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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Absentminded Whatever It Is

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At college one day, I went to class after putting a meal in the oven and completely forgetting about it just a few minutes later. Never mind that I was a) making a meal, and never mind that I was b) hungry enough to make the meal, and c) I devoted several brain cells to getting it out of the freezer, taking it out of the packaging (I hope), and then sticking it in the oven. It's the thought that counts, right? If you simply plan for food, your stomach will give you points for good intentions. It didn't even occur to me at any point that I had forgotten about what I put in the oven until I came back to my apartment a couple hours later and my roommates told me they had semi-rescued it, meaning that it didn't set the building on fire.

I'd like to think that it was because I was such a dedicated student that I was excited about going to class and couldn't think of anything else. But alas, sometimes being focused is no more than a cover-up for totally spacing it.

Or I've had times where I've been more dedicated, but it still didn't help. How many of us have put something in the oven, and then realized 45 minutes later that it doesn't cook nearly as well with the oven off?

I know there must be a place in the deep recesses of my mind which will someday bring a sudden realization eight years after the fact that I forgot to do something important. Like maybe a video I rented is 7000 days overdue. Oh yeah, I'm supposed to return Ishtar — that's it. No wonder they garnished my wages back then... Maybe I ought to watch it again before I return it, though.

Whenever I go on a trip, as the time to leave approaches, I know there’s something I’m forgetting. It's not a question of whether I forgot something or not, but just a matter of identifying exactly which things it was that I did in fact forget. In response to that, I've now started overpacking with things I don't think I'll need, so that it will reduce the odds that whatever it was I forgot may accidentally get packed.

Packing to go somewhere is bad enough, but at least they're isolated blips in life's journey. General everyday living, on the other hand, can put you in a nondescript tizzy. I know there's something I'm forgetting, but what is it? Did I forget to pay for the Tic Tac's I bought at the 7-11 in Barstow, California three years ago, and policemen have been on my tail because of it ever since? Or maybe I forgot to fill in the amount on a check I mailed to the Republican party back in 1992, and they've been living off it ever since. That could explain all the random withdrawals from my checking account. No, that doesn't make sense. How would they do that? Or maybe I forgot that I was supposed to loan my rake to the Torkelsons in Utah back in 1996, and they're still waiting for it. That would be a little awkward now.

Was there a job I was late for and never made it back to? Did I leave all my clothes at the laundromat circa 1985? You know what... I think I did. That must've been why I started seeing people wearing pants and shirts just like mine. And all this time I thought it was because they had good taste.

Did you ever forget to turn a car off? If you're wearing headphones, it may not occur to you that the engine is still running. At least I didn't run the tank down to empty. Unless there's some other car somewhere at another time that I haven't accounted for...

This condition vacillates between paranoia and anxiety for me, so that neither of the two feel left out. Some paranoia could be justified though. I'm almost certain that eventually a medieval character is going to walk up to me and tell me what the string around my finger is for, because it wasn't me who put it there.

Oh, and here's another one... What if I forgot to do something as simple as brushing my teeth one day a few years ago? Obviously I would have brushed the following day, but that's not the point. Just the thought of having gone a whole day not having brushed teeth is a little unnerving. And now that I realize the odds of this having happened are quite good, I need to figure out when it happened. Is that why I didn't get the scholarship to Yale, possibly? Did the review board think I wasn't minty enough for them?

I've had recurring dreams where I forget until the last day of college class to show up, and I'm so far behind that I'm trying to write Ivanhoe before the bell rings just to appease the teacher, but it's still a hopeless case and I'm lucky if I can scrape out an F+. I always thought there should have been F+'s, because all the other letter grades have plusses. Wouldn't that be like failing with style? And there could be F–'s too, to send a message that not only did you fail, but you were so awful that you even gave F's a bad name.

All right, there was something I was going to do today, and I can't quite put my finger on it. It was either picking up my brother at the airport, returning the call from Obama's press secretary, or blogging. Dang, I hate when something like that slips my mind...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Slow and Steady, With a Kick

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Here's my favorite sports video, from the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. It's the 800 meter finals, twice around the track. I like to watch this when I think that there's no use trying even when it's a lost cause. But there is still triumph in doing your best, as displayed here.

Pay attention to the goofy guy wearing the golf cap, who is clearly overmatched, yet he still gives it his all despite being blown away by the rest of the pack. It's inspirational to watch how hard he tries in the face of adversity. Go ahead and watch it now...

If you haven't watched it yet, you won't appreciate the rest. You almost have to watch this two times to fully digest it. The second time you watch it, notice how far the winner had to come from behind.

It was so close, many of the announcers didn't know who won at first with the naked eye. Arzhanov from the Ukraine — who had refused to lose an 800m final anywhere for four years — made his move on the backstretch, jumping right from sixth to first. He waited back, and then he came on strong as the favorite. And yet that wasn't the end of the story. Someone else had other ideas.

This fable about slow and steady winning the race really does happen. You don't need to be on top of things right away. Just pace yourself and keep plugging away. If it looks like you can't do it and you're overwhelmed, remember Dave Wottle — mythic yet real-life figure. If you have a firm game plan in place, just stick to it and trust that it will work out.

I like how Wottle was still in last place over halfway through the race. In the first lap, all the other runners were panicking to stay up with the pack, but he didn't bite. Just because everyone else felt the need to jump out to a quick start didn't mean he had to. He was playing ultimate non-conformist, and it paid off. He knew his own abilities, stayed within them, and then turned it on at the right moments. Each of his four 200m splits were timed at 26 seconds. He ran his race.

The first time he stepped it up was in the second lap at the end of the first turn, where he passes two runners and positions himself on the outside. Then he stays back through the last turn, and as soon as they hit the straightaway, he puts on the turbo chargers.

Wottle was in last place for the first 1:07 (63%) of the race. Then he was in sixth place until the 1:28 mark. Let's repeat this: With only 17 seconds left in the race, he was still in 6th place! There were five runners still ahead of him.

Then, with 7 seconds left in the race, he was still in 4th place... No problem, right?

It's also interesting to note that Wottle had suffered tendinitis in his knees earlier that year, and had missed training time as a result.

Five different runners were in the lead during that race, and Wottle was in front for only about the last two feet, which is the only part that matters. He won the race by .03 of a second.

The U.S. announcers, Jim McKay and Marty Liquori, gave a rather optimistic account, and made it sound during the race like it was going to be somewhat easier than it was for Wottle. They were giving periodic updates of his status to put the race from his perspective, all the while the other runners were running their own races, and some of them were looking good as well. Even though McKay was playing up Wottle, Wottle wasn't the favorite, and had no Olympic experience. And note that McKay was still surprised when Wottle came on to pass the last two runners.

Now let's imagine ourselves in the race as Dave Wottle, and the announcers are our conscience, or spiritual self, encouraging us and reminding us of our capabilities ("if Dave could just pull up here and get on the outside..."). As we're running our lives, those voices are guiding us to continue to strive, to not give up, to stay within ourselves, whispering in our ear, motivating us ("I think Dave's in great position at this point..."), prodding us, and then even announcing to the world what we just might have inside us ("stand by for the kick of Dave Wottle..."). They're essentially saying, "Keep an eye on this one... he's going places."

If you watch the version (at bottom) with a British announcer, you'll hear a more even-handed account: "and right in the back is Dave Wottle, who got left way, way behind..." (0:37) Wottle isn't even mentioned again until the 1:18 mark, entering the final turn.

There are many voices we can listen to, representing our hopes all the way to our doubts. It's just a matter of who we believe, regardless of which is more realistic.

The other moral of the story is that it pays to wear a cap if you're going to be in a photo-finish race, because that bill gives you an extra four inches, which could come in quite handy in such situations.

Alternate British version, with the audio better and the video worse:
(if you can sync the two videos and turn the audio down on the other, you'll have the best of both worlds)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Shortcuts to Achievement

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Not long ago, I monitored cars making right turns at a stop sign in Albany, to see just how well they stopped. It seems like 'stop' has become a euphemism these days for "do what you can get away with." The angle of the turn-off to the street is somewhat less than 90°, meaning it would be inviting to drivers to get through it quickly and continue on their way. From the train station across the street, I watched for about 45 minutes, counting 66 cars in the categories I used, while throwing out any other instances where another car was coming and they were compelled to stop.

I hearkened back to when I had a driving test for my license renewal when I was 27, failing the test because I didn’t come to an actual and bona fide complete stop that wouldn't offend the ants crossing in front of me. By the criteria I was graded on in my driving test, about 98% of the drivers I saw on this day would have failed the test and had to come back a month later to retake it. So, I believe there are extremes both ways. I'm not one to say that a person should be absolutely mannequin in order to qualify as a stop.

I put the cars I was monitoring into three categories, with the following results:

A. Stopping/quick halt — 44%
B. Rolling with a pause — 26%
C. Rolling with no pause — 30%

Among group A, this consisted of people who were making a serious effort to stop, even if they might not have been at a standstill. Less than half of the people did even this.

Group B is those who were in a hurry, but still made a token gesture with a little curtsy, though at closer inspection it was nowhere near a stop. This made up one-fourth of the people.

Group C didn’t even bother. They just rolled right on through the stop sign like it was a matador. Apparently to them, stopping is an inconvenience that they’re too good for. This comprised one-third of the people.

Group A was a combination of letter of the law and spirit of the law obeyers. They adhered to the basic principle of stopping. Group B was those who were trying to make it appear to others like they were following the rules, but they really weren’t. And Group C was those who basically didn’t give a flying fajita, completely thumbing their noses at the system. If we were to hand out constellation prizes to all of these people based on their attitudes, we might assign to the first group the sun, the second group the moon, and the third group the stars. This survey was only 84% scientific, with a margin of error of 37%. If it had been conducted under laboratory conditions, the drivers might have figured it out.

When you try to cut corners, you think you’re getting away with something and saving time. But instead, you’re validating a fallacy for yourself that circumventing is a solution, fostering future behavior through habit-making. What happens when people start cutting corners is that they often keep chipping away more to see whatever they can get away with. They gradually peel more and more off until the original path is indiscernable, the initial purpose thus being marginalized. Their idea may become: If I don’t have to generate a full arc when making a left turn, might as well milk it for all it’s worth and just cut through the middle lane.

Drivers look for shortcuts in other ways as well. In city driving, at speeds of around 35 mph, they believe that they will arrive at their destination quicker if they stay about 10-20 feet behind the car in front of them. In reality, even if you’re planning on passing the car in front of you, being 10-20 feet behind vs. behing 40 feet behind provides no advantage. What driving 10-20 feet behind a car does is create a dangerous situation to the car that’s being tailgated because it leaves almost no room for error. If you’re driving behind me that close, I’m going to gradually decrease my speed by a few miles per hour so that your reaction time is increased in case I have to stop suddenly. I was already going a few miles an hour over the speed limit, so there's no justifiable reason that I should go faster or pull off the road to cater to your haste unless you have a siren on top. Get in line, wait your turn, or just get up a half hour earlier in the morning. Sheesh...

What tailgating also creates is more traffic jams, and thus more stoppages. If cars would distance themselves a little more, there would be fewer stoppages. Traffic jams are typically bottlenecks, when too much is condensed in one area, thus becoming counterproductive to the original intent. In trying to save a few extra seconds, we produce delays that can be much longer. It's just like how pouring liquid from a full bottle works better if you tilt it somewhat sideways rather than straight downward. As much as it seems like a psychological benefit to go as far forward as you can when the roads are congested, there’s really no way to play leapfrog with yourself, as much as we try to. Buffers actually do serve a purpose. Likewise, constantly changing lanes in dense traffic only gives you temporary respite until the other lanes catch up again. The grass always looks greener in the other lane, but it generally isn't the case.

How can we apply all this to life? What shortcuts do you attempt? Do we skip exercising because it represents an extra 20 minutes in our day that we can't seem to devote? Do we get an hour less sleep than we need each night so that we can squeeze more into our waking hours? Do we frequent Jack in the Box or Burger King because of their convenience? I did that once upon a time, but then my gallbladder filed a protest which was eventually upheld by the medical profession. I lost the case in a bitter dispute, finally relinquishing said gallbladder to science. My liver had appealed, citing potential emotional trauma if it were to take place, but alas, the court was unsympathetic.

Stephen R. Covey said this in reference to non-physical conditions: "[People ask] 'How do you do it? Teach me the techniques.' What they're really saying is, 'Give me some quick fix advice or solution that will relieve the pain in my own situation.' The more people are into quick fix and focus on the acute problems and pain, the more that very approach contributes to the underlying chronic condition."

People steal things, for one, because they think they’re coming out ahead in the deal, getting away with something supposedly gratis. It's a self-created lottery scheme. But if you’ve stolen something, is it really worth degrading yourself into believing that a short-term fix pays off in the long run? That only reinforces in you that being parasitic is a legitimate enterprise, and falsely says that taking away from the greater good affects only other people. And while we're spinning cliches, remember that what goes around comes back around and doesn't play favorites.

Cutting corners gives you the impression that you can procrastinate, not plan ahead, wait till the last minute, do what’s easy, put out very little effort, mail it all in, get something for nothing, and then just make up for whatever’s lacking later by fudging, rushing and improvising. It tells you that you can goof off for two weeks and then cram for a test and still get as much out of it. It tells you that sweeping dirt under the rug doesn’t hurt anything. It tells you that a continually lackluster effort is admirable. It tells you that going through the motions is sufficient. Well, cutting corners lies! It sells you a glittering package filled with synthetic dreams.

The old adage that you get what you pay for applies here. If all you invest is a shortcut effort, you end up developing a shortcut attitude until you’ve cut so many corners you don’t even know where the corners are any more, and so what you get are shortcut results. Do you want your life to be a shortcut? Is that the goal, or is it something else?

Ultimately, we get whatever we’re willing to be satisfied with. Society wants band-aid remedies, and so look what it gets. A heavy dose of transience, unfulfillment, heartache, disappointment... much of it the product of empty promises from the grandiose expectations of a flimsy house of cards. After buying something made of plastic, can you really be surprised when it doesn't last that long?

We each know individually what our best effort is. An ecclesiastical leader of mine in college named Al R. Young often made the comparison that when you do less than your best, it’s like you’re trying to play chess with yourself — pretending that you can outsmart that opponent and take his pieces, then expecting him to show amazement as if it wasn't all choreographed in the first place. If we’re taking shortcuts with our efforts, then we’re shortchanging ourselves, losing out on chances to shape the maleable clay that we’ve been given. We should want our clay to have a distinctive look so that when it dries it will have something of our imprint on it and say something profound about us that others can use. We don't want it to say "I hurried and got it out of the way swiftly."

When involved in a creative project, the dilemma is that if it were easy, then anybody could do it and it wouldn't be as special or in as much demand. Sports analysts are constantly telling us that what separates the great players from the merely good players is their dedication, their work ethic, their inner drive. At the highest levels of athletics, success is not accidental. Those who succeed have been putting in countless hours in training and conditioning where most people don't see them, honing their skills and their discipline. We tend to assume that they just happened to be better than everyone else. In reality, they were willing to put more into it, and didn't search or settle for shortcuts.

If you can’t invest more than a 3-minute effort into the various aspects of your life, then you can’t realistically expect for them more than a microwave outcome. Sure, microwaving is quick, and it’s handy, but if it’s the rule instead of the exception, all you’ve got to show for it at the end of the day is a quick and handy life. On sale now for $19.99, while supplies last. Hurry, offer ends when? Oh, yeah… it ends soon. We ought to rather prefer those offers which are perpetual, taking the long way around... because unlike shortcuts, they return on their investment.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Learning About Yourself

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When I was a senior at Willits (Cal.) High School, I was recruited to the track team halfway through the season, while baseball season was still going on. My baseball coach talked to the track coach and said he should give me a tryout, and that I might be able to help them. In my first trial, I tied the fastest time in the 100 yd. that year by anyone at our school, so they put me on the team. I was still on the baseball team too, and I started going to track practice as well.

My track career was only for that month and a half, but I was able to get some good experience and fond memories out of it. I ended up having the fastest times in the 100 yd. (10.5) and 220 yd. (23.2) distances at our school that year, and I qualified for district in both events.

At district, I had made a tactical error in the 220, which cost me probably a full second, and I ended up finishing 4th and not qualifying further in that event (missing by one place), even though overall it was a better event for me than the 100. But I still had the 100, and I never thought I would get that far to begin with anyway.

At district in the 100, I came in third place, which made me eligible for region. At region, I came in third again, which qualified me for sectional. The sectional was in San Francisco, and whoever qualified there would move on to state. I came in 8th out of 8 runners, but I knew those were the elite runners, so I was just happy to be there on the same track with them. I think just being in their jet streams made me faster.

Now, to put all this in perspective, I wasn’t even the fastest runner in my district. But I’ve noticed in most years I’ve checked since then, that my time in the 220 (converted to 200m) wasn’t matched by any high school girls in the United States for that given year. There might be somewhere around 10 million high school aged females in the U.S., and in most years, I would’ve beaten all of them. I always thought that would be a fun race, with all of us lined up…

And yet 20 miles away in the next town of Fort Bragg, Chapman and Oliver could both beat me. Then I also noticed in the sports almanac something very interesting. My time in the 220 would have won the gold medal in the women’s 200m at the 1960 Olympics (two years before I was born). And we’re talking about a time I ran as a 17-year-old who hadn’t trained much at all.

In baseball that year, after playing the first few games on the bench, I ended up leading the league in stolen bases, and I became our team’s leadoff batter and regular center fielder. At the end of the season, I was selected to the all-district team, the only player from Willits to be chosen. I was elated that I was able to accomplish so much. It felt really good to see what I could do. I'm telling you all this not to relate an account of athletic events, but because there’s a story behind the story...

Let’s go back just four months earlier. It’s January 1980, and it’s about time for tryouts for the high school baseball team. I’d been involved in baseball all through Little League and Senior League, and I had played on the junior varsity team as a freshman and sophomore. But in my junior year, I decided to take a break from it and didn’t go out for the team. So, in my senior year, I was in basically the same frame of mind. I knew that the players who had played the year before me had a leg up on me, and I was psyching myself out to not play again. I wasn’t even so sure that I would be a starter, and I didn’t particularly want to sit on the bench all year. And track and field wasn’t even on the radar screen. I’d never participated in track in high school. That was for the athletes who worked out. So I was consigned to a less eventful senior year, where I wouldn’t strain myself too much, and just enjoy the ride.

The whole prospect of tryout out for baseball seemed too daunting from my perspective. It represented a lot of effort and too many unknowns, and so I decided I wasn’t going to play.

But my dad believed in me. He told me that I should try out for baseball, and that I wouldn’t regret it. I attempted to make excuses, like I didn’t have a good mitt to use, but those didn’t wash. He said he’d buy me a new mitt, and he encouraged me to give it a try. He made good sense, and I knew deep inside that it’s better to try than to wonder later.

Without my dad’s encouragement, I would have just played it safe and not tried out for baseball that year. And so I never would have been in track either. And I would have missed out on rich experiences of striving to do your best and seeing what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it. I wouldn’t have known some important things about myself at that critical stage in my life.

I learned a valuable lesson from my dad, taught to me through experience. He didn’t so much give me confidence per se, but even better, he prompted me to extend myself and provided a mechanism for me to develop my confidence and see it at work. You see, sometimes we’re our own worst doubters. I learned that you really can do things that you don’t think you can do.

I’ll be forever grateful to people in my life like this who have shown me what I can do, who have seen things that I didn’t see, and have helped me draw out the best in me. I think that’s what life is all about, helping lift each other up and rising together in the process. That's what a good parent does, and a good friend does. In helping us see our potential and striving for it, in our quest to become better people and appreciate the world around us more.

I’ve been blessed with these influences, and in turn I want to try to pass that type of influence on to others. For those that you’re close to, do whatever you can to encourage them to see who they really are, and in so doing, you can witness miracles right before your eyes. Someone who could beat all the girls in America to the mailbox just might be lazing away on the couch.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Life Sans Bills

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A few months ago I wrote about how I was going to take a sabbatical from paying bills, and it's been very liberating not having to be bothered with them. The experiment has gone surprisingly well so far, all things considered. Other than mortgage payments (which I learned are not bills but are implanted monetary viruses that cannot be surgically removed), I haven’t paid anything else.

The overall result is that things are a lot more peaceful around here. The phone doesn’t ring, there’s no noise from electrical appliances, the lights don’t keep me awake at night, the drip in the faucet is finally fixed, I don’t get calls from people I don’t want to talk to, I don’t have to waste any more money at the gas pumps, and I don’t have to watch any more pharmaceutical commercials with mid-life zombies walking through meadows in their bare feet. It’s a win-win situation all around.

Everybody’s been so understanding too. The furniture company was kind enough to come pick up the sofa ensemble we had purchased from them so that it wouldn’t be taking up all our space. Also, the tow truck came by and was more than willing to get our car out of our hair, and it’s nice that it doesn’t block the driveway any more.

So when bills come, we just use them to start fires with now. And we’ve found that the house heats up better if we have a fire in every room. All you need is an axe, and the world is your timber supplier.

It’s like Thoreau’s Walden around here, just without the pond. I’m even considering writing memoirs of the experience, in hopes that there's a transcendental market out there.

Not only have we reduced expenses by $975 a month, but I don’t have to keep track of so many things to pay for. Just send in the mortgage and all is well. I figured I was spending about 50 hours a month just on covering these pesky overhead expenses. Now I can afford to take more time off and enjoy life instead of financing it.

We’ve got all the money we need for ramen noodles, which the kids love raw, and our parkas keep us plenty warm (we don’t run the fires at night while we’re asleep because it makes me a wee bit paranoid having flames next to our sleeping bags).

We've had to make adjustments in maintaining the house. Makeshift vacuum cleaners might not have all the same suction capabilities as their modern counterpart, however using a straw does give me a good respiratory workout.

Laundry? You know, here's the thing... Do dolphins do laundry?

Incidentally, I’m sitting on the curb outside Starbucks picking up a weak signal trying to get this posted. I’m happy to take that extra time each day to hook up the extension cord to my PC and monitor, and then push it back home in a shopping cart. And with all the money I’m saving, I may be able to go to a flat screen before long.

Oh, and before I log off, I need to remember to go to the credit card web sites so I can have them send me more paper to start fires with. Bank of America usually fills theirs with a lot of documentation, so I like to give them my business. I wonder how many people they think live at this address now? Please send to: Rusty’s Convent of the Nestling Woods, 1478 Spruce Way, Tillamook, OR 97141.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Blinkages, Pt. I

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Are you ever in a phone conversation, and while you’re in the middle of talking, something in the back of your mind tells you that something’s not right? That could be your subconscious analyzing the difference of having no feedback in the middle of talking, but your conscious is not as aware of it and doesn’t pick up on the nuances as easily. So you might go on for a few sentences, and then when you get to a stopping point, or ask a question, you finally realize that the other person lost their connection and you’ve been talking to empty air for awhile.

There are many such instances in life where things just don’t seem right, but at that moment we’re not sure why. We just have a strange feeling about it without being able to identify what it is.

I recently turned the pages of a book by Malcolm Gladwell called “Blink” (pub. 2005), which is a study on instinctual impulses. Blink is Gladwell’s term for the first two seconds or so of when we analyze something. In that short time, our subconscious can observe and analyze the clues, and often provide us with all the useful information we need to know. And in many cases, additional information only serves to cloud the issue, and makes our decision making more difficult, subject to more potential error.

A review of Blink gave this synopsis:
Gladwell maintains that we "blink" when we think without thinking. We do that by "thin-slicing," using limited information to come to our conclusion. In what Gladwell contends is an age of information overload, he finds that experts often make better decisions with snap judgments than they do with volumes of analysis.

Gladwell says “There are moments, particularly in times of stress, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world.”

That’s why many times things just don’t feel “right”, even though we can’t really put our finger on what it is, and have difficulty explaining to someone else why. Gladwell also shows how people who try to assign a reason to those impulses misinterpret the source, and seem to invent reasons without realizing what they’re doing. In other words, they’re getting messages from their subconscious which they’re attributing to unrelated conscious sources.

The book itself is loaded with intriguing studies and concepts, though Gladwell doesn’t bring them together into a coherent whole. Gladwell also recognizes that heat of the moment-type reaction can produce irrational judgment, and while he accounts for this, a clear delineation as to when it’s rational and when it’s not isn’t outlined in the book. In these senses, Blink is an unfinished product, but then this might just be a reflection of this whole field of study in general. At any rate, the author introduces a lot of ideas that are worthy of further inquiry, so he does set the table for us and give us a good menu to select from.

I’ve always marvelled at how our minds can anticipate things through our subconscious without even concentrating on it consciously. One example I’ve noticed is when you’re walking on a sidewalk, and you can instinctively predict with practically flawless precision whether you’ll be stepping with your left or right foot at any point at about 20 feet away. If you pick out a line in the cement, your brain can instantly tell you which foot will step on or over that line up to about six steps in advance. I’ve been able to do seven steps on occasion, but six has been more of the norm. (Note also that it doesn’t have to do with distance so much as it has to do with deriving a pattern from your stride, so you could alter your pace from one experiment to the next and it would still work) You just do it naturally without even thinking about it, and it's instantaneous. There's no conscious analysis involved. In fact, trying to analyze it would cause you to break your stride and delay an answer. This is a good lesson for life. We try to analyze things so much that often the ambitious analysis can do more harm than good, defeating the whole purpose.

One other interesting application of this concept involves tapping into your memory without your realizing it. There have been times when I've been editing the formatting of a document written by someone else, without paying attention to the content. From out of the blue, I find myself humming a tune without even knowing why. And then a little while later, I notice some words in the document that triggered the response, which were part of the lyrics of a song. I had read it without knowing that I saw it. Not only that, but I processed it and retrieved an associated thought from my memory without knowing that this was going on. And to top it off, I started humming the tune, not knowing why I was humming it!

I don't know if this one has happened to you, but sometimes when I'm driving and the traffic gets monotonous, I might be daydreaming while watching the road at the same time. There have been times where I've realized after the fact that I had just stopped at a red stoplight and then started up again when it was green while being lost in thought regarding something else. As I come back to reality, I become aware of the passage of time from the last time I was consciously driving, which might have been two blocks earlier. Fortunately, my subconscious knows how to stop at intersections!

Often, people will come up with their best ideas when they’re doing something other than trying to focus on the task at hand. This is probably the conscious getting in the way of the subconscious. Something will occur to you instead while showering, taking a bathroom break, going for a walk, etc. If you're trying hard to remember something, often that can block it, but then later when your mind is clear and you're not even thinking about it, it will come to you freely. Thinking hard many times makes it harder to think.

So, back to Blink, here’s an excerpt with one of the studies:

Imagine that I were to ask you to play a very simple gambling game. In front of you are four decks of cards — two of them red and the other two blue. Each card in those four decks either wins you a sum of money or costs you some money, and your job is to turn over cards from any of the decks, one at a time, in such a way that maximizes your winnings. What you don’t know at the beginning, however, is that the red decks are a minefield. The rewards are high, but when you lose on the red cards, you lose a lot. Actually, you can win only by taking cards from the blue decks, which offer a nice steady diet of $50 payouts and modest penalties. The question is how long will it take you to figure this out?

A group of scientists at the University of Iowa did this experiment a few years ago, and what they found is that after we’ve turned over about fifty cards, most of us start to develop a hunch about what’s going on. We don’t know why we prefer the blue decks, but we’re pretty sure at that point that they are a better bet. After turning over about eighty cards, most of us have figured out the game and can explain exactly why the first two decks are such a bad idea. That much is straightforward. We have some experiences. We think them through. We develop a theory. And then finally we put two and two together. That’s the way learning works.

But the Iowa scientists did something else, and this is where the strange part of the
experiment begins. They hooked each gambler up to a machine that measured the
activity of the sweat glands below the skin in the palms of their hands. Like
most of our sweat glands, those in our palms respond to stress as well as
temperature — which is why we get clammy hands when we are nervous. What the
Iowa scientists found is that gamblers started generating stress responses to
the red decks by the tenth card, forty cards before they were able to say that
they had a hunch about what was wrong with those two decks. More important,
right around the time their palms started sweating, their behavior began to
change as well. They started favoring the blue cards and taking fewer and fewer
cards from the red decks [without realizing it]. They began making the necessary
adjustments long before they were consciously aware of what adjustments they
were supposed to be making.
Fascinating stuff. This suggests that we can change our behavior to something without realizing that we’re doing it, and it can be in response to our subconscious making an analysis. Blink has several such studies cited, which together form a strong case for Gladwell’s premise.

There’s too much from the book to fit into only one or two posts, so in the coming weeks I’ll post more of its findings, along with some of my own commentary.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Letterman's Letter Man

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In July of 1986 when I was at college and many of you were in diapers (I have your baby pictures), David Letterman read my letter on the air during viewer mail, and you could see it all with my handwriting and my signature, and he even said my name. (!) His lips have spoken my name. He doesn't realize it, but he's made me famous. At least somewhere. Like in my living room, or possibly in the kitchen. I also wonder if he practiced saying my name in rehearsals a few times. So, for all I know, he's said my name 36 times. It did seem to flow off his tongue when they did the show, like he and I were old buddies. He could probably imagine being buddies with someone like me.

To set this up, I'll give a little background for the Letterman-impaired. Dave used to flap those blue cards a lot that he was reading from on viewer mail, and he'd say that they were actual letters from actual viewers, otherwise would he be able to flap them like that? "Not a chance," he'd say. So I asked him in my letter what would happen if he tried to flap cards that weren't actual letters from actual viewers. It's only logical, right? And then I said, "What a guy, Rusty Southwick, Provo Utah." Well, actually he said. He said what I said.

So then Dave says, "Well, we've never tried this before... Paul... Oh, look... here are some phony letters from phony viewers..." And he picks them up and starts flapping them. As soon as he does that, an image of Elvis appears above him. And Dave says, "Elvis? Elvis, is that you? Look who's here, Paul." Paul gives his mock incredulity and musters an obligatory, smirking "Elvis is here."

And then Elvis says to Dave, "By flapping those cards, you've bridged the gap between our two worlds." And then they somehow mess up their lines (on my skit!) while Dave and Paul are bantering, and then Elvis thanks him for being featured on letter #3, which he says is traditionally the funniest letter in viewer mail, and then Dave tells him it's not letter #3, and so Elvis gets all miffed and fades away. Dave rubs his eyes and says something about, "Feel like I's hypmotized."

Then later on when there's another skit going on that's bombing, Dave reaches for the cards to try to save the skit and says, "Elvis!! Elvis!!" So I actually produced both a skit and a follow-up reference in my entertainment debut.

The ironic thing is that my college roommates and I weren't watching David Letterman that night, because one of them had rented Amadeus! Somehow I'll never forgive Wolfgang for that (even though I've listed him as a modern hero — but he could have timed his life and subsequently his movie a little better). So anyway, I found out about it when I got a call from a BYU student who was checking to see if there really was a student enrolled there by that name. And since I was in Utah at the time, it hadn't aired yet on the west coast, so I called my aunt in California to tape it for me. A few of my relatives happened to be watching that night, and they said they got a kick out of it.

I've got it on VHS tape, so I'll need to transfer it to digital format. I looked for it on YouTube, but all I found was another skit from the same night with Flunky the Late Night Clown.

David Letterman is likewise on my list of Cool People, and to my knowledge, he never interrupted a Mozart concert. But anyway, if you were wondering, the letter got read on his show less than a week after they would have received it, so that must've meant they instantly liked it. I'd like to think that Dave personally picked it out from among the voluminous stacks of mail, and said, "Yeah, we can use this one for sure. That's comedy, boys... This kid's got a lot of promise. Plus we don't answer much mail from Utah, do we Paul? By the way, where is Utah? Is it over by Iowa?" I'd like to think they had a very in-depth discussion about the intricasies of my delivery and timing, and how I could have a future in show business.

And then Dave probably said, "I'll take this one and write it up myself. I want it to have Elvis in it. Gotta have The King for this one. This is Rusty Southwick we're talking about here, for crying out loud. He'll never invite me on his show someday if I don't really give this one the royal treatment."

I haven't forgotten you, Dave. The invite is coming.

Dance Like Nobody's Watching

Philosophy Soccer