There Were No Choo-Choos in Ancient Israel…

I just thought I’d stop for a moment to recount one of the more amusing episodes of my week. Somewhere after 9 or 10 PM tonight, my wife put on The Santa Clause 3 for my kids to watch. I considered myself done with that franchise after the second movie, so I decided to sit and read Josephus. I’m not reading the complete, five or so volume set. A friend loaned me an edition called "Josephus, the Essential Works". It’s a modern translation that attempts to convey the most relevant parts of Josephus. The translator omitted some extraneous material and duplicated writings, and the book is probably written on a sixth-grade level. In any case, it’s enough to get me off the ground with this essential historian.

 

My kids decided to climb up on the chair with me. Caleb, my two-year old, was about ready to fall asleep so he curled up on my right side where he did eventually succumb to sleepiness rather than stay up until midnight. Joshua, my three-year old, took the book from my hands and started flipping through it. He saw some pictures and started asking questions. I would answer "Oh, that’s the Cave of Machpelah", or "That’s Herod’s Palace" or "That’s Herod’s Temple". Suddenly, while looking at a picture of Jerusalem, he asked where the choo-choos were. I tried to explain that Josephus wrote a good 1800 years before the choo-choo was invented, with the minor exception of some early steam engine technology by engineers in ancient Alexandria. He became obsessed with finding Thomas the Tank Engine within the confines of Josephus.

 

I found that highly amusing and thought I would share it. Forgive the sloppy editing, but I’m up way past my bedtime, and I have partaken of some New Year’s Eve refreshments.

 

Happy New Year!

 

 

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Medical Myths Even Doctors Believe

I came across this article about Medical Myths Even Doctors Believe. I thought it was interesting reading. That common belief in particular about "we only use 10% of our brains" always seemed like bovine fecal matter to me, and this article specifically mentions that belief. Just like my previous post on "Does Watching TV Really Cause Short Attention Spans?", I’ve always figured that statement about unused brain capacity has never really been put through the wringer of critical thinking. It’s just been parroted throughout the years, even by doctors on PBS and Discovery Channel shows.

 

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Why Hasn’t the Ebook Caught On Yet?

You may haimageve heard about the Amazon Kindle. This device for $399, is supposed to be the newest ebook device on the market. The Kindle has received mixed reviews. Some people expect this device to launch a revolution, others are waiting to celebrate it’s failure. I am neither enthusiastic nor pessimistic. I don’t plan on buying a Kindle, but I applaud Amazon’s efforts to produce an ebook device and overcome some of the hurdles to ebook use.

When I read articles and blog posts about ebooks, I keep hearing a common theme: people just like real books too much. I’m not sure I completely agree with that statement. Sure, some books are best in print. Holding the book is a nice experience, but to be honest, not all books are deserving of this treatment. Some books frankly aren’t worth more than one read and could easily be read in electronic format.

I honestly do like the idea of ebooks, but I have avoided adopting the format. For the time being, I am sticking to print books with a few exceptions. Several years ago, when the "Left Behind" books were popular, I was interested in reading them. One day at Target, I found the Left Behind Library CD-ROM. This program would plug into an electronic Bible encyclopedia (can’t remember the name right now) and included all ten of the Left Behind books written to that date in Microsoft Reader and Palm Reader format. I have no idea what has happened to Microsoft Reader, and I know that Palm Reader has been bought and rebranded into something else. In any case the CD-ROM was $25 for ten books, so I bought it. I had a Palm Zire at the time and Microsoft Reader installed on my desktop computer, so this worked out very well. I still have the CD-ROM around somewhere. I will spare you a discussion of the Left Behind series. I didn’t read the final book, nor have I read the prequel to the series. The other exception is that I will take .pdf files of public domain books and publish them through Repligo to read on my Pocket PC. I am currently working through War and Peace. Sadly, there just isn’t a good .pdf reader for the Pocket PC platform. You can download public domain books at Manybooks.net.

Why haven’t I adopted ebooks yet? I’m a computer geek and highly enthusiastic about technology, so why am I not "all over" ebooks? I have several reasons.

  • Conflicting platforms: so far, no ebook format has become dominant or entirely reliable. How do I know if I decide to buy into a certain platform that support will continue, and how do I know if the current reader is any good?
  • DRM: DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. I wish they would change the acronym to something more appropriate like CURM (Customer Use Restriction Management). To be fair, content producers do have a right to earn a living from their content, but DRM automatically assumes that PAYING CUSTOMERS are potential criminals. DRM also places what many consider to be unreasonable restrictions upon purchased content. When I buy a paper book, I can read it, mark it up, give it to my wife or a friend to read, and if I move into another house, the book can go with me. I’ve been through a total of five Pocket PCs and four Windows Mobile operating systems in the last four an a half years. What if I had invested in an ebook for my first Pocket PC with Windows Mobile 2002, then found out that the ebook was locked to that device, or the reader software is not compatible with Windows Mobile 2003 or WM5? I would not be able to "move" the ebook to another device, even though I had legally purchased both the ebook and the device.
  • Price: honestly, I have no idea how much of the price of a book goes to the author, his or her agent, and the publisher and how much is manufacturing and distribution costs. All I know is if the paperback book costs $15, I’m not going to be too eager to pay $14 for a 200kb download.
  • Content: if I buy into a certain platform, what are the odds that I will be able to acquire enough content for it? Will the next New York Times bestseller be available? If I discover a new author, can I get his or her books on this platform?

Perhaps I do need a new "business model". Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect to buy an ebook and have it last long enough for my grandchildren to read it (if it’s a really good one). Until my concerns about DRM, platform stability, price, and content are addressed, I’ll just stick to regular books (and public domain .pdf books).

 

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Does Watching TV Really Cause Short Attention Spans?

On the news, in the media, on commentary pages, and among friends, many of us hear the same mantras repeated. Call them conventional wisdom, call them common knowledge, call them what you will. But can you call them true? In November 2006, Steve Olson posted a blog entry titled "10 Things I wish I had Never Believed". In this post, he touched on such common beliefs as "money is the root of all evil" (the actual Bible verse says the love of money is the root of all evil; huge difference), "a job is the best way to earn money", and "school is the best place for kids to learn". That last one is particularly anchored into public belief. When my wife and I tell people that we plan on home schooling our children, even people who are highly educated often gasp in fear and shock.

In any case, the other night I was watching an episode of Cranky Geeks. John C. Dvorak had a panel on specifically to talk about video podcasting. While they talked about the appropriate length of a video podcast, the discussion inevitably came around to attention spans. Sure, most video podcasts or YouTube videos do best when under 10 minutes (Cranky Geeks runs about 30). The comment came up that television and computers have shortened our attention spans. I suddenly found myself wondering if this is really true. Although most people would automatically agree with the statement without any thought, I suddenly wondered how this conclusion was arrived at. Did a group of scientists take a group of latchkey children and a control group of Amish and observe them growing up in a controlled scientific study? Or is this statement merely conventional wisdom arrived at by societal observation with a little bit of wishful thinking because the blame for a perceived problem has to fall somewhere?

I’ve recently begun to study philosophy. Philosophy is a subject that I have always avoided primarily due to stereotypes. Seriously, how many of you, if I invited you to my church, would refuse because you have a stereotypical image of evangelical Christians? I had the same thing about philosophers. When I thought about philosophy, I always saw an aging hippy professor sitting in the lotus position going "It’s like we’re totally not really here, man. Am I a man dreaming I’m a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?" I also had the image of the 18 year old wasting daddy’s money on philosophy classes rather than a more "practical" subject. I’ve found those stereotypes to be exactly what a stereotype is: mostly wrong. I’m finding philosophy to be a vibrant and fascinating study applicable to all areas of life. I’m also learning that a philosopher is a professional thinker. A philosopher asks questions, often with child-like wonder. We often lose our wonder as we grow up. Philosophers often don’t have the answers, but their exploration of the questions can make for an interesting study. That’s all I will say for now as I have a long way to go in reading about philosophy, not to mention reading some of the "great" philosophers.

With this interest in philosophy, I would like to ask the question: does watching TV really cause short attention spans? Obviously, I have not been successful in getting a grant, much less a group of latchkey children and another group of Amish children set aside from birth (by the way, I love the Amish and Lancaster County, PA is one of my favorite places on Earth). All I have to go on is my own observation. Before I continue, let me lay one last bit of foundation.

In October, Newsweek ran a story titled Why Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness. One statement from that article which really stood out to me is about choice. The statement is below:

The trouble is, choice is not all it’s cracked up to be. Studies show that people like selecting from among maybe half a dozen kinds of pasta at the grocery store but find 27 choices overwhelming, leaving them chronically on edge that they could have chosen a better one than they did. And wants, which are nice to be able to afford, have a bad habit of becoming needs (iPod, anyone?), of which an advertising- and media-saturated culture create endless numbers. Satisfying needs brings less emotional well-being than satisfying wants.

OK, from my own experience and observation will come the rest of this post/essay. I was born in 1974. I’m a product of the original MTV generation. I can remember watching about 5 or 6 hours of TV on a school night as early as the age of 11 or 12. We lived in Germany from 1980 to 1985 and had only one English channel, AFRTS, and one radio station, but people in "the states" would send us video tapes which my brother and I watched endlessly. In 1986 and 1987, I would come home from school to watch GI Joe and Transformers, followed by Star Trek and shows like the Facts of Life in syndication on the Fox affiliate (Fox was brand new at the time). Prime time brought programming like the A-Team and MacGuyver among others. By high school I often had better things to do than watch TV, but I still made sure to catch my favorite shows like Star Trek, The Next Generation. In the Navy, my television watching dropped off dramatically, but picked up after I got married in 2001. Currently, my family does watch a lot of TV. My wife keeps PBS and Nickelodian on for the kids all day. We’ll often put on The Wiggles or Thomas the Tank Engine to keep the kids happy while we get things done. When I go to bed, I usually watch the History Channel, or Discovery Channel, or shows like Law and Order, or House. Lately, thanks to TV on DVD, and of course my WinTV and video iPod and programs like iPodifier, I can watch TV anytime and anywhere that I want. I’m just trying to establish that I have paid my dues in front of the television, and keep my membership active. I never really watched MTV though.

I do not believe, from my own experience and observation, that watching television decreases my attention span, nor the attention span of my children, whatever an acceptable attention span for two and three year old boys should be.

Apparently there is an attention span problem in our country, but if that attention span problem is not caused by TV, then what could be causing it? I’m obviously not a scientist or sociologist or psychologist, but I do have a blog, so that alone qualifies me to put forth a few observations on this subject. Here are some of the reasons that I suspect cause a short attention span:

  • Expectations set too high- seriously, to say that the attention span today is short we must have some kind of quantifiable data from times past. Did school children in ancient Babylon sit for eight hours on end (boys especially) through such exciting subjects as poetry and pottery? Honestly, I think a lot of complaints about attention spans are because we have our expectations set too high for ourselves and our nation’s school children. We’re trying to expect and force ourselves and our children to sit for long periods of time doing tasks that frankly aren’t all that interesting or exciting, or in many cases, meaningful. I used to think that I had a short attention span until I realized that like many other computer geeks, I had the ability to hyper-focus on some tedious tasks like playing video games or straightening out file system issues. I can’t tell you how many blog posts I was able to crank out while I was supposed to be working on a paper for one of my University of Phoenix classes.
  • One word: sugar. We can’t deny that the American diet consists of way too much sugar. I notice when I’m not eating very well that I can’t focus for anything. When I’m eating better, I have an easier time at work because my bloo
    d sugar levels aren’t crashing.
  • Another word: choices. There is a reason why web videos are short: because when we’re sitting at our computers, there are a lot of other things we could be doing so we’re not going to sit still for one thing. I listen to a lot of podcasts on my iPod. In fact, right now as I’m typing this I’m listening to Cyberspeak. I wouldn’t be willing to stop what I’m doing for an hour while I finish this podcast. Frankly, it’s not all that exciting, so I pick up a little bit here and there while I’m doing something else. I notice when I’m laying in bed late at night and I have no other choices I can sit through an hour long TV show. When I transcode that show to my iPod and I’m trying to watch it sitting at my computer, I tend to want to do other things. I have email to sort through and Google Reader feeds to read. When I have too many choices, I often can’t settle on just one or two and I float because no matter what I’m doing, I’m constantly afraid that I could be doing something "better". When I have fewer choices, I am able to sit still and focus better. This goes back to the blockquote earlier from Newsweek about how happiness doesn’t necessarily come from having too many choices.

I could probably keep going, but these are only observations. Critical thinking involves never taking anything you read or hear for granted. I’m sure I could turn on CNN or FoxNews and hear commentators say at least 10 times today that TV causes shorter attention spans. Rather than accepting that I’m asking questions, because my own experience doesn’t seem to match up to conventional wisdom. What about you, reader? Does TV shorten your attention span? If you believe it does, are you willing to cut down or cut out TV in order to regain an attention span?

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Fortune Magazine: 101 Dumbest Moments in Business

As we progress through the generic, unmentionable "holiday" season, we grow closer to the New Year. As we contemplate the past year and look forward to the next one individually, we can look forward to news organs performing a similar process. Through the Fake Steve Jobs blog, I came across Fortune Magazine’s "101 Dumbest Moments in Business". Number one is an issue near and dear to my family, the issue of American companies paying Chinese communist slave labor factories to produce real wooden toys painted with real lead. My wife really doesn’t buy toys for our kids anymore because we can’t trust the quality control practices of the toy companies anymore.

If you’re interested, the Dumbest Moments is here.

 

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I Want Sandy Doesn’t Work For Me

About a month or two ago, several of the lifehacking/productivity blogs I follow started to review the online virtual assistant I Want Sandy. The service sounded interesting so I thought I would check it out.

Sandy is a virtual personal assistant. The concept is simple: you email "Sandy" or cc her on an email to somebody else, and she adds items to your calendar and shoots you email reminders at the appropriate time. "She" understands an easy shorthand. You can send emails to Sandy of items that you want to be reminded of or actions that you need to do. "Sandy, remind me to buy beer for the party on June 6", or "Sandy, remind me about my doctor’s appointment on Feb 18 at 3:30 PM".

When I originally wrote this entry, I could not get the service to work. Like many web services, Sandy sends an email with an activation procedure. In "her" case, Sandy wants you to send an email to a special address. This is supposed to activate your account. That did not originally work for me. Neither did emailing tech support. I sent three emails over several weeks asking for help and as far as I know my emails disappeared into the ether. While I was playing around with Sandy to write this entry, I found a link to reset my password. Somehow that activated my account, so I can use Sandy.

So far, none of my emails seem to be showing up on my account. I’ll write more later if I can find a way to use this service effectively. Until then, I’m just letting you know Sandy is out there.

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The Biggest Problem With The Microsoft Zune…

…is that nobody seems to carry it, at least here in south Jersey. Nobody. Those who actually do carry it only carry the 4 or 8 Gig model but know nothing about it. The models aren’t even turned on, so an interested buyer has no idea how the interface might work.

I have been considering a Zune lately, ever since the news that podcast support is now included. I settled last on the 80 Gig video iPod because podcast support was very important to me. At the time I was downloading several video podcasts and converting them to a format to watch on my Pocket PC was cumbersome.

Now my needs have changed. I record TV shows through my WinTV from Hauppage. These record into MPEG format, and converting MPEG into an iPod compatible format is very cumbersome. Now that the Zune supports Apple formats, my video podcasts are no longer an issue but my recorded TV is. Also, the screen on the video iPod is very tiny while the screen on the Zune is much larger.

We’ll see what happens. I wish I could get a review unit. Anybody know how to do that? If anyone from Microsoft’s Zune team reads this and wants to send me an 80 Gig model, I’ll be happy to post a review for you.

 

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