Monday, December 18, 2006

Culture as conspiracy theory

"Oh, you and your conspiracy theories!"

Yeah, well, I tell ya what...

When a small group of people try to fool a bigger group, I call it conspiracy.

When a small group of people try to fool themselves, I call it denial.

When we all try to fool each other, I call it culture.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Arithmetic allegory

Did you just say, "3 + 1 = 4?"

Yes, I

That's all wrong! 4 = 1 + 3 !

No, it's 3+1.



It seems to me there's something they do not see.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Haiku tunnel (carpal)

The typing finger
with carpal tunnel treatment
having writ, moves on

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

To be wise is to see

I'm intrigued by the notion of seeing as a metaphor for learning and for understanding. I'm also concerned about wisdom, how we apply our knowledge, and how we make decisions. So it caught my eye when Canadian blogger Dave Pollard mentioned that the word “wise” originally meant “to see”. The Online Etymology web site reveals

 “to see,” hence “to know”
(see vision)

See vision, indeed. See. Vision. Perspective. Viewpoint. Foresight. 20/20 hindsight. Insight. Take a close look. Take a closer look. Seeing is believing. Blind. Blindness. Blind spot.

Do you see what I see? Do I see what you see? How do we compare and communicate what we see?

Have you ever been with other people while looking at one of those optical illusions? Have you ever been the one person who couldn't see what everyone else sees? It's frustrating! It's easy to suspect they're just playing a prank.

Or, have you ever tried to help someone to see the other image? That can be frustrating, too. “Well, if you kinda squint your eyes this way and turn your do you see it?”

In a way that experience is the whole point of this blog. It's the point of my other web sites, too. Can I see what you see? Can you see what I see? How do we acknowledge and demonstrate what we see?

It seems to me that our culture often tries to tell us there's only one thing that can be seen. Ever. If we see something else, well, we'd better keep it to ourselves. Our culture tells us, “This is a picture of a vase. It's only a vase. If you think you see something else in this picture, well, you're wrong! Because it's a vase.”

We have 24-hour “news” channels, and magazines and newspapers and radio stations, all to remind us that this is a vase — and only a vase. Vase, vase, vase. Wait! Breaking news! “Some nut claims to see faces in this picture. Har har har, isn't that quaint? Faces! Now back to you, Sue, with the 5-day vase forecast.”

Blindness. Blind spots. Vision. Perspective. Insight.

To see, hence, to know. To be wise is to see.


A startlingly different view of the world

“He was constantly reminded of how startlingly different a place the world was when viewed from a point only three feet to the left.”

That's from The Salmon of Doubt, the book Douglas Adams was writing when he died.

Imagine: A startlingly different place, and only three feet to the left. It seems to me that three steps to the left is an easy journey to see a startlingly different world. That's worth the trip, don't you think?


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Sides of a coin

“Oh, they're just two sides of the same coin.”

Yeah, well, have you ever looked at a coin?

The sides are different.

Today is a good day to vote.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Some kinds of people

There are three kinds of people in the world: those who can do math, and those who can't.

No? How about this:

There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who can do binary math, and the other 01.


There are two kinds of people in the world: those who don't believe in categorizing others, and ...



More at ...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I don't do book reviews

Books. I like 'em. I read a lot of them.

Often I recommend them to others. (Perhaps you noticed?)

Unfortunately I suspect my recommendations might be more effective if I could muster the willpower to write detailed, enthusiastic reviews. As much as I enjoy books, and as much I want others to appreciate the good ones, I greatly dislike writing book reviews. They remind me too much of book reports and school homework assignments.

Reading a book is fun. Writing about it takes time away from reading the next one.

As a kid in fourth grade I went on strike over book reports. I refused to write them. Specifically, I declined to participate in a classroom contest to try to write more book reports than the other kids. It seemed pretty clear to me that the contest was designed to get some (many?) of the kids to read more. The prospect of gold stars and smiley stickers on a wall chart (or the prize, whatever it was) didn't offer much incentive to me. I already averaged about four books checked out of the library at a time.

My civil disobedience prompted an emergency parent-teacher conference. Although I didn't exactly prevail, we did negotiate a concession: I agreed to stop setting an example of disobedience in exchange for the teacher's acknowledgement that the contest wasn't likely to advance my education.*

Now I have better incentive to write book reports reviews. I want other people to benefit from useful books as much I have. I want other people to read those books. But book reviews still feel like homework to me, and writing them does take time away from reading them.

Unfortunately the statement, “You should read this book because I say so”, doesn't seem to work very well.

I often think of books as tool boxes filled with idea tools. I have some background in engineering so that feels like a natural and obvious approach. For me, recommending a particular book is like recommending a particular tool for a particular task.

“Hi, there. I see you're pounding that nail with a brick. How's that workin' for ya? Have you considered a hammer instead? I just happen to have a hammer right here.”

Most models are wrong, but some are useful
. Good books are full of ideas. Some of them are wrong, but some of them are useful. There are many I might recommend to a particular person in a particular situation. There are a few I recommend widely because they're especially versatile. These are my Swiss Army, Leatherman, toolbox-in-paperback, recommended books:

Each of those three is really a subset of the author's ideas. Each author has body of related work — more toolboxes filled with more tools — but those three are immediately useful.

I know I should say more, of course. But I'd rather be reading.


* I give my 4th grade teacher, the late Mrs. Harder, a lot of credit for her unusually candid admission.

More book recommendations with inadequate reviews...


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Tarheel Tavern #85,
setting an example

Welcome to this 85th example of the Tarheel Tavern. Our theme this week is setting an example. My friend and sustainability advocate, Chris, recently posted about the ways he demonstrates sustainable living. Like a blog meme, his example inspired me to think about the ways I try to demonstrate sustainable attitudes. It also reminded me of the theme of ...Slowly she turned, a regular Tavern participant who is slowly turning toward a new blog host.

I remember commenting earlier this summer that part of the value of her community gardening effort is to set an example. When I experienced one of those light-bulb-over-the-head moments three years ago I realized my best contribution would be to persuade other people to see value in sustainable living. The value of mowing my lawn with an electric mower is for my neighbors to see me doing it. The value of bringing my own reusable bags to the grocery store is for other shoppers to see me doing it. I'm very conscious that the value of this blog and my other Internet projects is for readers to see ordinary, real-life examples.

Mr. R., blogging at Evolgen, understands the value of teaching by example. He's also aware of the challenge of setting a good example consistently. As a science teacher he tries to inspire his students, but even the most dedicated science teacher can find it difficult to muster enthusiasm for nine straight weeks of nothing but dihydrogen oxide.

Writing Iddybud's Journal from the northern annex of Tarheel territory, Jude reflects on the challenge her mother faced and the influence of her mother's example. And she finds the sacred within the ordinary.

Mandie, approaching motherhood herself, sets an example of frenzied activity that makes me tired just to summarize it. Have you ever watched one of those home remodeling shows that recap a whole weekend of work in 30 seconds of frenzied sped-up video? Well, Mandie set that pace without the benefit of video effects. Picture a pregnant woman rebuilding multiple home appliances, cleaning gutters, jump-starting cars, constructing a corral, and taking crash courses in fire safety and plumbing 101, while eating chocolate and talking on the phone.

If that makes you tired, you might catch your breath while watching telenovelas en español at Pratie Place. Melinama describes a lifetime of bad behavior by the character of Doña Jacinta. (Viewing hint: "You know she's bad because she dresses in black and carries a cane.") Although the bad guy gal goes down in flames, some viewers wonder if Jacinta escaped too easily.

Real-life TV photographer (but not real name), Colonel Corn describes an interview with a rock star who sets an example by helping real life victims of abusive relationships.

A huge toxic waste fire in central North Carolina became a scary part of our real life this week. At Sustainability Southeast (another project in which I'm involved) we consider the example this sets: the example of our investment in our health and investment in our quality of life.

Over in western North Carolina, the Scrutiny Hooligans observe that a politician sets an example of “do as he says, not as he does”.

At the national level, the political example gets worse. A political operation that trumpeted its particular concept of moral standards recently discovered it doesn't live up to its own example. Ron takes issue with the search for scapegoats as he examines the Foley Fallout.

Thanks, everyone, for sharing your examples. Thanks for sharing what you care about.

Share what you care about.

That was the answer that energy and sustainability problem-solver Hunter Lovins offered when asked the challenging question, "What can I do?" She didn't hesitate before she replied, "Share what you care about."

That's the value of teaching, the value of parenting, the value of community gardening, and the value of blogging.

Thanks for sharing, and thanks for reading.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Blame the squirrels

I know a guy who just bought a new car. He believes it's powered by squirrels. Just like in the cartoons. He believes there are squirrels under the hood that make his car go when they run frantically inside those exercise wheels meant for small pets. Every morning before he leaves for work he tosses a handful of nuts in the glove box to keep the squirrels running.

That fantasy ran out of gas, of course.

But he still believes. “Damn lazy squirrels!” he curses, pounding the hood.

“Damn lazy squirrels!”


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Those arithmetic stories are clever and all, but what are they about?

I spend some of my time trying to persuade people. I want to persuade effectively, so I spend even more of my time thinking about how persuasion works, and how communication works, and sadly, how they don't work.

Arithmetic metaphor #1 is a warm-up, I suppose. It expresses my frustration at how much time and energy we can expend arguing about disconnected idealogies.

The second is about systems thinking -- understanding parts within the context of the whole. It's about remembering the bigger picture. When we understand the system of arithmetic we know it's absurd to reject one little part of it. Or we ought to know that. But how often do we reject one truth among many because it's just a little too unpleasant, a little too inconvenient, or little too scary? Does that make it go away?

I think not.

Finally, the third allegory is about how we demonstrate understanding...or not. During a conversation via blog comments elsewhere I asked participants how we might demonstrate to each other that we really understand each other's views. “Repeat the other person's argument back to him or her”, was the only reply I received.

That reply left me frustrated and dissatisfied, although it took me a long time to figure out why. For one thing, I was trying to carry on a conversation, not an argument. And the reply felt like a lecture. I know the basics of active listening. Most of us do. Repeating statements is fine; it's useful; it helps to confirm accuracy. But that's all it signifies.

That's not what I really want. Mere acknowledgement isn't very satisfying. I'd rather see an indication of understanding. And to me that means demonstrating that we have incorporated new information into our own thinking.

If I hand someone a message written on a puzzle piece, I hope to see that piece added to the puzzle. Could we at least try, before declaring it doesn't fit or simply ignoring it? Saying “thanks for the blue puzzle piece” while stuffing it into one's pocket, never to be considered again, that's not a demonstration of understanding. That's not why I deliver messages like puzzle pieces. Puzzle pieces belong in a puzzle, assembled, not in the linty darkness of a pocket.

Parroting words back and forth is a social ritual. It has value, but it's transient, fleeting. Demonstrating that we really understand the messages we exchange, that we can fit new pieces into our puzzle, that has lasting value. That's how we establish shared meaning. That's how we begin to make progress. That's how we create the world we want.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Arithmetic metaphor
(number 1)

2 + 2 = 3

And because 2+2=3 blah blah blah...

Are you kidding?! That's stupid! Everybody knows 2+2=5!

Don't you see? This untruth is ever so much better than that untruth.

Ha! So there!


Arithmetic metaphor allegory
(number 2)

2 + 2 = 4


3 + 3 = 6.

Okay, sure.

Also 4 + 4 = 8, and...

Whoa! Eight! No, see, I've got a problem with 8.

A problem with 8?

Yeah, I'm okay with that other stuff, but 8....I just don't think so.

Some truths seem inconvenient, indeed.

Yeah, whatever. Hey, can we argue some more about 2+2=5 or 2+2=3?


Arithmetic allegory

... And therefore we can conclude with certainty that 2+2=5, and...

Um, don't you mean four?   2+2=4?

Yes, yes, of course. Obviously so. Now, as I was saying: Because 2+2=5, it must also be the case that...blah blah blah...



Sunday, August 13, 2006

Tar Heel Tavern #77: the future is now

As I mentioned earlier, the theme of this 77th week of the Tar Heel Tavern is "the future". I like to have a theme when I host the Tavern here. It helps me to frame the pieces that I receive within the context of my blog. I realized as I looked over this weeks' contributions that the future is really about connections between the past, the present, tomorrow, and generations to come. It seems to me we construct narratives, stories, to make sense of those connections.

Here's my constructed narrative, an attempt to connect eleven views of past, present, and future.

Colonel Corn carries a camera, and he knows something about constructing clever narrative. Cuz that's his career. His day night job involves documenting events in the present to show in the near future of nightly news. Here's his description of a night's work to construct a narrative while events unfolded.

Apparently the news narrative in Greensboro is cooked up in Mel's Kitchen. One of Mel's colleagues at the News & Record attempted to eat his way into a motorcycling future in a contest outside Moe's kitchen. Consult the menu at Mel's Kitchen for narrative and contest results.

Meanwhile Mr. Ogre searched for a view into the future. He was astonished to discover his own past, especially when it turned out to be a past view of his future. Or maybe our popular mechanical future. Or a future past. But it's really none of those things. Confused? Mr. Ogre explains...

Billy, the blogging poet, also has a popular mechanical future in mind. As if blogging, writing poems, and flying the streets of Greensboro isn't enough to keep him busy in the present, he announces a new project.  With reader assistance yet another unforgettable flying object soon will hover in range of photo opportunities.

Regular readers of another of the Tavern's blogging poets know that Erin's blog has been time-traveling into the future.  A post from Sept. 16, 2006 floats at the top of Poetic-Acceptance, waiting for the rest of us to arrive.  On that day Erin's effort to raise money to support the American Heart Association's research into congenital heart defects will culminate with the Charlotte-Metro Heart Walk. She's very excited to announce a sponsor for her walking team. Click, and your future could include a portrait by a professional photographer...

Walk? Coturnix zooms! The Tavern's long-time science blogger continues to post at a frenetic pace. This week it seems he's mostly examined history. Apparently his Blog Around the Clock runs backward sometimes. Fortunately our patented future filter can extract a couple of thematic items anyway. Here's a brief item about possible beneficial changes in the practice of science research, and here's one about disruptive changes due to global warming.

From long timer to short timer: A recent arrival to our blogging future, Mr. R. asks some big questions about raising his future children.

The big question I ponder is, "How do we transform our culture into a sustainable one?" Over at the upper right of this page is a tag line, "sustainability is an attitude". It's about how we think, what we value as individuals, what we value as communities, and what we value as a culture.

At Fixin' Healthcare Marcus considers health as a matter of attitude. It's about "change in behavior" and "change in thinking", he writes.

Laurie, at Slowly She Turned, is also interested in attitude, values, and changes in behavior. Her thoughts on civility reflect my experiences and my concerns. And, uncomfortably, I know I haven't always lived up to my own standard. It seems to me that being mindful of our behavior in the present relies heavily upon our ability to predict the consequences of our behavior in the future. Perhaps we live with one foot in the present and one foot in the future, even if we don't always notice that stance.

Justin's stance on the North Carolina Research Campus is enthusiastic and unequivocal. The View From The Cheap Seats looks upon his vision of the future of Kannapolis.

Further west at the home of Scrutiny Hooligans, Screwy Hoolie looks ahead to November. He listened to an Asheville area Congressional candidate speak about the present and the future. His transcript concludes with this conversation with a wise grandmother:

"When's the best time to plant a tree?"

"Grandma, I have no idea."

She said, "It was thirty years ago....When's the second best time to plant a tree?"

"I don't know, Grandma."

She said, "Today."

I like how Grandma thinks. That's a narrative that links the past and the present to the future.


Tar Heel Tavern: coming to a near future near you

The theme of the 77th week of the Tar Heel Tavern is "the future". The theme fits this blog: thinking about sustainable culture involves thinking about the future. But it's difficult to think about the future without also thinking about the present, of course. We try to make sense of the flow of past and present into future by constructing a narrative.

Today I'm assembling a narrative from a double handful of contributed pieces. It's a puzzle, a challenge, a new story to write today because I decided to look for Perseid meteors last night.

First, coffee. Then, narrative. Later, the future.

Watch this space!


Saturday, August 05, 2006

A book meme

Greensmile asked whether the word “meme” comes from “Me me!” Susan Blackmore, who studies memes and writes extensively about them, might agree that it does, in a way.

A meme is an idea that spreads. That's my working definition, a model I find useful. It's an inexact copy of Susan Blackmore's definition. Meme ideas spread by imitation, by exact copying and inexact copying. Memes can be melodies, catch-phrases, stories, clothing fashions, and ways of making pots. Many memes spread unintentionally in the course of casual conversation and story-telling. Bloggers deliberately spread some memes as ways to inspire new posts.

I like this particular blog meme. It offers opportunities to think about books that influence our lives.

1. One book that changed your life?

The Story of B, by Daniel Quinn.

Ishmael would have worked, too, but it was not on the library shelf that day. Both are entry points to a library of astonishing insights into our culture's operation.

2. One book you have read more than once?

The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner. It was also the book that changed my life the first time, and one of many that created a context to understand and to value the ideas of Daniel Quinn, Peter Senge, and George Lakoff.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

Some big, thick anthology of relatively recent literature, such as the one I bought for an American Lit class a couple of decades ago.

A number of meme writers already have mentioned practical books about desert island survival. I'll figure out the edible plants by cautious tasting. I'd rather share an indefinite future with e e cummings and Stephen Crane and Mark Twain.

4. One book that made you laugh?

The River Why, by David James Duncan. I'd quote some funny bits, but my copy is loaned out.

5. One book that made you cry?

That I don't remember distinctly. But this might be a good time to mention The Cider House Rules, by John Irving.

6. One book you wish had been written?

Initially I misread that as a book I wish I, personally, had written. And that would be Meet Me in the Moon Room, by Ray Vukcevich. I can't even describe how wonderfully Vukcevich writes, but this guy tries...

As for a book that should have been written by somebody, anybody, how about What If This New Way of Life Doesn't Work Out?, by Jared Diamond's great great 500-generations-ago grandmother.

7. One book you wish had never had been written?

To mention it would be to spread its meme. Why dignify it?

Other meme writers have mentioned books that seem to inspire legions of readers to behave badly. We all know the adage about judging books by their covers. I do find some value in judging books by their readers.

8. One book you are currently reading?

I sometimes borrow a backpack full of books at one time from a nearby university library. The nonfiction ones I graze for good ideas. The fiction I read to be impressed by writing style, such as The Toughest Indian in the World, by Sherman Alexie.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

Tempered Radicals: How Everyday Leaders Inspire Change at Work, by Debra Meyerson.

10. Now tag five some other people...

Chris H.

John Kessel, science fiction author and SF critic and NC State professor. He's not likely to see this, and his web site isn't really a blog, but memes are often inexact copies...

11. (These go to eleven.) What about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

Indeed. Now we are enlightened.


Want to check out a book before buying? Please support your local library. (And don't forget about inter-library loans.)


Friday, July 28, 2006

Of icebergs, NPR, and language

[Update Jan. 13, 2008, for NPR puzzle folks: No, I can't find it either! The funny Scrabble site, that is. But since that seems a dead end, and you're already here, why not stick around, click around, and read some more? Cheers]

For some time I've planned to write an essay framed by the metaphor, "the tip of an iceberg". I planned to include a photo of an iceberg that's been floating around the Internet for years.

I haven't finished that essay. I ponder a lot and write slowly. In the mean time, NPR beat me to it. Well, sort of. The NPR segment, "Language: What Lies Beneath", does cover a topic that interests me, and one I've written about briefly. But NPR's web graphic is based on exactly the iceberg image I planned to use. For me this image, created by photographer Ralph Clevenger, expresses the visual metaphor of the tip of an iceberg just as I see it in my mind. How about you?

Language: What Lies Beneath at


Update: Eventually I did write another "tip of the iceberg" essay. It can be found at my other web site,


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Road Closed, Bridge Out

Suppose we're driving, and we approach a large barricade with a sign that says,


What is our standard of evidence to make a decision?

What if we've already driven past a ROAD CLOSED AHEAD warning sign every mile for the last 30 miles?

Driving off a cliff, pedal to the metal, just to confirm that the bridge really is gone and that 30 miles of warning signs really were there for a reason, that strikes me as unwise and unimpressive decision-making behavior.

That's not wisdom.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

How do these three puzzle pieces fit together?




How do we tell them apart? How do we acquire them? How do we apply them?


Saturday, July 08, 2006

Escaping the pinch of the finger trap

Have you ever felt the pinch of a finger trap puzzle?

A finger trap looks harmless. It's just a small tube made of paper. Perhaps a jokester friend handed one to you and said, "Here...stick your fingers in this thing, then pull them out." How hard can that be?

So you play along, stick your fingers into the tube, pull, and find your fingers stuck. Trapped. Pinched.

Also puzzled, and probably frustrated, most of us react by pulling harder. Getting our fingers out must involve pulling, right? So we pull harder. And the finger trap pinches tighter.

The secret of the finger trap is our belief that pulling harder ought to work. But pulling harder doesn't work; that's what makes it a trap. The solution to escape the finger trap is to push gently first. Pushing into the tube releases its pinch. Only then can we carefully remove one finger at a time.

Escaping a finger trap isn't just a matter of pushing, though. It's also a matter of understanding first how the trap works. First we need insight into its mechanism. When we discover our initial belief works badly, that pulling harder pinches tighter, then we adjust our belief to accomodate a method that works.


Reading the news, hearing the news, watching the news, how many of those stories are about pulling harder on traps that are pinching tighter? Why does it seem so difficult to accept that pulling harder pinches tighter? If it didn't work yesterday, and it's not working today, why believe that pulling harder might suddenly work tomorrow?

A finger trap is just a toy, and its mechanism seems simple. So it's no big deal to adjust our belief about how it works.

If we believe that life is hard, that life is complicated, that there are no easy answers, that a lifetime of effort to pull harder must be rewarded, then a simple solution like, "Push gently," can seem disappointing. Judging by the news, apparently we believe that difficult problems deserve difficult solutions.

There are plenty of times when we claim we seek easy answers. When offered simple solutions, however, how often do we reject them by saying, "Well, that can't be right!" ?

The secret to escape a finger trap is to understand it first. Insight into the mechanisms that trap us leads to solutions that actually work. What we believe about the mechanisms of our world make a huge difference in our ability to live freely--or to feel pinched tightly in a giant finger trap.


Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline, offers a remarkable source of insight into difficult situations and insight into beliefs that can trap us.

The Sustainability Institute is one organization that applies the same thinking to encourage solutions to global challenges.

To see how this piece fits related pieces please visit

Thursday, July 06, 2006

And we all begin happily ever after

How would we live if the phrase, "And we all live happily ever after," begins a new story?

We're accustomed to seeing a similar sentence at the end of stories. It seems to function there as a perfunctory wrap-up, tacked on mostly as a story-telling ritual.

It seems to me there's always another story unfolding, however, or a new one that's about to begin. Instead of perfunctory endings, what if we focus on setting the precedent for the quality of our lives from the beginning?

How would we live if beginnings justify means?

Friday, June 30, 2006

(a small piece, a big loss)

Credibility is gained in pennies, but spent in dollars.

In another forum, I spent my credibility recklessly, and I regret it. Besides credibility, that means a loss of time to recover. This is a reminder* to invest wisely.

* a reminder to myself, as well as hypothetical readers

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Tar Heel Tavern #70:
qualities of life

Tar Heel Tavern logo
Welcome to the 70th weekly Tar Heel Tavern.

Last week's Tavern led me to think about "quality of life" as a theme for this week. It's something I think about a lot, a fundamental value that guides my life and my blogs. To keep the mood light for Tavern guests, I suggested a variety of qualities, ranging from bright shiny crunchiness to good food and good photos.

Good food and photos come to us from Moomin Light. Strawberries, blueberries, and apples picked fresh in the North Carolina mountains--what a wonderful way to appreciate quality.

Taking a rest from walking in those mountains, Waterfall at A Sort of Notebook offers a photo of part-time bobcat, Beau, demonstrating the art of lounging. Dogs and cats really know how to relax completely, don't they?

Over at the coast, however, one dog isn't relaxing, and neither is the crab it found on the beach. Sometimes one view of quality conflicts with another view, doesn't it? Mandie, at Captivated by... assures us that no crabs were harmed during the production of this video. There is, however, no word about what happened at dinner.

You might want to keep that dog and crab relationship in mind as you consider George's comment about the relationship of elected officials to their constituents, especially when it comes to email. (Email about quality of life, perhaps?) There's more quality George at

Dan, from BlueNC, sent a letter to an Asheville editor about an elected official and the quality of health care for veterans. He thinks his letter may not be published in his local newspaper, but it's online at BlueNC.

Also at BlueNC, Lance unveils a new database of North Carolina blogs. It's colorful, taggable, searchable, self-serviceable, and now available. Lance hopes a "free 'n' easy" blog database will contribute to the quality of blogging life.

Alex Wilson, who has a studio named after him, also unveils a web project this week. Carrboro Hill is a "community wiki", a collaborative way to document all the qualities of life in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. And if you can spare the bandwidth, his song Untitled Pretention Pontificated by a Passive Voice offers sunny advice to us writers.

Titled without pretention and announced at a reasonable volume, Tavern newcomer Jerry, at idiom savant, says he's proud to be an introvert despite living in a world of extroverts. And he is not bemused...or is he?

Regular readers know what to expect when they open a window into the mind of Anonymoses. Irregular readers are advised to fasten their seatbelts and to keep their hands and feet inside the ride at all times. It's about quality, not quantity. "Love everything that breathes," he advises.

It's dusk now as I write. A barred owl wails, "Who?" outside my window as I quote Anon: "Love everything that breathes." I go outside to reassure the owl, "You!" but it's gone. It doesn't trust us, I guess. It may take us a while to undo the sad track record of our own species.

It might help if we have a clearer vision of what we care about most. Billy, the Blogging Poet writes about someone who lives with a clear guiding vision in The Ballad of Crunchy Corn. The title character (Crunchy, not Billy...or is it? hmmmm....) knows exactly what constitutes a satisfying quality of his life, and he doesn't allow Congresspersons or cornstalks to interfere.

Unfortunately insomnia can interfere with bloggers' quality of life. That's been a recurring subtext recently, a not so pleasant quality of our lives. Coturnix studies the science of sleep, but apparently doesn't sleep himself. Oh, he claims to sleep, but I doubt that sleep is compatible with his attempt to set the land speed record of blogging. (Over 100 posts in ten days, and that's just a practice lap.) One of those umpty-thousand posts recalls his recent visit to New York. His quality time with his family included the Broadway show, Spamalot, based on Monty Python comedy.

The Monty Python reference is important because it sets up this transition joke about...

(wait for it...)

The Comfy Chair!

(Well, it's hysterically funny when it plays in my head. For the Python-challenged, there's a brief explanation here, with the full Monty here.)

At any rate, Erin's solution for insomnia turned out to be a new office chair. If you examine the photo you may ask yourself, as other readers asked, "How does one sit on that thing?" And Erin would explain, "Like this." The key, in her case, is that her funky chair encourages good circulation that prevents nighttime restless leg syndrome. Feel free to visit Poetic Acceptance to admire her comfy chair, but please don't wake her up. A good night's sleep is improving the quality of her life.

When the tense geopolitical situation keeps him up at night, Screwy Hoolie says Drinking Liberally works for him. More at Scrutiny Hooligans...

Iddybud recommends simple things. Grape Crush. A creamsicle. Oh, and a musician named Alexi Murdoch. Also Bruce Springsteen. And....a few other things, too.

A few other things happened in the world this week, of course, including at least three Sporting Events with Capitalized Titles. One of them culminated in a bright, shiny cup and considerable attention for lil ol' Raleigh. At 2sides2ron, that's just the beginning of a journey that explores qualities of life. From Raleigh, Ron jumps in time and space to a French ice rink, then to a Caribbean cruise ship, with stops for chicken livers, Portugese vocabulary, and the wonder of friendship.

That's a lot to follow. So I'll just close by sharing a question that I've been thinking about this week:

How would we live if the phrase, "And we all lived happily ever after..." began a new story?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Tar Heel Tavern #70,
here, this weekend

The 70th weekly Tar Heel Tavern will arrive here Sunday.

For folks who are inspired by a theme, I suggest "quality of life". I hope this can encompass lots of possibilities: light-hearted or serious, musings about family and friends, vacations (both going and returning), good food, good music, good photos, and whatever else contributes to the quality of our lives.

Contributions may be sent to (obsolete address deleted) by Saturday evening. The sooner the links arrive, the better the quality of the host's life, and (probably) the better the quality of the Tavern. It's kind of a reciprocation thing.

I'm looking forward to the experience of hosting the THT. I'll do my best to make it fun, tasty, crunchy, chewy, bright, shiny, and generally a quality life experience.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Finding value in giving;
an economy that values people

Both of my hypothetical readers noticed that I haven't told any personal anecdotes here. I prefer to direct our attention toward culture and communication rather than autobiography. But community is part of culture and communication, too, and I like to encourage a sense of community online and off.

Since I do have this blog, and I do live in North Carolina, I thought I would join the community of NC bloggers who participate in the Tar Heel Tavern. The theme of this week's 69th edition of the THT is "reciprocation."

It reminded me of the complicated game that dominates much of our lives, the economy*. An author with remarkable insight, Daniel Quinn, has characterized the economy as a reciprocation of products: "Make products, buy products." Production and consumption: It's all about the products.

When I hear or read economic news and commentary, it often seems that people are entirely incidental to the reciprocation of products and money. If the produce-and-consume cycle chews up and spits out some people, well, I guess that's just the price we gotta pay. Wait, did I say "people"? Oops. I meant: Human Resources. They're raw material; of course they get chewed up and spat out. That's what resources are for. Apparently that's how the economy game is meant to be played.

Quinn and others have suggested a different reciprocation, one that emphasizes the value of people over products: "Give support, get support." A support economy, some call it, a reciprocation of cooperation rather than products. Some Human Resources, er, some people also call this form of reciprocation a gift economy.

Hardcore mainstream economists, the professional league players of the economy game, might say that the exchange of money is a kind of support. You pay me for a product; I pay him for a product; he pays you (for a product, of course!). Money changes hands, so that's reciprocation, right? What's the difference?

The difference is attitude. Attitude makes a difference in how we live and how we value our lives. What attitudes underlie the economy game, the way we play it now? When people become mere resources, chewed up and spat out as incidental by-products, what are we really saying about our values?

The Tar Heel Tavern call for participation noted that "being able to do something for someone else is a very satisfying experience, and that when giving, it comes back in some way." When I think about that statement, I think about people. I think about relationships that maintain communities.

Giving--a gift economy. During the 95% of human history that we ignore, and within the human cultures we try to ignore, the gift economy was routine. Give support, get support; that was just expected. Saying that being able to do something for someone else is a satisfying experience, and that it comes back in some way, people from other times and other cultures might look at us funny and reply, "Well...duuuuuh."

And we might say that now in regard to our immediate families. But how would we live if the satisfaction of doing something for others was a more fundamental part of our lives? How would we live in a support economy? Would we argue furiously to deny people a minimum supporting wage? Would social security be just another "well...duuuuh" expectation? Would we debate for decades about who deserves basic medical care?

I'm pleased that the Tar Heel Tavern reminds us to think about reciprocation. I'm pleased that we have an opportunity to remember how satisfying it is to participate in a support economy. I'll be even more pleased when we create--actually, recreate--a support economy. It really isn't far removed, even now. My grandparents fondly remember when the cheerful (and reciprocated) support of neighbors was a routine part of their lives. And this Tavern theme reminds us that the satisfaction of giving lingers in our lives now.


* "the economy" or The Economy? Or even, THE ECONOMY!

When I hear it spoken on the news and even in conversation, the words sound capitalized. Have you noticed that, too?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Pavement or Paradise?

If we pave Paradise to put up a parking lot, doesn't that suggest someone prefers pavement to Paradise?

How sad.

Oh, but it's just one small corner of Paradise, and we need want paved parking. It's a small parking lot, and Paradise is big.

Tomorrow our growing population needs wants more parking. So we'll pave over a little more of Paradise. And the day after that, and...

And one day we notice that Paradise seems very small. Hey, where did Paradise go?

Was the parking lot really worth the trouble? A simple shift in our values makes a huge difference. A simple decision.

Yesterday, we wanted parking lots. Today we decide we like Paradise better after all. So we choose to save Paradise and pull up the parking lots.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Finding value, not just flaws

I'm pleasantly surprised by the number of readers who find their way here because they seek information about George Box and his comments about conceptual models.

In other words: There are some! I hope those seekers find wisdom and applicability in his comment, as I have.

Most models are wrong, but some are useful. The realization that most mental models, along with policies, plans, propositions, crazy ideas, brilliant ideas, and just plain ideas, the realization that most of them have flaws makes finding their flaws seem pointless. Yeah, they're flawed, but so what? Some are useful. I like the way this insight redirects our attention toward usefulness.

I like that attitude a lot. In my experience that attitude brings knowledge and understanding with minimal hassle and conflict. It contrasts with an attitude that I find disturbingly common. I spend considerable time in the presence of people who delight in finding flaws, but who express no interest in finding utility. Their trademark characteristic, their default attitude, and their habitual behavior is rejection. And way too often, it's vehement, vociferous, angry rejection.

What's up with that?

I feel like I've inadvertantly stumbled into a shooting gallery. So many of these self-proclaimed skeptics seem to do nothing but wait for ideas to be tossed in front of them like clay targets. Bang! Another idea shot down. Did that idea have merit? Who cares! I shot it! I found a flaw! Woohoo!

I used to be a pretty good shot myself, in that way. I practiced daily, just like the idea shooters blasting away now on the web, on TV, on radio. But if most models are wrong, if most ideas are flawed, then we're surrounded by pathetically easy targets. Found a flaw? So what. An attitude and worldview in which most models are wrong, but some are useful, puts shotgun skepticism in a less flattering perspective.

Whether we call it skepticism, cynicism, or critical thinking run amok, by itself it's not helpful. Such behavior is not useful.

Can we find value? Can we find utility? Is this model, this idea, this proposition, is it useful? Surrounded by trigger-happy shooters trying to impress their friends (it's no fun without an audience, is it?) finding value amid the noise and the debris, that's a talent I admire.

Does this beg the question whether I'm finding flaws in finding flaws, whether I'm skeptical of skepticism? Of course it does. Bang. We shot that one, too. And gained nothing of value.

Instead, what if...?

What if we think of finding flaws as just one component of careful, clear thinking? It seems to me that seeking value, seeking merit, seeking usefulness, that attitude of inquiry is another component of careful, clear thinking. To me that's a critical component of critical thinking.


Shooting down ideas for the sake of making a big noise and impressing a crowd;


Seeking usefulness while acknowledging limitation...

What attitude do we display in each case? What's the most likely outcome in each case?

Which attitude creates the world we want?

"cynicism is a self-imposed blindness"

Court jester Stephen Colbert spoke at Knox College this past weekend. Amid his usual humor he offered bits of useful insight and wisdom. He closed by advising graduates to say "yes" often, and to just say no to cynicism:

Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge.

Yes. I find value, insight, and wisdom in that comment. Yes, indeed.

(Full transcript of Colbert's speech at,

(Thanks to Leathej1 at Scaffadaffa for bringing this to my attention, and now to yours. I'm sure it's widely cited and linked, but I saw it there first.)

Monday, May 29, 2006


The only shortage that really worries me is lack of imagination.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Most models are wrong, but some are useful

That's a paraphrase of an observation by George Box. The actual statement by Professor Box is longer and rather convoluted. Its common misquotations are actually more eloquent and rather profound.

I have used the most common phrasing, "All models are wrong, but some are useful", as a signature in my online conversations during the past couple of years.

It occurred to me that the statement itself is a sort of model, and that it should be subject to its own wisdom. An absolute assertion such as "All models" begs for a counterexample, which is exactly the sort of nitpicking that Box tried to discredit. And since it's already a misquote, I think it's within the spirit of the statement to phrase it as:

Most models are wrong, but some are useful.

I've found that statement describes a very, very useful way to think about our world. I use it daily to figure out how to fit together disparate puzzle piece ideas.

Thanks, Professor Box, for contributing such a useful model to our often puzzling world.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Where are the green buzzwords?

Q: Your blog claims to be about "sustainability," but you have no mention of recycling, freecycling, peak oil, vegan soy milk, global warming, global cooling, or endangered species. What's up with that?

A: Thank you for asking! You are one of the many two hypothetical astute readers to inquire about the lack of green buzzwords here.

First, let me assure both of you astute hypothetical readers that all those concepts lurk in my mind somewhere. I suspect they'll find their way into my writing. The things that I value should be apparent in everything I say, if I'm doing it right.

Second, assembling a large puzzle can take some time. There are a lot of pieces to fit together. We'll get there.

Third, do you really need me to tell you about those buzzwords? Odds are you're here because:

  • your favorite search engine listed this site when you looked for aardvarks blue dust mites something totally unrelated, or...

  • you're already interested in sustainability and so you already know as much about those topics as I do, or...

  • you're not really interested in sustainability (yet), and so yet another web site that repeats those terms and lists 500 links to other green web sites...well, that just doesn't hold your attention.

I understand.

My purpose here is to bolster the smaller and less-noticed community of folks who emphasize cultural effects and values. Remarkable changes in behavior, attitude, and effectiveness can result from small changes in personal values. Effectively influencing each others' values benefits from credibility, time, and a little investment in persuasive technique. Without some common language about shared values, without some frame of reference, more blogs about recycling probably won't make much difference.

So this talk of puzzles, frames of reference, and metaphors is a way to build a shared context. It's a way to create a shared language, some sort of credibility, and a foundation for future ideas.

Thanks for your time and attention.



If you really do need a hint to find a green buying guide or a nearby organic grocery, please let me know. Just leave a comment; I'll try to help.

Use of strike-through font for humorous effect cheerfully plagiarized from inspired by the authors at It's probably used elsewhere, but those folks get blame credit for inspiring me.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Another useful book

Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, by Brian Czech; a quick and easily readable exploration of the assumptions underlying our nearly universal belief in "economic growth"

Friday, March 31, 2006

Previews of coming attractions

To some extent I use this blog as a scratch pad. It's where I compose rough drafts of material destined for My blue puzzle piece. It's also handy for its comment feature.

Here are some ideas I might develop and explore...

    tactical decisions

Credibility, influence, and persuasion

Decoupling possibility from probability
(Possibility exists regardless what we perceive to be probable.)

Spreading butter with a chainsaw

Every decision reflects values

The danger of ends justifying means
(We're gonna do this! Even if it means we have to give everyone a chocolate ice cream cone!)

The difference between control and influence
(and the joy of sledding)

Wishful thinking,
a conversation from a cocktail party

What's in a game?
(frames around the word "game")

It's THE economy!
(a game of belief and magic)

Measuring commitment in decibels

Walking away from the cliff
(Is it still a cliff yet?
Oh. How about now?)

So, there it is: a table of contents, of sorts, or perhaps an outline of a puzzle.

Comments welcome...

Books I've found helpful...

The Fifth Discipline, and
both by Peter Senge (et al)

Metaphors We Live By, and
Moral Politics,
both by George Lakoff

The Story of B,
Beyond Civilization,
by Daniel Quinn

Leadership Without Easy Answers,
Ronald Heifetz

Memorable fiction I've enjoyed

and listed in no meaningful order...

    253 (the print remix), Geoff Ryman; 253 characters on a brief, memorable journey; a fascinating, innovatively structured anti-novel, orginally composed online at

    Catch 22, Joseph Heller; hilariously tragic cultural criticism

    The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, as well as the other four books of the increasingly misnamed trilogy

    Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner; also The Shockwave Rider, and The Sheep Look Up

    Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut; also Slaughterhouse Five and, well, everything else by Vonnegut

    The Cider House Rules, John Irving; also A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Setting Free the Bears, and ....

    The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

    Still Life with Woodpecker, Tom Robbins

    Ubik, Philip K. Dick; Reality is now available in a convenient aerosol spray! Safe when used as directed.

    The Year's Best Science Fiction, Gardner Dozois, ed.; This annual collection of speculative fiction often turns up writers who think differently.

    Meet Me in the Moon Room, Ray Vukcevich;

Friday, March 10, 2006

This is not about not

Think about the word 'not'.

It's compact and concise. Just three letters, one syllable. It certainly seems simple enough. It negates, it inverts, it turns an idea upside down, or....not?

The word 'not' is another piece that fits very different puzzles. In the realm of formal logic, computer science, rhetoric, and debate, for example, there the word 'not' is a strong, powerful tool. It transforms the meaning of anything and everything in its path. We learn to think--and to speak and to write--in terms such as, "This thing is true. That other thing is not true."

For people who think and speak and write in terms of formal logic, for people who keep a formal logic puzzle in their minds, the word 'not' is a puzzle piece that transforms every piece attached to it. It transforms the puzzle itself.

But for other readers and listeners who may have other picture puzzles in mind, the word 'not' can be surprisingly weak and unhelpful at times. Like a hamster harnessed to a boxcar, the hamster may be too weak to pull the boxcar and too small even to be noticed standing next to it. Those pieces may be assembled as a picture puzzle labeled "hamster pulling boxcar", but many folks will see only the boxcar.

Consider this:

This sentence is not about a boxcar. It is not related to boxcars in any way. Believe me when I tell you, "This paragraph is not about boxcars." Really! I insist! Boxcars are not relevant here! What in the world would make you think any of this could possibly involve boxcars?

So....what is that paragraph about? Formal logic requires that we look for an invisible hamster. An ardent mathemetician who practices formal logic could say that paragraph is about everything in the universe except boxcars, including hamsters (both visible and invisible), as well as aardvarks, baseball, cream cheese, dust mites, and every alphabetized noun through Zen monk. Just remember, no boxcars allowed.

How often does that method actually work? Two mathematicians who share a frame of reference involving formal logic might communicate that way. Computer scientists might communicate that way, and even understand each other. Debate teams could launch any argument from that "not boxcar" frame. But most of the time, with an anonymous audience of unknown background, does that paragraph depict a picture of anything other than a boxcar?

Not likely. Try it sometime. Actually, if we think about it, many of us have tried it already, and many of us have been puzzled by our difficulty conveying our meaning that way. Neither emaphasis nor insistence add clarity. Repetition makes the situation worse. The darn boxcars just get BIGGER in the reader or listener's mind.

With any frame of mind other than formal logic, that paragraph was about boxcars. Sprinkling the tiny one-syllable 'not' throughout has little effect. If that paragraph was not about boxcars, then it was about nothing at all.

How many times have you heard or read comments like these: "Please don't take this personally, but..." or "I'm not here to shoot down your idea, but..."

Ouch! If someone shoots down my idea that way, I suspect I will take it personally. After all, I was practically commanded to do so. Those supposedly soothing prefaces actually put me on edge, on guard, expecting the worst. Rather than ease my likely reaction, they set me up to react with extra vehemence. My mind doesn't react to the little hamster words, it reacts to the big boxcar concepts. How about you?

In the future, let's not rely on the word 'not'. Oops! ummmmm.....

In the future, let's just focus on the boxcar.


p.s. I am not a blogger.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

...a second piece

Why blog now?

Because I want to hear calmer voices in our public conversations.

Because I want to see more demonstrations of insight and understanding.

Because beneficial change is possible.

Because a sustainable culture is possible.

Because what we perceive to be probable is not the same as what is possible.

Because attitude, outlook, and worldview make a difference.

This is my contribution to our ongoing dialog.

Imagine a picture puzzle

It comes in a medium-sized box full of hundreds of intricate little pieces. When assembled it will depict a landscape, perhaps, with large swatches of blue sea and blue sky.

Imagine my mind is like one of those picture puzzles, and so is yours. I take one of those blue puzzle pieces, give it to you, and declare, "Here's a bit of the picture in my mind. I give it to you so you can see the picture I see." I take that piece from the sky portion of my mind's picture puzzle, but you find it fits best in the sea portion of yours. "Thanks!" you say, as you join my sky piece to your sea puzzle. And off we go, cheerfully believing we have accomplished something, that we have communicated.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."

Sometimes I think of it as the illusion of information. If I hand you a blue puzzle piece from the picture in my mind, but I don't describe the surrounding picture from which it came, I set up both of us to misunderstand each other, to miscommunicate, to see only an illusion of information.

This blog offers a collection of puzzle pieces. These are the pieces I find most helpful to create a coherent picture of the world around us.

Of course, if I really want to communicate effectively, I need to describe the whole puzzle, don't I?

More pieces to follow...