Monday, April 30, 2012

Comings and Goings

Robert and Patricia are coming to Pittsburgh May 7th and 8th if they still have money after their Kentucky Derby party. Steve is coming Memorial Day with who knows who else. Later, he is going to Namibia on what he calls an apprehensive adventure. Michael N. has been in South America since February and may never come back judging by the time he is having. Kathleen and Martin, in separate groups, are both traveling to Paris on the same day. The last I heard they didn't know if they were on the same plane. Kevin, on a completely different mission than his brother Steve, is heading to China. Is anyone planning on traveling to the poles? That would cover all the continents, I think.

Renée learning to be silent

I know it's hard to believe, but Renée is outstanding at "Learning to Be Silent". I'm referring, of course, to her featured song in Footloose. Dan and I joined Peter and Lisa Saturday night for a rocking performance of the Obama Academy's musical. The show, as expected, was energetic from beginning to end with great singing and dancing. Renée's song is the prettiest in the show and the most challenging, as four different characters weave harmonies throughout. It was spectacular. Her entire performance was well beyond her years. It was a very enjoyable night.

For the second year in a row, Renée plays the mom of the lead character. It's rumored she is changing her agent next year.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Narcissism of Social Media

The article Jim wishes he'd written:  Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? 

And more on social media and isolation:

Finally, this is the sort of thing that happens when the social fabric begins to disintegrate:  Narcissism in Pink and Blue (Gender-reveal Parties and Cultural Despair)

Response to Mike's comment on languages

Here's another reason Americans have little incentive to learn a new language. No support for Klingon at this point, however.

Slow jam the news

If only this could become the new model for network news…

Travels and Battles (last part)

After our battlefield visit our battles really began. Our plan was to stay the night, arise early to catch a train for Washington, D.C. (the raison d'etre for the trip, at least for Francis and Michael), meet Martin, and see the sights in our nation's capital. This is what happened.

Michael, ever curious, locks the bathroom door from the inside and closes it from the outside. The hotel can not reopen the door. We change rooms. The clock in the room is a half hour slow. We miss the train. We have breakfast. We drive to intercept the train at another stop. We miss that by a minute or two. We drive to a metro stop which is also a train stop so that on the way back to our car we can take the train for about twenty minutes.

The rest of the trip, including meeting Martin and sight seeing, went exceedingly well. Global warming or a freakish March warm spell caused all the cherry blossoms to sprout long before our visit. We did see some cherry blossom petals on the ground. While not "hana-mi", they were lovely.

I had my eye on the computer games graphics exhibit, but instead we visited the National Museum of American History. In this day of "all knowledge on the web" as well as multimedia exhibits, movies and documentaries as close as your computer, I think the best role for a museum is to offer real, hands-on exhibits, such as Antietam battlefield or the LST # 1 or the Discovery Space Shuttle, where you can explore and get a feel for the real thing.

Panel 4 of the Jefferson Memorial may be looked at as classic enlightenment thought (belief in the progress of man) and/or the bane of those who always long for "the good ole days".
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
Panel 3 also may be a reminder that timeless truths may be ephemeral. It contains the line:
Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.
The next line in Jefferson's Autobiography, from which this comes, reads "Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them."

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Travels and Battles (first part)

Peter, Francis, Michael and I visited Antietam battlefield a couple of weeks ago. The North named their battles after nature's geography, such as Antietam Creek; the South, after man's geography or towns, such as Sharpsburg. But neither name sufficiently catches the devastation that occurred exactly 150 years ago. There were more American casualties in a 12 hour period on September 12, 1862 than any time in history, before or since. (Nine times the American casualties on D-Day.)

Casualties, we were constantly reminded, means dead, wounded, or missing and captured. Treatment of those captured at that time was considerably different than it is now. During the early years of the war, they followed the European tradition. A captured soldier was given parole, i.e. the prisoner was allowed to leave after he promised not to continue fighting. He was honor bound to keep his word. Later, prisoners would be exchanged so they could return to combat. The North later realized this exchange of prisoners was prolonging the war so they stopped. Both sides set up prisoner of war camps.

The worst fighting at Antietam occurred in the Cornfield, where General Joseph Hooker, who was injured there, recalled that all the stalks were cut down by rifle fire "as closely as could have been done by a knife…. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield."

We recalled that Gettysburg had equally bloody fighting in an area called the Wheatfield. We concluded that if we were ever in the army, we would be much better off to stay out of farmers' fields.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Quote of the Day

A. J. Burnett is the pitcher the Pirates acquired from the Yankees and are paying $6.5 million a year (for two years) while the Yankees pay the other $10 million a year (for two years) of his salary. After fracturing his orbital bone on a bunt attempt he has made two rehab starts with Class A Bradenton and went 0-2 with a 12.79 ERA. He threw 81 pitches and gave up seven hits and five runs in four innings for Triple-A Indianapolis on Monday. Here is a quote by Clint Hurdle, Pirate manager:

The results really don't matter that much. You are dealing with a whole different animal down there with A-ball hitters and big league hitters. It sounds funny, but it's real.

It does sound funny. What does it even mean?

A. J. Burnett was scheduled to make another rehab start in Indianapolis tonight. Instead he was flown to Pittsburgh to start when Kevin Correia was scratched with a side pain. After loading the bases (2 walks and a hit) with no outs in the first inning, Burnett went on to pitch 7 shut out innings giving up only 2 more hits to earn the victory (2-0). And I still don't know what it means.

Friday, April 20, 2012

More on learning and intelligence

My current piano teacher (on C/D) makes the statement "Patience, persistence, and enjoyment of the process leads to mastery." Repeat that every morning after your morning prayers—no, before your prayers.

As chance would have it, a new and important scientific study substantiates the "persistence" part. You train your brain. A couple of implications from these results:
  • If you still believe the mind and body are separate, you can stop now. 
  • You may be what you eat, but you also are what you practice. What you do, makes a difference—in your brain. To put it in religious terms: Good intentions are not enough, you must act. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Levon RIP

Learning Update

Just to follow up on a previous post, MIT has launched the initial course in its MITx program. As a special bonus, they waved the nominal fee for certification, so that is also free—if you pass the exam. If you were hoping for Sexual Mores of the Enlightenment and Their Influence on the Victorian Period, you will be disappointed. (However, you are still in luck for that is Kathleen's senior thesis. So get a copy.)

The first course is Circuits and Electronics (6.002x). Sign ups run through June 8, but there are already 120,000 registered students. I'm not sure if this was the course Ted was waiting for or not.

Science, religion, and Maryland

I'm not sure Martin is currently taking a course by Maryland's Nobel Prize-winning physicist William Phillips, but here is a comment by the physicist about science and religion. I'm usually very critical of these kinds of statements, but Phillips is pretty good. I really like the "four pillars" of the Methodist Church.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bilingualism and Intelligence

As we suspected, being bilingual makes you smarter: Why Bilinguals Are Smarter. With the dramatic increase of Spanish speakers in this country -- the number has doubled since 1990 and we now have the fifth largest native Spanish speaking population in the world -- we have a marvelous opportunity to make ourselves smarter: just learn your neighbor's language. And what of the anti-immigrant, English-language-only people? Well, it turns out, predictably, that they are more simple-minded than the rest: Conservative Politics, 'Low-Effort' Thinking Linked In New Study.


I once described Primer as the world's most complicated film. However, it is still thoroughly enjoyable, as it is as cool as it is incomprehensible. My pithy description is "Something extraordinary develops, but we're not sure what it is." Kottke now tells us that the film in its entirety is available on YouTube. There is a lot there, just don't get frustrated. Life, science, relationships — it's all very complicated.

Most Dangerous

After man, of course, the most dangerous animal is the deer.  But the swan can be just as vicious.

Friday, April 13, 2012

North Korea can't catch a break

Every country in the world—all 196 nations—failed to launch a rocket into space yesterday, but North Korea drew the short straw. A U.N. statement calls the North Korea's failure "deplorable". An open minded U.S. official, who apparently was done responding for the day, said "that, despite the launch's failure, 'It will not change our response.'"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Google Art Project Lectures

My parents introduced me to these short lectures from the Google Art Project.

Adaption & Adoption

I have long contended that perhaps the greatest period for change was the beginning of the 20th century, when we went from horse & buggies and outhouses to consumer machines, such as cars and telephones. Lifestyles may have changed a lot in that period, but I don't think there is much question that the speed of new technology adoption has increased. Today we have the resources and the willingness to adopt and adapt to new technology faster than ever. Perhaps the changes aren't as severe, but they are quicker, if for no other reason than logistics.

Here is a chart showing how quickly some consumer products penetrated U.S. households. Obviously there are many factors in the speed of adopting new technology. How useful is it? How developed is the infrastructure? Cost, etc. I found this fascinating.  This is from the web site Asymco and Horace Dediu.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Be careful what you say. It can cost you.

I read the news today. Admittedly, this is a small, inconsequential story, but it shocked me. Ozzie Guillen, manager of the Miami Marlins was suspended 5 days for telling Time Magazine, "I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that [he] is still here." For that he lost 5 days worth of salary, which will be donated to charity, perhaps the "Assassins Against Fidel Association" or the "Bring Back Batista Benevolence Bloc".

Some Miamians were calling for him to be fired, comparing his remarks to supporting Hitler. What is the old internet canard? I think it is a corollary of Godwin's Law — once you invoke the image of Hitler, your argument is lost.

Monday, April 9, 2012

T.R. Reid and the Problem with Azaleas

Every spring about this time, the azaleas in our yard and the park nearby burst into bloom. The riot of rose, white, pink and magenta flowers is truly jaw dropping. Of course, it lasts but a few weeks, and then the petals turn brown, fall and the moment is gone.

I can't help but be reminded of a commentary I heard many years ago on NPR by a fellow who goes by T.R. Reid. He was always one of my favorites on Morning Edition. When I first heard him, Reid was the Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post. He then moved to Europe to head the Post's London bureau. He later took the job of chief of the Washington Post's Rocky Mountain bureau in Denver. As far as I know, he's no longer is a commentator for NPR, and I'm not quite sure what he's up to at the moment.

His absolute best commentaries, however, were his dispatches from Tokyo. These tended to be modest comments about random oddities of life and culture in Japan. Reid could not hide his love and enthusiasm for the Japanese and their culture, yet he never lost an appreciation for his native land. Reid had studied East Asian History and Philosophy as an undergraduate. He is fluent in Japanese, and served as a columnist for the Japanese newsweekly Shukan Shincho when he lived in Tokyo. He has written a number of books in English and Japanese. Perhaps his best known book is Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West.

I have an amazingly clear memory of Reid's commentary on "mi," the Japanese word meaning "to look at" or "view." The better translation is probably "mindful viewing." "Mi" is taking time out to simply view and appreciate the beauty of nature around you.

There are two annual festivals in which the practice of "mi" plays a major role. One is hana-mi, or flower viewing, and it refers almost exclusively to viewing cherry blossoms. In the spring, the Japanese flock to cherry orchards to view the blossoms. The cherry trees bloom usually from the end of March through April in a kind of wave starting in southern Kyushu and working its way northeast, sort of the opposite of fall foliage in the Eastern US. Daily news reports keep the populace up to date on the best places to enjoy hanami.

The second is Tsuki-mi, or moon viewing. In the fall, the Japanese celebrate O-tsukimi dedicated to celebrating the full harvest moon, considered to be the brightest and the largest of the full moons. According to Reid, there are popular locations such as hilltops or riverbanks from which to watch the moon rise, and people will travel for miles to find these ideal spots.

This "mindful viewing" is meant to evoke a complex set of emotions. On the one hand, there is there is the pure delight taken in the splendor of the cherry blossom array or the stunningly clear immense harvest moon. But the deep appreciation of the flowers or the moon is mixed with a sense of melancholy at their all-too-brief appearance.

Thus, the real moment of hanami is not so much gazing at the cherry blossoms but watching with a tinge of sadness as they fall and drift earthward. It's a pointed reminder that, as sweet as it is, all life must come to an end. Likewise, the full moon is only a temporary phase of a constantly waxing and waning moon and reminds us of the vicissitudes of life, the joy and sorrow, parting and reunion. One moment we are laughing with loved ones; the next moment they are gone.

According to what I've read, this elegant blend of emotions is best kept in balance by total inebriation. And so every year – at least at hanami – hundreds of thousands of Japanese of all ages gather beneath the pink cherry blooms, sing karaoke, dance and drink until they can no longer stand.

Moon viewing in the fall is a bit more sedate apparently and, because the moon is a perfect circle, if only for a brief moment, it symbolizes reunion. Indeed, as the Chinese say, "when the moon is full, humankind is one." So, all family members try to get together regardless of the distance for the harvest moon.

The azalea blooms in our front yard are now emerging earlier this year than usual due the warm March. Soon they will blossom into a great crescendo of color. But, even as they peak, the azaleas will begin to turn brown and soon enough the flowers will be no more. Perhaps, if they were not so temporary, we wouldn't appreciate any of it. I think it's time to break out the Saki.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Speaks for Itself

It almost seems like this nationally day of reflections (aka Good Friday), where all the pubs and off-licence are closed, is a salute to him.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pirate Preview!!! 2012

Oh Baby! This is the year! Baseball is back!…big time!

There's just one teeny-weeny problem. It's not back in Pittsburgh. But, for Pirate fans, it's Indianapolis, Altoona, Bradenton, West Virginia, and State College.

From 2007 through 2011, the Pirates have spent more money on draft picks than any other team in baseball, to the tune of $52,057,400. They are just crushing the Red Sox and Yankees. In the 2011 draft they gathered $17 million worth of prospects, breaking the Washington Nationals record of $11.93 million in 2010. This will make for some exciting baseball in the aforementioned minor league teams.

Possibly the greatest coup for the Pirates was selecting Josh Bell in the second round after he specifically sent a letter to the Major League Scouting Bureau (That's in Ontario, CA.) saying, "Do not draft me I'm going to the University of Texas" or words to that effect. Then, he changed his phone number in case some unruly team didn't believe him. Five million dollars later he was a Pirate. He hit .538 with 13 HR's and 54 RBI's in 54 games. He struck out just 5 times. It's rumored that at least 3 of those were at the end of already won games when he wanted to go do his homework. What a remarkably well spoken and well adjusted high schooler:

Here is a small sampling of other Pirate prospects, who, for the first time in a long while, rival other teams' prospects.

Gerrit Cole (RHP) - His fast ball hit 102 mph in the Arizona Fall League. His change-up hit 91 mph. See him in Bradenton before he moves up.
Jameson Taillon (RHP) - He will also pitch in Bradenton and also has broken the century mark with his fast ball.
Sterling Marté (OF) - He led the Eastern League in batting (.332), hits, doubles, and outfield assists last year. He will play in Indianapolis.
Stetson Allie (RHP) - Can't miss with that name. He had more strike outs than innings pitched, but even more walks. He will be in State College.
Robbie Grossman (OF) - He had an OPS of .869 last year at Bradenton, drew 104 walks, and scored 127 runs. He'll play for Altoona.

Has Pirate management finally wised up? Perhaps. But there is also room for concern. Let me explain. Baseball, as described in the first Pirate Preview!!! in 2009, best exemplifies life captured by numbers.

By all statistics Clemente merited and was awarded hall of fame status in baseball. In life, though continually involved with charities, he was rewarded by being killed in a plane crash bringing aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Baseball is more of a meritocracy than life (despite what your Republican friends say).

However, the Pirate Baseball Club, as we know, defies normal baseball and seems intent at times not to promote meritocracy based on the numbers. We know they often shamelessly trade away their best players or inexplicably reward mediocre or poor free agents with high salaries. I think one can also make a case that they often fail to promote from within based on merit. Here are the minor league statistics of four Pirate prospects:

Age     Seasons     AB          BA          OBP          SLG          OPS
25            5          1967        .286          .362          .423          .785
26            6          2288        .291          .345          .435          .781
26            4          1739        .302          .371          .442          .813
23            5          1558        .309          .366          .453          .820

One of these players was rewarded with a six year $51.5 million contract. The others either have the minimum contract for a major league player or remain in the minor leagues. One of the players, of course, is Andrew McCutchen. I doubt you can name the others. They are Alex Presley, Matt Hague, and Starling Marte. Can you match the player with their minor league performances?

If you are having trouble matching their performances with their rewards by Pirate management (if only by major league playing time), try this statistic. Alex Presley was drafted in the 8th round; Matt Hague, in the 9th; and Sterling Marte was a non drafted free agent. It appears that the Pirate organization judges its players more on where they were picked in the draft than on their merit on the baseball field.

Of course the baseball writers (and the fans who follow them) are no better. The Post Gazette recently spent 5 pages extolling the virtues of Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, also a first round draft choice. Andrew McCutchen is the "face of the franchise." Did you know that he batted .259 last year? That's only 10 more percentage points higher than Ronnie Cedano, who, I guess, is the "about face of the franchise" since he was released.

I'm not saying McCutchen is not a talented baseball player. Hopefully, someday he will become better than a .259 hitter. I'm saying there are others in the organization who have shown they are as good, if not better. Why hasn't Matt Hague been granted the savior of the franchise status? Why is he not even a starter? Why, as I write this, has he not even made the team?! He performed better than Andrew McCutchen in the minors. It's hard to justify the gulf in rolls among these four players by the statistical merits of their performances. No…, minor league performance does not always correlate to major league performance, but you must promote by merit in baseball, not by draft choice.

By the way the order above is McCutchen, Presley, Hague, Marté.

OK, so much for Pirate Prospect Preview, as exciting as it is. What about the Pittsburgh team? Well it's kind of boring. First of all, there are reasons for where we finish in the National League.

                 Hitting                Pitching                Finish
2009          14th                    14th                    15th
2010          16th (last)            16th (last)            16th (last)
2011          12th                    11th                     12th

Offensively, there is really not much changed from last year.

  • Rod Barajas (.230) and Michael McKenry (.222) replace Ryan Doumit (.303) and Chris Synder (.271) at catching — significant downgrade.
  • Garrett Jones (.243) and Casey McGehee (.223) replace Lyle Overbay (.227) and Derek Lee (.337) at 1st base — significant downgrade, but at least we rid ourselves of Lyle Overbay, the historical doggerel of doom for "Last year's winter addition—this year triggers sedition."
  • Clint Barmes (.244) replaces Ronny Cedano (.249) at short stop — pretty much a wash.

Other positions are the same, so to improve we really need to defy past performances—always a risky bet. Last year we only had 4 players with more than 400 at bats. That was due to injuries and bad performances from starters who lost their jobs. Hopefully that will improve, but the numbers point to another finish offensively somewhere in the lower half of the National League in hitting.

But more important is pitching.

Last year the Pirate pitchers achieved the lowest pitches per batter ratio in the major leagues at 3.69. It was a nice try by manager Clint Hurdle and the coaches to get fans home and out of the ball park as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the strategy backfired as efficiency did not translate into effectiveness. Our pitchers faced more batters than any other NL team, while also allowing the highest batting average (.270) and on-base percentage (.338).

  • Erik Bedard (3.62 ERA) and A. J. Burnett (5.15 ERA) replace Paul Maholm (3.66 ERA) — tough to call.

As the pitching goes, so will the Pirates. Here is how it went in the past:

                              ERA career          ERA 2011             WHIP career           WHIP 2011
Erik Bedard                    3.70                    3.62                    1.32                    1.25
James McDonald            4.04                    4.21                    1.45                    1.49
Kevin Correia                  4.61                    4.79                    1.43                    1.39
Craig Morton                   5.11                    3.83                    1.57                    1.53
Jeff Karstens                  4.52                    3.38                    1.37                    1.21
A. J. Burnett                   4.10                    5.15                    1.33                    1.43

Total for starters             4.35                    4.16                    1.41                    1.38

Nothing much has changed from last year. Like I said, it's sort of boring. If you're looking for a glimmer of hope, however, Morton and Karstens improved last year. If they keep that up and young McDonald improves, we could have a better rotation which could blossom into a better record. But, if not, at least there should be some excitement in the minors.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Most Astounding Fact

Going on the same wavelength of how big the universe is but through a different outlook