Sunday, July 27, 2008

Vietnam and Martial Arts

One of my martial arts teachers sent us an email with the following
article. It is a biography about the man who founded our style. It
has his perspective of the Vietnam War, and a lot of other interesting


For those of you not familiar with the Cuong Nhu timeline, O'Sensei
finished his degree in 1974 and returned to Vietnam, where he was
captured by the Communists in 1975 and placed under house arrest until
his escape in 1977.

The Tallest Tree
Written By: Gail Malone

As a teenager, Ngo Dong frequently left his home in Hanoi flanked by
two of five older brothers and with a half dozen issues of LIFE
magazine stuffed inside his shirt.

These privileged sons of Ngo Khanh Thuc, then attorney general of the
northern sector of Vietnam, were not bound for the library but for the
back alleys and cheap dives of the city and an almost certain run-in
with the small-time hustlers and professional streetfighters they
would encounter there. They would sit and down quantities of beer, all
the while looking to fight. So the hefty magazines - three covering
the lower back, three across the chest - did not offer the brothers
information or enlightenment, but protection against the homely
weapons of the street: knives, chains and bottle shards.

Though they were favored products of Vietnamese aristocracy, Dong and
his young allies were far from soft. With a messianic idea to rid the
world of "hoodlums and thugs" they fought again and again, gaining
strength and experience; becoming themselves cautious and savvy
streetfighters. Yet at the same time they were mindless and
destructive, little better morally than those they sought to

But it has been years since those early bloodlettings in the streets
of Hanoi and Ngo Dong has come a long way. Now 36, Dong is a husband,
the father of four, a respected university professor, the author of
over ten books, and has been characterized by many as a hero of the
South in his country's relentless civil war. He is also the master of
a number of martial arts, holding black belts of varying degrees in
Judo, karate and Aikido.

Indeed, Dong has become many things over the years, not the least of
which is the moral and spiritual leader of over 3,300 students of his
own Cuong nhu karate. Close to 350 of these karateka are Americans --
students, faculty and staff at the University of Florida in
Gainesville where Dong is currently working toward a Ph.D. in
entomology;1 and where the Sensei spends countless hours instructing
four karate classes three nights a week in the basement of Florida
Gym, or on the Astroturf of the Florida football Gator's home field.

Two decades from streetbrawler to Sensei, the master of his own style
-- the change in Ngo Dong has been radical. But it has been subtle as
well, for no single event turned the hotheaded, arrogant boy into the
controlled, self-assured man. Still, it has not been an uneventful
twenty years. Ngo Dong has by no means led an ordinary life, likely
because he is an extraordinary man.

Dong was always good in a gang fight; even better than his brothers.
He had to be good, as did most young Vietnamese men, for then as now
streetfighting in the cities was rampant.

"I was taught other martial arts in school a long time before I took
up karate," says Dong. "All Vietnamese children are instructed in
martial arts because in my country streetfighting takes place anytime,
anywhere, daily, and so everybody has to learn something to be safe."

Dong learned and practiced Vovinam, the Vietnamese martial art, but so
did most of his contemporaries. Vovinam was no real challenge to the
strength, experience and sheer indifference to pain displayed by
hardened streetfighters; nor would it be very effective against even
crude weapons. So Dong was "very cautious, very careful" not to let an
opponent gain what might be the fatal edge. He never went out alone or
unarmed. He trained himself to "recognize who is the professional
streetfighter" in an instant and be ready to attack.

Dong's brothers eventually were injured. One stopped a knife with an
elbow block; the other took a blade full in the stomach. Dong was
never hurt; he was "too wise, too quick." Yet after his brothers were
wounded, he was wise enough to see that continuing this life for very
long would be foolish. Dong had rationalized the recurring violence as
a social necessity; as a way to purge society of those who were evil.

"But it is no good if you behave the same way as the hoodlums you are
fighting," says Dong. "In the same time I fight with them I become
just like them -- a hoodlum."

Moreover, Dong found that even the most incessant fighting was a
painfully slow way to rid the world of hoodlums, for no matter how
many are eliminated "others will always grow to replace them." "It was
a social problem," says Dong, "and you cannot eradicate such a problem
at the top. Like a tree, you have to eradicate it at the roots."

So Dong put an end to three years of senseless fighting. The decision,
he says, "came with maturity." He was just eighteen at the time.

In that same year, 1954, political turmoil in Vietnam, finally split
the country at the 17th parallel. Dong's father moved his family from
the communist North to Saigon. The elder Ngo had become the attorney
general of Central Vietnam, headquartered in Hue. After two years in
the southern capital, Dong moved to that ancient city en the Perfume
River to make his home. He would study life sciences at the University
of Hue where he would eventually become an instructor and be named
head of the laboratory of zoology.

Never satisfied to do one thing at a time, Dong was soon involved in a
number of activities in addition to his work as a student and later as
an instructor at the University. Like most college students he went in
for extra-curricular pursuits, applying his considerable ability as an
organizer to directing the drama team and the school theater. Dong is
also an accomplished guitarist and possessed of quite a goad singing
voice that one American observer has said "can take a song and enter
right into your soul." So the young man was often in demand as a band
singer at the University, at clubs around Hue, and on radio and
television. As was his custom, Dong always performed without pay. His
refusal to take money for anything other than his instructorship was
to become a rule of thumb in subsequent years as Dong undertook other,
less frivolous, voluntary activities, including what would amount to
an avocation---teaching karate.

Dong's childhood background in Vovinam had been supplemented by
training in Wing Chun. But he began intensive training in the martial
arts only after moving to Hue. He first studied in a commercial dojo
under a Japanese captain, Choji Suzuki (later founder of Suzucho
karate) who had remained in Vietnam following World War II to teach
Takeno-uchiryu and Shotokan to policemen.

By his own admission, Dong became "fanatic" about karate, working out
in two ninety minute sessions, five days a week, and at any odd
moments he could spare. But he was more than zealous, he was a student
of exceptional skill. By the time he became a brown belt, having
surpassed classmates who were ranking green belts when he began, Dong
helped Sensei Suzuki teach the junior classes. A third advanced
session was held for Dong and one other student.

Natural ability played a large part in Dong's advancement, but he also
learned easily because he was accustomed to the hard style of
Shotokan---he'd been using similar, if less efficient techniques for

"In the beginning I had learned Wing Chun from my two oldest brothers.
But I didn't understand what good Wing Chun was for it was soft
style." says Dong. Because soft style martial arts generally take more
years of study and are primarily defensive rather than offensive arts,
Wing Chun had not been useful to Dong in his fighting days. Basing his
judgment on this experience, when he began studying karate in earnest,
he chose a hard style because he "just understood the effectiveness of
kicking and punching."

But after years of work and a fourth degree black belt in Shotokan,
Dong discovered Aikido. He learned the newest of martial arts from
Ernie Cates, an American lieutenant doing a hitch in Vietnam from 1965
to '67, who had once been a member of the United States Olympic Judo
team. During this time, Dong also took a Black belt in Judo. He had
hit stride with these most accommodating martial arts.

He finally "understood the effectiveness of the soft style," and felt
that there had been something lacking in his Shotokan training. Sensei
Suzuki had not placed the spiritual emphasis on ki that Dong found in
Aikido and its application of inner sources of universal strength that
enables the smallest person to "accommodate" and overcome the brute
force of the most formidable opponent, nor had Suzuki's instruction
been geared toward building his students' moral character.

But Dong had had enough of purposeless kicking and punching; for him,
karate had to be more useful, of more lasting value than the physical
activity level.

"Breaking four boards, five bricks....what will you do with this?"
Dong says. "You can learn kicking and punching and maybe never have
reason to use it in daily life."

"I think most important are the moral characteristics you get from
practicing karate: endurance, perseverance, courage, self-esteem,
self-confidence, self-control and humility.

Dong realized that physical prowess, no matter how well developed, is
transient. It may serve a person for several years or be gone
tomorrow. In any case it can't last. But the power of the spirit, the
moral character will endure.

"In the beginning I didn't understand this," he says, "because my
level was too low. Like when you are taught philosophy in the ninth
grade, you cannot understand it. But when you get a Ph.D. in
philosophy you will understand and you can then be found your own
theory of philosophy."

In essence Dong had received his Ph.D. in karate, and was qualified in
terms of rank and teaching experience to found in his "theory." If his
teacher "had been a good one from an ideological point of view," Dong
might never have broken away to develop his own style. As it was he
saw the need to blend the spiritual and physical aspects of karate
into an ideological framework that would offer a pattern for living.

"For me, Karate is a way of life," he says. "It is a tool to use, not
an end in itself."

He didn't abandon Shotokan, however, but modified and combined its
techniques with soft styles he'd learned and in 1965 founded Cuong Nhu
(hard-soft in Vietnamese) karate. Cuong Nhu caught on quickly,
attracting over 3,000 students in less than five years. It soon became
the third largest martial arts school in Vietnam, ranking behind Tae
Kwon Do and Judo and was the largest school in Dong's city of Hue.

Cuong Nhu Was clearly more than just another style of karate. It
proved an ideological touchstone for its students--- young people who
had grown up in a sadly disjointed and war-torn society that was
hard-pressed to meet their spiritual needs. Dong taught karate
techniques to help his students "improve themselves, to build
themselves up physically, to perfect their personalities and to use
all this to achieve something in daily life and to serve society."

Vietnam was certainly in need of popular cooperation to improve in
expressively heart conditions brought about by the years of conflict;
so the principal Dong taught we're getting more than lip-service, but
they were put into practice by master and students. For such public
service the communists would offer a bounty of 600,000 piasters
($8,000) for Dong's life.

The people of Hue had for years held themselves apart from the South
Vietnamese anti-communist effort. Hue University students and local
Buddhist leaders in had been particularly vocal in opposing the
government in the south. But following the 1968 Tet offensive and the
mass murder of over 4,000 civilians by communist forces, the people of
Hue according to Dong, "woke up from a dream." (The three week siege
was so intense and that most citizens in the city could not leave
their homes. One morning at 4 o'clock during the height of the
offensive, Dong's daughter was born. Because of the danger, Dong could
not move his wife out of the house, nor could his next door neighbor,
a Physician, come to Mrs. Dong's aid. So, assisted by his
brother-in-law and armed with a single page of instructions smuggled
from the doctor, Dong performed the delivery himself.)

If the citizens of Hue were far from satisfied with the Saigon regime,
and neither were they willing to become so much cannon fodder for the
North. Dong and his students were soon in the forefront of an effort
to mobilize the people in and around Hue in their own defense. After
the old Citadel had been re-secured from the North Vietnamese Army,
Dong organized his Cuong Nhu students, other students from the
university and high schools, and later laborers, farmers and
government workers into a division of the South Vietnamese Peoples'
Self-Defense Forces (PSDF). Appointed by the chief military officer of
the province, Dong commanded fifty and hundred-troop units, which
ultimately totaled over 27,000 male and female volunteers.

These groups were trained to not only as defensive forces, but for the
first time under a Dong's leadership were used as a means to create a
sense of community among the people. Dong took teams of PSDF
volunteers into surrounding hamlets for "Sunday Help Programs" where
they distributed food, worked with villagers to restore roads and
buildings, administered first aid for minor wounds, and organized
chorales and plays that dramatized government efforts to protect the

Because these community programs were highly successful, Hue's PSDF
and Commander Dong became major irritants to the communists. Dong's
thereat to the North was doubly great for a number of reasons, so to
stop him and the PSDF from obstructing communist progress in the
south, and to discourage other potential volunteers of Dong's stature
from following his example, the communists put a sizable price on his
head---one thirty times greater than his annual salary as a professor.

Despite the danger, Dong continued his activities because the poor
people in the countryside that he had come to know as a PSDF commander
had won his lasting affection.

"I love the farmers and the poor people," he says. "They are poor but
their hears are very clean, very simple. They will share anything with
you, help anyone they can."

And Dong wanted to go on helping them by improving their country,
making it more responsive to their needs, but this would require
further education. A master's degree and a doctorate in entomology
(the study of insects) what enabled Dong to advance his country's
agricultural economy to raise the standard of living.

So after obtaining the necessary funds through the Agency for
International Development, Dong took six-month crash course in English
and in March 1971, traveled to the United States to take the advanced
degrees. In addition, he came determined to expand his style of karate
to the West and took the first opportunity to found an American branch
of the Cuong Nhu Karate School.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Moving Money

Our fellowship money from the summer study sessions and Ayn Rand
reading arrived today. We were first told that it would be a series
of standard direct deposits, but for some reason it arrived in the
form of a single $2500 check. There are two things I can so with such
a check: I can walk downtown to the issuing bank and get it cashed,
or I can wait until I go home and have my credit union put it in my
account. Obviously the wise thing to do is wait, because my martial
arts skills are not yet advanced enough for me to be completely
comfortable walking around with that much cash.

But, as I held the check, my first thoughts were as follows:

"Aww man, why did I have to pay my tuition yesterday? It would have
been awesome to cash this check, make the cashier give me half of it
in the form of one dollar bills, and fill my backpack with bricks of
cash. Then I could have walked into the Bursar's office, said, 'I'm
here to pay next semester's tuition', and started shoveling massive
wads of cash out of my backpack. The look on the teller's face would
have been priceless."

But I wouldn't really have done it. While I may have the cleverness
to come up with such stunts, I also have the wisdom to avoid them.

"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Bartlett's Quotations

I grabbed a 1955 edition of Bartlett's Quotations from the shelved of
the department library and began flipping through it. The book is
organized chronologically, by the birth date of the author of the
quote. Sometimes I will know every author on the page, sometimes I
will recognize none.

The highest rate of recognition seems to come from people born from
1804 to 1806: Disraeli, Hawthorne, de Toqueville, Wilberforce,
Garrison, Mill. Earlier and later time periods tend to be filled with
people I don't know. I don't know of this says more about that period
in history, or my education.

There is a huge difference in my appreciation of the quote when I know
something about the author. Context is golden. The purpose of a
general education should be to give you the context to understand,
absorb, and appreciate all the random facts you encounter in your
life. This does not happen with most education today. It saddens me
to know that so many people do not have enough general knowledge about
the world to put things like these quotes into context.

I was disappointed to see only three Steinbeck quotes. I think he
should have rated more, especially since they gave Emerson eight whole
pages. Maybe this has been corrected in later editions.

I found one quote/poem so good that I wanted to share it. The author
is Stoddard King, a songwriter in the early 1900's. He is so obscure
that he does not even have a Wikipedia entry:

A writer owned an asterisk
And kept it in his den
Where he wrote tales ( which had large sales )
Of frail and erring men,
And always, when he reached the point
Where carping censors lurk,
He called upon the Asterisk
To do his dirty work.

The poem, in its memorable and amusing way, tells a lot about social
standards. It seems to be a universal rule that people are fascinated
by anything that is just over the line of socially acceptable, no
matter where the line is drawn. If something is within the limits,
people are bored by it. If something is too far past the limit,
people recoil in terror. But the money is made by pushing the limit a
little. This, of course, has the effect of moving the limit a bit
further out, as the risqué eventually becomes the passé.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Victorian Novel

I just finished reading a fun novel written in 1903: The Magnetic Girl

I know that the 'Victorian' period technically ended in 1901, but this is close enough. In terms of cultures and attitudes, the 'Victorian' age really lasted until World War 1. This book is certainly not Modernist.

The book was recommended by another blog. Unlike the stereotypical Victorian novel, it does not feature long, boring, endless descriptions of minutiae. It is easy and fast to read. This is probably because the book was clearly intended to be a mass-market work, not a literary work. The last 20 or so pages of the book is actually a catalog of other books available from the publisher.

The book was advertised as a 'long novel' but it is quite short by the standards of today's popular novels. There is not really a lot of meat to the novel; it would have been better as a short story. The middle of the book, where all the 'action' takes place, is somewhat boring and can be skipped or skimmed. The fun part is the thoughts of the narrator.

The book is basically a first-person account of a young lady who makes a wish to be extremely attractive, and has that wish granted for a day. Her attitude is surprisingly modern and progressive; she hates the way that the women around her devote their entire lives to following fashions and attracting men. She also has some very feminist things to say about men, how they act, and what they are good for.

Yet despite this, the main value of the book is that it is a period piece. It is an excellent look into history. It gives the reader a glimpse into life in 1903 London, and the kind of thing that people read for fun over a hundred years ago. I also learned a couple new words. I'd recommend it for anyone who has a few hours to spare and is interested in literature and/or that time period.

The link above is the only place you will be able to find the book; the copyright has expired so Google shows the whole book. If you do read it and you are not already well-versed in Victorian, have an unabridged dictionary handy as you read it. Also, I should mention that a 'grenadier' is a very large, strong, well-built soldier; that word is used a lot and it is assumed that the audience knows what it means. A modern author would use 'bodybuilder' or 'football player' in that context.

Financial Literacy

This article was surprising and disturbing, but in hindsight it really
should not have been:

The main point of the article is that a lot of people cannot answer
really basic questions about personal finance. They also say that
nobody really knows the details about the ignorance, because nobody
has studied it. This is probably because people who have the
qualifications to study financial literacy will assume that everybody
knows the basic stuff.

But when I stop to think about it, most of my financial literacy comes
from the Larry Burkett radio show. If you've never heard of him, he
was a financial expert who ran a talk and advice show. He would
explain the basics of financial planning, budgeting, interest rates,
etc. and give advice to people who called in. It was aired on the
Christian radio station, and my parents would listen to him in the car
when I was a kid.

They taught nothing about this in school. Our eighth grade health
teacher did a class on filling out tax forms, and she may have given
some vague recommendation to save money, but that was it. When I went
to college, I took accounting and finance classes. But they were
mainly designed to teach you the skills to be a corporate office
drone; there was very little on personal finance. And outside the
College of Business, there was nothing at all.

So the complete ignorance on financial matters is not surprising.
Nobody teaches it. Our school system makes algebra, which is useless
for 95% of the population, a graduation requirement, while teaching
absolutely nothing about interest rates and balancing budgets. All
information about money comes from friends and family, charities, or
people who are trying to sell you something.

As far as I can tell, churches and religious groups seem to be the
only people trying to teach financial literacy in a systematic way.
It is a sad comment on our society that an organization devoted to the
health of the soul finds it necessary to teach the ways of Mammon.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Piles of Money

The pastor's sermon today was about money. During the sermon, he
pulled a large manila envelope from under the pulpit. He reached into
it and started pulling out bricks of cash and stacking them on top of
the pulpit. It was ten bricks of 100 $1 bills.

I have never seen such a pile of money in my life, and the sight was
disturbingly powerful. I routinely deal with sums of money larger
than $1000 on checks and computer screens, and it does not affect me
at all. But the sight of piles of money is much more visceral; I felt
a brief flash of violent, animalistic greed when looking at the bricks
of cash.

I think this happens because, when we are little children, we deal
mostly with cash, and a dozen $1 bills would be a lot of money. When
you are an adult, you start dealing with money in the abstract, so you
use a different part of your mind. Seeing that pile of cash took me
back to a childhood view of money, and activated a different and more
primitive part of my mind.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Decline of the State

I just finished reading this article:

From the New Middle Ages to a New Dark Age: The Decline of the State
and U.S. Strategy:

I will summarize the author's points, and then give my comments:


The nation-state is in decline, and that many other organizations are
asserting their power. States have failed to provide for their
citizens, and security for the average citizen has little to do with
the armies and diplomacy of their state. People are turning to
non-state groups for their security. The rise of terrorists, criminal
gangs, and tribal loyalties is not a temporary problem, but the start
of a new system of world affairs. The U.S. must recognize this, and
learn how to deal with situations where the central government of a
state has no real power.


I noticed that the work was internally inconsistent with regard to
actions in Iraq. The author wants to escape 'statocentric' thinking,
but then he seems to criticize the Anbar awakening on the grounds that
it will make it harder to form a stable central government. If states
are doomed to failure, as he claims, then the only responsible course
of action is to work outside that government and help the tribes
create a stable environment.

I also found it telling that the author repeatedly claims that states
are failing to meet the needs of their citizens. Governments of all
kinds are spending more on social and domestic programs than at any
time in the past, and yet states are in more danger of falling apart.
This tells me that states are failing to fulfill their primary

I believe that the purpose of a state is to maintain law and order, to
protect the lives, rights, and property of its citizens with competent
and non-corrupt police, courts, and military forces. Any state that
fails to do this has failed in its primary mission and lost its reason
for existence. As the author points out, a great many states are
failing either because they never did this, or because the are losing
these capabilities.

I do not believe that states are doomed to failure. A state that
fulfills its primary function well, without becoming disracted by
other matters, will show its value and be supported by its citizens.
But I do agree any state that fails to do its job will soon be
revealed as an empty shell. We must either show states how to to
their job right, and quickly, or deal with the world foretold in this

Friday, July 18, 2008

Zen and the art of Blueberry Picking

We have six extremely productive blueberry bushes, and during the
summer we gather an average of a gallon a day. I can easily fill up a half-gallon bucket
in 30 minutes. While blackberry picking is like a combat challenge,
blueberry picking is very peaceful and relaxing. There are no
distractions, no interruptions, and no need to move around. Life
compresses to me and the bush and the bucket. I enter a zone of
timeless but purposeful action, gathering berries with an unhurried
but efficient economy of motion.

Thanks to years of practice, I can fill the bucket with berries about three
times as fast as an inexperienced picker. The key to efficient berry
picking is not to let your hand make too many trips to the bucket. I
pick the berries with my thumb and forefinger, while the rest of my
fingers form a kind of cup with my palm. My hands wander around the
bush, seemingly guided by my eyes alone with no conscious thought. I
pluck one or two berries a second, dropping them into my palm, and
dumping a handful in the bucket when my hand is full.

The resulting abundance of blueberries means that, during the summer,
we usually have a very large bowl full of fresh berries in the
kitchen. I find them irresistible. Whenever I pass the bowl, I will
grab a big handful, shove them all in my mouth, and start chewing. It
seems that I can always eat a handful of blueberries, no matter what
time of day it is or what I have eaten recently. There have been days
when about half my calorie intake was in the form of blueberries.

I have a theory about food cravings. I am aware of no empirical
evidence that supports it, but it seems to make sense. My theory is
that appetite depends on nutrients in addition to calories; your body
becomes hungry when it knows that it lacks important vitamins or
minerals. Your body feels deprived, so it sends a signal to your
brain telling you that you need to eat more. However, in our modern
world, most of our food has lots of calories but few nutrients. Thus
a person can can end up both obese and malnourished.

The implication of this is that you can end food cravings and keep
yourself at a healthy weight by eating really healthy food like
blueberries. This strategy works for me. One of my mottoes is "Think
like an angel, eat like an ape."

If you want to read what real scientists are saying about nutrition,
here is a good article published recently:

There is an interesting quote from that article:

"Some foods, [Dr Gómez-Pinilla] concludes, are like pharmaceutical
compounds; their effects are so profound that the mental health of
entire countries may be linked to them."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Blackberry Picking PS: Wasps

When I wrote about picking blackberries earlier, I forgot to mention the wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets that share my love for blackberries. The red wasps are the worst. They are massive, menacing terrors that have the ability to inject you with a large quantity of liquid hellfire if you get in their way. A single sting from one of these monsters can cause more pain than an entire nest of yellowjackets. And they enjoy eating blackberries, especially the gooey overripe ones.

I didn't get stung last week. I have learned how to stay our of their way.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Random Memory: Geography Class

One day in my seventh grade history/geography class, our teacher
decided to make the class play Pictionary. We were supposed to use
the whiteboard to communicate the name of a place without writing any
words. I know that this was not her idea; she did it because it was
recommended by some kind of syllabus or activity guide.

I went first, and got 'Suez Canal'. I quickly sketched a map of
Egypt, drew the location of the canal, and drew a circle around it.
After about four guesses ( 'Egypt?' 'Cairo?' 'Sinai Peninsula?' 'Suez
Canal?' ) the class got the right answer.

Everyone who went after me started doing the same thing. They drew a
map, pointed to a feature, and the class was able to guess the answer
quickly. It was a fun, fast-paced kind of game show experience, and
we were all getting practice with drawing and reading the maps of
things we had studied.

It was obvious that everyone was having fun. It was equally obvious
that we were learning. Even the wrong guesses were helpful for
memory, because they were usually closely related to the right answer,
and that kind of word association is good for building mental maps of

Then, for some reason, the teacher changed the rules on us. She told
us that we were no longer allowed to draw maps. Of course, the game
went downhill after that. The poor souls who got called up to the
board would have to try to think of a way to communicate something
like 'Nigeria' without any maps or words. It was boring, slow,
stressful, and no fun for anybody. And nobody learned anything or
practiced any useful skill.

I have no idea why the teacher did that. I guess that, for some
reason, she decided that we were not doing what the book said we
should be doing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Blackberry Picking

I picked blackberries earlier this morning. For those of you who have
not had this experience, let me describe it:

First, I was wading through a hip-deep mess of poison ivy, weeds, and
brambles in search of the blackberry plants. The ground was rough and
my footing was uncertain. I would often have to maneuver through a
maze of young trees and large bushes. The day was heating up rapidly,
the sun was shining in my face, and I was sweating. Mosquitoes were
buzzing around me. I know for a fact that there are poisonous snakes
in that field.

When I actually find a good patch, I start picking them, and the real
pain begins. No matter how careful I am, my hand always gets
scratched up by the thorns. Picking the berries is somewhat delicate;
if I wear gloves I will ruin and drop the berries. The blackberries
usually grow alongside poison ivy, so I usually get that on my hands
and arms too. Usually this is not a problem, if I take a shower right
after I finish. But if the poison ivy oil gets in a scratch, it
causes a horrific line of blisters.

Why did I do this? Why do I undergo this discomfort and risk a
sprained ankle or snakebite in order to obtain a few quarts of
berries? I did not need the nourishment. Blackberries are really
healthy and have lots of nutrients, but I could get them from other
sources. Blackberry cobbler is good, but by any rational calculation,
it is not worth the effort and risk.

I pick blackberries because it is fun and I like doing it. Why? I'm
not really sure. Maybe, by some instinct, I like the sensation of
fighting the wilderness to get my food. It is a good reminder of what
was once necessary for human survival.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Atomic Nerds

Great Blog:

They often have very good, very detailed posts discussing the science
behind current issues. This is the lecture you wish you got you in
science classes. An excerpt from the latest one:

"The human population and its genetic temperamental makeup is like
what you would get if family-car and race-car parts were distributed
randomly, instead of being assembled by a designer that knew exactly
what he was aiming for. Geniuses are what happens when you get a
complete race car by luck of the draw; the mad are what you get when
you get a car that has a race-car engine and suspension and
family-sedan seatbelts and brakes."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Fact versus Judgement

Yesterday I decided that I would try to jog for an hour. I wanted to
jog along the sidewalk toward the school for 30 minutes, then turn around
and jog back. I jogged out for 18 minutes, then decided to turn
around. But after about 6 more minutes, I gave up and started walking

I feel no guilt or shame over my failure to meet my goal. I
discovered that I could not do it. I know that I probably could have
pushed myself harder, but I did not feel like it. In my mind, my
performance is simply a fact about my endurance and running ability,
with no moral content.

This incident does a lot to explain why I am a happy person, and why I
don't accomplish very much.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


Last night's Fourth of July party featured a lot of serious,
high-powered fireworks, the kind that are illegal in most states.
There were rockets and mortars up to a 3 inch diameter. I could feel
the concussive force when they were launched. Our party was shooting
them off, as were several other people in the vicinity. It sounded
like a war zone, and looked like an alien invasion. It was great.

Friday, July 4, 2008


Yesterday, at the Economics department's Fourth of July cookout, I saw
a mosquito sitting on the leg of another student and sucking her
blood. I reached over and swatted it. She said, without any
hesitation, "Thanks, I didn't see that one. Those things always eat
me up."

It was not until several hours later that I realized that anything
unusual had happened. In most situations, it would be considered rude
to smack someone else's girlfriend in the leg. My action might have
been rewarded with a slap or worse. But everyone there instantly came
to the correct conclusion that I was simply exterminating an insect.