Poop Like A Caveman and other bathroom wisdom

Of all the rooms in my house, my favorite is the bathroom. Bedrooms and kitchens have their charms, sure, but neither approaches the bathroom’s blend of solitude and comfort. The bathroom is where magazines are read and ideas are generated; where a modicum of privacy and a moment of respite is possible. A good bathroom break is like a small-scale spa visit—a few minutes of self-care that can make the rest of the day a little more bearable.

For month two of my self-bettering experiment, I’m going to overhaul my bathroom—testing products, speaking to experts, and adopting the latest methods to make the most of my morning ablutions. What kind of toothbrush should I be using? How should I shower? Which brand of toilet paper is best? My goal is to make my bathroom as comfortable as possible—a luxurious Shangri-La retreat that will leave me coddled and rejuvenated.  MORE…


“It’s very painful when you are attached to somebody like a brother or family, and you see that person on his last days,” McCollum said. “A lot of them don’t really want to die. … And it hurt me the most to see the state take somebody’s life, when they are committing murder their own self. But they don’t see it that way.”

~ Henry McCollum, released from NC prison after decades on death row

The Highwaymen, Florida’s Roadside Artists


If you traveled by way of Florida’s Route 1 in the ’60s and ’70s, you might have encountered young African-American landscape artists selling oil paintings of an idealized, candy-colored, Kennedy-era Florida….


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Karma Is A Stone-Cold Bitch

earth-hour-parodyI was reading about an odd ice cream called Dondurma, made from orchid bulbs, that they eat in Turkey. As is often the case when I read about odd things, my mind drifted off in an odd direction, and I couldn’t help thinking that if there is a way to use and/or abuse anything in the natural world, at some point along the millions of years of our evolution as a species, someone will have tried it.  We see all sorts of examples, from primitive tribes that used the Foxglove plant to relieve chest distress (we call the active ingredient digitalis), to the aforesaid Turks and their confection, to our ongoing failure to respect the planet and the trillions of other beings with whom we share it.

Early on, such things were matters of need, rather than want.  Times were hard on the Anatolian Plateau, despite its location in the Fertile Crescent.  Possibly some practitioner of sympathetic magic, noticing the resemblance of the orchid tubers to testicles, had the idea that a tea brewed from them might be good for ailments in the love department.  Perhaps it even worked.  Over time, someone would have tried to improve the flavor, perhaps by adding milk, a sweetener like honey, or both.  Eventually someone would have left a pot of the stuff out on a cold night, and the rest would, along with later modifications, become history.

These sorts of things happened all the time, throughout human history.  The reasons for the experiments may have differed, but the serendipitous results lived on, themselves the basis for still more experiments.  They happened because people were close to the natural world, and to the details of their lives.  They knew the processes behind making tea and ice cream from orchid balls (the Greek root “orchis” means “testicle”) because every family made their own.  Folks learned the best ways to prepare foods for storage, grains for baking, poultices for wounds and so forth, because they had either to learn or die.  Those incapable of doing and learning would not have bred successfully, and their lines would have died out.  Thus, we became a resourceful, clever species — both our blessing and our curse, as it turns out.

The ancestors of everyone alive today were able to survive because of three factors: their closeness to the land and its products, the presence of forebears who were able to pass on their survival skills and — most importantly — the language skills that allowed them to expand upon and remember things taught by example.

As civilization developed, people slowly moved away from direct contact with their means of survival.  The beginnings of agriculture, food storage and animal husbandry in that same Fertile Crescent, about ten to twelve thousand years ago, meant that humans were able to make a living while staying in one place.  That enabled them to tend their crops, raise their animals in protected surroundings, and create food surpluses to get them through winters, droughts and other seasonal hazards.

Food surplus led to the development of a class structure.  Not having to scratch for a living meant that some people were able to develop specialized skills: masonry, carpentry, weaving, priesthood and a religious hierarchy.  This greater organization, in turn, gave rise to government — and politicians.  The need to transfer wealth among the classes, many of whom had nothing in common for barter, led to the development of money.

A warrior class arose to protect the villages’ territorial interests.  Soon, no doubt, their duties expanded to securing the “cooperation” of neighboring towns in the sharing of their resource.  War, as opposed to inter-clan skirmishes, raised its head.  The introduction of beasts of burden and wheeled carts meant that force could be projected at distances greater than individuals soldiers could carry their supplies.  City-states developed, and eventually grew into empires.

The result of this growing complexity was that more and more people got farther and farther from the level of simple food production and subsistence.  The specialists, masters of more complex but fewer skills, not only did not need to fend for their own survival, but began to look down on the people who did.  A division of class — city and country — was born, and it persists to this day in most parts of the world.  City folks tend to look down on the “rednecks” as ignorant and uncultured, while the farmers (who literally keep society alive) often consider city-dwellers to be  stuck-up, effete, and essentially helpless when it comes to the important things of life.  The country-folk (paganus, as they were known in Roman times), are far closer than the urban dwellers to the truth of the matter.

Which brings us back to the orchid ice cream.  Sort of.  We enjoy such confections with little thought to their origin.  As far as our appreciation of their source is concerned, we might as well be Israelites collecting manna in the desert.  The production of our daily bread might well be magic, for all the understanding most of us have of the process.  If we were tasked with providing our own food, we would have little idea how to bake a loaf of bread, at least from scratch, and the acquisition of the wheat, flour, and yeast, would be quite beyond us.  Given a bushel of grain, the majority of us would starve.

We are at the mercy of our transportation systems and our food distribution networks.  If we ever lose, even for a relatively short time, the ability to fertilize and irrigate our crops, operate our farm machinery, run our trucks and locomotives, and otherwise maintain the literal lifeline that reaches from farm to vegetable bin, cornfield to stockyard, stockyard to the meat cooler at the market, we will be well and truly screwed.  And what if the meat cooler isn’t cooling?

There are a lot of weak links in the system: production and distribution of electricity to operate fuel pumps and the meat cooler, rapid changes in the ability of a particular area to continue growing its usual crops, disruption of the ecology, whether natural or artificial, that supports any industry that is vital to our way of life.  And if that happens — if the “haves” of the developed countries join the “have-nots” who comprise most of the world’s population — well, just imagine who will have the upper hand then.

What goes around, comes around.  And karma is a stone-cold bitch.

Digital Education — MIT Technology Review

The highest ambition of any society is to educate its citizens. Now, powerful learning technologies that extend education to everyone, everywhere are creating a crisis for teachers, schools, and the trillion-dollar business of education.

Time to get with the program, folks, both figuratively and literally.  “Now” will be the past in less than a microsecond.


Our Tiny Dancer Is A Digital Native

Most of you older readers will think I’m nuts when you read the next paragraph.  The somewhat younger ones will get it, to a degree.  Everyone under 25 will have no problem.  Everyone under fifteen will be like, “duh!”  I’ve been thinking about that, and a few other related things, for the past several months.

Tiny DancerMy wife, older daughter and her husband and I gave Selina, our 10-year-old granddaughter and niece, a smartphone for Christmas.  Not just any smartphone.  Because of the oddities of year-end merchandising, it was cheaper to get her a top-end device rather than a lesser one — one cent on Amazon, in fact, added to our family plan.  I have the current state-of-the art model, a Galaxy S III.  While I love it, I discovered after setting hers up, checking out the camera and apps, etc., that I could be quite happy with her Droid Razr M myself.

But why give a 10-year-old a phone of any kind?  Simple.  She needs it.  Whaaaaat, you say.  Are you nuts?

Attendez-moi.  There are two reasons she needs a phone.  The first is safety.  Selina is a dancer.  She’s been dancing since she was three, loves it, and takes it seriously.  She has after school lessons and other activities away from home to which she can’t be accompanied by an adult all the time, and has sleepovers with other girls where, for one reason or another, she can’t always be reached.  For those and other reasons, she needs to be able to communicate with family members pretty much 24/7.  In addition to that, she’s tall for her age, with a dancer’s grace and figure, and is beautiful.  She attracts a lot of attention.  With her phone, she has access to family all the time, 9-1-1 if she needs it, and through Verizon’s Child Locator system we can track her to within a few feet any time we need to.  Other apps provide back up to that ability.

The other reason is more complex, and social in a way that us oldsters have trouble understanding.  Selina and her peers are true digital natives.  They have never lived in a wired world. (Many, if not most, of today’s college students have never owned a cassette tape.)  Electronic communication on demand is such a normal thing in their lives that they literally cannot imagine any other way to live.

Digital immigrants, like Grandpa, have other frames of reference.  We still remember looking for pay phones when we needed to make a call away from home.  Those as old as I remember hand-delivered telegrams and party lines.   Those things are as alien and incomprehensible to today’s teens, tweens and their younger siblings as communication by jungle drums would have been to a “modern” citizen of the 1950’s.seleyes  More so, in fact, because we could at least understand the reasons for them in parts of the world that lacked modern communication.  These days, cell phones are a common facet of life in the most remote and impoverished parts of the world.  In parts of Africa, they are the basis of a bush economy that functions by using cell phone minutes — easily transferable from place to place — as a form of currency.  There literally are no reasons for other communication, anywhere in the world.  Digital communication of various kinds is the backbone of civilization nowadays, whether we like it or not.  It facilitates the world economy and every aspect of our lives from news to medical technology and information, to food production, transportation and distribution, to keeping track of our microchipped pets.  It has supplanted letters sent by snail mail, and to a great degree has displaced greeting cards.  My car contains 17 different computers that drive everything from its fuel injection and ignition to the satellite radio.  Even the transmission is shifted by a computer.  I just think I’m in charge.

This is the world our Tiny Dancer was born into and, beyond a certain point, being unwired (“unwirelessed,” really) actually stifles her ability to function within it.  Our kids are different from us in ways unlike any in human history.  Their digital environment has even affected the way their brains work, measurable and — surprisingly — superior in some ways to how ours clunk along.  A handheld computer/phone is merely her next step into the world that we have left for her to live in.  Like it or not, it’s simply part of her nature.

Solstice Greetings

Now that we’re over the Mayan Apocalypse frenzy, here’s a look at the current holiday season from a more cheerful and rather more factual angle.

For whatever reasons, we humasunrise-evergreensns have relationships with the annual cycles that surpass pure science and combine, with the observable facts, a mystical component that causes us to view the wheel of the year with more than simply analytical interest.

Winter Holidays, celebrating the point at which the warmth of the sun ceases its annual recession — the time when the days begin, imperceptibly at first, to become longer and to promise the warmth and riches of spring and summer — are universal in human civilizations. Doubtless it has been that way for thousands of generations (or three hundred, if you prefer). We give our holidays names like Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, Bodhi Day, and so forth. We hang upon them the trappings of thousands of years of religious implication, and often attribute their origin to reasons other than the mere turning of the seasons. We invent new holidays, because we don’t want to celebrate other people’s holidays.

Humans have been around for quite a while. Even if you accept Bishop Usher’s figure of 6016 years ago (as of October 22nd) for the date of Creation, there have been 300 generations of us. If you prefer evolution, the figure expands to at least 7,500 generations in the case of Homo sapiens, and much longer if you include the Homo-this-and-thats and others who preceded us.

The main thing distinguishing us from the other members of the hominid family is our big brain. Not only has it permitted us to develop intellectually, it has also set certain constraints. For one thing, we require more energy to operate our brains than any other animal that has yet been studied. Our brains use nearly 25% of the energy from our food as they direct the operation of our bodies and process information. In contrast, chimps — our closest living relatives — use less than 10% of their energy to run their masses of gray protein jelly.

These energy requirements led to forks in the path of our development such as walking upright, which provides more efficient locomotion and better body cooling: less energy used ~ less heat to get rid of. That, in turn, freed up our forlimbs for other things. Our higher energy consumption required a diet rich in animal foods, as opposed to the largely vegetarian diet of our cousins. That, in turn, required that we live our lives in reasonable proximity to such a food supply, have teeth and digestive systems suited to that kind of diet, and so forth.

Before the days of firearms, humans depended on a combination of food-gathering skills comprised, in the case of protein, mostly of stealth and knowledge of animal behavior. Whenever possible we hunted herd animals, because herds offer a greater percentage of successful hunts for the energy expended. There are always the young, the aged and the sick or injured that are more vulnerable to creatures such as we, who are unable to outrun and overpower our prey. Herd animals tend also to be larger, and provide more food in exchange for the energy it takes to hunt them.

Herds follow seasonal changes in vegetation, controlled by the angle of the sun and heralded by the positions of the stars and moon at night. Thus, early on, we developed a critical dependence on the seasons. We slowly began to understand the movements of the heavenly bodies, and realized that those relationships had just as much to do with our survival as did our kinship with the people in our little groups. When the herds left, we had to be ready to follow. When the stars and sun told us that cold weather was imminent, we had to prepare. If we waited too long to leave for warmer climes we might be overtaken by bad weather, or be outdistanced by our food. We became intimately involved with seasons and, as a result, with the motions of celestial bodies.

Given the human characteristic of looking for answers rather than just going with the flow, it isn’t surprising that some of us developed a detailed knowledge of basic astronomy and its relationship to the passage of time, the seasons, and survival. Probably quite early on, Long-nose or Three Toes or someone else with a talent for association and a good memory realized that things in the sky happened over and over again, year after year, with identifiable relationships to animal migration and events such as berry-ripening and local fruit production.

He (or she) probably tried to get that idea across to others, but may have lacked the vocabulary to do it (perhaps, at that time, lacking speech altogether), or was simply ignored. “Hah! Here comes Three Toes with that star stuff again. He must have an evil spirit or something. See if you can hit him with that rock!”

Nonetheless, Three Toes and those who learned from him would have become, over time, the go-to guys when it came to figuring out and planning the group’s migrations and many other activities, simply because they were right a lot.  It wouldn’t take very long for Three Toes, or one of his successors, to realize that they had a good thing going. When you have knowledge, you have power. If you can tell people important things that they can’t figure out for themselves (and if you’re right often enough, or they think you are), they have to be nice to you. They give you things. Their maidens come to your hut. If you’re smart, and more-or-less by definition Long-Nose, Three Toes and their colleagues were smarter than the average hominid, you keep that knowledge to yourself and rock the power.

If you’re worried that people might figure out your secrets, you protect your power by camouflaging the secrets with other ideas. Perhaps you even believe the new ideas, if they fit in with your personal conception of reality. Since you and your people have long attributed things you didn’t understand to some sort of Other Force or Forces (unwilling to believe that things just happen), perhaps you combine your knowledge with superstition, get folks to believe it, and become the first priest.

In any case, the mid-winter festivals are, in most civilizations, the most joyous and auspicious. The Spring and Summer holidays, celebrating the first crops and the harvest time, are important, but the Winter Holidays tell us to be thankful for the return of light — the return of life itself.

The Winter Holidays are about hope.

I hope yours are everything you hope they’ll be. Merry Holidays, and a happy, prosperous and — most of all — peaceful New Year to all us hominids, wherever and whoever we are.