Archive for December, 2008

Minneapolis most literate: Readers of the purple prose?

Minneapolis tops the list of America’s most literate cities according to this ranking by Dr. John W. Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University. His study focused on six indicators, including the number of libraries and bookstores. Although rankings like these are not very precise, it seems sensible to read often when residing in regions of the country where for long periods one dare not wander out the house due to extreme cold (Minneapolis) or unrelenting rain (such as Seattle, who tied for first in CSU’s study).

I love to read in any season — snug as a bug in a rug before the fireplace in our family room, or slacking off in the hammock out back on a sunny summer eve. In either place the ambiance is enhanced by our Golden Retriever Penny laying at or under my feet. A guilty pleasure of mine is to stoop occasionally to reading pulp fiction. For example, if the mood for adventure strikes, I may dip into a great collection of classic (an oxymoron?) western escapism by author Zane Grey, which I inherited from my wife’s grandfather. It includes “Riders of the Purple Sage” — his best known novel.

However, the book I’d put head and shoulders (plus a 10-gallon cowboy hat) above the purple prose of Grey is Owen Wister’s ground-breaking novel The Virginian available in hypertext from The American Studies Programs at The University of Virginia. I love the title of Chapter 2: “When you call me that, Smile!” To set the mood for reading, here’s a photo I took yesterday in the Saguaro National Park outside Tucson, Arizona after flying down yesterday to escape the snow and cold and overdose of Christmas back home in Minnesota.

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Trying to remember what the prof taught in stats? A few Zzzs may help!

Sorry, I must have been napping because I just now got around to the May issue of Scientific American which reported that even a six-minute snooze boosts recall. The benefits of sleep for enhancing memory are well known, but how quickly doe s it occur? Olaf Lahl, a psychology professor at the University of Dusselfdorf, gave subjects at his sleep lab two minutes to memorize 30 words. An hour later, after playing solitaire the whole time, the average subject recalled under 7 words. A short nap raised this above 8, while a longer, deeper sleep increased the average recall to more than 9 words. This article by the London Telegraph relays a theory by another sleep researcher Dr Robert Stickgold, from Harvard University. He thinks that “just before sleep, the brain ‘replays’ recent events, producing dreamlike sensations and ‘crazy’ thoughts.” Stickgold speculates that the brain sifts through newly entered material in a period of “thought marshalling” which may be crucial for recall.

I’ve always been a great believer in napping for as short a time as possible – just long enough to actually fall asleep, which takes me about 10 minutes. Then I drink a cup of coffee, and off I go again for many hours. I always thought of this as a “power nap.” The Wikipedia details a number of variations on this: cat-nap (same as power nap, but for slackers!), caffeine nap (drink coffee before laying down!) and NASA nap (good if you are an astronaut!).

The NASA findings favoring short sleeps for thier workers gained the notice of some employers, according to this ABC News report. As co-Director of Stat-Ease, I don’t like this idea very much. Once I literally stumbled across one of our summer programmers laid out on the office floor taking a snooze. Maybe I should be more open-minded about such behavior, but my name goes on the pay checks and I hate to think of getting no work per hour. That is not a good productivity statistic!

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Search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)



Last month I enjoyed a visit to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (pictured). I found the view as astounding as I’d thought from seeing it featured in the movies GoldenEye (James Bond) and Contact. In this latter film Jodie Foster starred as a character that author Carl based on Jill Tartar. Tarter is director of the center for research at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View. Evidently the future of SETI lies in arrays of telescopes, not a big dish like Arecibo, which will be closed down in few years according to their visitor center information.

After my visit to Arecibo I saw this CNN television feature on Tartar. She touted SETI’s new array of 350 steerable dish antennas built with the help of a $25 million endowment from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. See this fact sheet for details on progress so far and the goal for the Allen Telescope.

Do intelligent beings live outside our planetary system? Many people imagine so, for example in the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still that premiered this week (a remake of the 1950’s classic). The brilliant physicist Enrico Fermi also felt sure ET must be out there, but if so, why hadn’t we seen them yet? This became know as the Fermi paradox. Later Frank Drake formulated an equation, which Sagan used for an optimistic view on the possibility of ETI. Author Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, etc), recently departed, did not consider this calculation very scientific as noted in this blog by statistician William Briggs, which delves deeply into the whole controversy whether it’s even worth speculating about extraterrestial intelligence.

I think it’s not worth arguing about, but I am in favor of listening for signals, especially with the awesome ‘ears’ of Arecibo and the newer arrays such as the Very Large Array in New Mexico (where I am pictured from a visit in December, 2006).

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
— Carl Sagan

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Let us be grateful to people who make us happy

The title of this blog comes from French philosopher Marcel Proust who continued on to say of these cheerful friends that “they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” For good companionship I’d pick Proust over his cynical countryman Camus, whom I quoted in my previous blog on happiness on 4/2/07 seen here along with the related one from the day before. My return to the contemplation of happiness was precipitated by my pleasure over recently released research showing that happiness is infectious. Evidently good news travels fast! 🙂

As reported by Karen Kaplan of the Los Angeles Times, scientists from Harvard and University of California at San Diego tapped into participants of the famous Framingham heart study to assess how happiness spreads. What I found most interesting was the one exception to the general rule that the best way to be happy is to surround yourself with happy people — it does not work at work. Could that be true? I hope not. But I suppose that’s why they call it “work” and not “fun.”

PS. The photo of me comes from my recent work/vacation trip in Puerto Rico. The toothy statue is a pre-Columbian figure on display at the Historical Park of the Arecibo Lighthouse. My work was in Ponce for a medical device company that had the happiest employees that I’ve ever seen. I cannot describe the delight for a cold Minnesotan like me to be welcomed into such a warm environment as was nurtured by this Puerto Rican manufacturer. Perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule of no happiness spreading in the workplace. However, my intention is keep on smiling and being positive as much as I can wherever I am — it makes me happier, that is for sure.

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