Saturday, April 26, 2014

What Did You Forget?

I went to college once. I attended back in the dark ages, before internet and email, when personal computers were a fanciful dream for college students and laptops looked like small suitcases with screens as small as some of today’s smart phones.

One of the classes I took was called, “Learning and Memory.” It may have actually been called “Learning and Cognition”, but I normally try to stay away from words that are too long. One notable exception to that rule is “chocolate”. Therefore, I am insisting that the class was called “Learning and Memory”.

The class had a laboratory. We actually picked out a rat and taught it to negotiate a maze. We rewarded it with an edible reinforcer. It was an amazing look into the realm of classical conditioning and left me hungry for more knowledge.

That is, until my rat died in the middle of the semester.

That class came to mind last Saturday. I had just finished my ritual of personal cleansing (that would be a shower, completed with a shampoo!), when my wife asked me to bring the hair clippers down, so she could cut my hair. I am quite vain, and only allow my wife to cut and shape my glorious head of hair. Besides that, I am frugal, and we barter for the cost of the haircut. I usually repay her by taking out the garbage, or starting a load of laundry.

Laundry, by the way, seems to never stop at our house. The week prior to my haircut had been especially bad for laundry. This was due to the neglect of the teenagers in the house to follow through on putting laundry in the dryer when they were supposed to. They claimed that they “forgot". Noting my wife’s agitation at the laundry not being put into the wash in a timely fashion, I decided to lecture my daughters.

I cleared my throat, and with a deep and commanding voice I began, “There has been entirely too much ‘forgetting’ in this house this week.” I paused for dramatic effect.

Beloved, not being one to pause for anything, piped in, “Hon, did you bring the hair clippers down?”

“Oh Crud.” I replied wryly, “I forgot.”

End of lecture.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Winter is Gone; Spring has Sprung; Click up Your Heals and Groan?

It is finally spring time here in the North East. If my life were a made-for-TV movie, it would fade to lovely outdoor scenes with crocuses (or is that crocii?) pushing through rich dark soil, and bursting forth in bright, glorious yellow blooms. The scene would pan upwards to small green buds as they escape from the dark bony limbs of a maple tree.

The scene would then sweep out across the well-kept, newly greening lawn, to view my young children playing in the springtime sun. They would be dressed, smartly, all in white, and despite their springtime shenanigans on the tender grass and the damp earth, their outfits would remain spotless.

Neither my yard, nor my life, is a made-for-TV movie.

My yard, in the springtime, could better be described as a bog; so wet, that it almost borders on being on a small lake. I live on a corner lot, bounded along one edge by a thick row of hedges. My house is downwind from a grocery store, two department stores, a chain pharmacy, and a combination gas station-convenience store-donut shop. There are innumerable scraps of stuff that make their way from these commercial enterprises and end up in my yard; add to that all of the garbage that people toss from their cars as they drive by. I have picked up hundreds of lottery tickets, all of them losers. I am waiting for the day when someone accidentally tosses out the winning ticket onto my lawn. I will probably be kind enough to return it, but they are going to pay a hefty fine for littering in my yard.

In the middle of the yard stands an old apple tree. I know it is old because the trunk is well over two feet in diameter. This winter has been particularly rough on that ol' tree. Early in the season, a heavy wet snowfall brought down a very large branch, and now, in early spring, almost 6 months later, I still need to saw it into smaller pieces and have it removed.

With all of this work needing to be done in my yard, so my teenage children can go out in their white formal attire and frolic, I watched the weather forecast closely. I needed a few days of warmth, sun, and a light breeze, to dry the bog, so I could reclaim it as a yard.

And the weather co-operated. For two days in a row, we had warm sun and gentle breezes. The second day promised to be warmer than 80 degrees. I made mental plans to get outside and start the reclamation process.

Then I saw the forecast for the third day, the day after it was to be above 80. It called for rain, turning to snow, with temperatures falling into the mid 20‘s.

I think I will start a peat moss factory.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

How does Google Deal with Online 'Hate'?

Last week I wrote about April Fool’s Day, and I did a bit of research about it on the Internet. One interesting thing I discovered during that research is that people disagree, argue, jump to conclusions about each other, and are mean-spirited with each other on the Internet.

This should not come as a surprise. Ever since Cain killed Abel in the first-ever carnivore vs vegetarian debate, people have fought.

In 2004 webmail accounts were limited to 1 megabyte of storage. This is plenty for text-only emails. But if, Marvin, your third cousin, twice removed, whom you met once at great Aunt Helga’s funeral, suddenly decided to email you a bazillion pictures of corn fields from the latest family vacation to Terre Haute, IN, suddenly you are out of storage and Hotmail is offering you 5 megabytes of storage for the low, low price of just $19.99 per year.

On April Fool’s of 2004, Sergey Brin’s company, Google, offered Gmail for the very first time. Gmail would allow 1000 times as much storage as the other providers for the very low, low price of free.

And marketing experts were angry. How could Google commit such an egregious marketing error, offering such a service on the international day of pranks. Mr. Brin, I think, has a very finely tuned sense of humor, along with a knack for providing good technology. This “joke” was three-pronged.

First, it set the cat amongst the pigeons for all of the other webmail providers. Imagine the scene around conference tables at Hotmail, Yahoo, and Excite (remember them?) All the suited executives, wearing ties so tight it reduced blood flow to the head, and consequently the brain, were in a tizzy. They wondered if this was real. How could it be? Perhaps someone should sign up for this Gmail and see if it was real.

In fact some people refused to believe it was real until April 2 or 3, and that was the second prong of the joke. It was real, and it was still around days later, and as we know now, would still be around 10 years later. That is the second prong, that it would still be around the day after April Fool’s.

The third prong directly poked those marketing experts who decried the offering of a new service on a day set aside for jokes. They horribly underestimated the desire of people to actually keep Marvin’s pictures of the "Cornfields of Terre Haute".

Google and Mr. Brin didn’t think the need to keep those pictures was corny at all.

You can email me, rfdistaffen at gmail. Pictures of cornfields are always accepted, but may not always be treasured.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

What did You do for April Fool's Day?

Someone once said, "You can please some of the people, some of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time." l searched the internet and discovered that the quote is attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but he didn't say it, at least not exactly that way. It seems the poet John Lydgate penned that quote, and President Lincoln changed it slightly by saying, “You can fool some of the people some of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

I am not sure if President Lincoln gave proper attribution for the basis of his quote, but it would cast doubt upon his reputation for honesty if he did not.

The theme of fooling people came to the forefront of my consciousness this past Tuesday, April 1st. I don’t know what happens in other countries and other cultures, but here in the United States, April First, or April Fool’s Day, is a day set aside to afflict each other with all manner of practical jokes, followed with a loud declaration of “April Fool’s”. That is an important point to remember, since if you say “April Fool’s” it is understood that all must be forgiven and no grudge can be held past 12:00 AM on April Second.

For me, April 1st came and went with neither any jokes being played on me, nor my playing any jokes on anyone else. And I felt slighted at this oversight.

This is not to say that we do not like April Fool’s day. Our house is in a fairly constant state of laughter. I come from a long line of laughers. My grandfather once waited until a young female friend of my parents had a cup of hot tea to her mouth before he explained that his mother won him in a game of craps. He delighted in seeing her snort and splash her tea all over.

This sense of hilarity has passed to my daughters. When they were little tykes, we arrived home from an outing and I opened the door to the van and announced that the fee for riding in the van was a nose. Eldest, who has developed into an expert at ignoring her father, just walked by me. Middlest, tugged at her nose and declared, with a dry drawl, “My nose doesn’t come off." Littlest, took her thumb and put it between the fingers of her fist and with a bright smile, handed me her “nose.”

When I got inside, Middlest called out with overflowing excitement, “Dad! I finally got my nose to come off; it is on the kitchen counter!” Overcome with curiousity, and a vague sense of dread, I looked on the counter, and there, tucked inside of a tea towel, was a cheese-stick. The very tip protruding from the folds of cloth to look like a nose.

With those stories in mind, it is no surprise that when I brought the topic of playing April Fool’s jokes on people to my daughters. Eldest shared that a male student proposed to his girlfriend and when she accepted, he replied with, “April Fool’s”. Apparently, toying with the affections of a young maiden is unacceptable in the realm of April Fool’s jokes.

Littlest, who is quite practical, and does not see why there is all the hullabaloo over romance, said, “Proposing on April Fool’s Day is almost as dumb as proposing on Valentines Day, except worse!”

At this point, Middlest, unable to contain herself, chimed in furiously indignant. “There is absolutely no reason to wait until April First to prank someone. We don’t need a special day to play practical jokes. Any day of the year is as good as the next. Whoever waits for April Fool’s to prank someone is just stooooopid!”