Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Thinking about thinking

Since I last wrote about this, I've done more reading and thinking about how we humans perceive, interpret, judge, learn, think and communicate about the world. Perhaps this started with Proust was a Neuroscientist, but there are loads of interesting books I've been finding. Even The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World was about how early culture and language shapes our modern world.

Last month I read one much more interesting than it sounds: The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right, which details the debate in Enlightenment thinking between the English Burke and the American Paine, which produced the American Left and Right, and perhaps in Europe the British versus the continent. This followed Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe, which detailed the changes in both knowledge and philosophy at the very beginning of the Enlightenment, chiefly through short biographies of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo. So that's the historical view; I want experiment and neuroscience!

The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics was particularly interesting, since it covered how children learn language, as well as a survey of how linguistics as a field has thought about that. Now I'm reading two books simultaneously, and they are sparking thoughts back and forth. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt is an excellent follow-up to The Great Debate, but in an analytical way, rather than a philosophical debate. Right alongside, an older book by George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. This book is heavy, in every sense of the word, but so rich. I was glad I had read the psycholinguistics text first, and the analogy book last summer, so that I could make sense of this scholarly, radical, amazing tome. I must quote the top Amazon comment on the book:
Lakoff concentrates on the way people *really* think, not the way philosophers would like them to. His approach: We use cognitive models that we acquired in childhood to solve almost every problem - to estimate, to schedule, to infer. What strikes me most about the cognitive science of metaphor is the possibility to apply it to many fields like computer interface design, social sciences, linguistics, you name it. His argument is partly very sophisticated, yet understandable also for a non-philosopher, and he comes up with lots of examples and evidence. This book has become a kind of "creativity technique" to me, I find myself developing new ideas based on Lakoff's approach all the time. Among the people who have no scientific interest in the matter, I recommend this book to designers, programmers and everybody in the field of communication. It is worth every minute you read.
I guess we all know that how we think we see and make sense of the world isn't the way we actually see and justify our decisions. The implicit bias tests prove that, over and over. But these books illustrate the inside of my own head, the life I've lead with my family, my culture, my fellow humans, and how we're getting along. I hope as more is understood, more of us will learn about human nature, so we can improve our lives, our families, companies, politics and policies. It is better than accepting the thinking that got us where we are today.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Send a student to Armenia!

My beloved country used to believe in education, in supporting students, in funding science education and research. In recent years, that has changed, sadly.

Now my son Colin wants to attend Archaeology Field School this summer in Armenia. He's been accepted, but has no funding. He's started up a funding site at If you care about these things, please donate.

Thanks so much for standing up for your values.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Prospective GSoC Students: Now is the time to submit proposals

Greetings to all you students we've been talking with in IRC (#kde-soc and your chosen team's channel(s)) and on the mailing lists. By now, hopefully you have met and talked with your teams, and begun formulating your plan for GSoC, with advice from your prospective mentor(s).

I hope you have followed Myriam's advice and done your homework. If you have worked on some junior jobs, have your KDE developer credentials, joined the necessary lists *including KDE-soc*, you have a good foundation built.

Pro-tip: always check out the links in the /topic of your IRC channels. The #kde-soc channel topic is particularly rich.

Many prospective mentors hang out in that channel, but not all. Us admins are there as often as possible as well. I'm always willing to help edit a proposal for grammar, spelling, organization, formatting, etc. And I can be brutally honest, so if you ask my opinion, be aware that I won't waste your time with anything but the truth.

Now is the time to log into melange, and submit your proposals. If you have not yet had a team member vet your plan, give them the link to your melange proposal and ask. Don't waste their time with mere ideas; you need a clear plan of action, and a realistic timeline.

Go, go, go!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Books, books, books

Our days like our food have the main ingredients (protein, vegetables, fruit / work, sleep), but what gives us joy is the seasonings and the sweet. In my life, that is time with friends and family, news & politics, and reading and movies. If I were younger, maybe video games would be part of that too, but to me games don't enlarge my mind and heart as books and movies, conversation with friends and family, and thinking about news, policy and politics do.

Lately I've been focusing on books, although son Thomas and I did see the Lego Movie last week, which was excellent. Not just fun, but irreverent and subversive too!

Today I finished A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett. Really amazing, absorbing read; it is the story of Lindhout's abduction, imprisonment, rape and torture by Somali teenagers. These days, she heads up a foundation to bring health and education to Somalis women, in honor of the one Somali who tried to help her to safety.

Before that, I read The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century by David Laskin. Whether or not you have Jewish or eastern European roots, this book opens a beautiful and painful look into the twentieth century through the eyes of a Russian/Luthuanian/Belarus/Polish/Jewish family. Laskin found that his wealthy non-religious family in the US was tied closely to cousins whose parents settled in Palestine and helped birth the Jewish state of Israel, and a lost branch who all perished in the Holocaust. Laskin was already a writer before digging into his family history; and this book is the wonderful product.
They gave me so much, these fierce, passionate immigrants -- my life, my freedom and privileges, my education, my identity, my country. The least I can do is give their stories back to them. - from the Introduction, p. 7

Last year I read one as good, called Sugar in the Blood, by Andrea Stuart. Again, when Stuart began her research, she had no idea that the family she would find would change her worldview. This book transformed my understanding of the Caribbean, slavery, and racism, which was deliberately created to support the slave trade.

Last month, I wrote about The Forgetting - Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic, by David Schenk.

Amazing books. What a way to start the year! Feel free to respond in the comments with games you find which are transformative, and also films, books and other works of art.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Forgetting, and remembering

My mother died of Alzheimer's disease, and my dad is disappearing in a similar way. He's not been diagnosed with Alz., but what's the difference? His memory and personality are both diminishing, just as hers did. Looking at all the literature, it seems that he is in the final stage, in fact.

The :
Very severe cognitive decline
(Severe or late-stage Alzheimer's disease)
In the final stage of this disease, individuals lose the ability to respond to their environment, to carry on a conversation and, eventually, to control movement. They may still say words or phrases.
At this stage, individuals need help with much of their daily personal care, including eating or using the toilet. They may also lose the ability to smile, to sit without support and to hold their heads up. Reflexes become abnormal. Muscles grow rigid. Swallowing impaired.
These details are mostly true for my dad, although he still holds up his head. So far, he eats well, although sometimes must be prompted to do so. He lives in the wheelchair though, and rarely if ever moves his body.

When my mother was losing her mind, she had some bizarre theories of her problems and quite destructive paranoia, and I mourned her loss constantly. When she died, I found that all that grief was just a waste; I had to grieve her death anyway. So when my dad started down the same road, after my first rebellion against it, I thought it through, and decided to do things differently this time. I uncluttered my life, and started doing that to the house too. I said no quite a bit, and shed jobs and tasks like crazy. Until I got bored! That was the point at which I started reading email again, started visiting IRC more often, and began pitching in as I had time and interest.

So as my dad is slipping away, we're making progress on the house, and life is pretty peaceful and delightful. I'm able to enjoy the time I spend with Dad, and also the days I have to skip my visits, whether it's for a local meeting or a trip to Europe. When he goes, I'll grieve his death, but I'm not finding this process painful. It helps a lot that I alternate visits with my sister, so the pressure is shared, and he's in a nursing home, so neither of us is changing his diapers or brushing his teeth. I don't think suffering is a healthy response to his slow death, so I'm choosing instead to enjoy the time I have left with my dad.

Oddly enough, it helps to read up on Alzheimer's; what it is, and what progress is being made in the fight against it. This is important, because my generation, the baby boomers, are entering their sixties. This disease could bring the health care establishment to its knees, all around the world.

I've just finished a remarkable book, called The Forgetting - Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic, by David Schenk. It's a really great synthesis of history, experience, research, and thinking about dementia. Just for myself, I'm going to copy part of what he says in Chapter 16, called Things To Avoid, on page 228:
Doctors cannot yet cure Alzheimer's, or prevent it, or even mask its symptoms for very long. But hundreds of studies have begun to produce a pointillist portrait of how people can help themselves--things to do for the body, mind, and spirit that might reduce the risk of getting the disease, or at least delay its onset:
     Avoid head injuries,
     Avoid fatty foods,
     Avoid high blood pressure,
     Eat foods rich in antioxidants, which eliminate damaging free-radical molecules. Eat, specifically, prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, kale, strawberries, spinach, raspberries, brussels sprouts, plums, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli, beets, oranges, red grapes, red peppers, and cherries. (Foods listed according to their antioxidant content, in descending order.)
     Eat foods rich in folic acid, and in vitamin B6, B12, C, and E.
     Eat tuna, salmon, and other foods rich in fatty acids.
     Don't drink too much alcohol. (A moderate amount might be slightly beneficial.)
     Don't skimp on sleep. (Sleep is rejuvenating to the brain and the body; sleep seems to play a very important role in long-term memory formation.)
     Maintain a high level of social contact (and consider marriage--one study shows fewer married people getting Alzheimer's).
     If you are a woman past menopause, consider estrogen replacement therapy. (Some studies suggest it may reduce Alzheimer's incidence by as much as half.)
     If you like to chew gum, continue chewing gum.....
     If you regularly take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen for another reason, continue. (Some studies show a benefit.)
     Get a thorough education.
     Keep your mind active. Read, discuss, debate, create, play word games, do crossword puzzles, meet new people, learn new languages. Studies show that people with very high levels of education, while not immune from Alzheimer's, do tend to get the disease later than others.
That last paragraph supports the work I began when we first got our Coleco ADAM computer. I've learned how to use computers to edit newsletters, do genealogy research, use and administer mail lists, forums, newgroups, websites. I used Macs, some Windows machines, and then found my true home in FOSS, and the communities I found there: KDEKubuntuLinuxchix, the Ubuntu Women, and Linuxfest Northwest.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Does your volume keep resetting to zero?

I see this question occasionally in #kde, #kubuntu, and #amarok. Tonight I saw the first answer that seems to shed light on it.

Cousin_luigi said in #kde tonight: "I expect the volume to be at the same level I left it." Which is perfectly reasonable! And yet, we often find something else. Axtroz had the answer:
Cousin_luigi, because some systems run "alsactl restore" on startup which restores the volume state saved with "alsactl store" and that tunes the volume for a particular soundcard. Since Pulseaudio and Alsa are working together via plugins, pulse follows. Check your init scripts, or raise the volume to an apropriate level and run alsactl store as root.

I don't have this problem, so I didn't test the solution. However, here it is as a public service. Thanks to Cousin_luigi for asking, and Axtroz for answering.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Love and maintenance needed: Kaffeine

Opportunity ahead! Rex Dieter recently posted this link into the #kde channel: Here we find that the Kaffeine maintainer Christoph Pfister has found it necessary to step back from maintaining Kaffeine. He says to be qualified if you should know a bit about Qt and KDE and preferably have some Dvb / Atsc equipment at hand.

This probably describes a lot of the folks reading this post. Do you have the time and desire to love and polish Kaffeine? Please join the Kaffeine-devel mail list and step forward.

If you know of any other projects needing more love and care, please write the Community Working Group, Another good list to connect to is the new general Community list:

Good cheer to all this holiday season!