Tag Archives: Humor

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

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

The Sherlock of Homes

6 Sep

ShelockHomes-Logo
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.

Sherlock Homes

Birthday Blathings

26 Jul

homerLast week, we kicked off the summer birthday season with a trip to an indoor water park in Cincinnati to celebrate our middle granddaughter’s 10th birthday.

Birthdays are taken pretty seriously in our family and the summer is cram-packed with them.

When our daughter was in kindergarten, she came home from school on her birthday still wearing her party hat. She insisted on keeping it on and wouldn’t take it off for the rest of the day. She sought the full measure from her birthday and wanted everyone else to know, without question, that she was “the birthday girl.”

My wife Diane has always thought that your birthday privileges should extend beyond your actual birthday, at least until the next family member’s special day. She also introduced the idea of a “fun day” in our family, in lieu of a formal birthday party, in which the birthday child gets to pick whatever they want to do that day.

I always assumed that most birthdays take place during the summer. Some demographers believe that women, especially teachers, may plan this in order to coincide with summer vacations. From an evolutionary perspective, it also makes sense to give birth when weather conditions are milder.

Turns out that I’m slightly off, and most birthdays in America fall between July and early October. Depending on the data used, the months of August and September usually come out on top.

One study by Harvard economist Amitabh Chandra, identifies Sept. 16 as the most common birthday in America. ABC news and several other sources, however, cite AnyBirthday.com’s survey, which designates Oct. 5 as America’s most popular birthday. The website says that more than 960,000 people have this birthday, compared to the 750,000 on an average day. October 5 also has the distinction of falling precisely nine months (274 days) from New Year’s Eve.

Julie Andrews, Kate Winslet, the late Bernie Mac and Nicky Hilton all share Oct. 5 birthdays.

The least common American birthday falls on Leap Day, Feb. 29. When the number of Leap Day birthdays is multiplied by four, however, the result falls within the average range.

Christmas Day is the next least frequent birthday. While you often hear complaints by people maintaining that their birthdays were spoiled by being too close to Christmas, very few people are actually born on Christmas Day. Admittedly, getting birthday presents wrapped in holiday paper, “Merry Birthday” cards and the notorious “twofer” — one gift for both occasions, sounds like a raw deal.

While some women, consciously or unconsciously, may be able to delay the onset of labor, the low numbers of births on holidays may also be due to how hospitals and doctors arrange their schedules.

According to a study by the Yale School of Public Health, positive and negative associations with specific holidays may also influence birthrates. This study shows a significant decrease in regular and cesarean births on Halloween, compared to the number of births one week before and one week after the holiday. On Valentine’s Day, however, there is a small but noticeable increase in regular births and an even larger increase in cesareans.

The typical American birthday follows a fairly rigidly defined social script. Among the standard elements are: The birthday party or family celebration with ice cream and cake; singing the Happy Birthday song; blowing out the candles on the cake; making a birthday wish (but keeping it secret); getting a birthday spanking (one for each year, one to grow on, and a pinch to grow an inch); and receiving gifts and birthday cards. “Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized song in the English language. It comes from a children’s song written and composed by Louisville sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893.

In my childhood, birthday parties were homemade events and usually involve ice cream cups with wooden spoons and games like musical chairs and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. When our children were growing up, Showtime Pizza and Chucky E. Cheese were the popular places to celebrate birthdays. Chuck E. Cheese is an anthropomorphic rat, although in his latest incarnation he looks less ratty and more resembles a cartoon mouse.

Our middle son was terrified by the keyboard-playing gorilla featured at Showtime Pizza. We convinced him that that the gorilla was just a Muppet (or Mup, as he called them). As for me, I always thought that gorilla was way too realistic for comfort and I had made a mental note that if it ever stood up, I was out of there.

Birthdays also figure in the Judeo-Christian tradition. While Jesus’ nativity was marked by gifts from the Wise Men, it is unclear whether this was a belated birthday celebration or the presentation of tributes. Two birthday parties mentioned in the Bible start out celebratory, but end up rather grisly. In the Old Testament, the Pharaoh, in the time of Joseph, ordered a feast on his birthday, inviting his servants. This all sounds rather pleasant, but the climax of the celebration was the execution of the Pharaoh’s chief baker.

Birthday parties fared little better in the New Testament. King Herod invited all the Galilean upper crust to his birthday party which featured dancing girls. Tragically, it ended up with John the Baptist’s beheading. You can understand why some folks are still wary of birthdays.

Certain birthdays are also incorporated into legal and religious systems to mark an individual’s “coming of age.” Depending on the cultural, legal or religious practices involved, people often assumed particular rights and responsibilities on specified birthdays.

This includes such things as being able to be conscripted or to enlist in the military, to marry without parental consent, to vote, to assume certain elected or appointed offices, to legally consume alcohol and tobacco products, to gamble, to obtain a driver’s license, to become an official member of a congregation or to be tried as an adult.

As people get older, birthdays are not all ice cream and cake. According to one Swiss study, people are more likely to die on their birthdays than any other day of the year. Epidemiologist Vladeta Ajdacic-Gross from the University of Zurich found that men and women are 14 percent more likely to die on their birthday. This rises to 18 percent for people over 60. Besides deaths from natural causes, suicides are 35 percent higher on birthdays and fatal accidents rose by almost 29 percent.

Birthdays may add more stress and alcohol use and the “birthday blues” may be contributing factors. Some scientists believe there is a “death postponement” phenomena, in which people with failing health, hang on long enough to reach some milestone like a certain holiday or special occasion.

University of Texas psychologist Jacqueline Woolley and her colleagues reported on how young children perceive birthdays. They told a sample of youngsters about three 2-year olds who were about to celebrate their birthdays. The first child had a party on his birthday. The next child was prevented from having a party. The third child had two parties.

The youngsters were then asked how old each child would be. Woolley says, “a significant number of children between the ages of 3 and 5 believed that the birthday party itself actually causes aging.” This charming belief — that confuses correlation with causality — is typical of what psychologists called “preoperational thinking.”

Around the age of 7, most children move from preoperational thought to “concrete operations.” At that point, thinking becomes less magical and they understand that it’s not the party that causes aging.

The next family birthday happens to be mine — June 20. I just hope I don’t get a “three-fer” — that’s a single present that counts for my birthday, Father’s Day as well as the midsummer Solstice.

From a column originally appearing in the Southern Indiana News Tribune.

Hit the Road Shaun!

31 Jan

Shaun

Halloween is a distant memory and the scary costumes are long gone , but most childhood fears are not so easily left behind. Our five-year-old grandson and his little sister spent the night with us last Saturday. That meant that we had to exile“Shaun the Sheep” to the trunk of our car. Shaun is a character from a stop-action BBC children’s series. The show was a spinoff from the popular Wallace and Gromit films. My wife Diane bought a “Shaun the Sheep” hot water bottle cover, while on a trip to England. To most people, Shaun is an adorable little stuffed lamb with big eyes. But that’s the problem. Shawn’s plastic eyes are rather large and protruding. For some reason, these “google eyes” really scare our grandson.

We promised to take Shaun out of the house before he came to stay. I suggested that we could put Shaun in a box and then put the box on a back shelf in the closet, but he said he was still afraid that Shaun would “pop out” of the box, so we put Shaun in the car trunk instead. At first I thought this innocent expression of childhood fear was rather endearing, but the more I thought about Shaun’s cold dead eyes, the more they bothered me. I started fantasizing about it and imagined that maybe late Saturday night I would heard a loud knocking sound. I’d look out the window and see that the car trunk was open and when I reached the door, all I would see was those big “google eyes” staring back at me through the window.

None of us ever fully recover from our childhoods. Our deepest pleasures and fears reside there. Film director Steven Spielberg managed to successfully tap into his childhood fears creating scenes like the threatening trees and the terrifying clown under the bed in the movie, Poltergeist. I also remember a childhood nightmare about being chased by a Tyrannosaurus, that could have been a scene right out of Jurassic Park. Especially in his book, “It”, Stephen King exploited many of our earliest fears with another horrifying clown and a monstrous spider-like creature.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England were seeking data in order to update the decor of a children’s hospital. They surveyed 250 young hospital patients and found that all the children even the older ones disliked clowns. The technical term for fear of clowns and mimes is “coulrophobia” and psychologists believe that the exaggerated expression seen in traditional clown make-up is the main reason that children fear them. Being able to recognize familiar faces and interpret emotional expressions is an important developmental task for children. The grimacing clown face presents an unexpected and unwelcome enigma for kids.

When they were little, our two youngest sons were given a pair of handcrafted large and small Raggedy Andy dolls for Christmas. Our youngest son never like them and over time he started to be afraid of them. He may be our most creative child and he developed an interesting coping mechanism. Every night before he would go to bed, he would thoroughly beat up each of the dolls and then he would make them face the wall, so they couldn’t stare at him while he was sleeping.

As for our granddaughters, they seem especially frighten of spiders and bugs and they have a thing about “beetles”. They are even afraid of killing them, because they might be “stinkbugs” and smell up the place. Even our three-year-old granddaughter picked up on her sisters’ hysteria and screamed when she saw a “spider” on the floor near her toys. I was impressed by her eyesight since this “spider” was the tiniest of specks and was barely visible. I squashed it for her and she seemed satisfied and momentarily grateful.

As a child our middle son, Andy also had a fear of insect. We lived in Florida, which is well known for its palmetto bugs. Dave Barry once said, “We call them palmetto bugs because if we called them ‘six-inch-long flying cockroaches’, we’d all have to move out of the state.” In elementary school Andy had a terrible conflict. He wanted to ride his bicycle to school more than anything, but it was outside in a shed, teeming with palmetto bugs. From inside the house we could hear him scream every time he saw a bug (about every 2 seconds). Despite all the screaming, he still managed to get out his bike and ride to school.

According to psychologist Jodi Mindell from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, childhood fears stem from two major sources: real life experiences and internal feelings. She believes that the childhood fear of monsters, for example, comes from personal experiences that show children that people behave destructively towards others. These experiences might include being actually injured, observing others being hurt, or being shown or told of scary possibilities.

Stories and movies are common sources of childhood fears since they often employee archetypical images and characters that have historically engendered feelings of terror. For example, as a child Diane was afraid of the witch and the flying monkeys in the classic movie, “ The Wizard of Oz”. Like many children, our oldest son was afraid of witches when he was little. Witches are archetypal and symbolize ambivalence towards the mothering figure, as well as, the fear of the dreaded “Bad Mother”. As for me I was thoroughly terrified by the old Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and Wolfman movies that my older brother insisted on watching every Friday night when my parents went out.

The second source of childhood fears is the child’s own unacceptable internal feelings. Such feelings, such as intense anger, can be extremely frightening and children often employ the defense mechanism of externalizing to help control them. Mindell says, ” Externalization refers the remarkable and normal capacity of children to create the illusion that their own unwanted feelings belong to something else rather than themselves.

Even schools can serve as an unintentional source of childhood fears. Once our middle son was frightened at school because they talked about devastating mudslides taking place “far away”. All he knew was that his grandma lived “far way” and therefore conceivably might be harmed.

When I was in elementary school our teacher taught a social studies lesson that told us the alarming story of Pedro. Pedro lived in some Central American country. One day he was out in a beanfield with his father, when all of a sudden, rocks started spontaneously floating in the field. Pedro had left his sombrero on the ground and one of the rocks even made it fly around scaring everyone. The villagers thought that the field must be haunted. It turns out that Pedro and his family didn’t realized that a full-fledged volcano was forming in the beanfield. Within a couple of weeks, a massive lava-spewing, smoke-belching volcano completely covered Pedro’s home and we never heard from poor Pedro again. Where was FEMA when you needed them?

I personally found this tale terrifying. I even had nightmares about volcanos starting up in my own backyard. The story strikes at the core of my greatest fear, namely how life is so unpredictable. A spontaneous disaster can strike at any moment. Just when you think that things are going fine, a Frankenstorm or Shaun the Sheep can pop up out of nowhere.

Origionally Published in the Souther Indiana News Journal

Toyland Tribulations

31 Oct

 

 

 

 

 

Like high fashion, the American toy industry is dominated by trends and exclusivity. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting your kid the hot new toy that your neighbor can’t seem to find.

In fact, there was even a rather mediocre Christmas movie — 1996’s “Jingle All the Way,” which implausibly pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against Sinbad in a rather violent pursuit for the year’s most popular action figure.

Over the past 30 years, I personally have traveled far and wide in hot pursuit of Strawberry Shortcake dolls, Gameboys, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Millennium Falcons and Zhu Zhu Hamsters.

Years ago, I remember submitting an application to Toys R’ Us for the privilege of buying a Cabbage Patch Doll. Like kidnappers, they called me a couple of days later and told me to be at the store at 10 a.m. sharp if I wanted to buy the doll. When I got there, they took a small group of us chosen ones to a darkened back room, where they had a pallet full of new Cabbage Patch dolls completely covered by a black sheet of canvas. When it was my turn, I grabbed a doll and was escorted to a cashier. I didn’t even know how much it was going to cost, but things had progressed way too far to ask questions. I felt like I was buying a couple kilos of heroin.

Trends in toys constantly repeat themselves. With our three boys and now a grandson, it seems like we have gone through at least three generations of Star Wars, as well as several of Transformers, and now Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtle toys. And just when it seems like it’s over, the Lego version appears and it starts all over again.

We made the mistake of giving away our daughter’s extensive collection of Strawberry Shortcake dolls and paraphernalia to a family that had three girls. How did we know our daughter would end up having three girls of her own and never forgive us? We still have a couple generations of Star War toys stashed in plastic bins in our basement. I’m too lazy to dig through them for the grandkids. Besides, they belong to our sons and are my backup plan in case the government ever privatizes Social Security.

The United States Toy Industry Association reports that Americans purchase more than 3 billion toys annually. With the average cost of about $7 per toy, that quickly adds up to more than $21.2 billion in direct toy sales.

According to CNBC’s Christina Berk, however, there is trouble brewing in Toyland this holiday season. Toy sales have been declining over the past decade and the trend is accelerating, according to a Goldman Sachs report Monday. As a result, Goldman downgraded the toy industry’s rating from “neutral” to “cautious.”

According to financial analyst Michael Kelter, the “amount spent on traditional toys in the U.S. per capita is down 30 percent from $85 per person to $60 per person since 1998.”

Part of the reason may be the tremendous growth in digital games played on tablets and smartphones, which are edging out traditional board games and puzzles. When videogame consoles are included, the market share of digital games has increased from 1 percent to 20 percent in the past decade.

Declines are also expected this year in the sales of Hasbro’s flagship boy toys — Transformers and Nerf weapons. Mattel, which relies heavily on perennial girls’ favorites, such as Barbie, also has been hurt by flat sales in recent years, as well as a huge decline in the preschool toy market.

Perhaps it’s the overall economy that’s to blame, or maybe it is kid’s attraction to online games and activities. Advances in electronics have certainly made toys awfully flashy and sophisticated. Some people may think that modern toys have become too complicated and explicit to encourage creative play and they lean toward classic toys that require more imagination.

As a child, I owned a red plastic console that was advertised to track missiles and satellites in space. It had a tiny opaque screen that only showed vague shadows of small plastic cutouts of spacecraft as you turned a crank. I must have spent hours staring at that opaque screen in anticipation of my current job, at which I still spend hours staring at a screen. I would have given anything if that screen would have shown a little detail, color or miracles of miracles, actually said something.

Perhaps modern toys are not imaginative enough to stimulate much creative play. In this regard, I always think of Patricia Lee Gauch’s classic children’s book, “Christina Katerina and the Box,” in which, to her mother’s horror, a young girl comes up with a number of imaginative uses for a large appliance box on their front lawn. I was thinking about this recently as I watched our grandchildren play with sticks in our backyard, which consists primarily of sticks and tics.

Watching them jogged my memory and I remembered one of my early favorite toys — the stake. Although I had a homemade swingset that my father had constructed from pipes, my favorite outdoor toy was a three-foot long, sharpened, solid-steel stake. I think it may have once been part of a of horseshoe game or perhaps belonged to a surveyor.

While a metal stake may seem like a dangerous and inappropriate plaything, the story gets worse. I remember two games we made up using the stake. The first was “Oilwell.” My friends and I hammered the stake into the ground and then attached a rope to it. We threw the rope over a tree branch and then pulled the stake out of the ground. Then we poured water into the hole left by the stake and lowered the stake again back into the hole drilling for oil until the oil (mud) finally came gushing out of the well. We added a bunch of toy trucks, cars and plastic soldiers to the scene to complete the tableau. So basically we played for hours in a large mud hole with a large sharp metal stake suspended over our heads.
Our second game wasn’t much better. Our house had once been a boarding house, so it was configured rather oddly. For example, we had two front doors. My bedroom had its own door to the outside and it lead to a porch with a railing. The steps had been removed so it was sort of like a little balcony.

I always imagined it was the deck of a ship and our backyard was the ocean. We used the porch as our pirate ship until one day Bobby suggested that we turn it into a whaler. Of course, to do this we needed a serviceable harpoon. We took the metal stake with a rope tied to it and fastened the other end of the rope to a column supporting the porch’s roof. We then took turns hurling the stake into the yard at old basketballs and pieces of newspaper (whales).

How we managed to avoid impaling some small child or skewering one of the neighborhood dogs or cats is still a mystery to me. We did managed to loosen the column supporting the porch roof and a few years later when it finally collapsed, my father removed the porch, filled in my door, and put in a window instead.

I will leave the precise interpretation of our “games” to the Freudians out there, but in retrospect perhaps children are better off with less “creative” toys after all. When I was 11, I misplaced the steel stake and started my career making toy soldiers out of molten lead, but that’s another story. And don’t get me started on my chemistry set, its alcohol lamp  and “The Great Bedroom Fire of 1961.”
Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune

 

    

I’m not Exaggerating, I’m Aspiring

11 Oct

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“134% of All People Exaggerate.”

                                          Unknown Author

Exaggeration is a common place phenomenon.  For one thing, it lies at  the heart of the advertising industry.  During last week’s Superbowl,  Chevrolet ran a commercial showing a driver of a Chevy Silverado talking to other pickup truck drivers in a post-apocalyptic world. The driver is told that one of their buddies unfortunately didn’t make it —  a misguided soul who drove a Ford.   And of course, locally  there was the  controversy over Papa John’s famous  slogan,  “Better ingredients, Better Pizza”,  to which Pizza Hut took such great offense.

For me the month of February brings up two other activities also prone to exaggeration–   filing income taxes and getting a dental checkup. The U.S. Internal Revenues Service estimates that about 40% of taxpayers exaggerate their deductions or business losses. According to a  Phillips Sonicare survey this is just about the same percentage of people who say they exaggerate how often they brush  or floss  their teeth  when they visit the dentist.

            The motive for exaggeration on a tax return is relatively straightforward— monetary gain. Lying to your dentist by exaggerating your commitment to oral hygiene, however, is more complicated. In this case people are looking for ways to avoid embarrassment or disapproval, or to look good and be more socially desirable.

            Exaggeration is among the most common forms of deceit in which people engage. It fits into the class of  psychological phenomena that social scientists call “self-enhancement”. “Self-enhancement” involves consistently taking a more positive view of  yourself, than is true, in order to convince others of your worth or acceptability.      

That 40% figure holds up  pretty well across various situations. Michael Kinsman, from Copley News Service,  reports that between  30 and 50% of American workers lie on their resumes, mostly exaggerating  their references, qualifications, or accomplishments. Peter  Voght a senior writer at Monster.com  advises job seekers to learn how to “package”  their résumés “smartly”, so that they can reach that  “happy medium between unintentional modesty and over-the-top exaggeration.”

               Other studies suggest that there is about a  10 to 18% gap  between what people say they do on surveys and what  close self-monitoring  reveals that they actually do.  These sort of exaggerations include things like church attendance,  watching popular television, how much they earn, compliance with physician’s orders,  prejudice,   charity, and  antisocial or illegal acts. People  even routinely  exaggerate how tall they are and regularly underestimate their weight.  All of these are part of our desire to be seen as socially desirable.

Psychological tests often try to weed out  this social desirability  factor in order to  make self-reported information  more accurate. Probably the most famous of all objective psychological tests , the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI),   takes   exaggeration very seriously and has a variety of internal scales   designed  to  measure things such as  lying, faking,   and the tendency to systematically answer true, false, or randomly. Paper and pencil tests are no substitute  for a lie detector and cannot tell you  specifically  when a person is exaggerating, but they can tell you if the person has a general tendency to do so.

Back in high school I had a friend who would always exaggerate how well he did on algebra tests. Even  if he failed completely  and  got a score  of  55  out of 100, he would say he got a 59 instead. I never  quite  understood  this seemingly  meaningless exaggeration,  but modern research may have an answer.   A recent series of   studies,  suggests   exaggerating about grades may differ psychologically from other forms of  deception. Exaggerating  past academic performance evidently does not  create the same level of  anxiety in people that lying  typically does.  In fact research reveals that exaggerators  often work hard to try to live up to the false image they project. One of the foremost researchers in this area, psychologist Richard H. Gramzow, now at Syracuse University,  suggests that these sort of exaggerations are best classified as aspirational,  rather than deceptive.  They are aimed more at the exaggerators themselves,   than at the audience. Gramzow  says. “Basically, exaggeration here reflects positive goals for the future, and we have found that those goals tend to be realized.”  Although I wouldn’t advise  using this as a defense in an IRS audit, these researchers also suggest that  the exaggeration  of  things like   charitable contribution are, not only self-enhancements,  but also the positive expression  of  future  goals.

  Aspirational exaggeration may explain things like Connecticut Representative  Richard Blumenthal’s misleading remarks  about his  military combat record,  or Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton’s story of being under sniper fire in Bosnia.

It has been suggested that self-monitoring  is generally more  accurate than the information   people  give on surveys. While this may be true,  that doesn’t mean that self-monitoring is free from misrepresentation and  exaggeration. In some jobs I’ve held , I‘ve had to complete  time sheets  which are  a  kind of self-monitoring.  If most people  accurately recorded everything they actually  did at work they  would be, at the very least, embarrassed,  if not in jeopardy of losing their jobs.  Most companies employ a coding system  that is woefully inadequate to cover all the possibilities that work presents. The lack of sufficient  descriptive codes only encourages misrepresentations and exaggeration. Freeman  Institute  has come to the rescue and published a tongue-in cheek  “Extended Job-Code List”. Among these  work  activity codes listed are:  5316 – Useless Meeting, 5318 – Trying to Sound Knowledgeable While in Meeting, 5402 – Trying to Explain Concept to Coworker Who Hates You, 5503 – Scratching Yourself, 6200 – Using Company Resources for Personal Profit, and 6221 – Pretending to Work While Boss Is Watching.
            A final form of self-monitoring  is the  health related diary or log. I’m still monitoring my blood sugar and  I’ve also kept a  food diary,  which at times has resembled an exercise in creative writing. You just have to know how to properly decode it. For example a “sliver of apple pie”,  actually means “ one big  honking piece of apple pie”.

    Recently Diane was keeping a health-related diary in which she had to list her activities ever hour. She wrote down she was putting away boxes, but didn’t specify that it was Christmas boxes she was putting away in late January. To not appear like she was an inactive person, who spent the whole day reading, the log forced her to vary her activities to include washing the kitchen floor, washing lots of clothes, and undertaking various cooking projects. I think her most creative entry, however, was listing vacuuming as an activity, when she was actually watching me vacuum (she wants you to know that she did dust).

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