Archive | July, 2013

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.

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Schindler’s Lift

11 Jul

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About three months ago, my wife Diane and I noticed that the Indianapolis hotel where we were staying had an elevator that required the use of a key card to access the floors with guest rooms.

Of course, a burglar could simply follow someone onto the elevator and get off on the same floor. Nevertheless, the key card gave a comforting sense of false security.

Then just a few weeks ago, we were at the downtown Marriott in New Orleans. They had recently changed their elevator system. Instead of the usual up and down buttons, there was a keypad, on which you entered your floor number. The keypad then indicated which of the seven elevator cars would take you to your floor.

Disconcertingly, there were no buttons to push inside the car, since it already knew where you were going. The system worked fine, was fairly fast and seemed to be an improvement over the usual elevator car roulette. Almost everyone commented about it.

It wasn’t all that great, however, for distractible people like me who punch in their number and then look away to check their e-mail and fail to notice what car they have been assigned. Our grandchildren wouldn’t like it either, because it cuts down on the number of buttons you get to push (or argue over pushing).

This system is called “The Schindler ID Traction Elevator” and they claim it can reduce average traveling time by up to 30 percent. There is even a You Tube video of the Marriott elevator. The Marriott video only has 77 views, compared to thousands of views of the video of the Schindler over at the New Orleans Sheraton. The Sheraton’s elevator computer must also serve hot hors d’œuvres and cocktails.

Vertical-movement devices have been around for a long time. They were mentioned in the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius, who says that Archimedes built his first elevator in 236 B.C. Personally, I have always been attracted to elevators and escalators. As a child, I considered them sort of thrill rides. According to the National Elevator Industry Inc., there are about 700,000 elevators and 35,000 escalators in the United States, with more than 325 million daily riders.

People have always been suspicious of elevators. In New Albany, the Hedden House was one of the first private residences to have its own elevator. In Jeffersonville, the Howard family, of steamboat fame, had planned to add an elevator to their beautiful new mansion in the late 1800s. They changed their mind when a Howard relative was injured in an elevator accident in which someone was killed. In 1852, Elisha Otis patented the first safety elevator, which helps prevent the fall of the cab if the cable is accidentally severed.

Today, elevators are required to have a variety of redundancies and safety devices, including a heavy-duty shock absorber system at the bottom of the shaft if all else fails. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 27 elevator-related fatalities each year. The fatality rate for taking an automobile ride is about 4,400 times higher than the rate for an elevator ride.

The escalator is an even safer option. A 2008 study found an injury rate of only 7.8 per 100,000 for elders and most of these were falls. There were no reported deaths. A 2006 study of youngsters found an even smaller injury rate (2.6). Regardless, many people are still afraid to ride in elevators and escalators. Children often worry that the escalator might devour them, while adults may feel trapped or claustrophobic.

Last year, Kyrie O’Connor writing in the Houston Chronicle differentiated between people who are escalator “standers” and “walkers”. She believes that Houston is dominated by standers. She says these folks (like me) stand around “as if they were on a conveyor belt or carnival ride.”

This is opposed to people hailing from the northeast, who tend to be walkers. O’Connor observed that most walkers were men and dress in business attire, rather than casual clothing.

Blogger H. Sandman speculates that “standers” are unexcited, lazy or maybe out of shape. He also describes them as possibly aimless, resigned and lacking anywhere important to go. Walkers are characterized as being impatient, driven and restless. As a confirmed stander, I can’t understand why those walkers just don’t take the stairs if they are in such an all-fired hurry.

Vertical movement also has other psychological features. Larry Sanna at the University of North Carolina found that the direction people travel when moving vertically can actually influence their behavior. He noted that upwards movement is often used as a metaphor for virtue, such as in the phrases “moral high ground” and “uplifting.” Downward movement, on the other hand, has negative connotations, such as “decline” and “the lowest of the low.”

Elevator behavior also has certain norms. According to New Yorker magazine staff writer Nick Paumgarten, when strangers ride elevators they regulate their position within the enclosed space to maintain a maximum distance from each other. For example, if there are two people, they will stand in opposite corners. If there are three, they form a triangle. Four people stand in a square configuration and so on.

Lee Gray from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte says that elevators “are socially very interesting, but often very awkward places.” He says people’s elevator movements are as predetermined as a square dance.

All this relates to the notion of personal space. Harvard anthropologist Edward T. Hall argued that personal space is the equivalent of an animal’s territory and that when it is violated, people feel particularly uneasy. In studies of primates and other animals forced to be in proximity, at first they try to minimize contact, act unobtrusive, and display discomfort, but the tight quarters often lead to aggressive outbursts.

Besides safety concerns, lack of control is one of the main causes of elevator phobia or “lift anxiety.” Paumgarten says that the “door close” button does not actually work (as I always suspected) on most older elevators. He claims that the buttons were installed to serve as a placebo to give riders an illusion of control.

Rebekah Rousi from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, studied elevators use in Australia and found that riders tended to talk mostly about the mechanical aspects of elevators and safety issues when interviewed. She says it was clear that users felt most safe when they perceive their own level of control as greatest.

Speaking of safety, Diane and I once visited the old building where I now work before it was renovated. It was on the weekend and we foolishly rode on a tiny ancient elevator, which must have been one of the first elevators installed in Jeffersonville. I don’t know what we were thinking, but we easily could have been trapped there for days.

The Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation provides the following safety tips for elevator riders: 1. Use the door-open button to hold the doors open for slower riders, rather than trying to push them open (even if most of the buttons are mainly decorative); 2. Keep items and clothing clear of the doors; 3. Remain in the elevator car in case of emergency. (Do not crawl on top of the elevator car.); 4. Take the stairs if a fire may be present; and we would add 5. Think twice about riding an elevator in an abandoned building that is literally older than the invention of the airplane.

 

From a column first published in the Southern Indiana News and Tribune

 

 

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Spelling 2013: From A to Zed

10 Jul

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Many students have sought fame and glory  in the world of competitive spelling.  I, however,  hold the distinction of misspelling the word “curriculum”  six times in my application for a doctoral program in Curriculum and Instruction.  Kindly  Dr. Clark  said with a remarkably straight face  told me that it would probably be a good idea if I learned how to spell the word, if I intended to get a doctoral degree in it. Thus was the world before spell checkers.

Thanks to comic books I was a pretty good reader, but I seemed to have a touch of dysgraphia,  as my handwriting and my spelling always left much to be desired. Oh,  I could learned to spell hard words in areas that interested me,   like “Mr. Mxyzptlk”  (Superman’s impish adversary from the 5th dimension),  but I’ve always had a devil of time remembering  even common words that have complex vowel combinations or doubled constants.

Spelling always made me  kind of anxious, so I was surprised  when my wife Diane and I found ourselves attending the 20th Annual Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee. It was held last Saturday morning at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The contest, which is sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, took place in the swanky PNC Club, a luxury stadium suite with a glassed-in view of the playing field.

We were there because our oldest granddaughter Tori was one of the sixty-five contestants participating this year. This was Tori’s second appearance at the event. She represented Kenton County and had won the county championship by beating out a number of other school champions, including her younger sister.  The Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is sometimes referred to as the Kentucky State Spelling Championship, but it includes students from Indiana as well. In fact, the second place finisher this year was a girl from Lawrence County, Indiana.

The rote learning of spelling is an old tradition in American elementary schools and the spelling bee competition  has evolved into a popular  nation  institution.  Nonstandard spelling is routinely taken as indicating a lack of intelligence, illiteracy,  or lower socioeconomic status.  Hoosier U.S. Vice-president Dan Quayle’s misspelling of potato at a 1992 spelling bee  in Trenton, New Jersey, was widely taken as a  strong verification of  his  alleged  lack of intellectual chops.

Of course, many folks (mostly poor spellers)  take an opposite view,  such as President Andrew Jackson,  who once said,  “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.”

Back in 1978 spelling reform advocate Abraham Citron,  from  Wayne State University,   vehemently  attacked  our   system of spelling,   as well as tradition educational methods  saying    “At the portals of education we have laid, not a highway, but a labyrinth.” He described spelling as “difficult, irrational, deceptive, inconsistent, clumsy, frustrating and wasteful”.  He called it   “one of the basic sources of academic discouragement and failure”.

Godfrey Dewey, a Chairman of the national Phonemic Spelling Council, found that Americans use 561 different spellings for  the 41 separate  sounds that make up our spoken language.   The 26 letters of our alphabet are pronounced in 92 different  ways. English spelling rules are so irregular,  rote memory is the educational strategy of choice.  If mathematics was organized in  the same  haphazard manner,  our society would have  screeched to a halt long ago.

Citron who  founded  Better Education thru Simplified Spelling  argued for   creating a more rational  spelling . While major spelling reforms did not ocuurr,  many school systems banished spelling textbooks  and deemphasized the spelling curriculum for many years.  Last year, however,  Boston Globe writer Linda Matchan  reported that spelling is  making a dramatic comeback nationally,  with an  increased interest in  spelling clubs, as well as the reissue  of spelling books and the reestablishment of weekly spelling tests in many  schools.    Matchan  also notes the  growing popularity of  spelling bees with fabulous prizes,  like the legendary  Scripps National Spelling Bee,  which  is now broadcasted  live  on ESPN.

When it comes to prizes,  the Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is no   piker, with a first prize  that includes a $10,000  savings bond The top five places not only receive cash,  but a number of other awards  as well. Emily Keaton  an  8th grader from Pikesville Kentucky, who has won  this year’s Kentucky Derby Bee, making it four years in a row, walked away with a total of over $43,000.

Spelling bees  have  been featured in popular  movies such as “Akeelah and the Bee” and  “Spellbound”  as well as  the 2006 Broadway musical,  “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”.  As spelling has become especially  “hot”,  Florida reading and spelling consultant  Richard Gentry  says,  “Researchers want to understand how we learn it, teachers want to know how best to teach it, and kids want to know how to   win competitions.” Spelling success also meets a need for an indicator of intellectual rigor that many parents find appealing. Spelling, along with activities such as academic teams and chess clubs,   increasingly offer an alternative for  children who aren’t  athletically  inclined  but still want to compete.

Educational psychologists have found that “deliberate practice”, which consists of  memorizing words while alone,  which is the  most difficult   and least enjoyable type of spelling preparation,  seems to lead to the  most success in competition.  Also related  to winning  is a little known (non-cognitive) personality factor that psychologists call “grit” . It mostly consists of passion and commitment to the task at hand. 

Brian Palmer, a writer for the online magazine Slate, investigated what happened to  National Spelling bee winners later in life. He found that many of them entered careers related to understanding the human mind.  Many became   psychiatrists, psychologists,  and neurosurgeons.  Others went on to work with words as writers and journalists.  One was even a Pulitzer  Prize winner. A few continued to participate  in competitions in other areas,  such  as television games shows like Jeopardy or  the international poker circuit.

Our granddaughter Tori, survived the brutal second round and finished  up in 7th place with another year to compete.  Emily Keaton is on to future successes and all eyes are now on her younger brother, to see if he has his sister’s spelling magic.

There are also spelling bees for people over the age of 50.  One of these is the AARP National Spelling Bee that  was established  in 1996 by   AARP members in Cheyenne, WY.  Their goal was  to create   a fun way to compete with each other,  while   keeping their minds sharp. This spelling bee is held annually in Cheyenne and you can find details on how to enter at the AARP.org website. You  can even win $1000 if you take first place, but you will have to beat 67 year-old attorney  Michael Petrina Jr., who has won twice—last time  spelling the word “Rhizoctonia.”  I’d consider  entering myself,   but I’d probably  get the word “curriculum”.

 

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