Monday, December 6, 2010

Breeding with Neanderthals

As we continue thinking / hoping that somehow our current democracy will save us, we send along videos of senators begging for sanity and think how good this is. I'm referring to the pleas of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. I found myself composing what appears below and was surprised to see the comment about breeding with Neanderthals. Note that our relationships with Homo neanderthalensis was recently discovered (see paragraph below) and has provoked my imagination beyond where many will comfortably go ("We're such prudes you know." - Alice Cooper). Although I must confess that at first I could only envision drunken Homo sapiens sitting around the fire and someone suggesting they go and rape the Neanderthals. But since it's the Neanderthal gene found in the Homo sapiens, it might have been the other way around. Or maybe, instead of rape, it was love. Doesn't this have all the makings for a great song?

In the statement above, I'm referring to recent publication of the Neanderthal genome and the observation that parts of the Neanderthal genome are found in Homo sapiens. This suggests that not only were Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis on the planet at the same time (which had already been established), but that they were definitely interacting. And since the neanderthals were stronger, the Homo sapiens men might have been overpowered.

It is wondered why neanderthals went extinct. Isn't it obvious? Although the neanderthals were stronger, they weren't smarter. Their demise could have been the result of messing with the Homo sapiens males who, angered by the neanderthals brutality, planned a mortal trap, possibly with the use of the women as bait. Yes, this had to be it. The Achilles Heel of the neanderthal men was their compulsion for sapiens women. Could this have led to the eventual subjugation of Homo sapiens women which is taking so long to unravel?

Anyway here is my justification for how dysfunctional we are:


But isn't this a broken record? This isn't anything new, this has gone on for a long time. Although I appreciate the senator's efforts to remind us of our predicament, I'd prefer hearing what we should do about it. The process this man is engaged in is broken (the Senate is nothing more than a joke) and his cries of despair should be alarms for revolution, not topics for the next cocktail party. But the voices of revolution cannot be those of pure idealists, like Jim Scott from yesterday's UU service. They need to be from people who know and can present rationally all sides of these tricky issues that confront the human species. Communism doesn't work. Socialism leads us to serfdom (Hayek's term). Capitalism leads us to polarization of wealth, abuses of power and imperialism. What we need is an effective democracy that can serve as a container for the capitalistic machine. But this container must be able to govern the engine so that it will serve us all - not just the powerful (corrupted).

I need to study some political philosophy that embraces these problems. Or maybe we just haven't solved this problem yet. It's that Neanderthal gene we're all carrying around. If Homo sapiens just could have stayed away from that call of the wild that led them into that sexy world of breeding with Neanderthals ... ...


I will post a video of the song once I get it going ...

heh ...

Friday, October 22, 2010

John Towell: What Are You Doing?

For those asking / wondering what I’ve been up to, I took a response I was writing to a friend and decided to blog it.

Actually I'm more active than when I was working. I’m trying to do many different things in a normal day. Our house in Elburn needed work to be finished before winter, so it hasn’t been a constraint-free time. Beth is happy with her new job and that makes me happy. Our new pup Donatello (Donnie) is a joy and he loves his big yard. The Frost family has moved to nearby St. Charles which has been a wonderful surprise. Except for the fact that we don’t see the Thompson’s as often, we’re very happy here. So, here’s what I’ve been doing.

At the beginning of the year I started playing slide guitar and have since bought two resonators, one a National (NRP 'B' 14). I've been trying to learn how to sing and have been unsuccessful at finding a local voice coach. I've been singing some songs and have joined the choir at church. I've been working with the exercises in "Singing For Dummies" and already have much better control. I love my HearFones and recommend them to anyone wanting to improve their singing. But it's intimidating trying to play the most complex of all musical instruments, the human voice.

I'm doing a gig at church in November with a guitar (Tracey McFadden) and mandolin player (Brian Joose). We're doing "Two Soldiers" which is a traditional song from the civil war era and recorded by Garcia and Grisman, and also Emmy Lou Harris and Julie Miller. In January I’m playing backup with Tracey McFadden for his daughter Kristin who is a terrific singer. She’s singing Iris Dement’s “Let The Mystery Be” in church.

I've been working on a blues (Muddy Waters) song called "I Feel Like Going Home" and a Leo Kottke piece called "Vaseline Machine Gun." I loved this song for many years and found a 4-part tutorial on YouTube by a young adult - the Internet is fabulous! I've also been working on an old Blind Willie Johnson (Texas) tune called "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" (ala Catfish Keith), and a Blind Blake tune called "Chump Man Blues." I've loved that song since I heard David Bromberg sing it. It's a difficult song for me because I actually have to use my fingers on my left hand to play it ... heh.

The three big adjustments I've had to make was adapting to finger picks, open-G tuning and damping strings with my right hand. After playing classical style it was difficult for me to play off of the side of my thumb instead of the end. I still battle my right hand wanting to assume a more classical position. I've been practicing damping with the palm of my right hand and this has helped me achieve a greater comfort level with finger picks. I've also experimented with all kinds of different types of finger picks and slides too. I've settled on the Acousta-Glide slide. It's a metal slide and the heavyness of the slide has driven me to using larger gauge strings.

Open-G tuning or primitive tuning is interesting. There are some tutorials on YouTube about open-G tuning. I found myself teaching musicians about open-G tuning and showing them that this is how Keith Richards creates so many of the classic
Rolling Stones' sounds. It's surprising to me how many accomplished musicians have no knowledge of playing in different tunings. I loved the story about Keith Richards playing through most of the 70's with only five strings on his guitar. The sixth, or lowest string was missing. This is because in open-G the fifth string is a 'G' and the base note for the chords. Since Keith was never playing the sixth string, he just didn't have one.

Note that I'm playing a round neck resonator and not a flat neck (dobro) and haven't seriously ventured into bluegrass yet. But the electrician whose been working at my house is a fiddle player and has been encouraging me to go to the jam sessions of the Northern Illinois Bluegrass Association, so I might start working on a few of the classics. I don't have any dobro-like licks and never really liked dobro in combination with bluegrass anyway. I'd just be playing finger-picking style with a few twists like open-G tuning and a few slides here and there (I sometimes wear the slide on my pinky thus freeing my other three fingers). But then maybe not the open-G tuning ... I don't know - we'll see ...

I've been experimenting with open-D-like tuning as well, and can do one of my old Steve Stills' favorites,"4 +20" reasonably well. I also learned how to play that from a YouTube tutorial and it's easy in DADDAD tuning. Blind Willie Johnson's "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" is in an open-D tuning which is 'DAF#DAD' (1st=>6th). The base rhythm is played alternating the 4th and 6th D's and keeping them damped. The melody is played on the 1st and 2nd strings with the slide. It took me weeks to be able to play the melody-slides independently from the damped base rhythm. It was somewhat refreshing to realize that my nervous system can still learn something requiring a radically different and new hand coordination.

Other songs I find myself working on now and then are: Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" and "Famous Blue Raincoat;" Dierks Bentley's "What Was I Thinking;" Jimmy Buffet's "Why Don't We Get Drunk;" Jim Morrison's "Crystal Ship;" Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" (still working on the guitar solos on the resonator); "Big Boss Man" recorded by Jimmy Reed; Kris Kristofferson's "Here Comes That Rainbow Again" (recorded by Leo Kottke); Don McClean's "Vincent;" "Mad World" recorded by Tears For Fears; and "Tell Me Why" which Beth and I sing in harmony now and then.

I have left the software programming out of my head to open other doors of my existence. I had noticed over the last ten years that the only time I was playing my guitar was when I was at the cabin in Colorado. But then I'd come home and start teaching again and wouldn't feel like playing until the escape to the mountains the following year. So, I just wondered what would happen if I just stayed with the "guitar playing" mode for awhile and that's what I'm doing. It's been interesting to not have the background processing working in my head which is always there when I'm working programming problems. I'm lucky that at 63 I can still work my hands pretty hard and not suffer from arthritis. I'm keeping myself in decent shape and am working on the house at least several hours a day. I started writing about the adventures of Xavier Thornton this past summer and need to find the time to keep that project going since I think about it quite often. I consider writing some songs now and then but it doesn't stick with me that much. I did write “The Plastic Water Bottle Blues” for Kady McFadden in celebration of Earth Day 2010 but that was for fun. (I should go back and redo this with better technique, better singing, and better resonator.) I have a hunch that after further developing my slide guitar skills, other avenues / forms of creativity will be available - we'll see - stay tuned.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Uncivil Dialogue, Racism and the Tea Party Movement

I recently stepped over the line and used the 'N' word to lampoon a recent post on the Net. I was reminded that there was no acceptable context in which the 'N' word was allowed. But that wasn't the part that bothered me; it was the nature of the post I should have taken issue with in the first place. The post was making fun of the Tea Party in what I consider an uncivil manner and I think it was my anger that caused me to take it too far rather than recognize what my objections were and discuss them rationally. In that spirit I decided to reproduce a conversation I had several months ago about this very subject.

I had responded to a post about an article in the Huffington Post written by Greg Grandin. This article can be read at:

Here are some of my comments as I posted them at that time. To preface these comments, let me say simply that the piece by Grandin was referencing a study published on the Net claiming that many members of the Tea Party were racist. I have edited my comments only to avoid revealing any identities or comments that were not relevant.

I found this piece overwhelming but please indulge me a few comments. I found the rhetoric inflammatory. I continue to beg for civility in discussions about the complex issues of our times. To me, this was not civil discourse regardless who wrote it.

Calling a movement racist is too easy and accomplishes nothing other than anger. What intelligent person among us would think that racism is absent from *any* party in the US? Whether anyone is racist is the same as asking whether one is an alcoholic or, even better, when does a cucumber become a pickle. It's a matter of degree, a value between 0.0 and 1; not binary, a value either 0 or 1. We're all racists to some degree, so let's get over it and leave it out of our discussions.

Glenn Beck is a self-proclaimed entertainer. He openly admits that he does what makes his company money. Those paying attention to anything Glenn Beck espouses are simply ignorant and should be made aware of what game Beck is playing - not spat upon. I am curious however to find that the person Beck admires most is Tyler Perry (perhaps this was a joke?).

I believe much of the vitriol is fomented by the frustration of having a dysfunctional government. I too hate the need to have the government step in but the current state of our affairs leaves us no choice. I worked for the VA and know firsthand how badly our government runs things. In regards to taking more effective steps to change our government (short of revolution), writing inflammatory exposition doesn't help - but maybe that's the only stuff people will read. Yellow press isn't new is it?
***end paste***

In response to my comments the original poster pointed me to the following link which supposedly gave legitimacy to the previously mentioned survey. Here is the link:

and upon referring me to the link, stated, "You are right, using the racist label without the data to back it up is too easy. However, when the data is there, then let's call a spade a spade."

Here is my response:

OK, I'll take the bait. I have no problems with discussing and writing about any issues. My main objection to the Grandin piece was the inflammatory language but let's go ahead and look at how he handled the survey from the University of Washington.

Whenever any academic has gone public with data, the first question that crosses my mind is, has the data been published in an academic journal? If it hasn't then I immediately suspect loss of integrity and wonder how much my colleague got paid for his/her soul.

When I looked at the page you referred us to, I found no indication that the survey has appeared in an academic journal. If you read the interview with the survey's author, Dr. Parker, which is at the link entitled "survey methodology posted here" a few relevant and interesting tid bits come up.

When asked about his credentials Dr. Parker notes his academic achievements with the following statement. "On the principal investigator front, I conducted the California Patriotism Pilot Study (2002), from which I published a paper in Political Research Quarterly." Bingo! This is when the register rings for me - this means something. But where is there any indication that the current survey has been submitted / or is even being considered for submission for publication? Since that answer isn't found, let's look for the closest answer found later in the interview.

The following question was asked of Dr. Parker regarding his survey results.

"Putting it all together, what can we safely and confidently conclude about those who identify with the tea party movement and those who do not? Are their attitudes fundamentally different from other whites, from the American population as a whole, and, if so, how so?"

Dr Parker responded:

"One way in which to view these preliminary results is that we should remain cautious, and not jump to firm conclusions. I say this, first, because the sampling frame I use differs from, say, recent polls conducted by Pew, Qunnipiac, the Washington Post, and USA Today/Gallup. Indeed, my results are relevant only to the states in which the survey was conducted, four of which (NV, MO, GA, and NC) voted for the Republican presidential candidate in at least seven of the last ten election cycles. Perhaps this is why my results appear at variance with national polls."

I’m left wondering about the degree of confidence Dr. Parker has in his own preliminary results. How about you? Nevertheless, in the face of the author’s own caution about what the survey means, this is how Grandin's piece introduced the survey.

"A debate over a recent University of Washington poll helps us understand why the movement is racist no matter which slogans and symbols it chooses to use. The poll found that support for the Tea Party remains a valid predictor of racial resentment."

I understand your concerns. But I submit that Grandin's piece has not done justice to the claim that the Tea Party Movement is racist. Would you feel comfortable referring to this piece when having a rational discussion with a Tea Party'er?
***end paste***

A few more exchanges were made and I finally stated the following:

I keep recalling a scene from Halberstam's "The Children" which is an excellent book about the civil rights movement. Jim Lawson was confronted by a hate-filled white man spewing vitriol. He let the hate roll off his back and began talking to the man. They discovered a common interest in motorcycles. The moment transcended from an inhuman hate-filled schism to a plane where two people were communicating. Lawson's training had prevailed. Inflammatory rhetoric does nothing to bridge the gap to our racist (ignorant) brothers and sisters. I encourage the adoption of strategies that can lead to constructive relationships with people filled with hate. Name calling and labeling are not part of that strategy.
***end paste***

In conclusion, I have learned from my mindless response in which I used the 'N' word. I apologize. I was taking a joke to the extreme and it was uncalled for. I should have complained at the joke in the first place. We cannot make progress with uncivil dialogue.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Global Warming - Climate Change

The following was posted as a response to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune. I wasn't able to post it all so I reproduced it here. The Trib article is here.

The Trib article said, "But these days that thunderous 2007 verdict is sounding, well, a lot like tomorrow's weather forecast: It's very likely to be right. But there's some doubt."

Response: The IPCC report said the certainty was at the 90% level, so, yes, there's some doubt. But would you take 1 in 10 odds?

The article points out some minor problems resulting from the fact that the IPCC is composed of humans.

Response: Critical examination of the main body of evidence still holds. These minor problems do not change the overall weight of the evidence. Isn't it wiser to challenge the foundation of the main conclusion than worry about these insignificant problems?

My opinion: The lay person needs to rely on the scientists and disregard information coming from sources such as the Wall Street Journal or the Tribune. Those who are technical enough to understand the IPCC reports, should adopt the language of the reports to conduct sensible debate. The report discusses the various "climate drivers" that are in play. Those criticising the validity of the conclusions, should at least use the language the experts have used. The argument then becomes whether carbon dioxide is a significant "climate driver." There is no argument that carbon dioxide is increasing.

The information for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is found here:
Under the Publications and Data section there is a report section that contains the 2007 report. Each section of the report can be downloaded as a pdf file.

For those wishing summaries, I recommend the Union of Concerned Scientists' site which contains an FAQ:

I encourage informed debate. This is an important and complex issue. We need to have this debate without destructive name-calling and personal attacks. Our discussion should be focused on the following quote from the Union of Concerned Scientists' FAQ:
"The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a global climate assessment in 2007 that compared the relative influence exerted by key heat-trapping gases, tiny particles known as aerosols, and land use change of human origin on our climate between 1750 and 2005.[3] By measuring the abundance of heat-trapping gases in ice cores, the atmosphere, and other climate drivers along with models, the IPCC calculated the 'radiative forcing' (RF) of each 'climate driver' - in other words, the net increase (or decrease) in the amount of energy reaching Earth’s surface attributable to that climate driver. Positive RF values represent average surface warming and negative values represent average surface cooling. CO2 has the highest positive RF (see Figure 1) of all the human-influenced climate drivers compared by the IPCC. Other gases have more potent heat-trapping ability molecule per molecule than CO2 (e.g. methane), but are simply far less abundant in the atmosphere and being added more slowly."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Data Rundancy is BAD!

I have just moved from Wisconsin to Illinois. Just in the past six weeks I've dealt with organizations whose information systems were FUBAR. If I was a CIO, the first goal would be to insure that nowhere in the organization was any information stored in more than one place - that's what the database is for idiots! Since we're mired in the ineptness of the relational model, we might as well at least use it competently. DATA REDUNDANCE can only lead to one thing - DISASTER. Please sack your incompetent IT people and hire those who understand.