Change Your Mind, Change Your Life?

Change Your Mind?

I’ve wondered lately (here and here) about why people live with broken things. What do you have laying around? Broken appliances? A toaster with only one working slot? Clothes that don’t fit? A cabinet drawer that doesn’t slide? Why don’t we take the time to fix these things? What would it take for us to change our mind and quit living with broken stuff? This led me to wonder about broken relationships: is there a correlation between your overflowing junk drawer and the health of your marriage? If you put up with a broken heater in your car are you more prone to put up with something less in your relationships? I’m don’t know. But it’s worth the thought.

The other side of that coin is that we can change our minds about these things. But can we?

I’ve been having a conversation with a so-called intelligent design adherent and author. We’re talking about new research regarding bacteria that grow new flagella over a weekend after having the protein that regulates flagellum construction knocked out.

Facts Don’t Seem To Matter

The research is interesting – I argue that it’s a prime example of a mutation adding something positive to a genome – but I’m fascinated at how both of us present the same information and ‘arrive’ at different conclusions. I emphasize ‘arrive’ because I wonder if either of us is truly looking hard at the evidence? Maybe we are just regurgitating our biases. He would have to argue against his own book to agree with me. I would have to shuffle off my standard evo-devo arguments to agree with him. I don’t like thinking that I do this but how many times have you ever really listened to someone and weighed what they were saying and then changed your minds to agree with them? I’m in that same boat.

In this case, I’ve tried to stop and observe my reasoning. I’ve written down each step in the research finding and asked if this is reasonable. I think it is. In the end, I state that this shows how mutations can add information to the genome and increase fitness. My chatting partner looks at the same list and concludes that this can only be accomplished by a designer. Someone or something had to make this work this way. There is no way that this could happen without an intelligence behind it. When this kind of teleological glove is thrown down there is just no more room for discussion.

I’m not talking about decision making. This is easy. I’m talking about beliefs. I’m talking about the set of rules that you’ve glommed onto or slapped together that dictate your world view and how you live. We tell ourselves that we have examined the evidence and have come to a thoughtful position but that’s very rarely true. Instead, we get our ideas about right and wrong and truth from our genes, from our parents, our school, our culture, from the books we read, and from friends.

What About Beliefs?

The hardest thing I’ve changed my mind about was my Christianity. I was once an engaged Christian but now label myself as deeply agnostic.

And I’m not talking about the ‘I’m not religious, just spiritual’ canard. I live mostly as an atheist but argue hard that neither the theist nor the atheist can truly hammer down their argument to a firm conclusion. Religion seems increasingly untenable to me and, at least for me, the observation that no god exists seems most basic, natural, and fundamental.

There are other things that I almost forbid myself to think about. Abortion is one. My practical and reasonable mind tells me that abortion should be supported, and oftentimes, encouraged. But my doubts about any afterlife creates a loathing in me at the thought of taking life from anyone. I am strongly against capital punishment and feel queasy about abortion as taking away something too precious. I don’t want to be the arbiter of what life we value over another. I recognize my own inconsistency here. I eat meat and have dispatched plenty of research animals. If I’m wrong, and god is a rat, then I am in some serious trouble. I don’t hunt but have no real argument with it other than just killing for fun. So there are areas where I know I’m not consistent.

How about you? What have you changed your mind about?


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Want to Improve? There’s No Easy Way

Want to Improve? I do.

Here’s a weird one.

What to improve?
Want to improve? You got to do things that aren’t easy. But they will be.

My butt is killing me. Right at the top where the muscle attaches to the top of my pelvis. It’s one of the smaller muscles, right at the top of your rear, that helps you balance and control sideways movement of the legs.

The muscle hurts because I don’t use it much and now I am. I like running which, obviously, is a forward-moving exercise. So I don’t use this muscle much compared to it’s larger and more famous partner the gluteus maximus. The maximus helps to pull my thigh upwards when I run.  I’m doing a new workout now with more lateral motion that puts this comparatively weaker muscle in play. So it’s sore.

Doing something different is a key to any improvement. It’s obvious when you think about it. Once we learn how to do something we have to expand to improve. So we do lateral exercises. Or learn a new knitting knot. This is why marathoners do sprints. They need more than the long drudge of mere miles to earn their best times. This is why we do word problems in math. This is why we experiment with whole wheat flour instead of using the bleached white stuff. Different results required different inputs.

How do you want to improve? What are you doing now to maintain your skills? What do you need to do in order to improve those skills? Whatever it is, it will be awkward at first. What you are good at felt awkward once. But keep at it and the new habit begins to feel comfortable. It starts to feel right. And then you’re on the track to improvement and accomplishment.

So have at it. Do something different. Put yourself in a weird place. Do something out of character. You’ll be better for it.


Living Long and Happy. Learn to Work Hard and Be Uncomfortable

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Ms. Haft and the Nasty Word

Hot For Teacher
I’m stretching it but you get the point.

I was a junior and in love with writing and with science and, along with every other testosterone-sick guy in school, with Ms. Haft. She was freshly graduated from college and she wore her hair long and her skirts short. It’s still odd to me, but rather than standing or sitting, she would teach while kneeling on her desk. The younger teachers eschewed rows and columns and circled our desks around the perimeter of the room. One day – it’s one of the few clear memories I have of high-school – Ms. Haft walked into the room, climbed onto her desk, knelt down, and in the most droning, flat, and unemotional voice said “fuck”. Pencils, papers, jaws – everything dropped. Every set of eyes shot up from whatever they were looking at and turned to Ms. Haft. The air left the room. After a very long and very pregnant pause, she said it again. Fuck. And then again. Fuck you. Fuck me. Well, fuck it all.

All of a sudden, school got interesting.

She explained that today’s lesson had two parts. Part One was that we would circle the room and everyone would say Fuck out loud in turn. Just utter the word. Just form the sounds pushing air from your lungs and out your mouth. Touch your upper teeth to your lower lip and say it. Fuck. Good god. What harm can come from expelling air and forming a sound?

We went ’round our circle one-by-one. A couple students, pale and panting at the idea of letting such an abomination squeeze through their lips, shook their head No. I think one person gathered up and left. Some, given permission to swear for probably the first time, said the word over and over until told to stop. In the end, I think everyone in the room except for two or three, completed the odd lesson.

Lesson Two was much less interesting: words are meaningless. Do you imagine that ‘Fuck’ has any real meaning? Do you imagine that lovers would say such a word to each other? If we never bat an eye when the word is spoken would people continue to use it? Words only have meaning when we agree to their meaning.

But isn’t that exactly what culture is? An agreement that words and gestures and swimming pools and a dozen wives mean something?

The very purpose of words is to convey meaning and no word is meaningless. Words move us to great joy or to great pain. Words can elevate a nation. Words can change your life in an instant. “I’m leaving.” “I Have a Dream!” “Math is hard.”  How many girls have never forgotten when their dad told them that he loves them even though they are chubby? How many adults have never imagined what wonderful things they can do only because someone three or four decades ago told them that “you’re not good at that.” My own father remembered me at four-years-old reaching for his hand once to walk across the street. He said that he slapped my hand away and said “Big boys don’t hold hands”. It was meaningful enough for him to remember it fifty years later.

I disagree with Ms. Haft about the meaning of words but she alluded to something that I do agree with: dark things lose their power when exposed to light. I can’t help but think of this when I read that another group or government office has been ordered to cut off communication with the press or to shut down parts of their website. There might be a good reason for these actions but, without open and free communication, we can’t know.

I don’t know what happened to Ms. Haft. I don’t remember if she was there for my senior year. The last thing I remember of her was when she caught on that my buddy and I were the sole members of our high-school Maoist club. We dropped pamphlets and commie art in teacher’s mail each morning and beamed for days after Ms. Haft told us that the school board had called a special meeting to discuss ‘communist infestation’ at the school.


As and aside, it’s said that the most frightening moment in film is when Clint Eastwood sings a solo in the wonderful movie Paint Your Wagon. Here you go:

For my money, though, when the band who rescued rock and roll doffs leisure suits and does the two-step to Hot For Teacher, well, I cry a little bit. Except that the song is redeemed as a showcase for every amazing thing that Van Halen does with six strings.


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Writers, Eaters, Success Seekers – Should You Follow Trends?

To Follow Trends or No?

If your Twitter feeds looks anything like mine then you are inundated with advice from every corner. 6 Words To Avoid When Writing a Short Story! 18 Rules for the NEW Social Media! 5 Essential Trends in Exercise Marketing! It’s all hype. Most of it is the same-old-same-old junk repackaged by a ‘content marketing’ genius. Some of it is good. Some of it bad. Most of it is mindless filler intended to get you to click your mouse.

But remember this: the tried and true – the thing that works –  is a hard sell. Want to lose weight? Then consume fewer calories than you burn each day, every day. You will lose weight. It’s a law of nature. But no one will a buy a book with that title. Want to be a better writer? Then write more. And when you are done then write even more. Write until your fingers ache. There is really no other way to improve than to do more. Yet who pays for this advice? Who clicks on an ad claiming that “We Will Teach You French in Only Five Hours a Day!”? No one. Ages ago my classical guitar teacher told me that I could be a good player if I would commit to practicing for eight hours a day. I still don’t know if that was a compliment or a sarcastic slam.

I’m not saying that everything new is bunk. Nor am I saying that everything old is genius. What I am emphasizing is that you should invest the time to know the merits of what you’re investing in compared to your long-term goals.

Should you Follow Trends?
Even if I knew who this was, I wouldn’t release their names. I’m just too nice.

Take a look at the sad souls here. I don’t know who they are and I would protect their anonymity even if I knew. But I guarantee that they were trying to look the part. A manager or publicist told them that this is how they had to look. Go with the trends! Forget talent! Forget singing ability! Or magic or whatever they were doing. “Look the part and legions will flock to you!”. And maybe they did. For a night or a month or maybe for a year. And maybe it was a fantastic year. Maybe it was worth this hideous picture. But if you are looking for something lasting then it’s tough to beat whatever has worked for the successful who come before you.


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A tale of three smokers…

This post is about lightening up a little bit and getting to know yourself better. It’s about me and two good friends. We all used to smoke. Not like a chimney or a vaper but smokers nonetheless. Truth is that few things in my life were as gloriously satisfying as a Marlboro Light. I looked forward to hopping in the truck just so I could light one up and enjoy a deep and long drag.

Of course, I tried quitting. Several times. I had successes but never for more than a month or so. Finally I decided that I would never quit. Instead, I decided that I would take a year off. After a year, I could go and buy a carton if I wanted to. Well, I spent my year never even thinking about smoking. Somehow, for me, this little mind trick just removed the question from my brain. A year later, I actually bought a cigarette. (You could buy singles for seventy-five cents were I lived). It didn’t kill me but it had certainly lost its appeal. It stunk and tasted lousy and I didn’t want to spend the money on it. I’ve smoked a few times since then but just have no interest in it.

My buddy PE quit in a single day. He was a navy man and bought smokes at the commissary. One he walked in and the price of a carton had jumped from about twenty to thirty bucks and he refused to pay that much.  He claims to have never smoked since. His tightwad habits saved him from his nicotine habit.

AG tried quitting all kinds of ways. What worked for him was buying a book. It was about how tobacco companies use all kinds of fillers and chemicals to make their products cheaper and more addictive. I still don’t know how true it is – nicotine delivered in small, regular doses is fantastically addictive – but it worked for him. He was incensed for a year and vowed to never pay those asses a dime again.

There are two morals to the story. One is to know yourself. Try to figure out what drives you. I know that I want cookies and pie when I’m feeling lousy and that when I fight with my wife, I retreat. Knowing that I gravitate toward these behaviors helps me to change them. The other message is to keep trying. What worked for Raoul might not work for Julie. What does not work for Julie worked wonders for Ilsa. It’s hard to know why but we are all different with different experiences. So be kind to yourself and give some latitude and you will finally stumble on what you didn’t know you were looking for.


My Writing Set Up

My Writing Set Up

Writing Set Up
Where the magic happens.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked what writing helps you use. Today, I’ll outline my set-up. Yes, these are the things that excite writers.

For Writing

For much of my daily blogging, I write directly into WordPress. I’ve gotten used to the new editor which is a sure sign that a new revision is on the way. I copy these posts into Scrivener as a record of my writing. If so inclined, there are apps that allow you to back-up or capture your entire website but this is too much work for me.

I write a lot on my phone (iPhone 7s), which is weird to me. When I’m standing in line or waiting for a meeting to start, I take notes and make lists with the native iPhone Notes app or with Wunderlist. In the days of yore, we used to have conversations with other human beings during those times. So much for the old ways!  I’ve tried joining the Evernote cult but just can’t find the buy-in.  The only cult I’ve willingly joined is the Old-Saab cult.

I use Scrivener with a deep affection. This is one of the few things I’ve found that lives up to the promises computers made to us long ago. It’s as powerful as any editor available and geared entirely for writers. It’s inexpensive – fifty bucks US – but don’t confuse its low cost with a lack of power or features. If you decide to shell out the money for a license, I recommend watching a few You Tube videos about setting up and using the program. An hour or so here will pay real dividends. I’m still learning its ins and outs and am now working to understand it from the viewpoint of a blogging and writing database.

I use  Word sporadically for business writing or when I’m submitting for publication. I like that it works seamlessly with other MS applications. And let’s be honest – the world runs on Microsoft. I use the on-line subscription service so it’s available to me anywhere at any time.

Other Stuff

I use Pocket to collect web addresses while surfing. WordPress will do the same thing, as will Evernote, but this app is so clean and simple that I prefer it. I load it into FireFox so capturing anything is a one-click affair.

I use Wunderlist as a repository for ideas and for general list making.  Mostly, I use it to capture things while on the run and sift through entries once every couple of weeks. I link it to Google Calendar so am also able to use it as a reminder.

My Writing Set-up
Trello and my writing set-up. Still not sure what it is but I am in love.

I’m pretty much in love with Trello. I don’t even know what it is. Visual database? List tool on steroids?  I don’t know but I use it daily and update it regularly.

I use Dropbox to back up all my writing. It’s a safe place and is a work-around for accessing Scrivener files from any computer since they aren’t web-based.  I also save files to my computer and do monthly permanent save on a USB stick. Redundancy is key here.

I have a growing relationship with Grammarly. I want it to like me and want it to give me good grades and want it to tell me how wonderful I am in my weekly writing report. Instead, it reminds me that I don’t know how to use commas and I run on too much. To add insult to injury, the geniuses who market the app tell me that if I pay them money – thirty dollars a month – they will tell that I’m an even worse writer. Hoo boy!

When the scientist in me comes out, I use Excel to track submissions and other stats. I also have a file in Scrivener where I track this stuff. Because I’m always using Scrivener, it’s just easier to keep text records of what went where and when. It’s easy to keep addresses and contacts there, too. I use Excel less and less as I go along.

I have an Amazon Fire that I use for reading. I ruthlessly refuse to put any other apps on it. They will only distract me.

My Writing Set Up
The Ubuntu Desk Top

I recently bought a Lenovo laptop for about $350.00. It’s a tank. I use the Ubuntu operating system and the thing runs like a supercomputer. This has nothing to do with writing and can easily be a distraction. Unless you like tweaking operating systems this probably isn’t for you. At home, I plug my internet modem directly into my computer for near instantaneous response.

I am hardly ever without a pen stuck somewhere on my body. Paper can be had anywhere.

I’ve never cared much about having a special place to write. I can sleep on the floor and can write anywhere. I’ve never tried writing in a coffee shop or in a street-side cafe in Budapest. I would probably be too distracted.

At this point, I’m using Google Calendar as an editorial calendar. It works fine but I’m open to any advice for this tool.

Summary Tips

  1. Blogging_HelpDo you need this stuff? Good gawd no. Hemingway wrote with a pad, pencil, typewriter, and shot of booze. You want to write? Then write. You want to be a better writer? Then write more.
  2. It’s a great distraction for me to start playing with apps. How many note taking apps are there on the Apple App Store? A thousand? A million? Pick one of the more popular titles and start taking notes. Then get back to writing.
  3. This sounds silly at the end of this post but keep things simple. I’ve read advice about using X for writing then transfer the file here for editing then save it here and compile it here – I’m lost and tired already. Get your system in place and keep writing.
  4. This is as elementary as it gets but keep these things close at hand. Don’t hide them where you have to look for them. Remember – you want to write. Don’t let finding a program distract you. Here is a screenshot of my ‘BlogHelps’ FireFox tab. It keeps everything I need instantly at hand.
  5. Remember that these are tools. You want to write. Then write.

That’s it. The list is longer than I expected but its works very well for me. And I’m never far from paper and I always carry a pen. Who knows when there will be no wifi, no ethernet, no satellite for my phone, and the spirit of Tolstoy will speak to me with the keys to the kingdom?

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The curse of having to have something to say

I listened to a podcast today about fitness. I won’t say who but they are a popular blogger about more extreme fitness and longevity topics. Listening to today’s topic, I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz. It’s the curse of having to have something to say. If you stick with science and evidence-based research, and if you are going to talk about being healthy rather than how to hop a hundred miles backward on a pogo stick in twenty-four hours, well, you’re going to run out of topics pretty quickly. So what do you do? You veer into woo. You start flirting with advice that isn’t exactly supported by evidence but hey, the Russians do it and they win all the Olympics.

This is what happened to Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. Both were respected in their fields for doing good, solid work with excellent results. Both started out as guests on the Oprah show doing spots that showcased their expertise. Both ended up with shows that required them to be charming and insightful every day while keeping ratings high enough to argue for Oprah-sized ad rates. It can’t be easy. So now Dr. Phil, an apparent genius in reading people and in jury selection, talks to kids about why the hate cleaning their room. “And how do you think this makes your mother feel? he asks with a pained look. And Dr. Oz? Ugh. Painful. He has glommed on to so much pseudo-science that I expect he’ll be interviewing aliens about health issues on Mars before long. Too bad. By all previous accounts, he was an excellent MD.

All of this to say two things: always weigh what you read or hear. Celebrity, even in technical fields, doesn’t confer universal expertise. And in almost everything, the steps to success are usually well known and much more simple than is presented. Accomplishing the steps might be difficult, but knowing what they are is easy.