Striking a Blow for Masculini-Tea!

19 Jan

teas Our 6-year-old grandson has three sisters and virtually lives in a world of princesses and pink. I have always admired how he is still so secure in his masculinity.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife Diane made the kids some Funfetti cupcakes with pink icing and sprinkles to celebrate the youngest girl’s birthday. I wondered if our grandson would reject this rather girly treat. As Diane predicted, he happily accepted his pink cupcake. His only beef was that he didn’t get the one with the big piece of chocolate on top, intended for the birthday girl.
Personally, I have always tried to combat my own insecurities about masculinity by over compensating to some degree. I’ll drink beer when I really don’t want one and I’ll talk to other men about sporting events that I know absolutely nothing about.

Over my lifetime, I estimate that I have attended one ballet, one fashion show and about seven afternoon teas. In my own defense, I can claim that I have never attended a bridal shower or a Tupperware party regardless of promised refreshments.
This holiday season, Diane took our daughter, our two older granddaughters and our son to the Brown-Forman production of “The Nutcracker Ballet.” Fortunately, I was left with the two youngest children to watch Christmas cartoon specials and catch up on our SpongeBob Squarepants. I was a little disappointed, however, to not get to see the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, since I always thought the music was pretty catchy after all my years of playing Tetris. Overall, I have to agree with columnist Dave Barry who once said he would rather watch a dog catch a Frisbee than go to a ballet.

I did, however, once attend a ballet that was based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby.” People always say that ballet dancers are really great athletes, so I used that belief to rationalize my attendance. It was exactly like attending a basketball game, except most of the players were girls, the uniforms were pastel and all the jumping and prancing about seemed to lack any essential purpose. As I remember, the final score was a shutout — Daisy 36, Gatsby nothing.

It is a little disconcerting to realize that I have gone to more afternoon teas than professional baseball, hockey and football games combined. I have occasionally wondered if there was something wrong with me, since I, unlike my grandson and his father, have no interest whatsoever in professional sports.

Love of sporting events has long been popularly considered a leading indicator of masculinity in America. In his dubious run for governor of Texas, macho singer Kinky Friedman once said at a press conference that he was not pro-choice, and he was not pro-life, but he was, pro-football.

Last weekend, Diane and I drove down to Vine Grove, Ky., to an afternoon tea at the Two Sister’s Tea Room. In November, the proprietors Paula Jaenichen and Amy Pickerell — who have relatives in the New Albany area — reopened what was formerly a local Victorian tearoom. With excellent hot fresh scones, it was a very accomplished afternoon tea. The Two Sisters should not be confused with The Sisters Tea Parlor & Boutique in Buckner, Ky., which Diane and I have also visited.

Most of the teas Diane and I have gone to have been full afternoon teas. According to the What’s Cooking America? website, many folks mistakenly refer to the full afternoon tea as “high tea,” because they think it sounds ritzier. In fact, “ high tea” (sometimes called a “meat tea”) is just the old British term for dinner. Working men and children would partake of “high tea,” so-called because it was served at a tall dining table, rather than in a sitting room or drawing room where low tables were used.

The first scholars to write about tea may have been men in third-century China, but one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, the Duchess of Bedford, is usually credited with establishing the afternoon tea tradition during the Victorian Era. The duchess reported having a “sinking feeling” in the late afternoon (probably low blood sugar).

At the time, there was no such thing as lunch and unfortunately dinner wasn’t served until around 8 p.m. The peckish Duchess found that a pot of tea and some bread, butter and cakes, served in her private rooms, hit the spot perfectly. Soon she — and everyone else — was inviting guests over for an afternoon of “tea and a walking the field.”

Over time, three basic kinds of afternoon teas evolved. A Cream Tea consists of tea, scones, jam and clotted cream. The Light Tea has all the same items, but adds sweets (which are usually cakes, cookies, tiny tarts, or shortbread). The top-of-the-line is the full afternoon tea that has all of above, and also includes savories and a dessert. Often, these courses are served on three-tiered serving dishes.
In America salads, fruits, and soups are sometimes included. I have to say that I have enjoyed all the teas I’ve attended, but the usual menu is a bit too loaded with carbohydrates and sugar for me these days.

Until I started attending teas, my knowledge of scones was limited to what I had gleaned from Scrooge McDuck comic books. I have since learned that scones are rather crumbly biscuit-like affairs with a wide variety of possible ingredients. These are traditionally served with jam, lemon or lime curd, and Devonshire or clotted cream (which is a thick unsweetened whipped cream).
Diane says that her favorite place for afternoon tea is the Hopsewee Plantation near Myrtle Beach, S.C. The owners of this restored rice plantation added the River Oak Cottage Tea Room where you can get the Hopsewee Full Southern Tea, which in addition to scones and sweets, includes such fare as cucumber sandwiches, curried chicken on ginger snaps, blue cheese spinach quiche, salmon mousse and parmesan-peppercorn crackers with mozzarella, pesto and tomato.

Around Christmas time, the girls in the family, except for our 10-year old-granddaughter Becca, all attended an afternoon tea in Cincinnati. Poor Becca had a rehearsal for the church Christmas play to go to with her brother. She had to stay and eat lunch with us boys until it was time to go to church.

We watched Cincinnati Bengals football highlights and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoons until we got hungry and went out for pizza. We told Becca to just pretend that the provolone cheese-filled Rondos were scones and the Sprite was Jasmine-Apricot tea.
New York-based psychoanalyst and Psychology Today blogger Gurmeet S. Kanwal says that “‘masculinity” and ‘femininity’ exist in every individual,” so maybe liking high teas just reflects my feminine side.

Perhaps one day there will be afternoon teas designed especially for us men. Personally I doubt it, unless there is some way to add competition, danger and destruction to the event. Perhaps the tea could be held with participants wearing only gym shorts and involve running among the tables like an obstacle course, all the time juggling teapots of scalding hot tea. Now that would really be something!

Originally Published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune

Wither the SAT

31 Mar

Test

The College Board organization has recently revised the SAT college admissions test. In a couple of weeks it will publish new sample questions to illustrate the changes it has had to make the test more relevant, the vocabulary more functional, and the orientation more real world.   Below are a few of my ideas about how the new SAT questions might appear.

 

Stawar Aptitude Test

 

1. Joshua graduated two years ago with a degree in _________. He should ask Sallie Mae ___________.

a. Art History,   out on a date

b. Communications, for an unpaid internship

c. Humanities, for a forbearance

d. Occlumency,   if she’s from Kentucky

 

2. Which of these founding documents of America contains 234,812 words?

a.   The Constitution

b.   Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

c.   Chicken Soup for the Soul

d.   The Affordable Health Care Act

 

3. If your current cell phone plan has unlimited data and messaging, 50GB of free cloud storage, but limits talk to 500 minutes per month, when will you be eligible for the next phone upgrade?

a.   after the first year

b.   the week before you accidently drop it in the toilet

c.   just in time for the   iPhone12 release

d.   when you sign a new contract for 12 more years

 

4. If the toll for a new bridge is $12 for a round trip, based on the current inflation rate of 3%, what is the probability that your father would actually use the bridge ?

a.   100%

b.   one in a million

c.   50/50

d.   not a chance in hell

 

5. After a(n) ________________ consideration of the all the alternatives, Donald   conclude that __________________ was the last place he wanted to be.

a.   copious,   band camp

b.   assiduous, drug court

c.   indolent, summer school

d.   odiferous, the Port-a-Potty

What Does Your Desktop Say?

13 Mar

deskyopinkblot

           I’m always changing the desktop wallpaper on our computer at home. I just got rid of the Valentine Day’s hearts for February and replaced them with a couple of Irish Dancers for March and St. Patrick’s Day. The boy dancer looks a bit goofy, so I will probably change it again— I’m thinking a leprechaun or shamrock. Over the holidays I had a slide show of Thanksgiving and then Christmas pictures set up in the screen saver , which irritated my wife Diane. When the grandchildren come to visit, I usually put up something like images of SpongeBob Squarepants or Disney princesses.

On my work computer I have our company logo on the home screen. My daughter and her husband have a slide show of pictures of their children constantly playing on the computer in their kitchen. For a lot of people these screens have become our personal art galleries.  A few years ago a British study of the psychological meaning of computer desktops was commissioned by Microsoft. Psychologist Donna Dawson reviewed a sample of office workers’ desktops seeking factors which reflect personality traits. She said “….desktops are our personal space and as such provide a fairly accurate personality description of an individual.”

According to eMarketer, the average American spends over 5 hours a day looking at screens. BioniX a company that makes software that helps people customized their computers, quotes a customer who says, ““One of the things I love about getting a new phone or computer is not just the things I can do with it, but the fact that I can personalize it and make it my own. I like my technology to reflect who I am, what I’m into, my opinions and beliefs.” The website also says that such customization helps people “feel at home” with their device and implies that no one would ever “dream of using the factory settings” for their desktops.

BioniX also says that getting a new device is much like buying a new home. The first thing you want to do is to redecorate it and make it your own. Since we spend so much time with our screens they say, “the choice of the image that greets us every time we fire up our laptop is an important one”. Brian McGannon, a columnist from postgradproblems.com says, “Maybe you’re a minimalist who likes to keep it simple, or maybe you’re the flashy type who has a beautiful cityscape with lightning flashing in the background. Either way, that desktop background can provide a deep look into your personality.”

Many people consciously choose images that are a source of inspiration. These pictures may be spiritual or religious in nature. Personal beliefs may also be expressed through political and historical images or quotations. Calming images that evoke relaxation or pleasant reveries are often seen on work desktops used to reduce the ill effects of on-the-job stressors.  Desktop visuals may also serve as reminders for goals we want to achieved or resolutions we wish to keep. Additionally the number and organization of icons on your desktop also may have psychological significance.  Along with Dawson and McGannon, writers Jeff Wysaski from pleated-jeans.com and Sophie Daste from Sparklife have offered their take on the different kinds of desktops people use. These along with some interpretations stemming from the content analysis of common symbols are presented for several desktop themes below.

1. Windows/MAC Default: Use of factory loaded defaults is generally associated with older users who may not be very tech savvy regarding how to personalizes the device. They also imply a lack of artistic temperament, being overly simplistic and old fashioned. It may also point to depression and a lack of energy or perhaps contempt for modern technology. You also may just be “stuck using your dad’s old laptop.” On a MAC it suggests someone who is easily pleased, unimaginative, and perhaps uses the use computer sparingly and only bought a MAC because of its association with youth.
2. Plain Blue Wallpaper: This simple, but often used, wallpaper suggests that the user possesses the technical skills to personalized the computer. This ability, however, is overpowered by a defensive and guarded unwillingness to disclose very much. Overall it suggests someone who likes to keep their personal life private.
3. Cute Animals: In all likelihood this user is an animal lover, compassionate, optimistic, imaginative, charitable and very possibly a little girl. These images suggest some degree of distancing of the self from others. Cartoon animals represent one step further away from reality.
4. Sports Photos or Logos: This wallpaper is associated with personality characteristics such as team/city/college loyalty, adventurousness, hero worshipping, and possibly beer drinking. It also suggests aggressiveness, competitiveness, extroversion, and a high energy level. Unless of course unless it’s the Green Bay Packers, then it’s okay.
5. Nature: These images are often used by people value travel and tend to be dreamers. They are commonly associated with people who lack windows in their workspace and need a vacation.
6. TV/Movie Characters or Scenes: People who use these backgrounds tend to be homebodies and loyal Netflix users. They may be imaginative and have an active fantasy life. This type of screen may overlap with the Celebrity Crush desktop, which is generally harmless unless you are over 15 years of age, when stalking becomes a viable possibility.
7. Personal Photos: These users tend to be family-orientated, as they are often they are people with children.. They may also reflect travel or hobbies. Subcategories include photos of: (A) You and your significant other, which reveals romantic tendencies, but also exhibitionism, since it invites personal conversations; (B) you accepting an award . Such self-portraits strongly indicate narcissism — folks with big egos who revel in past triumphs. This category reminds me of a guy that Diane once worked for, who didn’t have any pictures of his family around his office, but instead had many pictures of himself; and (C) college days: these indicate a desire to return to the good old days where there was less pressure and responsibility. Unless you just got out of college last week, authorities agree that it might be time to move on.
8. Inspirational Quotes: These are used by people who are overly conventional, easily influenced, and generally happy with their lives, although they may feel pangs of ambition at times.
9. Cluttered Icons on Desktop : When a desktop has icons strewn across the screen it suggests the owner is disorganized and tends to easily lose focus. Research reveals such people are e likely to be male, liberal, have higher education, be career-oriented, and are math whizs.
10. Highly Organized Icons: People with very tidy desktops are likely to be younger, non-urban, tech savvy, and place personal life ahead of work. When the icons are arranged symmetrically its suggests obsessive-compulsive features. If can also indicate they value balance and that they have the ability to keep a cool head, even in thorny situations.
11. Several Rows of Desktop Icons: This type of a desktop arrangement reflects a strong need to feel in control and prepared for every contingency. At the same time it indicates underlying anxiety, insecurity, and internal disorganization.
12. Seasons of the Year: Seasonal images are most often used by elementary school teachers who are constantly decorating bulletin boards and, of course, talented writers.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

I’m Not Bad, I’m Only Designed That Way

4 Jan

200937_10150164528147428_4488492_o

             When the federal healthcare exchange initially went on line  and was plagued by technical glitches, due to what Time Magazine called “lousy design”, I wasn’t surprised. In fact after surviving three major software installations on the job in as many years, I’m amazed when these things work at all.   In one program at work there’s a screen that contains a special button.   If you click it,  critical information, that should never be deleted, is irretrievably erased.  The button has no legitimate use and there is no warning.   Some staff call  it the “suicide button”.    It appears that its only reason to exist is to make trouble.  I’ve wondered if it’s a design error or a vestigial remnant that served some important purpose in a past life— like when it was the software for a Pac Man game.

            A few years ago we replaced our home stove. I always get the simplest model possible. I figure there is less to go wrong. Like our old stove, the new one has a drawer underneath the oven, where you can store pans, broilers, and cookie sheets. If, however, you pull the drawer out just a little too far, it falls off the plastic track and won’t close.  Additionally the inside edge is as sharp as a razor, so that you risk a major laceration every time you have to wrestle it back into position. Once, after cutting myself trying to fix it, I complained to the manufacturer. The company offered to send a repair man to “file down” the sharp edge. It sounded suspiciously like this wasn’t the first time they’d heard this complaint.

It is said that  up to 90%  of accidents are due to human error.  Toronto psychologist Marc Green, vsays, “In many cases, the real source of the error is the design rather than the human – someone created a product, facility or situation where safety depends on unrealistic or unattainable standards of behavior”.  According to Green, designers often rely upon us users to compensate for poor design. If the stove manufacturer expected me to make up for the poorly designed drawer, they should have provided leather gloves, or perhaps a tetanus shot, as standard accessories. According to Green, “We are surrounded by so much poor design that most people simply take it for granted and then blame themselves for stupidity when they make an error.”

Recently my wife Diane and I were in the checkout line at a grocery store when we heard the cashier apologize to the man in front of us, because his receipt came out wrong. It said that he gave her cash, when he had paid with a check. Rather than herself, this cashier blamed the     design of the cash register. The  cash payment key was right next to the one for checks, so it was very easy to push the wrong one.

Donald Norman, former chairman  of the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California is the author of The Design of Everyday Things.    Norman says,  “Well-designed objects are easy to interpret and understand. They contain visible clues to their operation.” He contends that “poor design predominates”,  resulting in   “objects that cannot be understood”,   “devices that lead to error”, and a “world  filled with frustration”.   Norman says there are a lot of people today who can’t figure out how to use their microwaves, cameras, or washing machines, and many (like me) who  “habitually turn on the wrong stove burner”.

Poorly designed objects are not only inconvenient they can also be expensive and even dangerous. Receiving a flawed grocery receipt, ruining a pie due to poorly designed oven controls, or getting off on the wrong floor because  the “G” on the elevator button  stood for “Garage” instead of “Ground floor”,  may be frustrating, but those are minor inconveniences  compared to, say, a poorly designed control for a jumbo jet’s landing gear.

Seth Porges, a New York based technology journalist,  has described  a number  of  recent  tech design flaws such as;  unresponsive phone touchscreens, dangerously sharp laptop cases, hyper-sensitive page  buttons on electronic readers,  and   slippery video game controllers that, when sweaty, are liable to decapitate  a family member or  crash  into your widescreen television.

Human factors is the study of the design of devices that interact with people.   It incorporates knowledge and techniques from   psychology, engineering, and design, as well as many other disciplines.  Human factors researchers have identified a number of important general design principles. For example, one basic rule is that people soon quit reading labels after frequently using   implements, thus never depend on labels alone to guide behavior or prevent errors.

Another is the concept of “mode errors”. Many modern devices operate in multiple modes, such as remote controls and digital clocks. The same controls function differently depending upon the mode.   Modes save space and money,  but increase  the probability of errors,  because in addition  to deciphering the control, the user must maintain constant mode awareness.    Poor keyboarders, like me, experience mode errors when we eventually look up at what we are typing and discover, to our dismay, that we have been typing for some time in the  “caps lock” mode.

A related   concept is “creeping featureism”. Due to electronic advances, it’s easy for manufacturers to pile additional features onto their devices. Although this leads to an increase in   mode errors, it is tempting, because it’s cheap and people make buying decisions based on the features.

In an article in Quality and Safety in  Health Care,  J. R. Grout from  Georgia’s  Berry College discusses  reducing errors in medical settings through design, which he calls “mistake proofing”.   Errors in   medical settings are common and can have especially dire consequences.  Recent studies on medication administration error rates, for example, are rather sobering. In one study,  the medication administration error rate in one large hospital was almost 25%.   An analysis of over 90 studies yielded a  median medication error rate  of 19.6%.    Other research has shown that error rates are  even higher at night, on weekends,  after interruptions  and for intravenous administrations.

According to Grout “mistake proofing” should aim primarily at preventing errors that result in injury.   Grout   identified four approaches   to mistake proofing:  1. designing the process so that errors  simply cannot occur. This usually means automating or oversimplifying a task (idiot-proofing).   2.  Using a design with a built- in mechanism that allows mistakes to be immediately discovered and corrected. Grout describes the use of radio‐opaque sponges during surgery. Such sponges can be readily detected inside they patient, when they still can be easily retrieved.  3.  Designing the process so that if it fails, the outcome is not so detrimental. Automobile airbags are an example of this approach. The error (crash)  may  still occur, but the consequences are somewhat mitigated.  4. Designing a work environment that encourages error prevention.    Simplicity, cleanliness, and a lack of ambiguity characterize an environment that minimizes the chance for errors.   Grout says,  “… small design changes can have a profound impact on human errors. Thoughtfully changing the physical details of healthcare process design can be very effective in preventing errors or harm.”

Donald Norman concludes that, “Proper design can make a difference in our quality of life.”  He encourages designers, as well as the public, to join in the battle for usability. He urges boycotting unusable designs and complaining to manufacturers and retailers who carry shoddy products. Finally Norman says we can support proper design by purchasing well-designed products, even if they cost more.

So the next time I bring home some expensive gadget, I hope Diane realizes that I’m only doing my civic duty.

Originally published in Southern Indiana News-Tribune.

Indiana Jones vs. Goliath

2 Jan

uNDERDOGV

“…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…”
Ecclesiastes 9:11
Last September when the Floyd Central football team unexpectedly defeated Jeffersonville High, the News Tribune quoted Floyd running back Gaige Klingsmith as saying, “This was a huge win, and everybody was doubting us. We were the underdogs and came through.” Just the other night my wife Diane and I were watching a Scottish television show about how a group of misfit underdogs managed to defeated their powerful arch-rivals in the traditional Scottish game of shinty (a cousin to racquetball). Whether it’s sports, politics, or international conflicts, people are always attracted by the idea of a winning underdog. From the Old Testament’s David and Goliath to the Hunger Games’ Katniss, the successful underdog is an archetype that is familiar to all of us. In fairy tales we have Cinderella and in sports we have James J. Braddock the “Cinderella Man” who defeated heavily favored Max Baer for the world’s heavyweight boxing championship in 1935. What else, besides a preference for underdogs, could account for all those Chicago Cubs fans.
Many of us identify with the underdog automatically. This may be because there are so many more underdogs than top dogs. In most endeavors, there is only one top dog, while there are many underdogs. To paraphrase Lincoln, God must have really love underdogs, since he made so many of them.
A few years ago University of South Florida psychologist Joseph Vandello, conducted several studies about people’s preferences for underdogs. In one study participants first read an essay about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Afterwards, half of the group was presented with a map showing Palestine as an area smaller than Israel, while the other half was given a map which was altered to show Israel as being smaller in size. When asked who they sided with, all participants chose the side that had the smaller map representation. Delving a bit deeper into the issue, Vandello also found that most people believed that underdogs worked harder than favorites. People naturally seemed to like for someone to defy the odds.
New York Times writer Steven Kotler suggest that we are attracted to underdogs due to that most American of values— “infinite possibility”. We like to believe that in America any one can grow up to be president and it encourages a sense of hope in our own lives.
Aside from our respect for hard work and the sense of hope they engender, the underdog’s appeal might be rooted in something even more basic. According to Los Angeles Times science writer Geoffrey Mohan, our brains may be actually hard wired to identify with the underdog. He cites a Japanese’ study, in which 10 month old infants watched an animated video of a yellow square (the underdog) being pursued by a bullying blue circle. The ball bumps the square seven times and then smashes it completely. The researcher found that 16 of the 20 infants tested reached out for the underdog yellow square.
In his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell, a writer at the New Yorker magazine, examined the underdog phenomena in the light of modern social science. Gladwell first considerers the biblical story of David and Goliath, analyzing it from a novel perspective. He maintains that in ancient times, armies had three types of troops— infantry, cavalry, and projectilists (slingers and archers). Each group had its strengths and weakness. For example, infantry required close quarters fighting in order to be effective, while cavalry moved too fast to be accurately targeted by projectiles. The slinger was a feared and respected warrior, not just a youth with a slingshot, as we often think of the shepherd boy David. When the Philistines proposed one-on-one combat to settle their dispute with Israel they had an infantry vs. infantry confrontation in mind. David, however, turned the tables, as he felt no obligation to play by those arbitrary rules. Gladwell cites one historian who said that Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword, would have against an opponent armed with a .45 automatic pistol. In contemporary vernacular it seems that without realizing it, Goliath had taken a knife to a gunfight.
Diane says that it’s like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the crowd parts and the huge swordsman steps forward expertly handling a massive blade. Like David, Steven Spielberg changes the paradigm and instead of giving us the arduous close quarters fight we expected, he has the exhausted Indiana Jones simply pull out his pistol and readily dispatch the scary and troublesome fellow. We didn’t expect it, but we loved it.
Changing the paradigm is the primary weapon in the underdog’s arsenal. Gladwell also refers to the work of Harvard political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft. In 2001 Arreguín-Toft published an article in the journal International Security entitled; How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict. This work analyzes how underdogs can and often do win.
According to Arreguín-Toft’s analysis of international conflicts over the past two hundred years, the stronger side typically wins about 70% of the time. When the underdog, however, doesn’t play by traditional rules and adopts guerrilla or other unconventional tactics, this weaker side wins almost 64% of the time. But even underdogs, find it difficult to abandon tradition. During the American Revolution George Washington, for example, was determined to fight the war using classic European military strategy, despite the colonists’ early success with unconventional tactics. He found them distasteful and it almost cost him the war. Underdogs often win using approaches that the opposition finds “unsportsman like”.
This willingness to be disagreeable is related to the basic personality structure of the successful underdog. For the past 30 years psychologists have refined a theory of personality based on what is called the Five Factor Model. Using factor analysis they identified a set of basic personality traits, known as the Big Five. The Big Five factors are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. University of Toronto psychologist Jordon Peterson’s research suggests that successful underdogs display high levels of openness and conscientiousness, but low levels of agreeableness. This profile paints a picture of an individual who is open to new ideas, self-disciplined and works very hard, but who is also prone to be uncooperative, antagonistic, and uncomformist— just the sort of person liable to skillfully use a creative and unconventional approach that others might find objectionable.
According the Gladwell, we should all keep in mind that the strong are not necessarily as strong as they think they are. Likewise the weak are not necessarily as weak as they are believed to be. If you find yourself in an underdog position the three things to remember are: (1) work as hard as you possibly can (2) Don’t be bound by convention and be open to new and creative approaches and finally (3) Don’t worry about what other people think. I’m pretty sure that the Philistines booed David when he first pulled out his slingshot.

Originally Published in The Southern Indiana News-Tribune

 

SLING

Abracadabra: Why it Reaches out and Grabs Ya

6 Sep

magic

I recently attended a silent auction and was the high bidder on a walking stick that I added to my small collection. Although I don’t really like walking all that much, I was attracted to this stick because of its unique design and because it reminded me of the sumac walking stick that Emma Thompson use in the Nanny McPhee movies. Whenever Nanny McPhee needed to conjure up some magic to teach naughty children a lesson, all she had to do was tap her stick twice on the floor. Oh, if it were only that easy!

Oklahoma State University social psychologist and Psychology Today blogger, Melissa Burkley refers to the continuing popularly of magic as the “Harry Potter Effect” after J. K. Rawling’s hero from her immensely popular series of books and movies. According to Burkley, “If there is one thing psychologists can learn from the Harry Potter phenomenon, it is that people love magic.”

Part of our attraction may stem from the fact that all of us have had experience with magical thinking. Magical thinking is defined as believing that one event takes place as a result of a second event, without any plausible connection. From ages two to seven years of age, magical thinking predominates and youngsters have considerable difficulty with logical thought.

Magic may also appeal to people who feel powerless or lacking in control over their environment and circumstances. This may be especially true for adolescents and young people who struggle with interpersonal situations. Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and on-line and other role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, can provide an alternative magical universe where they have limitless power in contrast to their everyday life.

But do people really believe in real world magic? According to Burkley, “Recent research suggests that not only do people believe in magic, it is likely hard-wired into our brains…”. We often see this in everyday superstitions.

Just the other day my wife Diane and I were discussing the “knock on wood” superstition and also how our granddaughters play the childhood “jinx” game. Various cultures have different explanations for the “knock on wood” custom. It is one of many forms of “apotropaic magic” which is intended to “turn away” evil influences. According to one explanation at the divinecaroline.com website, the ancients druids, worshipped trees, believing that spirits lived in all wooden objects. To encourage these spirits to work on their behalf, they would knock on wood. Thus, whenever we want a good thing to continue or to prevent a bad thing from happening, we rouse these elemental spirits by knocking on the nearest piece of wood. Diane and I also recently received a clock and a bracelet, that came from Turkey as a gift, and both of them were decorated with the traditional apotropaic blue eyes, for protection.

The “knock on wood” superstition also reflects the magical belief that just talking about something good happening can cause bad luck, since it tempts fate. Athletes tend to be very superstitious in this regard. For examples in baseball, it is widely held that you can jinx a no-hitter by talking about while the game is still in process. A recent study by Jane Risen from the University of Chicago and Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich explored the magical thinking behind the belief that is bad luck to “tempt fate”. They theorized that this belief stems from two sources. First is the strong human tendency to be disproportionately attracted to negative events. They contend that, “negative events simply “pack a bigger psychological punch” than positive ones, probably because of evolutionary associations with survival.

Second research has consistently shown that thinking about an event makes it seem to us more likely to take place. Combining these two phenomena, the researchers then hypothesized that since the bad outcomes that might result from tempting fate are very negative, we automatically think more about them. Next, because we think more about them, we also conclude that they are more likely to occur, than the bad outcomes resulting from not tempting fate. Their studies clearly demonstrate that people are predisposed to expect the ironic. An example might be the careless college applicant, who ostentatiously wears a sweatshirt from the college to which he wants to be admitted, only to be rejected.

Our granddaughter’s “jinx game”, which also purportedly brings bad luck, is initiated when two people simultaneously say the same words. The rules vary on just how to resolved the jinx created, but usually it ends when one child pronounces the name of the other, who is then considered the jinxed party. The historic penalty for violating a jinx, is a “pinch or a poke” in the arm or buying the other person a drink, hence the phrase, “Pinch and a Poke! You owe me a Coke!” San Francisco psychoanalyst Jerome Oremland has described the game as a ritualized expression of preadolescent conflicts over their emerging new identities.

One of Diane’s aunts once wrote a family history of her mother’s side of the family, who were German farmers in east central Wisconsin. In this narrative there were several references to “hexes”, which were spells casted by neighbors to account for unfortunate events, such as cows going dry, bad crops, and at least one fretful baby. Historically such beliefs are common as prescientific explanations for events with unknown causes. When Diane questioned her mother about this she said, “Yes, it was true.”

Such magical thinking is still present in various forms. In a 2006 Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin and her colleagues conducted a study to determine if college students could be lead to believe that they possessed magical abilities. The participants were first introduced to a confederate of the experimenter, who posed as a fellow student. With half of the subjects, he acted extremely cordial and friendly. With the other half, however, he acted as obnoxiously as possible, in an attempt to evoke hostility. Then the subjects were given a voodoo doll and directed to stick pins in it, in the presence of the confederate, who was the intended “victim”. The “victim” feigned having a headache and then the participants were asked how much they believed they had actually caused the headache. As predicted, the people who had interacted with the obnoxious confederate were more much more likely to believe that they had actually caused the headache.

According to evolutionary psychologists, the human mind is especially adept at identifying patterns, since such casual links are critical for survival. Unfortunately this process is far from perfect, so we often believe that events are connected when they are not, resulting in magical thinking and superstitious behavior. It may well be that we are so receptive to magic because as Burkley asserts , “…we are hard-wired to overestimate our control over external events”.
Although I enjoy magic as entertainment, personally I’m not a superstitious person and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I stay that way.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune

The Sherlock of Homes

6 Sep

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Being a homeowner is fraught with challenges. Not the least of these is solving the numerous mysteries which inevitably present themselves. Below are two cases that have recently tested our meager powers of deduction.

The Mystery of the Secret Stench

A few weeks ago, we started noticing what seemed to be an odd smell emanating from somewhere in our upstairs bedroom. At first I thought it might an animal or perhaps one of the appliances malfunctioning. The odor was very unpleasant and waxed and waned throughout the day. Our cat who is the usual suspect, when something like this happens, had an airtight alibi, since he has been permanently banned from the bedroom.

A careful examination of the steam iron and air conditioner revealed nothing amiss. Although the disagreeable smell was indescribable, it seemed to be organic in nature. My wife Diane and I wondered if some animal had managed to sneak into the bedroom, perhaps through the window where the weather-stripping is loose. At length we considered the relative probabilities that the animal was a mouse, a snake, or possibly, a snake who had eaten a mouse. Coming to no firm conclusion, we immediately decided the wisest course of action was to abandon the bedroom and move all operations downstairs until the mystery was solved.

Our six-year old grandson listened to the story and said that it must be a skunk. At that point I began systematically investigating every inch of the bedroom, all the while room dreading what I might eventually find. I moved and looked under a large bookcase, a massive chest of drawers, the mattress, and the box springs. After all this I still couldn’t even isolate the source of the odor.
And every time I thought the odor might be dissipating, the smell would come waffling back, with a vengeance. I began to wonder if some animal might have been trapped inside the wall, had come to an untimely end, and was now stinking up the joint, as a kind of ghostly revenge.

Just when I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, one of the electrical wall plugs in the bedroom suddenly stopped working. At the time I didn’t believe the two incidents were connected, although I did imagined that a mouse might have chomped down on an electrical wire and had been electrocuted. What I couldn’t figure out was how his decomposing carcass could have created a stench, days before his unfortunate demise?

In my childhood I worked as a helper for my father, who was an electrician. My usual assigned tasks were to install wall plugs and to cut possibly electrified wires in insect ridden crawlspaces and hot itchy attics. Child labor laws were a bit lax back then.

Drawing on this experience, I set about replacing the wall plugs in our smelly bedroom. The first plug actually had a large crack in it, but replacing it did nothing to help. When I got to the third plug on the circuit, however, I hit pay dirt. This plug, although still working had melted inside and the smell of the scorched plastic turned out to be the unidentified odor that had been violating our bedroom. I now believe that when that plug heated up, the smell would become airborne, like a perverse version of those plug-in room deodorizers.

Diane had come into the bedroom, while I was working on this plug and I asked her to hold a flashlight for me. I realized what must have happened, as soon as I saw the melted plug. Unthinkingly I thrust the plug into her face saying excitedly, “Hey smell this!” It’s remarkable how much a melted electrical plug can look like a dead mouse in a poorly lit room. Thus the mystery of the fowl odor and the nonfunctional electrical plug were solved in one fell swoop and perhaps in a month or two Diane will start speaking to me again.

The Curious Case of the Concealed Cat

The second mystery more directly involved our chronically wayward cat, Klaus. First of all, Klaus is a very spoiled cat. A few years ago, while we were out of town, he managed to convince the cat-sitter into giving him wet cat food every night. He also persuaded the sitter to urge us to continue the practice when we returned. At the time, I told my Diane that there was no way that I was going to buy expensive wet cat food, just so Klaus could stuff his face every night. I said that it was totally unnecessary, since he got plenty of nourishment from his dry food and that he was fat enough as it was.

So yesterday, as I was opening a can of wet cat food, I mentioned to Diane that we needed to get more grilled salmon, since Klaus was getting tired of the flaked whitefish. Normally we keep Klaus in the house at night and make him go out in the mornings. I realize that this just the opposite of what most people do (like the Flintstones) , but we’re afraid that the coyotes, raccoons, and tougher cats in the neighborhood will beat Klaus up at night. Diane says that this is because we live in such a wild area, but I believe that it’s probably Klaus’ disagreeable personality that’s to blame.

Sometimes when it’s raining, Klaus resists going out in the morning, and we let him stay inside. Recently, however, he’s decided that he wants to stay inside every morning. He’s become like an unruly adolescent who wants to sleep late every day, go in and out of the house whenever he feels like it, and then stay out late every night carousing. He fully expects us to be on constant call to serve as his doorman and to make sure he never sees the bottom of his food bowl.

In order to stay inside in the mornings, Klaus has found a hiding spot that has left us completely baffled. We’ve search the entire house multiple times without success. I have to admire Klaus’ will power, as he has managed to resist coming out when I tempted him with the cat teaser (a fishing pole connected to a toy mouse), and when I rattled his wet cat food dish. He even stayed hidden when I shook his bag of cat treats, which almost always works. He usually come running, sort of like I do when someone shakes a bag of bacon jerky. I’m getting a little paranoid. The other morning I imagined that he must had snuck by me when I was half asleep and was now outside watching me through the window and mocking me, as I searched for him.

Klaus is so diabolical that I can find the family couch empty one minute and the next, like a ninja, he suddenly appears out of thin air. I told Diane that I fully expect to see him clinging to the ceiling or perhaps suspended under a chair. One of his chief strategies seems to be to circle back into the rooms we have already checked. I told Diane that I fully expect to see him clinging to the ceiling or perhaps suspended under some chair. One of his chief strategies seems to circled back into rooms that we have already checked. Our middle son, who is Klaus’ putative owner, and who had dumped him on us when he moved out , believes that Klaus is just using his magical cat powers.

Last week when we couldn’t find him, we tried making him over confident by talking loudly about much smarter he is than us. We hoped he would overhear us and get cocky and slip-up. He didn’t bite.
Never-the-less, Diane has theory as to his favorite hiding place and has neutralized his doubling back tactic. Tonight, however, just as we are preparing to leave town for a few days, another mystery suddenly cropped up. While watering plants, Diane spotted a mysterious wet spot bubbling up on our otherwise dry front lawn. I not sure what it is, but I’ll bet Klaus has something to do with it. I thought I saw him playing with, what suspiciously looked like a pipe wrench the other day.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune.

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