Archive | January, 2014

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

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

4 Jan

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             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

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“…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

 

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