Sunday, April 20, 2008

As Long as I Remember, I've Always had Memories

How much of our lives are built upon our memories?

Memories are what link us to the person we used to be. They make our lives fluid, ever flowing from the past into the present, even into the future. Our legacies are but memories for our descendants to share.

What would life be like without memories? Each day would be as if we were a newborn baby. There would be no experiences for us to build upon.

I remember watching a TV documentary about memory a few years ago. In it, there was a segment about a man who had lost his short-term memory, due to an accident. He could remember people he had met prior to his accident, and all other events of his past. But he could not remember anything that happened since his accident. But it was more than just amnesia. He could not retain any new memory longer than about two minutes. Every moment of his life was as though he were just waking up from a long, dreamless slumber.

Suppose a similar accident happened to a child, who later grew into a man or woman without memories of any kind. How empty this person's life would be. He or she could remember nothing or nobody, nor learn anything new, for it would be gone in a couple of minutes.

Memory is important to us, as humans. It takes the place of instinct. It is no wonder that memory has become the subject of verse, song, and literature. Songs such as "Memory," from the musical "Cats," or "The Way We Were," or "Try to Remember" remind us how important our memories are.

Authors have written volumes on the subject, in every form of literature. Dostoyevsky wrote, "You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all." Essayist Susan Sontag wrote, "Everything remembered is dear, endearing, touching, precious." And Scottish poet Alexander Smith wrote, "A man's real possession is his memory."

My earliest memory is when I was three years old. I remember what I got for Christmas that year--two train sets. One was an electric train set from my dad; the other was a wind-up train from my mom. Apparently, they did not consult with each other in advance of purchasing my gifts. I know I was three, because I also remember what my younger brother got for Christmas that year. It was a string of plastic bells meant to stretch across a crib. It was his first Christmas, and since I am two years older than he is, that would have made me three at the time.

I have lots of memories that I recycle in my mind regularly. It helps to keep them fresh.

I try to teach my children how important the memories they are forging today will be to them when they are old. We occasionally watch video home movies that I took of them as they were growing up. I have more than 30 hours of home movies! Sometimes I wonder if the memories my kids have of their younger days are of the actual events, or of the video tape playback.

Memories are much more than just a connection to a past event, however. They are what allows us to see the things we want to see when those things aren't around. British playwright J. M. Barrie once wrote, "God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December." In fact, anything we have ever seen, heard, touched, smelled, or felt, we can experience again in our minds, thanks to that wonderful device called memory.

But just as our muscles will atrophy if they are not used, memories will weaken and die if they are not remembered. Memories can be permanent; they can also be ephemeral. The key to keeping a memory is the frequency of its use.

Comedian Colin Mochrie said, "As long as I can remember, I've always had memories." Bob Hope never forgot to tell us, "Thanks for the Memories." Memory is a truly important commodity. Playwright Tennessee Williams summed memory up best when he wrote, "Life is all memory, except for that one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going."

My Experience with Earthquakes

Did you feel last week’s earthquake? I did. It was my third one.

Back in 1968 Nixon was running for president, I was a sophomore in high school, and Indiana experienced an earthquake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale. I didn’t feel it. But almost everyone else did.

Back then, the Indianapolis Star ran is daily quip on the front page by a cartoon bird called Joe Crow. In the edition following the quake, I clearly remember Joe Crow’s political wisecrack: “Nixon said he had some earthshaking ideas, but this is ridiculous!”

Fast forward to 1980. It was in the summer and I was sitting in a swivel rocker on the back porch of my parents’ house on Kyle St. when I thought I noticed the chair quivering just a tad. I looked around to see if the dog had brushed against it, but he was lying on the floor across the room. About 10 seconds later, the chair started rocking. I’d never felt an earthquake before, but I thought perhaps I was in one. It turns out, I was.

Then, in 1987, I was sitting on a bench on my deck in Hobart, Indiana. Again, I felt a very slight jolt. I looked out at the kids’ swing set. I felt it again, like I was in a boat. The swings started swinging on their own. It was my second earthquake experience.

I know we had an earthquake five or six years ago, but I didn’t feel that one. But the one last Friday, I felt. I was lying in bed on my back, fully awake. Again I felt a very subtle shaking of the bed, and again I blamed it on the dog. But she was nowhere near the bed. Then, as the first time, 10 seconds later the bed started heaving, the bottles on the dresser started shaking loudly, I heard pops and crackles from downstairs. I just lay their and enjoyed the ride because I knew what it was.

Earthquakes in Indiana are not frequent. And for the most part, they are not severe or damaging. But there are clear exceptions. Southwest Indiana lies on the Wabash fault zone. It is a northward extension of the famed New Madrid fault system.

One of the biggest earthquakes in U.S. history happened here in the Midwest in 1812. The epicenter was in New Madrid, Missouri, just across the Mississippi River from Tennessee. It changed the course of the river and added a new lake in eastern Missouri. It was the largest of a series of quakes running from late 1811 into January of 1812.

When earthquakes happen in the Midwest, they are felt for hundreds of miles around the epicenter. That’s for two reasons. One is that the fault lines are deep within the bedrock. Primarily, though, it is because most of the Midwest and the Northeast lie on a hard, continuous sheet of bedrock. The surface waves from an earthquake carry for long distances uninterrupted by unconformities in the rock layers.

Contrast that to California. That state has many more earthquakes, and usually they are more severe. But the bedrock of California is a hodgepodge of younger rock formations that have been tacked on to the West Coast as the entire continent slowly moves westward.

When an earthquake happens in California, it usually isn’t as deep, and the bedrock that carries the waves is discontinuous. So even a larger earthquake than the one most of us felt last week will be very localized. It typically won’t travel more than a hundred miles or so.

Unfortunately, since Midwestern earthquakes are so infrequent, and typically not as strong as those in the West, most buildings here are not designed to withstand a major shock. But as the big one of 1812 has shown, we here in the nation’s midsection are not immune from catastrophic earth shaking.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Beware of Bad Science

As a science teacher I understand what science is. Just as importantly, I understand what it is not.

Science is the study of natural laws and how they work. The application of science to everyday life is called technology. Although pure science can be too cryptic for some people's taste or understanding, they know that if something is "scientific" it carries a label of validity.

That's why the proliferation of bad science can be very misleading, even dangerous. What I call "bad science" is the misrepresentation of staunchly unscientific ideas, devices, and entertainment products as being derived from scientific principles. At the very least, it can mislead people into buying into old wives' tales, which in turn might cause people to behave in a manner that is unwarranted for the situation.

For example, how often as a child did you hear your mother tell you in the wintertime, "Bundle up! You'll catch cold!" Or, "Don't go out with wet hair; you'll get pneumonia!" That is bad science. There is not a shred of scientific evidence that being cold will give you a cold, or that going outside with wet hair will do any more harm than make you uncomfortable. Colds and pneumonia are caused by germs, not discomfort.

Another example of bad science is the so-called psychics or tarot card readers, especially those who advertise their services on TV. They make a living off the gullible by pretending that their "gifts" are somehow tied to scientific principles.

Horoscopes can certainly be labeled as bad science. They sound scientific, because they depend on complicated formulas dealing with the position of the planets and the moon. But it's all quite bogus. Real science tells us that there is no force of nature that emanates from a planet that is strong enough to have any effect on the personality traits of a person being born.

Once upon a time, people always planted their gardens using the signs of the moon. The phases of the moon, and what constellation it was in, supposedly had an effect on how well the crops would grow. Some old-fashioned gardeners still use moon signs when planting. Scientifically, though, I assure you that those turnip seeds or onion sets have not a clue what phase the moon is in when they're planted.

One of the worst offenders of real science, and the best example of bad science, is creationism and its cousin, intelligent design. Its proponents would actually like for it to be taught in schools as real science. But there is nothing scientific about it. It is, in fact, the opposite of true science because of the manner in which it was developed, going completely against the scientific method of inductive reasoning.

Superstitions are also bad science. There are all kinds of superstitions, ranging from black cats to broken mirrors. Good luck charms and bad luck oracles are all examples of bad science.

Horoscopes and psychic readings might be fun and entertaining, as long as you understand that their value lies only in the entertainment they provide, not in their validity. And old wives' tales are best left to old wives. They should be taken with a grain of salt. When making decisions based on science, the best advice to follow is to make certain you're not dealing in bad science.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Movies and Theaters - Not Like They Used to Be

It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m about 11 or 12 years old. There’s not much to do in Edinburgh when you’re a preteen, but on Sunday afternoons, many of us got to go downtown to see a matinee.

The venue was the Pixie Theater. They showed movies on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings with an added matinee on Sundays. The cost was 50 cents. And, typically, they showed a double feature.

I loved those 1960s comedies about absent-minded professors, Volkswagens that could think and misbehave, and those darn cats. My favorites were Disney films, but I also enjoyed a good beach romp movie. I may have been young but I got the double entendres and euphemisms from the likes of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

It is highly unlikely that I would enjoy those genres today. My tastes in film matured as I did, but it took awhile. I still remember being highly entertained by those early Bert Reynolds films such as Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, and W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings.

Although I grew up with movies of the 1960s and ‘70s, I never really enjoyed any of those from earlier than about 1960. For one thing, most of them were in black and white. I hate black and white, no matter how good the story or the editing. And doesn’t it always seem as though the actors in any movie made in the ‘40s or ‘50s were unconvincing in their performances. They all seemed to be overacting.

And all those old movies had to end with a giant calligraphy “The End” plastered on the screen. Did they think the audience would stick around in a darkened theater after the credits unless the filmmakers told us the film was over?

But as movies have evolved through the years, so too have movie theaters. Edinburgh had the Pixie; Columbus had the Crump, and Franklin had the Artcraft. There was typically one movie theater per town. Indianapolis had two theaters downtown, the Circle Theater and the Indiana Theater.

These days, there are three times as many screens in one building as there used to be in all the population centers between Columbus and Indianapolis. That’s probably because there are a lot more movies being produced.

It also means that blockbuster movies like Star Wars don’t have to run for a year as they did in the 1970s. They can be shown on multiple screens so that everybody has a chance to see them the opening weekend.

And most modern theaters are designed with stadium seating, so you don’t have to worry about sitting right behind a tall guy or a lady in a hat.

Probably one of the biggest advances in theaters these days is the sound. In the old days, almost all movies were filmed in mono. Gradually, stereo came into vogue. These days, nearly all films use surround sound. Theaters have large subwoofers for those deep rumbling special effects such as thunder or explosions.

And now, the latest upgrade is the impending switch to digital video. Sound has been digital for years, but only a few films have been filmed in digital video, including the Star Wars prequels. But even so, most theaters do not yet have the equipment to show them digitally.

That will soon change, though. An agreement between thousands of theaters and the company that makes the digital projection systems was penned recently. So celluloid may soon be going the way of the vinyl record.

Of course, with the plethora of movies appearing every week, the bad news is we have to actually make up our minds which one to see. In the ‘60s, we saw the double feature at the Pixie or we saw nothing.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Music CDs to Follow Suit of 8-Track

Most of us remember the 1980’s sitcom, Family Ties, starring Michael J. Fox. The original premise of the show was that the parents were far more liberal than the kids, at least the Fox character. It was a role reversal.

Recently, my son and I were discussing music, and music delivery devices, and went through a similar role reversal. He was looking through Borders for a special CD he wanted. He is into world music and so the artists he enjoys are not exactly mainstream. Sometimes their CDs are a little difficult to find.

So he came over to my house and we looked on where he found what he was looking for. After he previewed the tracks, he decided not to buy it. But we then took the opportunity to look up a classic band that we both enjoy, Chicago. They have a 40th anniversary album out that neither of us had.

Here’s where we started disagreeing a little on our preferred method of listening to music. Although the Chicago CD was available for purchase online, the MP3 version of the album could also be purchased and downloaded immediately. I decided to do that. My son always prefers the actual CD, so I told him I would burn him a copy.

Later on, we both went to Borders and looked through their CD collection. He remarked how small their CD section was compared to what it used to be. That was my cue. I told him that in a few years, CDs will have gone the way of the vinyl record. They will still exist, but only for a niche market.

He lamented how he would hate to see it happen, because he already owns about a thousand CDs.

But CD players will be sold for many years. There is little danger that he will not be able to play his CD collection in 10 years, or even 20. But by then, the CD itself will have gone the way of the 8-track tape.

His argument is that he wants to be able to physically hold the medium in his hand and be able to read the liner notes. I told him not to worry. That will still be possible.

Today, one can go into Borders or Wal-Mart and pick out a CD containing 12 songs of a favorite artist. You pick it up and buy it. But in a few years, buying music at Wal-Mart or Borders will be like getting your pictures developed. Instead of handing the clerk a roll of film, you just put your camera’s memory card into a slot and select the photos you want printed. An hour later, you pick them up.

Music will be the same way. You will go into the music store, pick out your own personalized collection of songs from a screen, hit a few buttons, and the music will either be burned to a disc or downloaded to your own memory card. If you want album art or liner notes, you can download those, too.

Most people have home computers, so even the trip to the music store will not really be necessary. Even now, the sale of downloaded music to personal computers is increasing exponentially, whereas the sale of actual CDs is dropping rapidly.

And, just as we can print our own photographs at home that look every bit as good as the ones we get from Wal-Mart, not everyone will choose to download their music at home. These are the people who will need to go to the music store to get their downloaded songs. And if a CD is what they want, they can have a custom one burned on the spot.