslim in America as strange and since 9/11, vaguely threatening, or worse, I thought I would go just to say that I'm not one of those who thinks every Muslim is a terrorist.

I learned a lot about their beliefs and practices. It took a lot of the misunderstandings where I had thought the religion to be rigid and intolerant, or at least heavily unchanged and traditional.

I learned a bit about how easy it is to think that however I was taught to do things is the normal way in an Anthropology 101 class. They called it ethnocentrism. I saw it in action in my own life when I went to Europe as a twentysomething youth.

In a grocery store in Germany, there was a petite lady in the produce section who you could ask to get you a pound of this or couple of that. I was born in Los Angeles, and know how to pick out a good orange most of the time, and would prefer to pick out a few for myself, so I dismissively indicated that I didn't need help and picked out the oranges that looked best.

I thought I would also be teaching them in their hoighty-toighty [sp?]society, the egalitarian way we in America have self-service and don't need the antiquated idea of services performed by an extra layer of someone to do it for us as something that would be helpful to show them our way (the better way) of doing things.

It was only as I was leaving the department with my oranges that I saw the horrified look on her face that I later reflected that this was not a convenience service that the store offered, but a hygienic practice so that not everyone would be handling all the produce. She probably thought I was an uncouth lout.

Another practice that seems unusual to Western eyes is when Muslims bow down together in prayer. I don't think anywhere in the Bible instructs people to grasp their hands together and interlace their fingers as the "proper" way to pray. It's just that we've seen it so often that we take for granted it's the normal, right way to do it.

We tend to look at the covering clothing of Islamic women as strange, and an indication of a patriarchal (male-oriented) society that inherently oppresses women by its ingrained traditions.

One of the people at the Mosque said when he was in the Middle East with his kids, they saw a group of Catholic nuns and his kids asked if they were Muslims because of their clothing. I for one though not Catholic have never questioned whether a nun's clothing is oppresive or restrictive. It just looks normal and appropriate because I've seen it often.

I remember once working a few days before the Christmas break, when many of the full-time workers had already begun their vacations, that a fellow I worked with who was from Israel brought his two little daughters into the office and they were going around room to room giving out treats to those who were still there.

His youngest daughter couldn't wait to get back to tell us what she had seen. She reported that in one room, someone had taken a sock and taped it onto the door of the office. She thought it was the oddest thing she had ever seen.

One final eye-opener for me was the day I landed in London. I was walking in a spacious green park and asked an elderly lady where I could find a bathroom. She looked at me puzzled and asked with a smile, "You want to take a bath in the park?" I realized they must have another word for it. I suppose I would've gotten a similar reaction if I would've asked for the restroom.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
A cheesy sports movie (with Shakespearean touches)

If you can follow the action in a basketball game, you might enjoy the movie "Glory Road", a movie based on the true story of a college basketball team from El Paso.

It’s a Disney movie, so many of the gritty details are glossed over and treated humorously. It was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who knows how to make a blockbuster spectacle, and his touch in crafting the story comes through in the look and mood and setting and pace (slow at first, but steadily picking up steam).

One famous Hollywood actor shows up in a minor role late in the movie. His quirky, choppy speech and facial expressions playing an opposing coach during the inevitable (yet actual) championship game are some of the best, most powerful, yet understated acting I can recall seeing.

The popular music of the 60's is nicely showcased, including one of my favorite songs from those years, "People Get Ready". Unlike many songs of that era, it was produced with minimal accompaniment (note, higher note … (the vocal continues) … note, lower note). Many songs of that era had a driving beat to be heard on AM radios over the hum of a car engine.

I mentioned Shakespeare in the blog title because one of the things that makes his works endure is that he based his plays on well-known stories like Romeo and Juliet (the opening lines say that the main characters are going to die in the end), Hamlet (which had been done in a laughably bad now lost version a few years earlier), and reenactments of the rise and fall of famous well-known English kings and royal families.

By dramatizing well-known stories, Shakespeare could have a character say in advance of some event the audience knows is coming "I get a bad feeling about this" [not an exact quote] and the audience knows it's not going to turn out well for the character who ignores the warning. We get to feel kinda God-like when we know what's coming next when a character dismisses any cautions, like our smugness when we watch a passenger on the Titanic boasting that the ship is unsinkable.

Because the scriptwriter knew what was going to happen, the movie has a few ironic touches and casual phrases that have a payoff later in the picture. The best thing is, you don't see most of them coming; these ironies and foreshadowing are not telegraphed.

Shakespeare also put a little "comic relief" in every tragedy and some ominous threatening circumstances to heighten the tension in every comedy. It's a simple device but when done well, can add depth to any story. Likewise, this movie mixes the humor of young rebellious students coping with a disciplinarian coach with the serious tension of close games and life's unexpected problems.

In the movie, it's interesting to watch as the black and white players on the team gradually get to know each other. I'm not sure all these scenes are literally as they happened (some might have been added for dramatic or comedic effect), but the movie is based on a book that tells the story, so much of the humor and drama is probably a reenactment of actual events.

I generally steer away from movies based on a true story, especially some inspirational true story where someone overcomes some obstacles, but for its realistic reenactment of the fundamentals of basketball offense and defense, its believable characters we get to know and like -- and find out in the closing credits what they did later in life -- and for the deft acting by the cast (even the famous Hollywood star who shows up late is not easily recognized), I recommend this movie for anyone, especially for those who can follow the nuances in a game of basketball.

You can watch the trailer at apple.com (click Quicktime), but that doesn’t really capture the characters’ development coming together as a team where everyone’s unique contribution is shown and needed on the slow but inexorable path the movie takes leading up to the improbable yet actual final game.

Take a look at Amazon for people's comments on the movie. You’ll see that lots of people loved it.

It’s a Disney movie, so it’s also available at the iTunes store.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Greatest Living American? Although Google suggests Colbert...

I’ve been thinking that the American who has done more to help the country in more ways might be Pete Seeger. He's a folk singing banjo player who once was investigated for “un-American activities”.

First, Pete wrote the song that powered the Civil Rights movement. Imagine a group of people outside a business or school or City Hall with signs asking or demanding a change or simple justice. By singing "We Shall Overcome" together (a song he either wrote or changed melodically to the version we know today), the people had a kind of unifying affirmation of their intended outcome. If they had marched in silence, that would’ve allowed the space for a hostile reaction to fill the soundlessness.

When Pete was called for questioning by a Congressional committee, I read that he did not invoke his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination but the 1st Amendment right of freedom of association (or maybe freedom of speech, I don't remember).

Pete Seeger was not allowed on any television network until 20 years later, when he was invited to perform on a TV variety show.

With the Vietnam War dragging on, mounting American deaths, financial cost, and uncertain goals, he sang a song about a group of soldiers training in the swamplands of Louisiana, where a headstrong platoon leader marches his troops into deeper and deeper water attempting to cross a river. When someone [in the song] questions whether continuing on is wise, the platoon leader questions his masculinity: "Don't be a Nervous Nellie."

The song was an obvious reference to the Vietnam War. I consider it pretty bold for a fellow who finally gets a chance to perform after 20 years of unofficial silencing. This little song of Pete's was like the Emperor's New Clothes, where someone speaks what everyone else is thinking but afraid to say.

I think this effectively ended the war, though on the surface it seemed to continue as if nothing happened. The public's uncertainty about how the war was progressing soon became outright skepticism and disillusionment with the official governmental portrayal of what was happening.

Pete also helped the environmental movement, though there were probably several people and events that led to increased public awareness of nature in the 60’s. "An Inconvenient Truth" suggests that the first whole picture of the earth taken from space when made public sparked our environmental awareness of how finite our planet really is, launching the environmental movement and first Earth Day.

Although the effect can't be measured, I think Pete might have also helped people understand that the environment was being damaged as a side-effect of maximized business profitability.

Pete Seeger lived in upstate New York for many years. With the invention of the steamboat, goods could be sent up and down the Hudson River on a predictable schedule, regardless of weather, wind or tide. Evidently, this caused a boom for industries and factories.

In 1962, Pete Seeger came across a book of illustrations of sailing vessels going up and down the Hudson River. To raise awareness of what the river had been like, he and some friends built a sailing ship, a sloop (a boat ship vessel with two sails, front and back a headsail and mainsail) called the Clearwater. I remember seeing pictures of it in Life Magazine.

The ship sailed up and down the river, increasing awareness of how polluted the water had become when treated as merely a means for increasing transportation for commerce. "Sailing Down My Golden River" is not Pete's best song, but it does have a hauntingly whimsical nostalgic longing for natural beauty lost.

He also wrote or co-wrote "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "If I Had a Hammer", and "Turn, Turn Turn". He and his group popularized songs from around the world, like "Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)" and "Guantanamera".

So he infused the Civil Rights movement with its musical theme message, single-handedly stopped the Vietnam War (well, as a banjo player you’d have to say more precisely he used two hands), and was an early voice calling for protecting the environment.

Another Worthy Nominee

Another possible individual who may have done more than any other living American to help the world might be William Gates, III.

Although his guidance has given the industrialized world a series of ongoing advancements in computer calculation (at higher and higher abstraction levels) paralleling the baseline increased potential of each successively denser and more complex microprocessor, I think his true worth will be seen in the individual lives (especially those many people without power to change harsh and dangerous living conditions) that are helped or protected by his medical and social philanthropic organization's programs.

I’m honored to be working for him, even as a lowly contracted worker hired to work on miscellaneous projects.


I saw a news feature on Earth Day last Sunday telling the story of the person who, probably more than anyone, started our environmental awareness.

The book “Silent Spring” written by Rachel Carson warned of the dangers of spraying pesticides everywhere. I never read it, but did see a TV documentary about it back in the days when there was an unquestioning faith-in-what-science-does-for-modern-life (brilliantly satirized in the style of mock public service science short films in “An Inconvenient Truth”).

It’s clear to me that this book started public awareness that we might be damaging the livability of our world by trusting in the wisdom of the advancements made by Science (really, the proponents are companies with vested interests that benefit financially in promoting use of certain products and technologies).

If you grow a garden with vegetables, leave off any insecticide spraying. The bugs won't bother a healthy plant as much as a sickly one. You can even pick off the bugs by hand or use plain water in a spray bottle to remove aphids (little tiny critters).

If you don't have a garden, visit a farmer's market when they start bringing in the local produce. Although it's not always true, unsprayed or organic produce is often tastier and might have more (variety of) nutrients.
Friday, April 20, 2007
Google Says, "The Greatest Living American Is..."

I blogged previously about the risk of discounting the prospects of a new Microsoft product or service going against a clear market leader, such as taking on Google in search.

Google is lightning fast, and its paid ads are close enough most of the time to what's being searched for to earn billions in advertising revenue. How could Microsoft compete, much less expect to win?

I read some commentary that with the (pending) purchase of tellme voice technology, Microsoft is poised for the inevitable coming demand for mobile voice-activated searching.

Even as a search tool, Google isn't all that helpful or flexible. If I ask when the baseball playoffs begin, it's likely going to return the correct date, but probably for some previous year, because that's what's been published already. In fact, if I'm searching for information about anybody or anything, It's just as likely that the top results will be hot news about that person or thing from several years ago.

And Google can be manipulated into thinking something is generally recognized as true if enough different sites list the same information. For example (unless they change it quickly), if you search Google for the "greatest living American" it will let you know in its top few matches the consensus of the vast cyberspace universe... Stephen Colbert.

I blogged earlier that I had someone in mind who might in fact be the most important American of the 20th Century (he's slowed down a bit, but still kicking). I will finish writing up my thoughts and post them as the next entry for your consideration.

Hint: it's not Stephen Colbert.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
World's Easiest Exercise (not a joke, extremely helpful)

Ever hurt your back? I can't suggest a pill or exercise to heal the soreness, but I have discovered a few things that help prevent recurring back soreness.

If I pick up things awkwardly, or try to move furniture around, or carry heavy shopping bags, or sometimes even lean over awkwardly to lift a teacup, I'm liable to have a sore back. This happens once, twice, sometimes more often each year, especially if I'm not careful.

A physical therapist working in a gym suggested I do regular stretching exercises to counter this recurring problem. She said stretching the Achilles tendon and legs relieves a lot of tension from the back.

So as a counterbalance to sitting at a desk or in a chair watching TV, I looked on the Internet for some techniques to avoid or soothe back strain. I found a few good simple exercises at, of all places, www.back.com. I like the short videos because it's easier to watch how to do an exercise than to try to read the instructions about how to place your body and do the movements.

The first exercise they demonstrate might be the world's easiest exercise, yet it's a very effective stretch called "ankle pumps".

You start by laying (lying?) on your back and ... well, watch for yourself.

If clicking the photo doesn't work, click here.

Here are a few things I've learned (sometimes the hard way):
And one bit of advice I read somewhere seems to be effective and not too strenuous -- stretch like a cat.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
Future Computers

I have the feeling that future computers will closely resemble the slow-to-take-off ultra mobile PC (UMPC).

I've used Dragon Systems NaturallySpeaking since 1998 version 1. It has some things that it does well, and after a while, you learn to work around its idiosyncrasies, like a car you have had for years. The best thing about it is that it learns from its mistakes (from your corrections, that is) and has some sense of context.

So since 1998, I've had a vision of future computers whose primary means of accepting human input is through speech, and where the keyboard with its quirky arrangement (wordplay intentional) of rows of buttons that you individually press to append the next letter to what word or sentence or command you are trying to convey is remembered the same way old-timers remember the typewriters with their hundreds of connected moving parts -- as something inefficient and quaintly humorous.

Will it make mistakes? Will it misunderstand what you say to it? Of course. But don't we sometimes mishear what we say to each other? I'm sure it will be nearly effortless to correct any misunderstandings. I hope they teach future computers to say "huh?"

By eliminating the need for a keyboard, and the ongoing miniaturization of discrete functionality into single chips, I expect low-cost, low-power, connected and personal devices to be throw-in-the-pocket and easily recycled or replaced if lost (with the info it contained reconstituted automatically).

For NaturallySpeaking Users

If you ever use NaturallySpeaking, here's a tip that helps me turn 10 or 20 minutes worth of speaking into text.

Several times I have recorded on a digital device minutes worth of explanation that I wanted to turn into a document. I don't buy the entry level edition of NaturallySpeaking, so it is capable of listening to an audio file and turning the sound into text. Maybe I just play my recording into the microphone connected to the computer. I don't remember.

Anyway, when I proof what it thinks it heard, there are invariably nonsensical passages that are so obscure I can't remember what my original meaning was. Fortunately, I can select a range of text in its scratchpad, right-click and choose "Play That Back". It will replay my spoken words that it used as the basis for the text it generated.

The next productivity feature for proofing I use when I have finished dictation and corrections. Any version except the entry level offers text-to-speech capability. I save my document, turn off the dictation, select everything, then right-click and choose "Read That" from the context menu.

It's surprising how understandable the synthesized human voice is in reading not only the random arrangement of words I've written (guided in inflection by the placement of punctuation), but also how well it "sounds out" people's names and product names and technologies that it never encountered before.

In fact, some times I will copy and paste a news article or online essay into the scratchpad and have the software read it to me through the computer speakers. I think that will be a capability we value in our digital devices/small portable computers in the future.

You really need to hear it aloud because it might have dropped a little word like "of" or "a" or turned an "if" into an "in". [Hey, they should add a grammar-sentence-structure-checker to catch these errors that you can repeatedly read right past because you know what you were trying to say, and it's all spelled correctly so nothing jumps out at you.]

Sidenote: NaturallySpeaking doesn't work on Vista last time I checked. Windows Speech Recognition is usable, not tedious to train, and convenient. But it gives me the sense of expecting me to conform to what it thinks a word should sound like, rather than learn to recognize how I pronounce it.
Friday, April 13, 2007
They couldn't change a light bulb.

I once heard some people talking about tenants who had lived in their rental property.

"They were nice folks, but they couldn't do anything around the house. They couldn't change a light bulb."

I thought they were using a figure of speech. Turns out, the people came from a New York apartment building where if anything needed to be done, like a burned-out light bulb replaced, they called the super.

Reminds me of a story my brother once told me. Our family lived in Los Angeles. He was in Idaho on business and one of the people there said he really should come up in the spring because the fishing was terrific.

My brother said, "That sounds fun. I've never been fishing."

My brother said everyone in the room stopped and looked at him in silence like he was from another planet.
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