Monday, December 24, 2007

Keeping Watch

Watercolor by Loyd Fannin
to view whatever really happened there
in the quietest hour of night,
but I was close to it ...

I knew, in the silence itself --
breathing in, breathing out, keeping watch,
keeping vigil for the Coming.

-- Wendy M. Wright - The Vigil

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Starbucks Saved His Life

Sitting here on this quiet gray Sunday morning with rain drops on the window, listening to the heater gently hum as I enjoy a cup of coffee, thinking how calm my life is these days. I can be slightly perturbed, but things don't upset me like they used to - at least not this week.

I can't even get myself worked up over the fact Comcast decided to delete Cspan-2 from the local cable lineup. I still get lots of shopping channels though - so I can see someone with a countryboy/girl accent tell me I need to call in quick to get a good, no great, make that a once-in-a-lifetime, deal on loose gemstones, a giant collection of low quality pocket knives, or a fantasy sword with a dragon embossed on it.


I saw a man, interviewed on the CBS television show Sunday Morning, who at 53 was fired from his advertising job at a firm in New York City. He ended up losing his job, his big house, his wife and his health. Now he works as barista at Starbucks, has his health, lives in an attic apartment - and has never been happier.

He's written a book called "How Starbucks Saved My Life", and Tom Hanks wants to make a movie about him.

It's interesting how getting knocked off balance can be a good thing. Sometimes I wonder if I'm little too balanced these days.

The more I think about it though I know that this is just a phase - no matter how comfortable and cozy I am now, something will come along and knock me off balance. That's the way life works - nothing lasts, things change over time, people grow up, live and die. I can't, and don't want to, do anything right now other than exactly what I'm doing - and that for now, is a wonderful life.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Here Comes The Sun

This is a graph I made that shows the minutes of sunlight in Everett, Washington starting at the Winter Solstice on December 21st to the end of the year on December 31st.

We will be enjoying 4 more minutes of sun by December 31st :-)

The data for this graph comes from this Sun Rise/Set Table For Everett Washington For 2007 compliments of the The United States Naval Observatory which among other services provides sun rise/set tables.

Careful observers, such as the Neolithic people who built Newgrange over 5000 years ago, could detect that the days started to get longer after the Winter Solstice.

Built around 3200 BC, Newgrange predates Stonehenge (initial construction around 3100 BC) and the Great Pyramid of Giza (initial construction around 2580 BC)

The webcast for the Newgrange Winter Solstice 2007 is really good if you want to know more about the structure and see some video of the beautiful Irish countryside.

The people who built Newgrange had astronomy in mind when they built the roof box, passageway and inner chamber that is illuminated at the Winter Solstice. The purpose of Stonehenge on the other hand, although loosely connected to the position of the sun on the Summer Solstice, remains an enigma.

Friday, December 21, 2007

On This Shortest Day of the Year

We celebrate the coming of the light.
Before calendars and clocks
Men wondered what was happening to the sun
Days getting short, shorter, shortest

And then a pause and ever so gradually
A little more light
The beginning of a new year
Another cycle of birth, growth and death

But on a day in Bethlehem
A new light came into this world
A new story came to be
No more eye for an eye

All the old things passed away
To be seen in a new light
We celebrate the son
With love and peace and joy

In anticipation of good things to come
Trusting, we have faith
Watchfully waiting
Listening quietly

Thursday, December 20, 2007

We Can Meet There In Peace

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
stay together
learn the flowers
go light

~ Gary Snyder ~
(Turtle Island)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Quiet and Peace Go Together

There was a clip on TV last night about a man who records the sounds of silence, or more precisely the sounds of nature.

He had a sophisticated set of equipment with sensitive microphones embedded in the ears of a model of a human head, to capture what we would hear if we were in the forest, on a mountain or at a beach.

He said he is finding it harder and harder to find places where man-made noise is not present - cars, planes, trains, sirens, chatter, machinery, etc.

Quiet and peace go together.

Broadly speaking noise is anything that disturbs our thoughts, meaning noise is not only what we hear, it's what we think and what we see. We are bombarded with a constant barrage of images and sounds, leading to feelings of anxiety and confusion - not at all peaceful.

If we want to be filled with peace the first step is to find a quiet place - both literally and figuratively, external and internal.

It's possible to work from the inside out, finding peace from within and exhibiting that peace in our day to day actions, but it helps to have some moments of solitude and silence to practice - quieting our minds, breathing, focusing and being present.

A person who has practiced, in solitude and silence, can find peace and internal quiet on a busy street corner amidst the traffic noise, sirens, and chatter - in the hustle and bustle of a shopping mall, in a hospital room with people worried and in pain.


But we need that space to practice first.

Every so often practice quiet and peace - turn off the TV, radio, computer - be with your self, practice your breathing and clearing your mind.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How I Blog

Maybe I should say how I don't blog.

I have to say I'm not particularly pleased with a lot of what I write. I use the excuse that everything is basically first draft, I don't have the time or the inclination to do a lot of rewriting or editing.

I've been having trouble writing anything for awhile and I think I understand at least one of the causes, and a solution which might help other people who are trying to accomplish something that requires thought.

I try to write by turning on my computer and connecting to the internet so I can go to the Blogger edit page. The problem with this is that once I'm online there are too many distractions. I start seeing my email popping up, interesting stories, and a million and one other diversions - for example, the Kung Fu baby on YouTube -

I'm thinking a better way to write is to start Notepad or some sort of text editor and begin writing rather than getting sidetracked looking at funny baby videos, the infamous dramatic prairie dog, or some songs from old musicals

Monday, December 17, 2007

Hen and Bunny Do The Donald

I think this video created by Heather Havrilesky and Kerry Lauerman on is really funny.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

How We Roll

How We Roll has some cool videos for people who like riding bicycles. It's a blog from the makers of Clif bars about their 2-Mile challenge tour encouraging people to use bicycles rather than cars for short trips.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


I was watching an interesting show about brain plasticity earlier this week. The gist of it was that we can continue to learn as we age but it also had some interesting points about learning and memory in general.

In the article I linked to above, learning is defined as “the ability to acquire new knowledge or skills through instruction or experience. Memory is the process by which that knowledge is retained over time.”

We need to be excited about what it is we learn. Our brains are wired to remember things that get our adrenaline going.

Noise is counterproductive when it comes to learning. This includes external noise and internal noise. A place with people chattering, email popping up, phones ringing and countless interruptions is not a good place for learning. In other words many office spaces are not good places for learning.

It's important to make a distinction between "noise" and "information" so we don't end up thinking the only way to learn is to be in a sound-proof room. A conversation you are involved in can involve learning, a conversation going on around you most likely does not provide you with much in the way of learning and probably interferes with whatever you were trying to learn to begin with - which is why libraries have those "please be quiet" signs.

Related to noise is the idea that any learning requires focus. If we can't quiet our internal and external noise, our ability to focus suffers. Meditation and relaxation techniques can help.

It's also useful to consider the impact of internal or external noise on simple memory vs. the impact on tasks that require special attention e.g. learning. Noise has very little impact on simple memory, but it does impact our ability to focus and thereby learn.

Letting my mind wander from one tidbit to another (internal noise), or being near people having a loud conversation (external noise), doesn't prevent me from remembering my phone number, name, address etc. (simple memory), but it does interfere with my ability to learn, since we know learning requires focus.

There's a definite "use it or lose it" phenomena associated with the ability to learn. To keep sharp we need to challenge our brains with difficult and new tasks. One of the key points was that as people age they tend to consider themselves as experts - knowing what they need to know, rather than taking on the "beginners mind" and learning something new.

Physical activity is critical to retaining brain function so we can continue to learn, retain our memory and remain vital interesting human beings.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Getting More Done By Doing Less

When we find ourselves immersed in a sea of activities trying to decide what is important the Pareto Principle, also called the 80-20 rule, is a useful tool for sorting through the many trivial things to find the few vital things that are worth spending our time on. It looks something like this -

This is conceptual and the exact numbers are not critical. The point is to pick the right things to spend our time on. If my simple graph had 10 things on the x axis, there would be 2 things that give me about 80% of my bang for a buck....or I could waste my time on the other 8 things and get 20% return on my investment.

Some examples of the type of ideas the 80-20 concept is pointing at;

  • 20% of the people do 80% of the work
  • 80% of sales come from 20% of our customers
  • 20% of our Christmas activities provide 80% of our pleasure

It's a useful concept when we want to understand something about linear vs. non-linear relationships. In general terms a linear relationship means there is a one to one relationship between the independent variable and the dependent variable (the cause and the effect), conversely a non-linear relationship exists when we do not have a one to one relationship for growth, or decay, of some function.

If you want to look into the math part a little more you could start at Demystifying the Natural Logarithm (ln) | BetterExplained and Wikipedia - Natural Logarithm.

Why the heck would I care about that you ask?

Non-linear functions exist all around us, but this isn't a math lesson, it's pointing at things that we know intuitively to be true and can use to our advantage if we spend a little time thinking about them.

For example I might think that if I work twice as hard or twice as long, I'll get twice as much done or that if I study 2 hours I'll learn twice as much as I do in 1 hour or if I make twice as much money I'll be twice as happy, or spend twice as much on Christmas gifts the recipients will be twice as satisfied...etc.

This makes sense to a point but when we start to expand it a bit we can see the non-linearity. If I work 50 times as hard I'm not going to get 50 times as much done and if I study 24 hours cramming for a test I'm not going to learn 24 times as much as I would in 1 hour of study.

If we extend our graph to increase time, effort, or money; we can easily see that it is possible to reach a point of diminishing returns, and get on a slippery slope downward, where we can do more and more and accomplish less and less - missing whatever it was we wanted to do in the first place (be happy, live a healthy life, be a good mother/father, be a productive worker, etc).

This is almost proof that laziness is the key to happiness, but not's a challenge to find the balance, the right things, and concentrate on those. It's something we all struggle with everyday.

Pareto can help us is in understanding that we can make our working and daily activities much more efficient and pleasant by doing our best to eliminate the trivial many and concentrate on the vital few.

If we can't learn to do this we end up very dissatisfied because we are lost in a sea of triviality, accomplishing little of value, spending our time jumping from one trivial thing to another, and eventually burning out or stressing out.

The key out of this trap is to stop doing whatever we are doing long enough to do some sorting and prioritizing. If we quiet the external and internal noise, take a break, and reflect on what is truly important, we are in a position to learn, grow and ultimately be much happier people.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

We Need Survival Tactics to Help Us Focus

We are exposed to thousands of random pieces of information each day, the vast majority of which we don't need to know, much less remember. As a survival tactic we start to take in little shallow unrelated bits of information which over time shortens our attention span, reduces our ability to listen and learn, and causes us stress.

Information is defined as "the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence."

If we want to learn, we need to be ready and able to receive information, so it's probably more accurate to say we are bombarded by noise, rather than information - which would have to be provided at the right time and in the right context in order for us to gain knowledge.

A simple model of how we process information into knowledge is that knowledge is proportional to the ratio of information to noise. More information means more knowledge. Less noise means more knowledge. Except it isn't that simple, because more information can create more noise (the web is a good example) and a total absence of noise without any information might mean you are dead or at least really good at meditation.

Our intelligence is partially determined not just by our ability to filter out information from noise, but by our ability to shut out extraneous information (noise) so we can focus and learn.

Noise isn't just something that hurts your ears like the sound of a siren, airplane or jackhammer, it can include a television commercial for some drug where we aren't really sure what it's for but are directed to "ask your Doctor if _______ may be right for you", a significant amount of email we receive and possibly send, people talking when you are trying to learn/study/work or a million and one things that attract any of our senses. Noise isn't just external either, we generate noise as our brains jump from one thing to the next and back again.

We need survival tactics to help us focus.

Meditation, breathing practices and exercise can all help us quiet our minds.

Anything we can do to quiet and slow things down internally and externally helps give us the time and energy to put the pieces together to form meaningful thoughts.

Simply slowing down our pace when walking and eating can help.

Once we begin to quiet things down externally and internally we can practice lengthening our attention span by reading or listening for longer periods of time than what we are accustomed to. It's not easy because our culture is not about slowing down, we are encouraged to work, buy and consume, not to stop and think, but it's interesting to think every so often what the world would be like if that wasn't the case.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Steve Job's Stanford Commencement Speech

This YouTube video of Steve Job's commencement speech at Stanford's 2005 graduation ceremony is about 14 minutes.

It's a story about opportunity.

These are the highlights -

Steve Jobs is the son of a young unwed mother and was raised by his adopted parents.

His biological mother wanted him to be adopted by college graduates, but this didn't happen. He was adopted by a mother who didn't graduate from college and a father who didn't graduate from high school.

He never graduated from college, he dropped out of Reed College after 6 months and hung around as a drop-in for another 18 months.

He provides the following advice in his speech -

Trust in something. This will allow you to get off the well worn path.

Don't be afraid to start over - to replace the heaviness of being successful with the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure of everything.

Getting fired from Apple was the best thing that happened to him.

Find what you love

Keep looking

If you live each day as if it were your last, some day you will most certainly be right.

Ask yourself each day if this is what you would do if it was your last day - if the answer is no for too many days in a row - do something else.

Your time is limited so don't waste it living someone else's life.

Stay hungry - stay foolish

Monday, December 10, 2007

Understanding Beyond Your Textbook

BetterExplained is a website created by a young man named Kalid Azad. It provides insights on a wide range of topics from math and numbers, programming and website development, to tips on happiness.

He explains what the website is about here. It's worth checking out for anyone with a curious mind.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What Happened to the R

According to Wikipedia, the R that used to sit on top of the Rainier Beer brewery beside I-5 , is now in Seattle's Museum of History and Industry. I miss the brewery and the beer every so often. Rainier was a pretty decent beer in it's day. It had a long history in the Pacific Northwest, starting in 1878 until the brewery was closed in 1999.

We served it on tap in the New Atlas Bar for 25 cents for a small glass and 35 cents for a large one. When I was a sailor I was glad when our ship docked in Seattle where I could have a cold one. Some of the Rainier beer ads from the 70's were classics. You can find them on YouTube.

Here's an old logo and label from Rainier that I found interesting. The 1907 ad for "...a refreshing beverage that is conducive to health and strength," makes me think I should give up going to the gym and take up drinking brewski's.


1906 Rainier Logo - Photo Source - State of Oregon Archives

1907 Rainier Ad - Photo Source - Wikipedia

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Vintage Cigarette Commercials

It's really not surprising that so many people smoked cigarettes when you consider these old commercials.

These three samples look funny and bizarre today, but it's interesting to consider the impact advertising has on society in more general terms and think about how some of the things we get "sold" today may look in 50 years.

According to the advertisers - Doctor's smoked Camels, Chesterfield's had no adverse effects and in 1948 you could get a job as a professional smoker.

There's a lot of these commercials on YouTube, just search for "vintage cigarette commercials".

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Oregon State Archives - Trademark Exhibit

The Oregon State Archives has over 10,000 cancelled and expired trademark registrations. They have selected 174 to display on a Web exhibit.

These are a few of my favs.

From 1870 -


From 1899 -


From 1908 -


From 1910 -

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Eat a Little Dirt Every Day

George Carlin has a comedy bit about our obsession with germs. He talks about swimming in raw sewage as a kid, eating food that's dropped on the floor, not taking any special precautions to avoid germs and how healthy he is. He says "your immune system needs germs to practice on." Note - this YouTube video contains language that may be offensive to some.

There are scientific studies that show some merit in the idea that our immune systems need practice.

In this PBS series Pediatrician Erika Von Mutius says that exposure to some level of microbes may allow our immune system to learn how to tolerate allergens as well as fight infections, bacteria and viruses.

In a similar vein this Healthlink article from the Medical College of Wisconsin, asks the question Are We Too "Clean" for Our Own Good?

The Dirt on Germs | Orion magazine talks about the studies by Dr. Von Mutius and others and states,

"Children who had lots of siblings, who lived on farms, had cats, or went to daycare in their first year were discovered to do best at avoiding allergic diseases. Even children whose mothers had lived on farms during their pregnancies were less likely to become allergic. The children most likely to develop allergies and asthma were children who lived in cities, did not go to daycare, had no pets, washed their hands more than five times a day, and bathed more than once a day."

This article in the "American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine has a different point of view, declaring that The Increase in Asthma Cannot Be Ascribed to Cleanliness.

The authors point out that overeating and lack of physical activity are not good for people. George Carlin already covered that idea can find the video on YouTube.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Google and Renewable Energy

Earlier this year Google, with the help of EI Solutions, installed solar panels that cover the rooftops of eight buildings and two carports at their Mountain View campus. The panels are capable of producing 1.6 megawatts of electricity.

The project is described in the Official Google Blog -

"This project will be the largest solar installation on any corporate campus in the U.S., and we think it's one of the largest on any corporate site in the world. The panels will cover the roofs of the four main buildings of the Googleplex, and also those of two additional buildings across the street. There will also be a portion of this installation on new solar panel support structures in a few parking lots. The amount of electricity that will be generated is equivalent to powering about 1,000 average California homes. We’ll use that electricity to power several of our Mountain View office facilities, offsetting approximately 30% of our peak electricity consumption at those buildings."

Last week Google announced their Renewable Energy Initiative.

The press release says will be,

"hiring engineers and energy experts to lead its research and development work, which will begin with a significant effort on solar thermal technology, and will also investigate enhanced geothermal systems and other areas. In 2008, Google expects to spend tens of millions on research and development and related investments in renewable energy. As part of its capital planning process, the company also anticipates investing hundreds of millions of dollars in breakthrough renewable energy projects which generate positive returns."
I find this all very positive as opposed to the nightmarish scenario described in Peak Oil: Life After the Oil Crash, which is interesting to read, very one-sided, and extremely depressing. The "solution" offered by the author is to buy a good sleeping bag and get in shape so you can survive in a "Mad Max" sort of world he envisions for the future.

Go Google!