Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The emergence of multi-tasking?

With most schools back in session, I believe this would be an appropriate time to restate my position on education which is: you‘re never too old to learn something new.
That is a difficult policy to argue against, so I will refine it a little further. We all know there are many things we can learn from our children. How about that? There is a statement that should please at least one generation.
My assignment today, however, is to carry the mission of generational learning (and teaching) one step further and say that it can be both illuminating and satisfying to learn something new and important from a grandchild.
That’s how I learned about multi-tasking.
A few months ago, I placed one of my phone calls to my grandson, Jake. He happened to answer the phone and greeted me cordially, but I could sense he was preoccupied. I was right.
“I can’t talk right now,” he said. “Can I call you back?”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”
“I’m just real busy,” he explained. “I’m multi-tasking.”
“Oh,” I replied. It was an unfamiliar term but I got the message and the meaning. “Go ahead. Call me later.”
As I hung up, I felt that flush of grandfatherly pride, pride in a student who is busy with his homework, probably loaded with problems in math, confronted with some of those awful problems, the kind where you’re on a train going 68 miles an hour and it stops six times, for four and a half minutes each, to take on passengers, and...oh, you know what I mean.
I had just recently read that high school students were being required to do an increasing amount of nightly homework, so I imagined he was probably balancing that math along with conjugating some Latin verbs and reviewing a chapter to prepare for a physics quiz.
As I mentioned, I’d never heard the term multi-tasking before, but it had a nice ring to it, and it was descriptive, a good phrase to know in a world filled with busy people, many of them doing more than one thing at a time.
It prompted me to think of my own situation and to ask myself whether I could be rated as a multi-tasker. I quickly decided I qualified, although I’ve been too busy to realize it.
Ask yourself that same question and I think you’ll discover that you, too, are a multi-tasker, as are most of your friends. Juggling various tasks becomes routine.
When I reflected on my career and my various activities, I concluded that I very seldom had the luxury of doing just one thing at a time. At this very moment, my desk is covered with unrelated files and notes, all of them concerned with different matters. On the left side of the desk, at the top of a pile of papers, I have always maintained a “To Do,” list, and when an entry is done, I draw a line through it.
After Jake said “multi-tasking,” I realized that although I was unfamiliar with the term I was very familiar with the routine.
He called me back later and we talked. I find that during such conversations I ask quite a few questions of my grandsons. Sometimes I even get answers.
“You were busy earlier,” I said, in case he had forgotten. “You said you were multi-tasking.”
“Right,” he said.
I told him of my own experiences, multi-tasking over the years in various situations. I wasn’t boasting, just trying to establish that there was a common bond. Then I inquired about the work that had been occupying him.
“No,” he explained, “it wasn’t homework. I was doing too many things. I was watching a movie on TV, sending instant messages to a girl in my class, and talking on my cell phone.”
“Oh,” I said. There wasn’t much else that I could think of to say. Yes, it was a little disillusioning to hear that he wasn’t busy doing his homework. But, on the other hand, it was reassuring to discover that he was nimble enough to handle those three things at the same time, and realistic enough to know that he couldn’t add a conversation with me to the mix. I’m just thankful he didn’t put me on hold.
The lesson is clear. Multi-tasking is a recent 21st century term, and while the meaning of “multi” is obvious, a precise definition of “tasking” remains unwritten.


Saturday, September 23, 2006

The ouster of Pluto

For years I’ve been preaching about the facts of life, admittedly in a limited way, reminding people that the only constant is change. And yet sometimes when change comes with dramatic suddenness, as it did recently, I was ill prepared for it.
This has to do with the elimination of Pluto from membership in the solar system.
One of the few things I know about astronomy is that Pluto was the smallest planet, the farthest from the sun. That was etched in my mind because at some point, probably when I was studying what was known as General Science, I memorized the solar system. With a little prompting, I can still do that today, in no particular order: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Venus, Mercury Mars, and, of course, Earth.
(Students were more likely to memorize things years ago because the information wasn’t that readily available. As an example, I give you trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. That was, and perhaps still is, the Boy Scout Law.
(I can also recite the Greek alphabet, although that doesn’t help me much in my daily life, even when contemplating chicken souvlaki, and as a journalist I learned that The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’s back. Oh, and I once was able to recite the Gettysburg Address without hesitation, but that is long gone.)
Now Pluto is gone, too, relegated to the inferior and demeaning status of “dwarf planet.” That action is the direct result of a vote by the International Astronomical Union, whose members had apparently been arguing for years about the status of Pluto. That debate took place in the remote sanctums of the astronomical world, and didn’t attract any public attention until it was too late to mount a reasonable campaign to safeguard Pluto’s status.
The elimination of Pluto from the solar system was a bitter defeat for those who favored its continued inclusion. What were the arguments pro and con between revisionists and traditionalists? I cannot tell you and I have not pursued an explanation because we probably would not understand the two sides of the issue anyway. Many of us who have gone through life with little or no knowledge about Pluto seem unable to accept its reduced status with equanimity.
My affection for Pluto is probably a direct result of the dog of the same name, created by the folks at Disney, to be a sidekick for Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, in those short cartoons which filled an important interlude during the Saturday matinee. Pluto never uttered a single line in any of his many film appearances, but he didn’t have to speak. He had great facial expressions and a series of unique bodily contortions, attainable only with the aid of a cartoonist. He remains one of my favorite bloodhounds.
Controversy sometimes results in learning, even at the pedestrian level of the columnist. Seeking a nugget or two of information, it’s always possible to strike gold. Did you realize that Pluto, the planet, was discovered in 1930? It had been out there for an eternity, but in 1930 it was finally discovered. Now extensive research discloses that Pluto, the dog, was created, named, and made his first film appearance in 1930. That is certainly no coincidence. The Disney people of the time must have been so enchanted with the name of the new planet, they acted immediately to bestow cartoon fame upon it. The Disney people of today have been quoted as claiming there are no records linking the naming of the dog with the planet, but only a gullible few believe that explanation.
The planet---or ”dwarf planet” as it shall henceforth be known---was named after Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld, not to be confused with Plato, the Greek philosopher. Pluto wasn’t such an admirable character; he kidnapped Persephone and together they ruled the underworld.
This whole discussion brings up the issue of Plutonium, that metallic element produced in a cyclotron that can be used in the making of nuclear bombs.
I realize I’ve strayed far from the topic but I attribute that behavior to a common character fault, the difficulty people like me often have with sudden change. I’m trying my best to support the decision of the astronomers, who surely must know space, but it won’t be easy to accept the deletion of that distant speck of a planet. Pluto, we hardly knew you...


Sunday, September 17, 2006

To some, the clothespin is obsolete, but...

I bought some new clothespins last week. At first reading, you may not agree that qualifies as news, but consider this: when was the last time you or one of your family members or friends bought any clothespins?
To some, the clothespin is obsolete, a once vital housekeeping item that has outgrown its usefulness and is now archaic and on its way to a display case in a museum of antiquities. To others, the clothespin remains an important object, a dependable invention that is clever and resilient, and seldom fails to perform exactly as advertised. Years ago we enlisted in the second group, those who use and respect the clothespin.
As a utensil, it is widely admired because it is well designed. I bought the wooden kind with the metal spring, the model that clenches the clothes and secures them to the clothesline. That’s the premium type of clothespin, but, whenever practical, I favor quality over price, especially when the total outlay is in the single digits. I’ll discuss the clothesline later, but the design of that type of pin deserves some special attention. They still sell the other kind of all wooden pins, the kind with the notch between the two sides, the type that relies on friction to maintain a tight grip on the clothing.
Some things get invented and consistently reinvented. Consider the iPod. You buy one and weeks later a new improved version hits the stores. New models keep being developed and introduced to the market, each of them presumably superior to its predecessors. Are those modifications necessary? That question can’t be asked pertaining to the clothespin. The old style friction model had its day, but the spring-equipped type decades ago assumed a commanding position in the home laundry basket. There still seems to be a substantial market for the old style clothespins, but not for hanging laundry. They are a favorite commodity for certain crafts projects; they can be assembled into sculptural displays, painted and used in construction of small objects for sale at the local crafts fair.
The world may be waiting for a new style of clothespin, a 21st century version, but the inventors apparently are working on other projects. They have been ignoring the clothespin for decades, at least as far as I know. Some companies do sell plastic models, but they just don’t seem to function as well as wood. When the research and development specialists ignore an item, that’s a pretty good indication that the current model is functional and highly regarded.
Although the clothespin marketers operate unnoticed, below the radar screen, when a person needs to replenish a supply, there are plenty of sources. You just have to find them. I don’t mean find the sources, I mean find the pins, once you arrive at the store.
Take your pick: hardware store, supermarket or drugstore. They all have them but there are no displays. They are all tucked away in an obscure spot where only a patient and persistent shopper would find them without assistance. My persistence fades when it comes to shopping, so I immediately enlisted the help of a clerk in a large drugstore and she strode down the main aisle, made a hard left, then a right and stopped in a homey area. She reached down to the bottom shelf---that’s the location reserved for products for which there isn’t much demand---and grabbed me a bag of clothespins. I thanked her. Profusely.
Clothespins have always been important to us because we have a clothesline. As far as I have been able to determine through modest surveillance, we are the only house on the block with an operating clothesline. We are in that declining number of people who prefer sunshine and gentle breezes for the drying, rather than a dryer. We save the dryer for rainy days and winter.
Last week, a six year old visited us overnight, and, while demonstrating headstands, she noticed the clothesline. Having never seen one before, she thought it was tightrope walking, or some similar exercise.
But that’s not all: A couple of years ago an attorney friend was sitting in our backyard, when he spotted something that immediately intrigued him. “Is that a clothes pole?” he asked, in a tone somewhere between astonishment and bewilderment. Yes, it was. It remains in operation. We believe it’s essential to try to stay abreast of all the latest labor saving gadgets.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Cabbage, anyone?

By Dick Hirsch
The tomatoes are piled high. The Swiss chard is bundled and banded and standing in pails of water. Cabbages the size of volley balls are carefully arranged. The peaches, oh, the peaches; just picked in Niagara County, they’re blushing, looking delectable and tasting even better. If you are ever going to take the time to go to a farmers’ market, now is the time to do it.
As September comes, we can reap the results of a fabulous season, a temperate summer characterized by enough sun and warmth and enough rain to result in an abundant harvest. It doesn’t always work that way. So many things can go wrong with the weather; a late spring sleet storm, for example, can ruin emerging peaches or apples. Sometimes the summer is too dry, sometimes, too wet, sometimes too hot or unusually cool.
The career of the farmer has never been easy. The days are long and exhausting, and the issues that every small business person faces also confront the farmer. They are heavily invested in land, have a single productive season, and a cash flow that dribbles for much of the year.
The emergence of the additional farmers’ markets has been a very positive development for the farmers. They can increase their profits by selling directly to the consumer instead of wholesaling their products to chains or independent grocers. Today there are markets in many communities.
We drive to the market on Robinson Rd. in North Tonawanda much of the year, but enjoy it the most right now, at harvest time. I’ve grown to know farmers there. But do they recognize me as a regular customer? I’ve often wondered.
Consider Carey. We have been buying from him for years. Carey is very good-natured, a burly man with a beard. He raises green beans, cabbage, tomatoes, peaches, and beets, all of which we have been buying. For years he was accompanied by Dawn, who took the money, made the change and put the receipts in her apron pocket. Then we didn’t see Dawn anymore. One day I asked the farm lady at a neighboring stand about Dawn. “Oh, she died,” the woman said. “Heart attack. No warning.” Another woman has been working with Carey for several years, but we don’t yet know her name.
We used to buy those tiny potatoes from Dan. He grew potatoes in various sizes but we favored the smallest ones that could be sautéed in a skillet with butter, chopped fresh dill and Kosher salt. When I asked why they were more expensive than the larger potato varieties he explained: because they had to be dug from the mud individually, tedious, backbreaking work. Dan hasn’t been there in at least three years, but someone else is selling potatoes at Dan's old location, using the same speckled gray-blue steel containers for display that Dan always used. I haven’t asked about Dan because I fear the news might be bad.
Yes, there are stories to be found at the market, in addition to fruits, vegetables and flowers.
For example, we went to the market yesterday morning and what a day it was. Even by 7:05 AM there was a traffic jam developing as folks tried to get a close-up parking space. We chose the lot across the street and hurried to see what we could buy. What about peaches? They were first on the list, because we expected it would be just about time for the ripening of the popular freestone varieties, the Red Havens, Hale Havens, Lorings and others. We bought a four quart basket. I had to restrain myself and wait to try one until we drove home. This region’s peaches are spectacular, the season is short, and we wait patiently for them.
I won't bore you with a detailed report of the whole expedition and what we bought, but, as near as I can calculate, we spent $37, that is about a dollar a minute.
The big bargain appeared to be the acquisition for $1 of a cabbage that must have weighed close to 10 pounds. When we started working to make cole slaw later, however, we found some mud and other unsightly black spots that had to be excised. It was still a bargain, but it needed surgery. We also bought dill, beets, two kinds of tomatoes, Swiss cheese, goat cheese, green peppers, scallions, zucchini and cucumbers. Coming soon: squash, apples and cauliflower. Do we save any money at the market? Are you kidding?