Archive for June, 2010

Social Conventions

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

We had a delightful, busy weekend, exacerbating my usual posting tardiness. One Tree Hill played a fun gig Friday night at the No Longer Bound rehab center. We visited some gracious friends at their mountain home near Choestoe, and caught a Sunday afternoon AthFest concert where Bo was playing drums for a lively country band.

Several events of late have set me a-thinkin’ about what I would call “social conventions,” those behaviors we exhibit that are not the result of rule or regulation, but reflect cultural conventions. For example, even though I’m probably bigger than you, I wouldn’t just reach over and grab a meatball from your plate. If you should happen to tell a joke I have already heard (quite likely, by the way), I still laugh. There are probably hundreds of these behaviors, many of them bequeathed to us by our parents or teachers, and many others that we have picked up on our own by watching and listening.

Our overnight stay in the mountains had plenty of examples of social conventions. That’s one reason it was so pleasant. From our arrival, through dinner and an entertaining musical exchange, overnight and an awesome breakfast spread, we did a dance of civility and manners. Not so much manners in the Amy Vanderbilt sense (that’s unfamiliar territory for me), but simple courtesies of speech and action. We talked about our various children, about food, the joys of home repair, even international bathing habits, but not about politics, about which we probably have some points of disagreement. It seemed to be an unspoken agreement, a social convention.

Another example that may seem familiar is a couple we met recently who, over the years of their marriage, have acquired a nearly encyclopaedic knowledge of wine, beer, and spirits. They have toured the finest continental breweries, they know what distinguishes the best from the good, and what drink goes well with what food. I suppose I would describe their interest as culinary and anthropological; they enjoy these libations, never over-indulging. But their own accepted social conventions, in this case driven by seemingly unbreakable agreements, force them to completely conceal this aspect of their lives from other family members.

Science fiction plots often include the awkward meeting of two species who don’t share the same social conventions. Time travel also introduces its own forms of social convention, such as those described in this excerpt from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

“One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother that a broadminded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is also no problem about changing the course of history – the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveller’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you for instance how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations whilst you are actually travelling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own father or mother.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semi-Conditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up: and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.”

Returning to present-day earth, I suppose the event that got me started thinking about social conventions was the recent decision of a friend of mine to change gender. As you will eventually figure out, such a decision is not entered into lightly. Nor is such a decision kept to ones’ self. The impact is broad, and profound. Decisions and discussions abound, ranging from the use of pronouns to the use of restrooms. I’m pretty sure everyone who is aware of this change has been driven to analyze their own beliefs, assumptions and social conventions about sex, sexuality, gender roles, dress, and all other aspects of interpersonal relationships.

A final example, way less sensational, was the impact of my own social conventions on a baked potato. I was dining at a residence with five other people. I served myself green beans and cantaloupe, the dishes of which were near me, and passed them on to the next person. I tonged some tossed salad into my bowl, and dressed it. A few minutes later later (thank goodness) someone passed me a baked potato. At this point, there was significant conversation in progress around the table. I looked at my plate, with its baked potato, green beans and cantaloupe, and over at my tossed salad. I looked at the other end of the table, at the cucumbers in vinegar (a personal favorite), the fried chicken, and especially the butter and sour cream. Adding up the facts, namely (1) I really already had plenty to eat, (2) conversation was actively underway, and (3) I didn’t want to appear self-centered by interrupting everyone else, I decided to let social convention reign, so I ate what I had, including a very plain baked potato.

Let the record show that this decision caused me no physical or emotional harm. In fact I’m convinced that this exercise of social convention might have actually been good for me, like building up a muscle.

I’m sure the next baked potato I encounter will prove my point. But you might want to keep an eye on your meatballs.

Advertising, the Indian Ocean, and My Attic

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Admittedly, it’s an odd train of thought that draws a connection between advertising and my attic via the Indian Ocean. But, as I stated in January, I’m peculiar.


Among the many thoughtful presences and presentsez I received for Father’s Day was a book from Becca, Made By Hand – Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, by Mark Frauenfelder. Mark is editor-in-chief of Make magazine, a contemporary guide to doing things yourself. Historically, Americans have been self-reliant and inventive, but our culture seems to have shifted away from these virtues. In the first chapter of his book, Mark blames this shift on a guy named Edward Bernays, who is Sigmund Freud’s nephew. As Mark puts it, “Bernays used his famous uncle’s ideas about the drives and desires surging below the surface of our rational, fact-based consciousness to brainwash millions of people into becoming consumers instead of makers and fixers.” I hate to just keep quoting verbatim, but the word “brainwash” is a strong accusation, and I think Mark defends its use well. He says that Bernays did this by”persuading people to buy products and proposals through tantalizing depictions of fantasy worlds that stoked their unconscious urges, instincts, and … impulses. His campaigns sidestepped rational thought, appealing to the subconscious parts of the mind — the parts immune to logical argument.” And, to the companies who hired him, the best part of this trick was that “no matter how much stuff people bought, they never felt satisfied.”

I’ve always been suspicious of advertising. Now I have a better idea why – because so much of it circumvents logic and goes right to the soft, emotional underbelly. But how does this relate to my train of thought? Here’s one more quote. “In Bernay’s time, advertisers had to convince people that homemade clothing was shameful, home-canned food was unsanitary, and old cars symbols of failure.”

Now, don’t expect me to start making my own clothes any time soon, but I resonate with the notion that making and fixing are still noble virtues. I was delighted Wednesday night when Ben (with me offering advice by phone) successfully diagnosed and repaired his air conditioning system. I think he was pretty pleased, too. In fact, all of my family members show similar appreciation for, and tendencies toward, making and fixing.

The Indian Ocean

The story of the 16-year-old girl who tried to sail around the world has elicited lots of conversation. Before continuing with my original train of thought, I’ll offer two modest comments. (1) From reading Joshua Slocumb’s circa 1900 account of his own Sailing Alone Around the World, I concluded that, in addition to his prodigious skill and experience, significant amounts of good fortune and/or divine intervention were critical to his success. And (2), from watching my own children grow up, I conclude that the subtle but important powers of maturity and wisdom come slowly to youth.

In an attempt to understand a little more about Abby Sunderland before rendering a premature assessment, I took a look at some earlier entries in her blog, back before she had achieved notoriety by getting in trouble then getting rescued. I was quite impressed by her approach to the venture, and by her calm and logical approach to the string of problems she documents. Her problems on one particular day included the loss of the hydraulics on her main auto-pilot (a critical system for a solo sailor), and the loss of the display screen on her back-up auto-pilot. She seemed to have a sound plan for finding and repairing the hydraulic leak as soon as the wind abated enough for her to lash the tiller to enable her to troubleshoot the mechanisms.

I also ran across notes from another adventurer, Reid Stowe, who set sail with his female companion nearly three years ago to try to sail non-stop as long as possible without docking or replenishing supplies. After 300 days, his companion felt the need to leave the voyage due to morning sickness. (Perhaps they forgot something important when they provisioned the boat?) Even with that unexpectant (pun intended) change of plans, they still managed to set records for the longest non-stop voyage for a female and for a couple. Reid continued the sail on his own, remaining at sea a total of 1152 days without docking or replenishing supplies, breaking several additional solo records.

Two things impressed me right off the bat about his journey. First, he is nearly as old as I am. Not that I feel in the least bit old, but that was encouraging. And second, he clearly had to make and fix lots of stuff during his voyage. There’s a picture on his blog of him repairing a torn sail. He was light-hearted enough that he cut the patch in the shape of a heart. What a softie!

I’ve concluded, with a bare minimum of research, that boating, sailing in particular, lends itself to making and fixing in a great degree, perhaps more so than any other form of transportation. Unlike flying, you can stop sailing without the certainty of disastrous results. Depending on the boat, there are plenty of electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, and electronic devices to break, not to mention lines and sails and anchoring equipment. While there arguably exist aquatic versions of AAA such as SeaTow, they are not nearly as convenient, nor as economical as the automotive equivalent. And a well-equipped boat can sustain one’s existence for quite a long time while one ponders and mulls potential repair options. The previously referenced Patrick O’Brian stories, based on factual tales from British naval lore, include multiple stories of ships’ crews spending months on an island while the carpenter and boatswain build and repair parts that enable them to sail back to civilization. Sailing offers a rich tradition of make and fix stories.

My Attic

I should clarify that my attic is not a boat, nor do I hope it ever becomes one. But for several years now I’ve been pondering a “make or fix” idea for improving the summertime cooling efficiency of my residence. The modest house I share with my patient spouse features gable vents at the ends of the attic, and, as of the last roofing job, a ridge vent running the length of the roofline. It also has a thermostatically-controlled vent fan on one of the gable vents that pre-dates the ridge vent. During the summer, this vent fan typically runs for 3-4 hours every hot night. This is clearly not an efficient solution. My suspicion was that it was simply sucking relatively cool air backwards through the ridge vent, then blowing it back outside, rather than moving the heated air out of the attic.

Last weekend I implemented a proof-of-concept version of my plan. I cut a large circle out of the soffit overhanging the front side of the house, and bolted on a vent fan in reverse, so it would pressurize the attic space. I chose the front side of the house because it faces easterly, so the air is cooler during the hot afternoon. The idea was that, by pressurizing the attic space, hot air would be forced out through any and all available openings, presumably being replaced by the cooler outside air.

The first night I tried it, the gable vent fan turned itself off less than two hours after I turned on the pressurizing fan. It felt like a success. The next day, I ordered a digital thermometer with a wireless “outside” sensor. When it arrived on Thursday, I tried another test. My main concern was that the pressurized air would be finding its way into the cooled part of the house, through the attic fan louvers, or through the pull-down attic stairs.

This experiment also seemed to confirm that my idea may be viable. The pressure fan reduced the attic temperature about 10 degrees in two hours, while raising the temperature of the hall (where the attic fan and stairs are located) less than a degree.

My analysis is not perfect – I should really take into account other variables such as the outside air temperature and the impact of clouds. And I should try recording experimental data both with and without the use of the pressure fan. But for now, I’m convinced enough that I plan to move forward to the next phase, which is re-locating the ugly fan bolted to the outside of my front soffit to a more palatable location. My wife is indeed patient, but even she has her limits.

I have other examples of the make and fix mentality, some perhaps more impressive, most considerably less so. But I do enjoy the pleasure of making and fixing, in a nautical setting or not. I encourage you to join the movement. Follow the paths set by Mark, Abby, Reid, and even your humble scribe. Find a project to make or fix and attack it fearlessly. Let me know if you need help!

Clawing off a lee shore

Monday, June 14th, 2010

In the 5 years I’ve been sailing, I have thought of at least a dozen sailing situations which could serve as life lessons. Here’s one that struck me recently.

Like any discipline, sailing has its own collection of unique terminology, much of it going back centuries. For example, what looks like a “rope” to a landlubber might be a sheet, a halyard, a rode, or a line. A ship, of course, has a port side and a starboard side, a bow and a stern.

Since sailing craft are powered by wind, there are many terms to describe wind and wind direction. The side of a boat that the wind is blowing toward is, naturally, the windward side. Not so obviously, the other side is the leeward side. Even less obvious is the pronunciation: loo’-erd.

Lee shore

Generally leeward implies calm and peaceful, but there is a notable exception. Historically, the term “lee shore” struck fear into the heart of a sailor. A lee shore is on the leeward side of the boat. That means that the wind is blowing the boat directly toward shore. This is not a good thing.

If a skilled crew realizes the situation soon enough, and the boat is nimble enough, they can sail the boat at an angle into the wind, tacking back and forth, pulling away from the shore slightly with each tack. In his great Master and Commander sailing series, Patrick O’Brian calls this “clawing off the lee shore.”

Another option for dealing with a lee shore is simply to anchor securely and wait until the wind shifts. Of course, anchoring itself has challenges, particularly under a stressful condition, such as being blown toward a lee shore.


The worst outcome is for the boat to ground itself on the lee shore. Now wind direction, wind speed, tides and tidal currents all conspire to make freeing a grounded ship very challenging.

One way of freeing a grounded ship is physically pull it off of the grounding shore. A heavy rope called a hawser is attached to a fixed object farther off shore. Ideally another ship, firmly anchored, is used.

In the absence of another ship, an anchor may be placed in small ship’s boat to be rowed off shore, where the anchor is firmly secured on the sea floor. Then the hawser or anchor line is pulled from on board the grounded ship, as it tries to free itself, usually with a powered reel called a windlass.

The term for this latter process is “kedging” or “kedging off.” A generic way to describe it might be to say that an immobile entity (e.g., a ship) can be freed by the assistance of another vessel.

Kedging partner

My spouse discovered an analogous use of “kedging” in a book she read recently. The chapter was about exercise, and how to motivate yourself. The notion of kedging in this context is similar to having an exercise partner, or someone else to whom you are accountable, but it seems to me that it’s a little different. There’s no explicit cajoling or intentional motivational involved. It’s more subtle. If one of us doesn’t feel like exercising, but the other does, the exerciser serves as a positive form of encouragement. We each have different exercise and motivational cycles, so we don’t always exercise at the same time, nor do we do the same exercise. But we both succumb to the “I don’t want to do it right now” syndrome. I guess we are immune to traditional motivation tactics, having seen most of them many times over, but the simple fact that the other person is finding time to work out is encouraging to the “lazy” one, which, admittedly, is usually me.

Not only does it work for exercise, but we have we have also applied it to other endeavours, such as eating right, working in the yard, cleaning up the house, all sorts of tasks where extra motivation is sometimes (often, in my case) needed.

I think for different people at different stages of life, different ways of avoiding the lee shore may be appropriate. If you are foresighted, you’ll see it coming and can steer around it. If you are nimble, you can claw yourself off of it. If you are patient, anchor and wait for the wind to change. But if you are fortunate enough to find a kedging partner, you are blessed indeed.

The image is the USS Chesapeake, by F Muller, from the Navy Art Collection, via Wikimedia Commons. Quoting from Wikimedia, “This image is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made during the course of the person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.”


Monday, June 7th, 2010

My affinity for the magic of telephones and the telephone network started back when normal mortals were not allowed to purchase or install a telephone. I’ve seen a lifetime’s worth of changes in the industry, enough to bore even the most pretend-interested listener. Fortunately, Louis Jenkins has captured the emotion of change in a prose poem.

The Telephone

In the old days telephones were made of
rhinoceros tusk and were big and heavy enough
to be used to fight off an intruder. The telephone
had a special place in the front hallway, a shrine
built into the wall, a niche previously occupied
by the blessed virgin, and when the phone
rang it was serious business. “Hello.” “One if
by land and two if by sea.” “What?” “Unto you
a child is born.” “What?” “What did he say?”
“Something about the Chalmers’ barn.” The
voice was carried by a single strand of bare wire
running from coast to coast, wrapped around a
Coke bottle stuck on a tree branch, dipping low
over the swamp, it was the party line, all your
neighbors in a row, out one ear and in another.
“We have a bad connection, I’m having trouble
understanding you.”

Nowadays telephones are made of recycled
plastic bags and have multiplied to the point
where they have become a major nuisance.
The point might ring at you from anywhere, the
car, the bathroom, under the couch cushions…
Everyone hates the telephone. No one uses the
telephone anymore so telephones, out of habit
or boredom or loneliness perhaps, call one
another. “Please leave a message at the tone.”
“I’m sorry, this is a courtesy call. We’ll call back at
a more convenient time. There is no message.”

The Telephone by Louis Jenkins from Before You Know It: Prose Poems 1970-2005.

I bumped into this poem in Garrison Keillor’s always inspiring Writer’s Almanac on April 22, 2010.

Nature and Technology

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

When I was a year old, we moved to a house on a dead-end dirt road. The road turned a corner just to the right of our front door, headed down a small hill, and stopped at the creek at the bottom of the hill. My childhood years there were full of the marvels of nature. I could stomp through the creek, climb the nearby hills, and wander through the woods for hours. I would fish a little, maybe shoot my BB gun, but mostly just absorb the sights, sounds, and smells of the woods that seemed to extend forever.

I entered first grade wearing thick glasses, switching to a relatively new invention called “contact lenses” as a rising high school freshman. For a long time, I wondered what my life would have been like without those visual aids, because they were not merely a convenience, but allowed me to read the words on the blackboard, recognize friends across the street, catch a ball, even see the stars in the sky. I don’t wonder about that very much any more, but I am reminded of the impact of technology on my life every morning, when I wake up to a blurry world.

We are spending a few days at a rental house on a nearby lake. The house is cleverly designed and well-built. From the cypress paneling inside the house, to the stand of hardwood trees surrounding the house, to the charm of the lake, and the broad expanse of sky, there is an abundance of natural beauty.

Yet much of the pleasure of our stay here comes from the graceful interweaving of technology. It ranges from the obvious presence of a guest iMac (!), an extensive array of audio-visual gear, and a collection of stainless steel kitchen equipment, to the more subtle absence of humidity thanks to the quietly efficient air conditioning system, and absence of outside noise due to the double-paned sliding glass doors.

Some of the local technology is somewhat less than graceful, however. We brought our small canoe, and my sister-in-law and her husband graciously loaned us their two Hobie kayaks, complete with pedal-powered flippers. These human-powered craft are a great way to enjoy the calmness of the lake in the early morning and late evening hours of the day. But the star of the aquatic show during our stay has been a borrowed 3-seater jet-ski that will go faster than my first car, and will pull water-toy riders around the lake with ease. How things change. One morning I’m an antique curmudgeon, tweeting about the “infernal combustion engines” buzzing around the lake, and the next day I’m stomping my massive carbon- and noise-footprint all around the cove like a modern-day Neanderthal Poseidon, not to mix too many metaphors. The only consolation to my sensitivities is that I am merely one of many splashy noisemakers on the lake this busy Memorial Day weekend.

But as much as I enjoy the quietness of nature, don’t look for me to curse technology. I think I have a pretty reasonable view of its real benefits. Not just the pleasures of comfortable housing in winter and summer, or the fact I make a good living trying to understand, explain, and expand humankind’s increasingly powerful communication capabilities. The more important benefits of technology for me are the improvements in comfort, quality and length of our lives, and the benefits of medical advances, including my human-made ability to see objects clearly at a distance. We live longer and more comfortably thanks to technology.

When I was younger, I thought I loved rain. As I got older (wiser?), I realized that what I really love is being dry in the rain. That means technology – a good roof, a good pair of boots, a good hat, a slicker or even an umbrella.

Even this massive lake itself, it turns out, is a creation of human technology. Dammed by the Corps of Engineers decades ago, it produces electrical power for nearby cities and fun for nearby citizens. It is considered a significant asset to our state.

But, at the same time, I don’t automatically bow to the capricious deities of technology. For example, I still use a mug and brush to lather up, and an antique double-edged razor to shave with. For a while I even used a straight razor, learning to sharpen it on a leather strop by painful trial and error, but the speed and safety of the double-edge work better for me. I don’t resist technology, but nor do I naively assume that all inventions make our lives better.

Thanks to my inescapable visual impairment, I learned early on to live with the often conflicting perspectives of nature and technology. Frankly, I love them both, particularly when they get along. I like to think that my affection for nature helps guide my technological choices, and vice-versa. I don’t blindly (pun surely unintended) assume that either is the superior option.

The dirt road of my childhood has long since been paved. The creek was bridged, then dammed (damned?) to make a small fishing pond. The downhill road now connects to a major thoroughfare, and the woods were turned into subdivisions years ago. One of my sisters lives in one of the adjoining neighborhoods. I miss the woods of my childhood, but I have learned to accept actual progress, those technological advances that truly makes our lives better.

I have wasted entirely too much time trying to figure out how to draw this essay to a clever close, to impart some pithy observation or priceless piece of advice to you, in return for your patient reading. I give up. I simply offer up a bifurcated prayer for you, that you will be able to revere and appreciate the irreplaceable natural delights of Creation, while also cautiously adopting those technological advantages that truly make your life better. Amen.