Nerds with time on their hands: The Popinator

The Popinator prototype – under development at Popcorn Indiana

An article in the Huffington Post food section puts it like this: “The problem with popcorn these days, is that it doesn’t pop directly into your mouth as nature intended.”

No more! Intrepid engineers at Popcorn Indiana have a working prototype of a voice activated popcorn cannon that calculates the trajectory to your mouth and launches a kernel when you say, “Pop.”

I am seriously encouraged by the Popinator.  Who says America has lost its edge?  Creativity, engineering prowess, and humor – a potent combination!

Pondering, mulling, musing, and ruminating on the year so far

I was looking for just the right word for “think over” and pulled out Webster’s Dictionary to check  precise meanings.  Here are some of the definitions I found:

  • ponder, from the Latin pondare – to weigh, mentally; think deeply about; consider carefully; deliberate; meditate.
  • The definition of mull points back to ponder:  “to cogitate, to ponder.”
  • ruminate, from Latin ruminatus, means  1 to chew (the cud) as a cow does and 2 to turn something over in the mind; meditate.
  • The word I wanted was  muse.  It’s usage as a verb comes from the old French, muser, and carries these definitions:   “to ponder, to loiter, (originally) to stand with muzzle in the air, to think deeply and at length; meditate.

So here I stand, with muzzle in the air, loitering and pondering 2012 as it turns into the home stretch.

Even without a calendar, the signs are everywhere. It’s almost dark at 8:00pm, and the mornings are chilly. Halloween decorations are on display at the supermarket, and the volume of Christmas catalogs has notched up from a drip to a steady trickle.  Before you know it, they’ll be playing “Little Saint Nick” in the stores (kill me now!).

Things have been good in 2012 on the personal front – much to be grateful for.  Good health, food, shelter, and the resources to do our thing(s).  No catastrophic events like fires or floods in this area.  Even our little dog, Holly, who seemed to be at the end of her life in June is stable, hanging on for while, thanks to a good vet and our daily medical interventions on our behalf of her failing kidney.

Holly, about eight years ago

It’s a blessing to have this extra time with her, to give her special attention even as we learn to let go.

I also posted about my good fortune this summer to be able to attend teachings by a senior Tibetan lama, about his knee surgery and its successful outcome in August.

Long life puja for His Eminence Choden Rinpoche, July 28, 2012

We also have an exciting trip planned for the fall, which will be the subject of more than one post later on.


If things are positive in the personal sphere, I know I’m not the only one who finds the public arena disturbing this election year.  There’s something schizophrenic about the media messages we receive on one hand, and our day to day experience on the other.

As the election nears, we constantly hear how polarized we are as a nation, yet in my experience, in parks and public places, restaurants, and stores, people mostly treat each other with courtesy and respect.  I haven’t seen kamikaze parking lot behavior since last year’s Christmas season.

Last week, as I glanced around our local waffle place, it struck me that at places like this across the country, you see “ordinary” people who, if given a chance, could do a better job of getting things done for the good of the nation than our elected representatives.  Did anyone in that breakfast place, or ones like it across the nation, decide to vote for the candidates most likely to freeze up government like an engine without any oil?

And yet it happened, which means (a) it benefits some group of influential people or (b) our politicians are morons or (c) somehow our dysfunction has become systemic.

I lean toward the third choice. In it’s Labor Day editorial, The Sacramento Bee underscored a point I made several days ago – that the fortunes of the middle class mirror the fortunes of labor unions:

“Draw one line on a graph charting the decline in union membership, then superimpose a second line charting the decline in middle-class income share and you will find that the two lines are nearly identical.” The middle class has shrunk significantly, from 61 percent of the adult population in 1971 to 51 percent in 2011, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve.

A forty year decline indicates that the trend is truly systemic.  It’s not the exclusive fault of Bush and/or Obama – rather it’s something built into our current political/economic system.

I know I’m thinking that way now because of Bill Moyer’s guest on Sunday, Mike Lofgren, author of The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.

In his interview with Moyers, Lofgren is not sanguine about our chances to reform the status quo.  He advocates something like folding our hand and asking for a new deck:

BILL MOYERS: But what do we do about it? Nothing seems to tame the power of money in politics.

MIKE LOFGREN: The only thing that will achieve it is fundamental political reform. And the only way you’re going to get that is mass defection from the parties. Because the parties simply do not serve our interests anymore…there is a point where if there is mass public outrage at this, just as there was in the prairies in the 1880’s and 1890’s, eventually they’ll get the message.

When Moyers asks him to state greatest fear and hope, Lofgren says:

“My greatest fear is that this whole impasse simply carries on. And this country becomes more and more polarized and ungovernable. And we could be faced with a very bad situation, internationally and domestically….My greatest hope is that we can govern ourselves again in a spirit of bipartisanship.”

When Moyers asks if he thinks that’s realistic, Lofgren replies, “We must let our hopes be greater than our fears.”

If his answer doesn’t ring with confidence, it’s still good to remember that more than anything else, it is fear that drives us to act in mean spirited ways.  Generosity follows finding the threads of faith and confidence within, and generosity of spirit is what we desperately need.  Sometimes I imagine this through one of William Stafford’s last poems.  It’s a simple but powerful answer to give to our fears.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

The Seemingly Bad

Years ago I had a friend I sometimes looked to for counsel.  He was a few years older than me and had already blazed the trail from hippie to the not-really-expected condition of being a family man with a mortgage and responsibilities.  Holding to his ideals even as he cut his hair and put on a suit, he got a masters in psychology and became director of a drug and alcohol treatment center in northern California.

From the many discussions we had, I remember most clearly his phrase, “the seemingly bad.”  He meant that we cannot really evaluate events as they unfold, and we waste a lot of energy trying.

Years later I came upon a Chinese folktale that serves as a parable of the point.  It goes by various names, such as “An Old Man Finds a Horse.”  An illustrated children’s version of the tale was published by Ed Young and Tracey Adams in 1998 as, The Lost Horse.

Here is the gist of the story.

Once a wise old man lived on the steppes.  One day his prize mare ran away.  The neighbors said, “How terrible.  What a loss!”  The old man said, “Perhaps.”

A few weeks later, the mare returned, along with a fine stallion.  The neighbors said, “What great good fortune for you!”  The old man said, “Perhaps.”

When the man’s son tried to ride the stallion, the horse threw him and he suffered a badly broken leg.  The neighbors said, “You’re only son is crippled.  What a terrible blow!”  The old man said, “Perhaps.”

A short time later a regiment marched through the valley, pressing all the young men into military service – except the old man’s son, who was unable to serve in the infantry because of his leg.  The other young men who marched to war never came home.

I had my own experience of “the seemingly bad” in the early ’80’s.  I worked as a part-time community college art instructor and wanted  a full time position.  Shasta College, in Weed, CA, right at the foot of Mt. Shasta, had an opening, and based on an application and phone interview, I was invited to visit the school as one of five candidates for a second interview.

Everything looked good.  My portfolio was strong, and I got a glowing recommendation from the chairman of the art department where I had studied, who had also taught the hiring professor at Shasta.  Mary and I drove up on the kind of fall weekend that makes you glad to be alive.  The interview went well, and that night we celebrated with dinner at a restaurant that featured a balcony overlooking a creek.  While watching a golden sunset, we talked about where to live and what to do in our new home.

Guess what?

They promoted one of their own part-timers.  I’m sure they intended this all along, and the interviews were just a formality to satisfy labor regulations.  I was crushed.  I forgot my old friend’s lesson, that this might just be seemingly bad.

A year later, in the face of recession and severe budget cuts, the position I had applied for was cut, along with a number of other teaching jobs.  If I had been hired, we would have been stuck in a small town with severe unemployment.

This story and the concept of “seemingly bad” came to mind recently when I thought of people I’ve met who are desperate to get published – not just working hard to achieve the goal, but desperate, piling all their hopes and sense of worth on that increasingly shaky endeavor.  What happens to the many who will never achieve that goal?

Hopefully, something along the lines of what happened after Shasta College turned me down.  Feeling at first like a sell-out, I went to work in computer graphics.  In retrospect, it was a great move.  What seemed bad turned me down a different road that allowed me to make a good living while exploring a different kind of creativity.

I’m not suggesting that bad things don’t happen, or every cloud has a silver lining.  The seemingly bad can be awfully hard to weather.  I am suggesting that it’s hard to anticipate outcomes from the middle of the trenches.  The more I thought about it, the better it seemed to pass on my old friend’s advice.  The seemingly good and seemingly bad are often not what they seem.

Impending Doom?

A bright spring morning after days of clouds and rain. A good night’s sleep. So why did I wake with a sense of impending doom?  There are no foreboding events on the horizon.  I haven’t violated any obvious rules of mental hygiene, i.e., I don’t stay up late watching slasher movies.  A few times in the past, such uneasiness has preceded nasty events, but not very often.

I did some yoga and meditation, which helped but didn’t dispel the mood.  What I really wanted to do was get outdoors, so I took a walk at a local park.  Afterwards, I felt like a cup of coffee and went to Starbucks.

As I sat down, a man who looked vaguely familiar said, “Morgan?”

I couldn’t quite place him and had to ask his name.  Turns out he and I were friends almost 25 years ago.  He went to work for the state, and I started taking night classes after work, and we lost touch.  I thought he had moved away, but he still lives where he did back then, little over a mile away as the crow flies.

We talked for a while and traded phone numbers.  He said he built a boat and mentioned fishing.  I thought of baseball once the season starts.  The sense of impending doom was gone.  And yet, if it hadn’t been there when I got up…

I wouldn’t have gone to the park…
and would have made coffee at home…
so I wouldn’t have been at Starbucks to cross paths with an old friend.

When I really pay attention, I find I do not understand how anything works.

What Do 20% of Us Have in Common?

Not long ago, I read a Los Angeles Times article saying 20% of Americans suffered from mental illness in 2010.  The article ended with a warning:  “…we need to continue efforts to monitor levels of mental illness in the United States in order to effectively prevent this important public health problem and its negative impact on total health.”  The story did define what was meant by “mental illness.”  Do I have to keep an eye on every fifth guy in the Post Office line?

Not necessarily.

The Times’ source was a January 19 report by SAMSHA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration, which said 45.9 million Americans suffered from mental illness in 2010.  Their definition of mental illness is, “a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders)” in the DSM-IV, the 4th edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1994).

Here’s how the DSM works: there are numerous schools of psychotherapy that differ in their approach to treating different disorders, but all have agreed to agree on the definitions of those disorders.  One of my psych professors insisted that the DSM says more about our cultural “norms” than about the health of the population.  For instance, in 1987, homosexuality was dropped from the list of disorders.  Prior to 1987, gays and lesbians were “mentally ill.”  After that, they were not.

Anyone who visits a psychotherapist and wants to submit an insurance claim will receive one of these diagnoses, most commonly, “Anxiety,” or “Adjustment Disorder.”  This fits the vast numbers of clients who are able to cope with life, but seek help with problems at work or problems at home or issues of self-actualization.  The SAMSHA report gave no mention of efforts to factor in the seriousness of the diagnosis.  There is no way to know how many of the 45.9 million Americans who are “mentally ill” suffer from anxiety vs. schizophrenia.

To the best of my knowledge, the rise of “insanity” coincided with the Industrial Revolution.  The US Census first noted the incidence of “idiocy/insanity” in 1840.  By 1880, there were seven types of insanity:  mania, melancholia, monomania, paresis, dementia, dipsomania, and epilepsy.

According to my psych professor, the DSM grew out of a research collaboration between the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the US military between the world wars.  Soldiers in WWI suffered high rates of shell shock.  The military sought screening methods for those who would hold up in combat.  Although the screens later proved not to have the predictive power hoped for, the DSM came from this research.  In other words, our current definition of sanity is based the attributes of a good combat soldier.

Voices were raised in protest, almost from the start, notably by Thomas Szasz in The Myth of Mental Illness (1961) and a 1973 article by David Rosenham, “On Being Sane in Insane Places.”

I am not trying to minimize the suffering of those with mental afflictions that cause them to harm themselves or others.  First, I am questioning a report that excludes all forms of substance abuse from its definition of “mental illness.”  I also question defining “anxiety” as “mental illness,” when anyone who was paying attention in 2010 felt anxious.

I have often been struck, since I studied psychology, that our concept of sanity, modeled on the good soldier, also defines the “productive” member of our consumer culture.  It brings to mind a favorite line from a poem by Theodore Roethke:  What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?:

In a Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood–
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is–
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear. 
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
– Theodore Roethke

Shortwave Memories

When I was twelve, my mother, who claimed she had no luck in contests, won a transistor radio in a raffle and gave it to me. This was a fancy model. With AM, FM, and shortwave bands, a folding antenna, an earphone jack, and a lighted dial, it was perfect for tuning in to exotic locations at night when I was supposed to be sleeping.  Voice of America, BBC, Radio Free Europe, were all within reach.  So was Fresno.  For some reason, I took a shine to a radio evangelist who came on the air every Sunday night at 10:00 from a station in Fresno.

I don’t remember exactly why I liked him.  Perhaps because he was livelier than the minister at the family church – “Can I get a Halleluljah?”  At the same time, he delivered comforting messages.  One night he explained why scripture promised there would not be a nuclear holocaust.  This was a timely message during the Cuban missile crisis.  The guy up the street was digging a fallout shelter in his front yard.  At school we had hydrogen bomb drills (get under your desk and cover your head), but I took it all with calm indulgence.  The worst was not going to happen.  I had it on good authority – the man of God in Fresno guaranteed it.

I spent the next six years deeply engaged with radio.  I got my ham license and was active until I went off to college.  Half a century ago it shrank time and space like the internet does for us now.  I thought of that radio recently when I noticed myself scrolling through international news on my smart phone.  I’ve always loved my gadgets, but I realized the phone lacks the magic of distant stations coming in through the static at night on the glowing radio dial.  It also lacks the assurance I found on that Fresno station on Sunday nights.  Nowadays, most of the people quoting scripture are scary, and for all we can find online, it’s hard to find a convincing voice saying everything will be all right.