The Problem with Termites

termiteI can’t remember where I heard this first but it has been rolling around inside my skull for a few days now. Kudos to whomever thought of it.

It’s the problem of termites. Lots of problems come and go. Many will take care of themselves. But when you see a termite in the framing of your house? Then you have entered into a situation where you will positively have to act. The very fact that you see this tiny creature with its trail of powerdery wood left behind means that you must act.

You can act now, and your options are usually easy and inexpensive. You can act later but your options will be expensive, invasive, and possibly catastrophic.

So be on the lookout for termites.


Who made Trump? You. And me. 

Regular readers know that I subscribe to the philosophy that history is rarely made by great men and women. Instead, history is more typically the culmination of decades or centuries of day to day decisions made in day to day scenarios by people living out their day to day lives. These decisions ebb and flow through culture until reaching a kind of criticality when they take on a life of their own. Then there is no use in fighting. It’s a done deal. Smart pols and those with few core values get on the train. They know that the train is running at breakneck speed and won’t even register a blip on the speedo when it bumps your complaining rear off the track. So president Obama evolves on same-sex marriageand and senators flip back and forth and back again on the Middle East. It’s how things work. 

Any Rand has said that a people deserve their government. In her acerbic way she reiterates this view of history. For two centuries East Indians acquiesced to British rule. Uprisings were quelled with military precision. But each uprising added to a slow but growing movement for self-rule. The movement grew over decades until Gandhi spearheaded a cultural revolution. There is no question of Gandhi’s importance but he rode a century old wave that was already roiling. Gandhi was the right man for the time but if it wasn’t Gandhi then someone else would have filled those shoes. 

To Trump. Amidst whatever cultural ills we propagated either willfully or tacitly in my grandparent’s generation, as a whole, the culture was polite and courteous. Certainly people had strong opinions and strong disagreements. No doubt some people called detractors fat pigs and horrible, stupid people.  It’s true that people got in fights and some were murdered. But a general level of courtesy was expected in public that we no longer enjoy. Blame the internet, blame cable TV, or blame the NEA for no longer requiring that children start the day by respecting Old Glory – blame whomever you want – but we have elevated bad language and bad manners to celebrity status. You might not have, and I might not have (or have I?) but how many people winced just hearing the word ‘pussy’ on television. Or seeing it here in internet print? How many vowed to never watch Trump again when he repeatedly calls out a famale celebrity as a ‘fat pig’? When did this become acceptable? How many lines have we crossed when Trump announces repeatedly and with impunity that Miss X isn’t good looking enough for him to molest? Are you kidding. How sad. 

Sorry. No cheers today. 

Optimize your optimization plan for optimal optimization

I caught a tweet over the weekend by self-help guru Tim Ferriss. He was looking for ways that readers and followers ‘optimize’ their night and bed-time routines. It hit a cord in me and I tweeted back an honest question: do you ever get tired of optimizing every minute of every day? It sounds horribly exhausting to me. 

Another self-help guru, Wayne Dyer, used to say that we are ‘human beings’ and not ‘human doings’. As silly as it sounds, I’ve always thought there was a grain of truth there. He meant that at some point, we should quit planning, quit making lists, and quit spending hours researching the molecular qualities of the very best cook wear to achieve the most beneficial meals. There comes a point when we should start living.

Maybe the fact that I don’t optimize my optimization plan for optimal optimization is exactly why I’m not the head of a billion dollar company making widgets for iPhones that allow people to post their bathroom routines to their friends. No one is interviewing me about the Oxford comma or how I hire a company to send me presents each month. Oh well. 

So I spent a nice weekend morning making a knitted puff puppy with one of my daughters. And I opted out of watching home repair and woodworking tv shows and did some repairs and woodwoking. I didn’t optimize my shop setup but simply enjoyed the smell of pine and the sound of a sharp plane lifting a tissue thin shaving from a long edge. 


The Good Life – Politics Optional

I remain flabbergasted at current culture of hatred

Copyright Dennis Mitton
What leads to such abject hatred?

I had a friend once, more of an acquaintance, who grew up in Yugoslavia. One day, this was in the ‘eighties, we were lolling about and I asked him if was Serbian or Bosnian? Good gawd! He was so instantaneously incensed that he couldn’t talk. He spit nonsensical words and I truly thought that he might hit me. He fled the room and I sat completely bewildered at what had just happened.

It turned out that he was a Serb. He hated Bosnians. And I don’t mean garden-variety hatred. I mean the kind of spur in your spleen that contaminates every thought and action with vitriol. In the one conversation we had about my question to him – I never dared broach the subject again – he said that his Grandfather hated Bosnians, his Dad hated them, and that he hated them. As far as he was concerned? These aren’t even human beings. He would feel worse about kicking a dog. So here I am, sitting in a nuclear plant where we are all vetted through a dozen layers of security probes, and this guy tells me with pride and with fire that, if he could get away with it, he would kill any fucking Bosnian that he could. And again, I’m sitting shaking my head, flabbergasted.

I haven’t a clue what it’s like to grow up with this kind of hatred drilled into your soul every day. We got into fights when I was a kid but that was just entertainment and figuring out the pecking order. But this sense that those people are so different than you that they have no value as human beings is an infection that touches everything. It’s the Midas touch in reverse.

Of course, you know where this is going. I’ve been flabbergasted all over again by the abject hatred spewed by presidential candidates, people that I have admired, and many of my friends. I’ve successfully filtered most of the spewing from the social media sites that I follow and life is a little brighter. I haven’t any hope that this election will change anything. Neither Trump nor Clinton will accomplish anything that the other won’t or wouldn’t. Change is a decades old rolling cultural juggernaut and smart pols hop on board before they are run over.

So relax. Be nice to your friends. Play with your children today. Recognize that political parties, politicians, and the media all exist to sell you something. Buy if you want but consider it optional for a good life.


Why do smart people reject evolution?

When religion and culture traipse over fact

Copyright Dennis Mitton

Credit: Rafi Letzter

Rafi Letzter  asks this question in an interesting piece published in the Business Insider titled Why So Many Smart People Don’t Believe in Evolution. He begins with well-known stats: only fifty-percent of American adults ‘believe’ in evolution and most of those believe that god oversees the process. Most of the rest are given over to various kinds of creationism that moves on a sliding scale from Intelligent Design to the belief that god created everything in six literal days and buried fake fossils to fool anyone but true believers. Letzter comes to the question honestly: he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community where “schoolteachers laughed off dinosaurs and space travel as fairy tales”. (Space travel? I didn’t know.) He eventually left the community and admits that it bothers him how people who appear to be so genuinely smart as his Orthodox teachers can reject what evidence clearly shows to be true.

To answer his question he refers to two papers. The first one, published in 2015, and titled Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief, was spread far and wide to ‘prove’ that the non-religious are smarter than the religious. The authors asked people these questions:

Widget. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

Batball. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Lilypad. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

(See Letzter’s piece for the answers.)

What to do?

Two observations are made here. One is that for each question, an intuitive and seemingly obvious answer – a gut feeling – pops into most people’s minds. The other is that this intuitive answer is wrong. The authors use this to argue that people who are less religious are willing to stop and challenge themselves, to take a minute to see if what they are thinking aligns with facts. The opposite is obvious: less rigorous thinkers are more willing to accept what appears obvious. The paper’s authors addressed evolution directly finding a correlation between those who scored lower on the test and those who don’t believe in evolution. They posit that these people are more tied to what ‘seems’ right. ‘Everything I see is made by someone so the world must be made by someone.’ (To be fair, the authors also ‘urge caution in interpreting…the implications of the present results’. They recognize the difficulty in generalizing about all peoples based on their one paper.)

Letzter isn’t happy about this. He feels that the paper “attempt[s] to marginalize and dismiss the perspectives of religious people”. He looks to a follow-up paper by Dan Kahan and Keith Stanovich (here) that replicates the work specific to evolution and muddies up the conclusion by basically arguing that people with finely honed reasoning skills are more skilled at being reasonable. If that sounds rather obvious to you then you must have finely honed reasoning skills.

From Jesus and Mo

Letzter reels like a drunkard through the science vs. religion question in his wrap up. Regarding Kahan and Stanovich’s paper, Letzter remarks that “It’s a more challenging argument to accept, if you’re a person who sees science as our only effective tool for extracting something like objective truth from an uncaring and chaotic universe – and who fears the consequences of rejecting it. It’s far less comforting than telling yourself Oh, well those people are just dumb (emphasis Letzter)”. But science doesn’t seek ‘objective truth’. Science describes nature. Many scientists are religious and almost all are just fine with others being religious. What is irksome is when the religious deny evidence a priori due to religious views. Researchers battle over evidence all day long. It’s part and parcel of the job description. Religious folk can and do join the fray, but to engage science they must argue with evidence, not with the tenets of their faith. Letzter notes that Kahan and Stanovich describe certain people as ‘more skilled at explaining to themselves why they shouldn’t – or should – accept a verifiable scientific claim”. What kind of upside-down logic extols the virtue of deciding not to accept a ‘verifiable scientific claim”?

Letzter goes on. “We should be skeptical of anyone who publishes a study explaining why people who disagree with them are less clever”. Yes, we should be skeptical, we should always be skeptical. It’s the very basis of research, but the research isn’t about being clever. It’s about people who hold on to belief in the face of facts that argue otherwise. The question isn’t whether evolutionists are more clever than Orthodox Jewish teachers – I don’t even know what that means – the question is why do the Orthodox hold on to views that are contrary to facts? Science doesn’t seek to marginalize but why shouldn’t we marginalize and dismiss unsupportable religious ideas that claim to trump facts? Why shouldn’t we marginalize the belief that the earth is 6,000 years old when everything other than one religious book tells us differently?

letz_2Letzter concludes by slipping into the canard of scientism: the Talmud scholars from his childhood, with extreme powers of persuasion, are able to convince themselves that what they believe is right even in light of facts that argue otherwise. “Oddly enough,” writes Letzter, “that’s the very same route that leads many secular people to place their faith in science.” I’m not sure what he means, nor am I ever sure what ‘placing your faith in science’ means. I know what placing your faith in Jesus means and there is no corollary in science.

For many people, facts are subservient to faith, culture, and family. We don’t fight wars over scientific facts. We fight them over religion. We fight them because our brother was beat up by those other people. We fight them because God told us that we own this part of the planet.

What a scary thought’, he concludes. On that, we agree.

For further reading check out these books:

Faith Versus Fact, Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, Jerry Coyne
Science and Religion, A Historical Introduction, Gary Ferngren (Editor)
Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, Danial Dennett
The Meaning Of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, Richard Feynman


Book Review – The Boy Who Played With Fusion, Clynes

I’m not sure that ‘giftedness’ is a gift

Copyright Dennis Mitton


In The Boy Who Played With Fusion Tom Clynes writes an interesting, albeit somewhat creepy, biography of young Taylor Wilson. Taylor is different. He is an obsessive child except obsessive doesn’t capture the bonfire of his drive. He is immovable. He is an arrow shot that never quits until it hits its target. He is single-minded to the point of forgoing food, safety, and friends. He is the youngest person to have built a nuclear fusion reactor. To say that he would be a handful to raise is an understatement.

Clynes braids together three stories. One is the biography of an agonizingly obsessive and catered-to youth, another is a story about ‘extreme parenting’, and another is a story about academic giftedness. Strewn throughout the book is the breadcrumb trail of Taylor’s brother Joey. Joey is gifted, too, but is overshadowed in almost every way by the loud light of his brother. This book is about Taylor and not Joey, but any exploration of parenting and giftedness should have included more on the younger brother who was continually lost in his brother’s shadow.

The story of Taylor is a good one. It’s well written and interesting. The boy is demanding and obsessive from the womb. As a child, he jumps from interest to interest like most kids do except that Taylor jumps in with both feet and drags the family with him. Any boundaries that he bumps into are punctured by his parents for their own sanity. That he is catered to is understandable. I have a child like this myself. You give in or the entire family pays the price. At around ten, Taylor finally settles into nuclear physics and begins collecting gadgets and throw-aways and builds a makeshift ‘lab’ where he conducts experiments. From here Clynes details the story that leads to Taylor developing a fusion reactor in the basement of the University of Nevada. I applaud Taylor for much. When other kids were putting playing cards in their bicycle spokes, Taylor was collecting radioactive rocks and selling them on eBay to support his habit. If an equation stood in the way of his next step he hunkered down and learned the math. Though there is some darkness to the story, Taylor deserves what he has earned.

Making time for a quick meal. Let’s hope he decontaminated himself before eating.

Interspersed within the story of Taylor’s fusion project are the other threads of the story and they aren’t as bright. Taylor finally lands at an experimental high school in Nevada (The Davidson Academy) for exceptionally intelligent children where he has the same struggles as every high schooler. He stumbles a bit with girls and friends. He crosses lines that he hasn’t been held to in other schools where he was given free reign to roam. But normal teen angst seems exaggerated here where every child is exceptional, preened, and hand-selected. For most of the kids attending this is the first time that they have had to compete for excellence or for attention.

Extreme parenting’ is another theme drawn out through the book. If ‘extreme’ means excellent then I’m not sure that I’m on board. From Taylor’s first interests, the Wilson family becomes a business enterprise for keeping Taylor happy. Dad or mom spend weekends driving around the country to placate Taylor and family life revolves around talks, experiments, and the budding celebrity of their oldest child. The younger boy, at least in this book, is left almost entirely in shadows and is often found alone in his bedroom. Gifted too, his interests nor his personality are as loud or spectacular as his brother’s. There is an imbalance here fraught with potential for future problems.

At the helm of his fusion reactor

I don’t know Taylor and am guessing that as a young adult he is adjusted and kind. He seems to have a genuine sweetness and is incapable  of guile. His effusive love of science, and especially of physics, overrides any boasting or childhood pettiness. The book closes with Taylor’s decision to accept a Thiel Fellowship that comes with a $100,000 grant and the requirement to drop out of school to pursue ‘other work’. It’s not the decision I would have made. There are things he would learn in a university setting that he won’t otherwise. Living at school, reading Spanish peasant lit, competing and collaborating with other people as accomplished as you are, and befriending people from outside your culture and habits are things we rarely pursue on our own. And each is as valuable for health and happiness.

A good weekend read with lots of food for thought. 7e(-0.693(10)/20) stars.

See Taylor’s website here.
The Taylor Wilson page at Wiki here.
The book at Amazon.
Book reviews at Goodreads.




What comes out when you squeeze an orange?

I’ve been thinking lately about my late pal Wayne Dyer. We disagreed about almost everything that is important but I have never read anything he wrote or heard anything he said when I didn’t come away a little wiser. It’s a testament to his ability to touch people and to communicate timeless principles. 

One thing he talked about that has always stuck with me was squeezing an orange. In his typical childlike way he asked that you imagine him holding up an orange. “What happens when I squeeze it?” It’s an easy question but you’re thinking hard about a trick answer. He laughs and says “Orange  juice comes out! Why?” You contort again, looking for the trick. He answers his own question: “Because orange juice is inside!” He smiles and thinks this is hilarious. Then he hones in on the point. “Don’t imagine that you are different. When you get squeezed – when work is hard or when Uncle Joe tells you how pretty you used to be as a child or when you are heart broken – things come out. They come out because they are what’s inside. Then, since he hardly ever answered his own questions, he asks again: so what comes out of you when you’re squeezed?

I’ve been getting squeezed lately. I’ve taken on a new job at work in addition to my normal job. It’s not hard but takes more time to get both done. And everything at the house still needs doing. Homework, swim team, cooking, cleaning, the lawn – it’s all still there. So tired is coming out. Crabby is coming out. But the girls still want me to sew doll clothes and the kitchen still needs cleaning. What comes out doesn’t have to be considered bad but sometimes needs managing. It’s a time to see what I’m made of. Time to see what’s inside. 

How about you? What comes out when you are squeezed?