Sunday, February 27, 2011

What Price Safety?

Has anyone out there noticed what an obsession, what a mania, what a fetish SAFETY has become in our society? It's positively bizarre. Parents won't allow their kids to participate in unsupervised activity any more. Kids can't ride bicycles without helmets anymore. Mommy and Daddy MUST chauffeur kiddos everywhere these days--they can't be expected to take the risk of walking or bicycling in that big bad world out there. I've been told that it's a much more dangerous world for kids nowadays. Sorry, I don't buy it. When we were kids, there were perverts to be avoided too. I clearly remember Mom and Dad instructing us NEVER to accept a ride from a stranger. That covered that base. They didn't have to be personally present every second once we were clued in.

Is bicycle riding any more dangerous now than it was then? I would argue it's inherently safer. Kids don't put the mileage on their bikes that we did, since they have chauffeurs, and they don't ride until they're 14 or 15 like we did. They don't ride as far or as fast as we did. Our bikes were our primary means of transportation to non-family events within a few mile radius, which was a very large percentage of our total travels. We didn't even know what bicycle helmets were, and anyone showing up with one of those dorky things would have been ridiculed. Just this one item tells me that the main change has been societal attitudes toward danger, not the increase in danger itself.

We seem to have collectively gotten the idea that if we just control every possible source of danger, and remove all possible hazards from our lives, we'll have a chance at living to, oh, maybe 160 or so. The results of all this aren't in yet, but let me make a prediction: we won't make it.

If I may advance what's perhaps a sexist argument, I would say that society has been feminized. Society used to be characterized by much more manly attitudes than those currently prevailing. I can remember females saying (when I was growing up), that if they were in charge, things would be way different. Well, they are in charge now. And boy, are things ever different!

There has been a net loss of freedom in this quest for safety. Which is as predicted: those who trade liberty for safety get neither, nor do they deserve either.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Moore's Law?

I read that according to Moore's Law, computer power doubles every 12-18 months, depending on who you quote. Read an article the other day that listed the doubling times of many different facets of computer performance and they ranged from about 10-12 months to about 30 months.

This got me to thinking about its ramifications to the computer we have between our ears and the rate of knowledge/skill acquisition--specifically, how long does it take to double our knowledge/skill in a difficult endeavor such as learning a language or learning to play a musical instrument?

I've been working on (finally!) learning to play the piano for about 30 months now. This final "big push" is something I've been scared of my whole life, but I figure at age 61, I've got nothing to lose! Learning to play the piano is such a massive undertaking that I was always daunted by the prospect. What if I put in years and years and it turned out that the time was wasted, that I had nothing to show for it? Truthfully, I was always afraid that I lacked the key ingredient, that it wasn't really possible for me to do this. So I goofed around half-heartedly for most of a lifetime at the piano without much success.

For some reason, in the spring of 2008, I decided to learn to play, or die trying. Literally! I fully intend to play as long as I can and make this an experiment in the limits of geriatric learning.

As it turns out, learning to play the piano is: 1)tougher that I even thought it might be; 2)actually possible; 3)very gratifying in unexpected ways. After 32 trips through Bach's 371 chorale harmonizations I find my hands doing things at rates of speed I could have scarcely imagined. It's getting really fun. And I'm not even mediocre yet. I'll let you know when I make it to mediocre. Maybe in another 30 or 40 times through. I'm averaging about once through the book a month--that's a dozen chorales a day for 30 days each month, roughly.

I'm also working my way through two large books of ragtime--the complete piano works of Scott Joplin and a book of the most famous rags by numerous composers. These are getting easier and easier. Not easy. Easier.

These days I often get the feeling that I'm making breakthroughs. This brings me to Moore's Law. Does it hold true for learning curves? I hope so. Double ability the first 18 months, double that the 2nd, etc. After 7 1/2years (5 times 18 months), the ability/skill/speed should be 32 times the initial. Of course, if the initial is zero, you can do the math! But I started with something. Not much, but something. Anyone care to comment on this?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Where ARE the kids?

A few years ago, my wife and I visited my sister for a few weeks over Christmas and New Year's. My sister lives near where we grew up, in northeast Ohio not far from Cleveland. Anyone familiar with that area knows that it snows a lot there that time of year. We weren't disappointed. It probably snowed 8 or 10 times in the 4 weeks we were there.

I would often go for walks to get a little exercise, and to take in the winter beauty of what once was known as the Connecticut Western Reserve.  (Northeast Ohio was so named because it was reserved by the state of Connecticut as homestead land for its Revolutionary War veterans.) At some point while walking I realized that I had never seen any kids out playing in the snow. Not even once. Not one. Ever. For four weeks. This was really different from when I was growing up there. New snow was an irresistible magnet for kids then. A fresh layer of new-fallen snow had about the chance--well, of a snowball in the real hot place!--of remaining untracked for more than about 5 minutes if kids were around.

This was creepy. I realized the only places I had seen kids was in cars and stores. What must the modern kid's life be like, and how different it must be from what ours was!

I'm sure a lot of it can be attributed to computerized entertainment. But I personally feel that an equal amount is the result of overprotective parenting. What modern suburban parent would ever allow his/her kids to do what we took for granted:

Walking/bicycling downtown (a mile) or across town (two miles) at a moment's notice. Going on hikes of several miles with only a "I'm going out with my friends" to announce our departure. Going swimming on our own from about age 9 or 10 after we'd demonstrated our ability to swim to our parents' satisfaction. Walking a mile one way to school--from the first grade on! Spending an hour a day delivering newspapers for $5 a week of our own money, which we could spend or not spend as we pleased. Having a slingshot or a BB gun and being able to use them without supervision. (Heck, my Dad taught me how to make a slingshot!) Playing pickup baseball or football games without adult supervision. Playing entire seasons of little league baseball without once having Mom or Dad take us to a game, or even show up to watch us play--can you imagine?? (The little guys--ages 7-9, would have a lot of parents at the games, but as we got older and better, the cute factor diminished, and so did parental attendance. By the time we were 14 or 15, often there would be very few adults present besides the coaches and officials. And we didn't mind--we were there to play baseball, not please our parents. Again, can you imagine?)

We didn't eat a lot of the junk food that today's kids take for granted, to the detriment of their health and physical condition. I hear that it's low-income people these days who buy a lot of junk food.  We didn't have the money!  We were all skinny, with a few rare and notorious exceptions.

We had what today's overprotected kids maybe don't even miss because they've never experienced it--FREEDOM!