Saturday, December 25, 2010

Writing about Writing

It has been a year now that I've been actively "blogging." I've written both in Facebook "Notes" and on my blog on BlogSpot. I've really enjoyed the writing and reminiscing, since most of what I write about are things that have happened to me or things I'm thinking about. It is great fun to put the thoughts to "paper" and hopefully share them with some friends and family and even strangers. Some times I try to be funny. Some times I try to be thoughtful. Some times I try to educate or excite interest. Some times I just want to talk about my life.

I used to get a lot more feedback on my writing. I can't tell if people are just not reading it any more, or if the content is singularly unremarkable, or I'm just being shunned for being a giant geek, nerd, pain in the tookus … which I admit I am. I tell myself that it is not important if anyone reads my words. I’m just writing it for my own personal satisfaction. But is that enough?

I follow many postings and blogs. Some just note the events of their day, and that is cool. I'm interested in what my friends and family are doing. Some post articles and links. That's cool too. I enjoy them and am often educated or entertained by them. I do those things too. But I don't find these things all that creative. I looked at a blog the other day that had an interesting artwork and graphics, but when I started to read the content, this person just posts what other people say. It was full of quotations and links. I didn’t find that very creative at all. This person is a living mimeograph machine. Is that creative? Maybe, I don’t know. Before computers I was impressed by people who could quote poems and prose and quotations, but in the age of copy and paste it is not so impressive.

I consider my notes (and my photographs too) my creative outlet. A little more creative than just commenting on my daily activities or tagging the restaurant I'm currently imbibing at (watch out — dangling participle alert). So let me say this about writing on the anniversary of these efforts.

I think that one of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is that no two readers ever read the same book, even when they both have the same edition. I mean the mental pictures and assumptions will be different for each reader. Something about reading being an essential part of writing. The reader brings so much to the encounter that it is hard to just focus on the author's creation, but you must include the reader's view too. Let me explain.

We will all feel differently about a movie or a play or a painting or a song, but we have all undeniably seen or heard the same movie, play, painting or song. They are physical entities. A painting by Velázquez is purely and simply itself, as is "Blue" by Joni Mitchell. If you walk into the appropriate gallery in the Prado Museum, or if someone puts a Joni Mitchell disc on, you will see the painting or hear the music. You have no choice.

But writing does not exist without an active, consenting reader. (Possible exception is roadside signs, and Burma Shave might be acceptable as creative literature.) Oh, certainly writing has a physical presence. That is the whole point of writing, preserving thoughts for posterity — right? (Consider a book in a long-lost language that no one understands. Is it even writing if no one can ever read it and think about it? Just something else to ponder.)

What I mean is that writing requires a different level of participation. Words on paper are abstractions, and everyone who reads words on paper combines them with a different set of associations and images. I have vivid mental pictures of Don Quixote, Anna Karenina and Huckleberry Finn, but I feel confident they are not identical to the images carried in the mind of anyone else. You could argue this is true of a movie too, but I don’t think it is at anywhere near the same level. I see the actors and scenery in the movie and how the roles are interpreted, and I suspect the person in the theater next to me has about the same concept of the plot and characters as me.

But if we both read a book, how different our interpretations will be. I know when I first read “Dune” by Frank Herbert I didn’t really comprehend the sand worms very well. Even the art work on the cover didn’t help a lot. Then I saw the movie. I thought, “Now I get it.” “I know just what the worm looks like.” "Wow they're big!" Now I think that was a failure of my imagination. I should have pictured the worms in my mind better from the book. Now I just share the common view of anyone seeing them movie (actually either movie). Now I see them like worms, with rounded front ends, yet the great teeth that the book describes. Recall the Freman made knives from the teeth.

As an aside, no Dune movie has done justice to the ornithopters. The word is from the Greek for bird and wing. Obviously, they had flapping wings. The ornithopters in David Lynch's film really were unimaginative. I did enjoy Sting's performance on the other hand. What about you?

Hopefully I will get a little more feedback on these thoughts. Christmas is a busy time, and people’s thoughts are not focused on Facebook Notes or blogs — or are they? In any case, if you do chance to read these words, I would love to have some feedback and even conversation about it. What do you do that is creative? What do you think about writing?

How do you compare movies and books? Did you read "True Grit" by Charles Protis? Have you seen both movies? How do you compare the two movies, the characters, the motivations, etc.?

Do you keep a journal? Do you just post what other people say: links and videos, or do you have your own thoughts and ideas and passions? Tell me, I’d love to hear.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Thoughts on the Recording Art

I made my first recordings on a full-track tape deck at KXLO studios. Since AM radio is mono, and this was the early 60's, they had no need for stereo recorders. At that time, most mono tape recorders were what is called "half track." That means the recording was done on half of the tape, call it the "top half." Then, when you got to the end of the tape, you would flip the tape over and record on the other half. This had the positive affect of doubling the length of time the whole reel of tape could record, as well as finishing up with the tape nicely rewound on the original reel.

The more professional mono recorders at KXLO were full track. They recorded on the entire width of the magnetic tape. That means that, if you flipped the tape over, and then played it back, the audio would come out in reverse. Also the machine had "infinite" speed control, so you could slow things down and speed them up. We did some fun recording with that machine.

While in Navy 'A' School I bought my first tape recorder, a Sony reel-to-reel, and started recording music off the radio and from records. Later I recorded a lot of jam sessions and even made some serious "studio" recordings. I have those to this day. But, since they were just "ambient" or "live" recordings, I can't really do any post production. I would love to turn up the vocals or the bass guitar and turn down the lead guitar, but what you got is what you get.

Later I started recording my friend Casey Anderson in the mid seventies. I upgraded to a nice Teac stereo reel-to-reel. Like the Sony, it was a quarter track machine with two heads. Record stereo, flip the tape, and record stereo on the rewind. Then I added a Teac four track reel-to-reel. It had a typical quarter track design but with four heads and recorded four tracks on the tape in one direction. Like the old mono recorder at KXLO, you could only record in one direction, but I was able to record Casey's small combo with dedicated tracks for each instrument and voice. Later, recording 4 and 5 piece groups and even large blue grass bands, I would just partially mix down to four tracks and then do final production to stereo in post.

I always wanted more tracks, 8 or 16 or even more to give me more control. Then the whole recording process would be to simply capture each instrument and voice as best you can, and leave the actual mixing to post production. I finally achieved that goal when I purchased a Fostex digital hard disk recorder which allowed 16 tracks simultaneous recording. My first job with that new equipment was to record a band's reunion. They had electronic drums, so it was very simple to capture all the instruments and voices, even though they did quartet singing and had violin and keyboards in addition to two guitars and bass. I now have a home studio that is also 16 tracks and could be 32 or even 64 if I just had the audio card inputs on my computer. It is really more an issue that my computer has run out of slots to add sound cards than limits of the audio recording software.

That is the back ground to my reading this in Keith Richard's autobiography:

The thing about eight-track was it was punch in and go. And it was a perfect format for the Stones. You walk into that studio and you know where the drums are going to be and what they sound like. Soon after that, there were sixteen and then twenty-four tracks, and everyone was scrambling around these huge desks. It made it much more difficult to make records. The canvas becomes enormous, and it becomes much harder to focus. Eight-track is my preferable means of recording a four-, five-, six-piece band.

Add that to the fact that the Beatles and the Beach Boys all through the 60's and early 70's focused on simple mono recordings and left the stereo mixes to the engineers (and who leaves the music production to the engineers???). Now think what we have in the studio. We have electronic reverb (the Stones recorded in a basement to get the echo), parametric equalization and limiting/expansion/compression and even automatic pitch correction. (Heard Cher on her last disk?) When will it end? I have syncro envelope control, hiss and hum removal, and I can even clean up tapes that are almost beyond listening. All through the tricky application of fourier transforms and digital data storage.

Yet people are returning to vinyl (and tube amplifiers).

So is the pallet now just too complicated? Is digital music just too "cold?" Are transistors not "warm" enough? Have we lost control due to the high tech stuff? What would Muddy Waters think, or even Eric Clapton?

Thoughts to ponder. Is Santa brining my musician friends another digital toy? Or is there just a Hohner harmonica in your stocking? Well, and maybe a nice "green bullet" microphone to record that blues harp?!?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

At some point in the near future ...

OK, the New Year is fast approaching, and it is time for the prognosticators to roll out the crystal ball and gaze into the future. Well, I’m as prognostic as anyone around here, so here goes.

First a comment about the “news business.” You know the newspapers, network television news, and those radio updates on the 20’s. Well, as anyone will tell you, they’re DEAD. Better toss in the flowers and start filling the grave. Free news from the Wall Street Journal and NY Times, not much longer. You have to pay to play. Besides, with all the changes in the news business over the last few decades, from the USA Today with its four brightly colored sections to — gasp — the Wall Street Journal getting color to the NY Times charging for on-line subscriptions (coming soon) to the news on your Kindle — Nook — Aluratech — Kobo — Apple Bookshelf… What, the advertising model isn’t working?

And what about that advertising model. Anybody notice how a nice set of messenger, email, and other Windows apps were taken out of Win 7 and now they are downloaded under the banner “Live” which really means “Google isn’t the only one that can sell advertising with their free content.”

The news business has changed a lot in the computer age. “Reporter,” “columnist” and “letter to the editor” now sound strangely quaint. They’ve been quickly — and sometimes too eagerly — supplanted by the technocratic “content generator,” “blogger” and “online message board.”

New-media marketing wizards advance the notion of “communities” engaged in “crowd sourcing” through Twitter, Facebook and other “social media.” The mass media, invented by our grandparents’ generation, have fallen out of fashion; in a world of customized information, there are no mass markets.

Significantly, anonymity, in the form of online “handles” (a CB radio term that’s been revived by the online “citizens’ band”), is the norm for the new media. With this trend, regrettably, the news business has shelved the traditional journalistic practice of squeezing a full name, title and company affiliation out of anyone seeking to post a comment in an online community.

And what about Fox and MSNBC? Why don’t they follow the example of James Carville and Mary Matalin and just get a room!!

So, what are the trends to follow (other than 3D TV for the masses)? Here it comes folks. My predictions for 2011 (or shortly thereafter).

((All warranties, implied and explicit, are hereafter denied and if you or your impossible mission team are captured, then the secretary will deny any existence of the hereafter. This warranty will self destruct in 10 seconds.))

1. I’ve already written about the Microsoft Kinect and how I think it will revolutionize the computer / human interface. Watch for “gesture recognition” coming to a computer near you soon. The little webcam will be replaced by a sophisticated vision system and you won’t need a mouse, or trackball, or touch pad, (or little red eraser on the IBM laptop), or even my favorite: the joy stick. No, I see in the crystal ball we’ll just be waving our hands and the computer will move the cursor. Add speech recognition to replace the keyboard, and the newest computer won’t have any buttons at all. You just clap-on and clap-off.

2. The Google Power Meter. With this app, you can monitor all your personal energy use and calculate your carbon footprint to the millimeter. I predict a new class of zombies who just watch the meter spin on their home power and wonder who is watching the TV, and why is that light still on in the bathroom.

3. Apple has a great big bull’s eye painted on its back. Expect heavy competition in areas such as smart phones and touch pads, ala the iPhone and iPad. Now that doesn’t even require a crystal ball. Apple will move to a new network provider in 2011 (hear that Verizon?), but just as with the PC, it will have to settle for a solid 20% of the market as the open competition and lower prices move market share to the clones. Not that Apple is altogether upset about that. They will still be rolling the money in faster than Steve Jobs can change turtlenecks.

4. As someone who has some experience requesting medical records be sent from one doctor to another using, get ready, here it comes, a FAX !!! No, no, no! Medical records will all be digitized and you’ll carry them around in your smart phone. May not happen in 2011, but when it does, you’ll remember I predicted it first. (And I predict a booming market for PGP as people want those records encrypted!) P.S. Your credit card too, and your little doggy, he he he.

5. Automotive radar in your Hyundai. That’s right folks. You people who can’t afford a car as expensive as the one I drive, you will soon have radar too. And you’ll still follow too close on the freeway, but I can’t do anything about that. The little red light on the dash will clammer that your too close, AND you don’t have your seatbelt on. The smart car is coming. With over 15 million lines of code in a modern automobile, I can’t wait for the second Tuesday of the month when Ford sends out its security updates. Oh no, my car has a virus and it won’t stop sneezing!

6. Geotagging the real world. I want all dogs, cats, and babies to have GPS installed. And while we’re at it, I want my phone, my TV remote, my car keys, my purse, and my reading glasses tagged too. I’m tired of looking for them and want an app to find them once and for all. Oh yes, and the teenagers. We must get them tagged first.

7. Energy storage. Come on folks, surely we can come up with a battery that can power a laptop for over 8 hours, a phone for over a week, and a car for over 35 miles. I’m not making any predictions, but I do suggest that whoever comes up with a practical energy storage device will own the world. Don’t expect it in 2011, but certainly by 2111 we’ll have solved that issue. (2525 is too far out to predict, and I only see images of long black tubes.)

8. And for my last prediction: we’ve got to get 3D TV on our smart phones. (Also those magnifying glasses that surgeons wear so we can see full detail, HD, Form 1040, progressive scanned, 3D shows on my smart phone’s 4” screen.) I may never have to suffer reality again. Infinite reruns of Homer Simpson, and I’ll just veg away here in my seat.

So put on your lampshade and get ready to party like its 1999. Here comes the little red corvette, and the purple rain, and 20ten … wait … that is so last year.

And now my bonus prediction. This just in off the wire, silicon chips will be able to communicate via pulses of light. IBM trumpets silicon nanophotonics as the enabler for envisioned exoscale processors which would perform a million trillion operations per second. Watch for these exciting new chips at a super market near you soon. Now I won't have to wait so long for my YouTube downloads. What, you say the problem is my network capacity? Never mind.

We are living in the future
I'll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago

We're all driving rocket ships
And talking with our minds
And wearing turquoise jewelry
And standing in soup lines
We are standing in soup lines

Machine Vision and Microsoft’s New Kinect

My first experience with Machine Vision was in 1983. Let me define terms. “Machine Vision” is the process of using a computer to analyze visual data in the same way that the human brain analyzes the information fed to it by the eyes. I was working in magnetic recording head manufacturing. At that time magnetic recording heads were “glass sandwiches.” The process involved building up the pieces one step at a time. Each step new glass was applied; it was a formula of glass that melted at a slightly lower temperature than the previous glass. So you would take glass, add metal, melt, add more glass, melt the new glass, add more metal and glass, melt the latest layer. Thus were built up these miniature electronic devices that contained the magnetic recording and reading elements embedded in glass.

This process was not only time consuming and expensive, but the heads were too large for the next generation of miniaturized disk drives. So IBM pioneered (as it had so often done in extending the art of computer engineering) something called “thin film heads.” These state of the art (for 1980’s) recording heads were made more like the process used to make transistors and integrated circuits. And, they shared a problem with integrated circuits: yield. That is, not all the heads were good. Now that is OK. If you can cheaply, and at one time, make over 100 heads, it doesn’t matter if only 60 are good. But it does create the problem of determining which are good.

Of course, you could install the heads in a drive and test them that way, but that was way too expensive and wasteful. We did test these heads 100% once they were in a drive. In fact, that was my job and my creation, the ESTAR (Eight Station Test and Repair) machine, did just that. I was a test engineer and testing was my game.

But what we wanted to do was visually inspect the heads and eliminate as many of the bad heads before assembly as possible. Ideally we wanted to inspect the heads while they were still all attached to the same substrate called the “wafer.” That was done with a microscope viewed on a TV screen and a motorized stage that moved the heads so they could each be inspected one by one. The inspector could press a button while viewing a head and a dot of ink was dropped on the bad head. Press another button and the stage automatically repositioned to the next head for inspection. After inspection was completed, a machine would cut the wafer into individual heads and sort them based on the drop of ink: bad heads in the trash, good heads move down the line for assembly.

Now it was a very boring and time consuming job to inspect the heads manually, so — as the test engineer with an electronics engineering degree, design experience, knowledge of programming, and advanced math skills — naturally I got the job of creating a computerized head inspection tool.

This was my first experience with “Artificial Intelligence” or AI. That is the area of computer science interested in making computers “think” like humans do, learn like humans do, and in general duplicate human thought processes. AI was an important part of robotic designs and other interesting areas of research since the 50’s. So I took one of the inspection tools, fed the video into a computer and added computer control for the table and the ink button. I programmed the computer using state-of-the-art AI software and proceeded to “teach” it good and bad heads. I would feed the video for a good head and program the computer to view it as “good” and the same with bad heads programmed as “bad.” After running a few thousand heads through the “learning” circuits, I thought the computer would be able to distinguish good from bad. No, it didn’t do very well giving me both “false positives” and “false negatives.” In other words, it marked good heads as bad and bad heads were not “inked.”

So I modified the vision system adding a second camera, one in visible light and one with a blue light filter (since blue light seemed to show the imperfections better). That helped, but still we did not achieve the accuracy we needed. I worked with a Ph.D. math intern on algorithms, and the best we could get after working all summer was for the computer to correctly spot bad heads about 80% of the time and successful at not rejecting good heads over 90%. But that was not good enough. Human operators ran near 98% in both categories.

We kept increasing the precision of the algorithms, but pretty soon the system ran too slow. We needed this machine to inspect over 5,000 heads a day, and it just couldn’t do that in an 8 hour shift. Humans were required to insert the wafers, so we couldn’t run around the clock and finally the project was canceled. I did inherit a $10,000 Zeis optical system in the process, but later gave it to a friend working in Austin, TX who used it to inspect processor chips. He did have better luck than me.

The problem was that certain imperfections on the recording head surface were not detrimental to operation, while other imperfections were. My computer algorithms just could not distinguish the slight imperfections and which were damaging and which were not. I measured size of imperfections and reflection indices of the imperfections and even color (in a limited sense), but I could not get the level of discernment of the human eye and thinking brain. The computer just could not tell the difference between good and bad heads with the reliability that matched humans.

Now my lack of success was typical of AI at that point in time. Everyone looked for the holy grail of “faster processors.” Even better would have been parallel processors, since the algorithms I was running did tree searches and you can easily parallelize those algorithms.

Move the clock ahead 30 years. Enter game systems like the Wii and the Xbox 360. Now, as many of you know, the Wii has been doing very well in the market, partially because of the lower cost of that system compared to the comparable Sony and Microsoft offerings, but also because of the interesting controllers.  These are motion and position sensitive, wireless, hand held devices that let Wii game writers create interesting games like bowling, tennis, and exercise software.

So, Microsoft did them one better with the completely controller-less Kinect box. This is a device that employs machine vision (and machine hearing) to monitor the game players and detect movement of their hands, arms, legs, body, and head. The AI research that went into this box is fascinating and must have cost millions of dollars of research time. That coupled with an interesting, low cost interface is a fascinating thing. In fact, these boxes are being bought by hackers who are quickly modifying them to work directly with computers. MS doesn’t know exactly what to think about this. They want to sell the box, but they also want to sell Xbox 360 units. At the same time, they appreciate the interest and the good press. Now, in my opinion, this is just the start of something. I forecast lap top and desktop PCs with machine vision eliminating the need for a mouse or a touch screen and maybe even a keyboard. Imagine this interface integrated in a smart phone. Maybe we will enter text using the international sign language for the deaf. Interesting thoughts.

As an aside, Microsoft seems to be good at producing hardware. Their mouse was often the best on the market. It was designed and engineered at Microsoft in Ft. Collins, and I know many of the engineers that work there. Sadly, that engineering work has been sent to China, and my friends were laid off. As I’ve said before, I don’t think the manufacturing moved off shore will ever return. I’m much more concerned about the engineering moving off shore. And now back to you regularly scheduled program.

With the assistance of my friends at UBM TechInsights in Austin, TX, here is a breakdown of the Kinect hardware. Fabless semiconductor company PrimeSense, a Tel-Aviv, Israel company, enabled the technological feat via its PrimeSensor reference design, which it says lets a computer “perceive the world in three dimensions and translate these sections into a synchronized image.”

Another aside, the Israelis continue to build computer chips while the Palestinians produce “potato chips.” Add to list of articles in my queue, my opinions on the Israeli and Palestinian situation. I’m sure I could shed some light on that … sure! OK, back to Kinect.

In the MS approach, the room and its occupants are peppered with a pattern of dots, unseen by the users and generated by a near-infrared laser; the use of a Class I laser device provides focus at a distance without hazard to the players. I’m sure some of you have seen how Hollywood does some special effects, photographing actors in full skin suits covered with white balls. Same idea, the computer needs these fixed reference points to establish location and movement.

A CMOS image sensor in the Kinect detects reflected segments of the infrared dot pattern and maps the intensity of each segment to a corresponding distance from the sensor, with resolution of the depth dimension (z axis) down to 1 centimeter. Spatial resolution (x and y axes) is on the order of millimeters (which for those of you not good at metric measurements, are even smaller than centimeters), and RGB input from a second CMOS image sensor is pixel-aligned to add color to the acquired data.

The Kinect uses the three-dimensional position and movement data to produce corresponding on-screen movements by each player’s avatar. A motorized gear assembly keeps the image sensors aimed at the action. As players move, the Kinect follows. Four microphones are used to cancel echoes and background noise while helping determine which player has issued a voice command. It’s not too hard to think of other applications for this technology, but for now, it’s available as a video game interface.

Microsoft expects to sell a few million Kinect units by the end of the year, so it comes as no surprise that several of the commodity components have second and third sources. The 64 Mbyte DDR2 SDRAM socket may contain parts form Samsung, Elpida, and Hynix. Also, the 1-Mbyte NOR flash may be from Silicon Storage Technology or STMicroelectronics. The Kinect contains plenty of op amps and other small components that are easy to multiple source.

The “eyes’ of the Kinect are a pair of cameras, both of which incorporate CMOS image sensors from Aptina Imaging. The unit uses a PS1080 for communications via USB 2.0 with the application processor a Marvell product PXA168 — a low power, low-cost gigahertz-plus screamer that should have tech-frenzied gamers swooning. A pair of Wolfson Microelectronics WM8737L stereo A/D converters with built in microphone preamps accommodate the array of microphones.

Kinect also houses a MEMS accelerometer to support the unit’s limited range of motion provided by stepper and dc motor drivers. A USB hub controller from NEC and a pair of Texas Instruments USB audio streaming controllers and eight channel A/D converters round out the processing power.

What is really amazing is that all this algorithmic power is available for $150 retails. Just think of the possibilities beyond the Kinect: a TV with no remote; a computer with no mouse, no track pad, and no touch screen; affordable advances in home security; and any number of aids for the elderly and disabled. Whether you run off and attach your Kinect to a homemade robot, limit its use to the intended gaming purpose, or do neither, you’ll be seeing this technology again.

I remember IBM demonstrations at Disney World where keyboards were projected onto any surface with a red laser and then a camera would observe the “typist” using the keyboard. Obviously, MS has taken these ideas several steps farther.

Tell me again why I’m retiring now … the future is so bright I’ll have to wear shades — with laser dot, infrared technology built in, me thinks!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Twelve-String Guitar

Somewhere between graduating from High School and joining the Navy, I got the hankerin’ for a 12-string. It could have been from listening to the Byrds or maybe some of those Rollin’ Stone songs with 12-string. So I went looking and found a nice semi-acoustic 12-string at a shop in Great Falls. Up until then I had not owned anything but solid body electrics, and I thought the semi-acoustic would be nice with an amp or just played like an acoustic for practice.

It was a beautiful Guild Starfire XII, red (of course) with a Bigsby tailpiece and ‘f’ holes. (Now what sane person puts a whammy bar on a 12-string?) I paid something like $150 for it slightly used. I think it was a 1965 model. Like all 12-strings, it was a bugger to keep tuned. All that extra stress on the neck and twice as many strings to be out of tune, I definitely spent more time tuning than playing.

I have a friend, Frank, that has two 12-strings, and brings both to his performances. He explains to the audience that he needs two to get through a 6 song set. Even then he has to tune between songs. And these are both fine Taylor 12-strings like Leo Kottke plays. He has some great rap while tuning: “It’s like tuning a symphony.” “First you have to find the string that is out of tune. Then you tune the other 11 to match.”

Nowadays we have fancy digital tuners, some built right into the guitar. But back in the sixties you had nothing but your ear, and mine is made of tin (except the part that is lead).

Shortly after that purchase, the wanderlust hit me, and I piled all my earthly belongings into my ’59 Chevy and hit the road. I put one of those metal bars across the hooks in the back seat, and hung all my shirts and pants from that bar. I loaded up the trunk with a suitcase of stuff and my Gibson Firebird, my Guild, and my Fender Deluxe Reverb. (That Chevy had a big trunk.) I ended up in Compton, California for a few months. It was a hardscrabble place, but I was looking for adventure, and this was as close to the beach as I could afford. I lived in one of those motels that rented by the week.

Now this was before credit cards, and before I had any credit. What I did back in those days was buy $25 US Savings Bonds. They only cost $18.75 (if I recall correctly) and they would be worth $25 if you held them for 7 years. After two months you could cash them at most banks and there was a chart on the back of the bond giving its value for different maturities.

I had worked and saved up money, and I bought a bunch of these savings bonds and put them in the glove box. When I needed money, I’d cash one. Now this was a lot more money in 1967 than it is today. Back then I would buy a Whopper, fries, and a large coke, give them $1.00, and get 15 cents change. I would fill the gas tank in my car, give them $5.00, and get a buck and a half change. Yes, it was cheaper!

However, I did run out of money and ended up pawning the guitar for something like $75, and then never reclaimed it. Today it would be worth one to two thousand dollars, depending on how good of condition I’d kept it.

I tried to play it finger picking style and even got picks on all my fingers — what a disaster that was. Yet, still today, when I try to play Paul Stookey’s “The Wedding Song,” I wish I had that 12-string. Never mind that I still can’t finger pick, you just can’t get that sound without the extra strings. And never mind those songs from the Stone's “High Tide and Green Grass.” Oh well, I never could keep it in tune anyway. So here’s to Compton and the Pacific Ocean. Here’s to being twenty years old and no responsibility or visible means of support. And here’s to the good folks at Guild. It was high tide and green grass!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Statistics and Social Security

How long do you think you will live?

My current work assignment requires a lot of statistical reasoning. It is my job to establish quality goals for our organization and to measure and report on the attainment of those goals. When we miss a quality target, it is my responsibility to establish a process to address the short coming. We call those things “Action Plans.”

Now my greatest fear is that we will focus these extra efforts on the wrong thing. One fact a mathematician is very experienced with and a statistician must live and breathe is “variation.” It is easy for management to get worried when one month you are above or below an established target. My goal is to observe and define trends that go beyond simple random variation and not go off chasing wild ducks. So I use all my skill and training in setting reasonable and significant targets and in interpreting actual results against those targets and reporting to executives and the board of directors.

It was never my intent to become a statistician. Sounds as boring as being a bookkeeper to me, but sadly it is exactly what I’ve become. I originally studied math to go along with my other interests such as electronic engineering. However, after completing my BSEE and entering graduate school, I decided to branch out into broader topic areas and ended up getting a Master’s degree in Mathematics with a minor in Physics. (It could have easily gone the other way but for the happenstance of course schedule and class availability.) But my focus was not on statistics, but rather on analysis which is a fancy math word for “calculus.”

However, back at the workplace, we needed to determine the reliability of magnetic recording heads and diskette wear, and Mickey got the job of designing the experiment to measure reliability since his boss told everyone, “this guy just got a degree in math, and he must know how to calculate what we need.” So off I went, designing an experiment with 60 PCs running disk drives around the clock for two months to determine “mean time to failure.”

Along the way I employed tools such as Gaussian and Rayleigh modeling and Weibull analysis; plus I had to respond almost daily to a worried vice president who wanted me to affirm our products would meet specification before we released them. I kept telling him it would be 60 days before I had an answer because I had to wait until drives actually failed, and enough had to fail that I could test the distribution. He was sweating bullets as the G.A. date approached, but eventually I calculated that the head wear mean time was within stated specifications and we could proudly ship the drives without concern of warranty cost and upset customers. It turned out, as usual with IBM specs, we easily met all published values and customers never complained — at least about early life failures.

I guess I never lived that down, and IBM kept calling on me to act as a statistics expert, a role I never felt fully qualified in. Later, during my work in IBM Technical Education, I did statistical analysis as part of course validation. For one thing, statistics is hard, and it is quite counter intuitive to me. This week someone asked me what the odds of flipping a coin six times and getting heads every time. I told her what they were, 0.015625, or 1 in 64, or two to the sixth power. Then she said, “What are the odds that, on the seventh flip, you’ll get heads.” “Fifty percent, same as always,” I replied. It is hard to understand, but easy to calculate.

Now I’m a teacher and an educator by heart and experience, so I have always tried to explain to lay people how statistics really works. Everyone wants to know the “average,” or as it is precisely called, the “mean” (of which there are several). This measure of central tendency is key to most people’s use of stats. I have a saying that I use to try to explain how averages don’t contain all that much information as you might wish. I say, “Feet in the freezer and head in the oven. On average, you should be at a comfortable temperature.” When you use an average and try to apply it to an individual, watch out!

Someday I’ll write about Gaussian (or normal) distributions, six sigma, and black swans, but for now let’s keep it simple. A few weeks ago a relative in Alaska posted an article about Social Security — a topic that is of great interest to me since I will soon be receiving checks from that wonderful (and did I say “wonderful”) institution. Of course, I will have paid a lot more into SSN than I will likely ever get out, especially if I could have invested the money myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it is a valuable social institution.

This article basically said that SSN is financially sound and said that growth of longevity would not “break the bank,” and was primarily due to better survival of small children rather than an increase in old age survival. Now that didn’t sound right to me knowing how the modern use of PSA often leads to a cure of the most common cancer in men — something that didn't happen a few years ago. (Plus my concern that the baby boomers, myself included, would “break the bank” just by our numbers, never mind how long we may live.)

Inquiring minds wanted to know, and who better to look at the stats than a trained statistician? And here is what I have discovered. Using the Department of Labor statistics, I found that the SSN article was wrong on the surface. There has been a significant increase in life expectancy for people who are currently 60 years of age. Look at the last three decades, the life expectancy of someone who is 60 today has increased by nearly ten years. That means people 60+ today, will live about 10 years (actually less than 10, but it is fun to round) longer than their fathers and grandfathers did.

But, again, that is one of those averages. Let’s look deeper. As we all know, there are three kinds of lies: “lies,” “damn lies,” and “statistics.” So here is what I found in that same Department of Labor data: If you take everyone alive today who is 60 years old, then their life expectancy is several years more than it would have been for someone 60 years old in 1980. But here is the interesting part. If you divide this group up by income, based on IRS data, you will find that the highest earning third will live 7 years longer, but the lowest earning third will only live a little over a year longer.

Hmmm. As one person put it, Lawyers will live longer to collect SSN, but Janitors won’t. So, in general, the article on SSN and retirement age is partially correct, especially if you realize SSN is very important for lower wage people. In other words, people that will likely have good personal or company provided retirement benefits are the ones who will statistically live longer, while those that most need SSN won’t.

Now that may not be important if the issue is funding of SSN, but it is quite important for the recipients. Whether SSN is financially stable for the next 20 or 30 years is still an open question, but the impact of increased longevity is better understood when you look into the details of the statistics rather than raw averages. That should be a learning experience for all. I was troubled by the article's conclusions, and my analysis showed they were a bit simplistic, but I found something important as I dug in deeper.

Now think about that at a time that the SSN full retirement age has increased from 65 to 66 for baby boomers, and will ultimately increase to 67 under current law. Many discussions of how to manage and reduce the deficit and debt use the statistic of longer life to justify further increase in retirement age, and to suggest raising the current retirement age to 69 or even 70. Think about that. In addition, there is talk of raising early retirement age from 62. After all, we all live longer, don’t we? Or do we? Again, think about that!

Now this is a complicated discussion and there are other ideas on the tables such as eliminating the cap on annual SSN contribution and privatization of the fund. The question is, do you understand statistics well enough to participate in that debate or and are you fooled by averages without digging deeper into the numbers for demographics and other details? Stats are the great simplifier of data, but as Albert Einstein wisely said (on the subject of physics theories, but what the heck), “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

A little history: November 8, 1918, in two railroad cars parked on a siding near the French town of Compiègne, the allies and the Germans worked on the terms of the armistice which would end the “War to End All Wars.”

To accommodate the meeting Maréchal Ferdinand Foch (pronounced "Fosh"), Commander in Chief, French Armies, had chosen a siding that had been used by French railway artillery during the recent French advance. It had the advantage that the twin spurs allowed the two parties to conduct their affairs in the quiet and solitude of the forest away from the gathering press. The two parties met in Foch's newly furbished command wagon at 0900 hours and exchanged their introductions.

The German mission comprised of: Matthias Erzberger for the German Government, Count Alfred von Obersdorff for the Foreign Ministry, Captain Ernst Vanselow for the Navy, and Major General Detlev von Winterfeldt. In addition to Foch, the Allies were represented by the British First Lord of the Admiralty, Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss and Rear Admiral George Hope RN, along with French Général Maxime Weygand, Foch's Chief of Staff. After some discussion of who was to request what, Erzberger asked Foch for an armistice.

Weygand read out the text which had been agreed upon by the Allied governments and a shocked Erzberger asked if a cease fire would be accorded while he transmitted the details back to his government in Berlin. Foch replied that there would be no cease fire and that he was not authorized to increase the time limit for a German reply. They had until 1100 hours on the 11th to make up their minds.

At 0530 hours on the November 11, 1918 Erzberger gave his consent to the conditions. Foch signed the document for the Allies and then Erzberger on behalf of the German Government. Signals were immediately sent out to the Allied commands.

The Armistice was to take effect at 11 o'clock, on the 11th day, of the 11th month. Foch himself set out with the document for Paris. It was a cold wet and miserable day. At La Pierre d'Haudroy, Bugler Corporal Sellier sounded the end of the war to end all wars, and so concluded the “Great War,” the “World War.” (Sadly it was not the end to world war and is now knows as World War One or WWI due to it’s offspring, WWII.)

The event now known as World War One had been long in coming. The spark was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Ferdinand's death at the hands of the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist secret society, set in motion a mindlessly mechanical series of events that culminated in the world's first global war. (I’m reminded of a comedian’s riff on the phrase “one thing led to another.”)

  • First Austria-Hungry declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.
  • Russia, bound by treaty to Serbia, announced mobilization of its vast army in her defense, a slow process that would take several weeks to complete.
  • Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary by treaty, viewed the Russian mobilization as an act of war against Austria-Hungary, and after scant warning declared war on Russia on August 1st.
  • France, bound by treaty to Russia, found itself at war against Germany and, by extension, on Austria-Hungary following a German declaration on August 3rd.
  • Germany was swift in invading neutral Belgium so as to reach Paris by the shortest possible route.
  • Britain allied to France by a more loosely worded treaty which placed a "moral obligation" upon her to defend France, declared war against Germany on August 4th. Her reason for entering the conflict lay in another direction: she was obligated to defend neutral Belgium by the terms of a 75-year old treaty. With Germany's invasion of Belgium on August 4, and the Belgian King's appeal to Britain for assistance, Britain committed herself to Belgium's defense later that day. Like France, she was by extension also at war with Austria-Hungary.
  • With Britain's entry into the war, her colonies and dominions abroad variously offered military and financial assistance, and included Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa.
  • United States President Woodrow Wilson declared a U.S. policy of absolute neutrality, an official stance that would last until 1917 when Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare — which seriously threatened America's commercial shipping (which was in any event almost entirely directed towards the Allies led by Britain and France) — forced the U.S. to finally enter the war on April 6, 1917.
  • Japan, honoring a military agreement with Britain, declared war on Germany on August 23, 1914. (That’s right; Japan was one of the Allies in WWI.)
  • Two days later Austria-Hungary responded by declaring war on Japan.
  • Italy, although allied to both Germany and Austria-Hungary, was able to avoid entering the fray by citing a clause enabling it to evade its obligations to both. In short, Italy was committed to defend Germany and Austria-Hungary only in the event of a 'defensive' war; arguing that their actions were 'offensive' she declared instead a policy of neutrality. The following year, in May 1915, she finally joined the conflict by siding with the Allies against her two former allies.

But this was not to be like the many wars of the 18th and 19th centuries. Europe and the rest of the world were used to nation states declaring war on each other. Our history includes a second war with England in 1812, the disastrous war between the states of 1861-1865, and the Spanish American war of 1898-1901. Our cousins on the continent had nearly 20 wars including the Napoleonic.

  • 1792–1815 Napoleonic Wars
  • 1830 Ten Days Campaign (following the Belgian Revolt)
  • 1830-1831 Polish-Russian war
  • 1848-1849 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence
  • 1848-1851 First Schleswig War
  • 1848–1866 Italian Independence wars
    • 1848–1849 First Italian Independence War
    • 1859 Second Italian Independence War
    • 1866 Third Italian Independence War
  • 1854–1856 Crimean War
  • 1864 Second Schleswig War
  • 1864 January Uprising
  • 1866 Austro-Prussian War
  • 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian War
  • 1877–1878 Russo–Turkish War
  • 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War
  • 1893–1896 Cod War of 1893
  • 1897 First Greco–Turkish War
  • 1911-1912 Italo-Turkish War
  • 1912–1913 Balkan Wars
    • 1912-1913 First Balkan War
    • 1913 Second Balkan War

Plus the many other wars in the Far East and South Africa during this century. But this war was to be different. In the first place, it eventually involved most of the world after the United States joined the fighting in 1917. Secondly was the impact that technology had. History buffs recall that the Civil War was fought with canon, single shot rifles, and wooden ships (for the most part). But by the time that WWI was really rolling along the combatants had machine guns, tanks, airplanes, and even poison gas. This completely changed the tactics of war. No longer were there great charges of two armies meeting on the field of battle for hand-to-hand combat.

This war soon bogged down into trench warfare: the dirties, nastiest kind of battle imaginable. Neither side seemed to be able to make progress and the war ran on and on. It was only after United States forces entered the trenches and the allies drove back the German armies in a series of successful offensives did the war finally come to an end.

Unfortunately, out of that end, grew the seeds of the next great war, which was to engulf the world twenty some years later in a much greater conflict. For the thirty-five articles of the armistice terms including requirements to demilitarize Germany and for Germany and its allies to pay back war reparations. In addition, Germany was required to cede the valuable industrial land of the Alsace-Lorraine to France. The French preserved Foch’s railroad car on the siding near Compiègne as a museum. One of Adolf Hitler’s proudest moments was when, after he invaded France during WWII, he visited Compiègne and had the railroad car destroyed. Truly the seed of WWII was sown at this place.

So the war clouds were to come again. This time the spark was provided by the invasion of Poland by Germany and Slovakia on September 1, 1939, and subsequent declarations of war on Germany by France and most of the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Germany set out to establish a large empire in Europe. During 1939 to early 1941, in a series of successful military campaigns and political treaties, Germany conquered or politically subdued most of continental Europe apart from the Soviet Union.

Britain and the Commonwealth remained the only major force continuing the fight against the Axis in North Africa and in extensive naval warfare. In June 1941, the European Axis launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, giving a start to the largest land theatre of war in history, which, from this moment on, was tying down the major part of the Axis military power.

On December 7, 1941, Japan, which had already been at war with China since 1937, and which aimed to establish dominance over East Asia and Southeast Asia, attacked the United States and European possessions in the Pacific Ocean, quickly, conquering a significant part of the region. Once attacked at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. declared war on Japan, Germany, and the other Axis powers.

The war ended with the total victory of the Allies over Germany and Japan in 1945. The war in Europe ended with the capture of Berlin by Soviet troops and subsequent German unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. By that time, the Japanese Navy was defeated by the United States, and invasion of the Japanese Archipelago ("Home Islands") became imminent. The invasion was preempted by the Japanese surrender after we used the atom bomb for the first time August 6 and 9 leading to the Japanese surrender on August 14. Fortunately, learning the lessons of the Armistice, the Allies treated their former enemies with fairness and compassion and today these two countries are strong allies of the U.S.

Although this was (so far) the last global war, and WWIII has not (yet) occurred, peace did not reign. A great ideological war between the west and the communist powers started shortly after the end of WWII, and grew hot in places like Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1955-1975) and several other smaller wars and skirmishes. In addition, the U.S. has been involved in several wars in the middle east including the Persian Gulf War 1990-91 after Iraq invaded Kuwait and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which have lasted for most of this first decade of the new millennium. Plus there was a very nasty conflict in Serbia known as the Kosovo War from 1998-1999 and several wars between the Israelis and their neighbors including the Sinai War (1956), Six Day War (1967), War of Attrition (1968-70), Yom Kippur War (1973), First Lebanon War (1982) and the recent Second Lebanon War (2006).

So it seems that Revelation’s “wars and rumors of wars” is tough to pin down to a particular date and someone is always seeing Armageddon coming in today’s news. But what of the soldiers that fought in those wars?

There are two holidays established in the United States to pay homage to those veterans and those who died so that we may be free. Armistice Day (also known as Remembrance Day) is on November 11. It was declared a national holiday in most of the allied countries following WWI. As Armistice Day initially was meant to memorialize and honor fighters in World War I, the holiday has grown and expanded as the world has undergone more wars. After World War II, the United States changed the name of the official holiday to Veteran’s Day, in addition to the long standing American Memorial Day, held in May each year.

Please consider for a moment what those brave veterans and fallen soldiers have done for you. Our military has not always been honored for their sacrifice and response to the call of duty. They’ve been blamed for political decisions and the bad actions of a few.

Now I have no problem with pacifism. It is a wonderful philosophy and those that honestly uphold those principles are honorable. But you must realize that, if it were not for the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers, sailors, and airmen, the pacifist would not have a country to raise their voices. No-one wants a war to end more than a soldier, trust me on that. But those brave men and women have taken an oath of honor to defend their country, and that is what they are doing.

Let me mention one of those brave soldiers. He is my nephew, Dallas Cole. He has served his country bravely in the line of fire. He is typical of your modern soldier. He has a family that loves him and friends that care. Yet he is willing to sacrifice all of that if need be. When I stand and salute the flag of this great nation, I’m not saluting the politicians or all those demonstrators who are quick to challenge our country, but only have that privilege due to the work of Dallas and the men and women that serve with him now and in the past. I’m saluting those many brave people, some who gave their lives that you and I may be free.

My father fought in WWII. He flew B17s into Germany and participated in raids where half the aircraft were damaged or shot down. After completing 30 missions, he rotated back to the States only to be sent back again. This time he flew C-46s over the hump into China. No-one was shooting at him this time, but the weather, and altitude, and mechanical failures made these trips over the Himalayas as deadly as combat.

I asked him what cargo he flew. He said he flew gasoline so they could refuel and fly back. And he flew spare parts so they could repair the planes and fly back. He flew food and bedding so they could eat and sleep and then fly back. He was joking. Supplying the Chinese via this air route was an essential strategy to defeating the Japanese.

So, where are we today? The United States, with some help from some key allies such as England, have become the policemen of the world. Violence in Kosovo and Muslims being killed, send in the U.S. Military to protect them. Famine in Somalia, send in the U.S. Military to feed them. We’re attacked on 9/11 by radical Muslims home based by the Taliban in Afghanistan, send in the U.S. Military to defeat them. Now I won’t comment on the wisdom of these latest, seemingly endless wars. They appear to me to be accomplishing no purpose; killing, maiming, and injuring our soldiers; and draining our treasury while the rest of the world watches, but I don’t fault the bravery of the U.S. Military.

Folks, things are changing. I’m not worried about the Taliban, or Muslims, or even Iran. It is China that keeps me up at night. China is becoming a world power. They are developing advanced technology, taking control of the world’s resources (98% of all rare earth minerals under Chinese control), and have a booming economy and great financial resources (while the U.S. languishes in debt). Even Russia is rearming and making aggressive noise. Soon the Chinese may have missile capability that will completely neutralize our aircraft carrier fleets. That will leave two options in the case of heightened world tensions. Either send in the army and marines (against a Chinese army 2.5 million active soldiers – not a good scenario) or go nuclear and we will have WWIII and Armageddon. Remember, we have — by treaty — committed to come to the aid of Taiwan if attacked. Look at how “one thing led to another” at the start of WWI, and think of all the treaties we have defending Taiwan, Japan, and other allies, and it is déjà vu all over again!

Sorry, I don’t have any simple answers to this. I’m just a vet. I served for six years during the Vietnam War, and did my duty as I saw it. I stand now for my fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. I just know that, when they are called to duty, they will serve. The writer Robert A. Heinlein in his somewhat juvenile “Starship Troopers” described a future in which only veterans were allowed to vote. You had to earn the right to vote by serving your country. I think he might have been on to something there. I think the ending of the draft and the all volunteer army is a mistake. I think every man and women in the U.S. should have to serve. No college deferment, no political games, all should serve. They don’t all have to be soldiers. We need help in our hospitals and in our libraries and other government services. There are homeless shelters and food for the hungry programs that need resources. Our tax dollars would stretch a lot farther if all citizens of the U.S., both men and women, were required to spend one or two years in their late teens or early twenties in service to our country. (That is the way they do it in Germany, by the way.) Think of the patriotism, common cause, and attitude of national service such a program would foster. Maybe we would drop some of this “us and them” attitudes that are so common these days and start focusing on the common good.

It is no coincidence that a congress during the 50’s and 60’s, made up of war veterans in both parties, found it easier to cooperate on legislation that was for the good of America, not just the advancement of their party, more power, and more money from lobbyists. Movie stars in the 40’s enlisted. Movie stars today seem to find only fault with America.

Now you folks that want to complain and protest (about anything, the environment, the economy, the s.o.b.’s that belong to that other political party), I would not deny you that privilege. I served so that you could have those rights. All I ask is, on this special day, stop burning the flag for a moment and think what it stands for. Honor a veteran. Visit a veteran. And best of all, be a veteran.

Again, to Dallas and all his brothers and sisters in arms, God bless you and God bless America.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities – plus Aptitude

Met a man in New York one day. He was carrying a violin case and he asked me how to get to Carnegie Hall. So I told him practice, practice, practice.


I have spent a large part of my life and career as a teacher. I usually tease people that the only reason I’ve done other work, is to get job experience that I can then use in teaching. I have missed teaching these last twelve years in printer development, but I still get to teach a few classes so it is all good. At a very early age I loved to explain things and there are several stories I can tell about growing up and teaching, but I’ll save those for another time.

My formal teaching started in the Navy while I was attending the Navy Electronics “A” School; I volunteered for an assignment teaching mandatory night study classes four times a week. So I would sit in class during the day learning electronics and taking a ton of notes, and then turn around and teach the same material that evening. One positive benefit from that experience is that I graduated first in my class from “A” School.

After getting out of the Navy I worked in electronics and aerospace in Boulder, Colorado. After a few years I took a job at the Electronics Technical Institute, a private school in Denver, teaching FCC License Preparation, Basic Electronics, and Advanced Electronic Communications. I spent almost five years in that job. I then went to work for Metropolitan State College of Denver teaching electronics engineering. These were the jobs I had when I was first married, living in Longmont, and commuting to Denver.

I later went to work for IBM and started out performing final testing on Series III Copiers. From there I moved to Disk Drive Manufacturing as a test engineer. It was during this time that the IBM PC was announced. I had experience with the PC since I worked on some of its components during development, and I had owned several personal computers prior to IBM releasing its entry into the market. I started to teach evening classes to IBMers on using the PC. I taught Lotus 1-2-3 and Easywriter and simple programming to various people at IBM Boulder. Those were very popular classes and I was teaching a lot. I was also assigned one day a week to work with a local middle school teaching their talented and gifted class and holding seminars for the teachers explain how to use the Apple II and IBM PC for teaching and administration.

As my reputation spread, I was recruited to IBM Technical Education where I spent the next fifteen years teaching and developing classes on programming, software engineering, and testing. It was work I loved and excelled at and I benefited greatly from the exposure and knowledge I developed during those days of travel and teaching. I was promoted quickly and soon found myself a Senior Instructor and Course Designer assigned to the IBM elite Software Engineering School in Thornwood, New York.

Instructional Design

It was during this time with Technical Education that IBM sent me to several courses at Vanderbilt University and Harvard on Instructional Design and Education. I had attended classes at Colorado State University earlier in my career and had learned a lot about teaching, but these classes focused on course development, instructional design, and the three initials: “KSA.” That is Knowledge, Skill, and Ability. Later I had the pleasure of working with the IBM Global Services Institute as a senior instructor and I developed a lot of the early IBM courseware on the internet. I worked directly with various university faculty and at one point planned to obtain a Ph.D. in Instructional Design. Alas my travel schedule prevented that.

Since I had a Master’s Degree in math, and was an expert at statistical analysis based on my experience in Disk Drive Manufacturing and Test, I took on several projects where our IBM Programmer Training curriculum was “validated.” IBM (and the Federal Government) considered IBM Programmer Training as a “job action.” Employees selected to be retrained as programmers would complete their training and get promotions and pay raises. Therefore it was essential that the training be validated and shown to be essential and not culturally biased.

The retraining program I helped to design and implement was highly successful with over 88% of the students who entered the program completing it successfully and becoming programmers. But how could we certify that the 10% or so that didn’t make it were removed for a valid reason? I worked with an IBM education expert, Dr. Patricia Douglas, developing the terminal objectives of the courses, then creating the enabling objectives of the material and tying those to the terminal objectives.

At the start of the development of the programmer retraining curriculum, we had performed detailed job analysis documenting the tasks performed by programmers and breaking those tasks down into knowledge, skill, and ability. We then did user surveys and statistical analysis to tie the KSAs to the terminal objectives.

This was a large project and at one time there were over 20 staff working on it including outside consultants. All together we worked on the project for over a year, and received considerable acclaim from the education community on the thoroughness of our process when we later published the non confidential part of our results. This work is still considered a standard for course design and validation to this day.

During the process and my self education and study, I became fascinated with this taxonomy and inventory of what it means for an individual to be able to perform tasks in work and life. I started to apply these attributes to my own education and reading and it helped me organize my studies.

I was later asked to consult with the University Americade in Puerto Rico where I spent many wonderful Caribbean weeks assisting the faculty design and implement highly successful training programs. Again task analysis and KSA defintions were fundamental to the work.


So let’s talk about Instructional Design. Let me explain and define. Knowledge is facts. To quote a government document, “Knowledge statements refer to an organized body of information usually of a factual or procedural nature which, if applied, makes adequate performance on the job possible.” A body of information applied directly to the performance of a function.

I recall teaching a class on solid state physics. That’s what makes transistors and other semiconductors work. As part of the student’s school supplies, they had a dictionary of electronics. I gave them all a fifty word vocabulary list and asked them to look up the words in the dictionary and write out the definitions. After a lot of groans, the students complied, and I collected the work the next day and graded it. (Everyone got an A.) I didn’t even care if they copied off another student. Key was they now knew the vocabulary (facts) that I would use in the next day’s lecture as I described solid state physics and how a semiconductor diode functioned. I later got praise from several students who typically struggled with the learning telling me they really got a lot out of the lecture and had not found it that easy to learn before.

Later I collected books with titles such as “Project Management Body of Knowledge” or PMBOK and the “Software Engineering Body of Knowledge” or SWEBOK. I would read those books like some people read dictionaries. I am fascinated by encyclopedic volumes of knowledge in particular fields of study.


Skill is something that improves with practice. Again, from a government document, “Skill statements refer to the proficient manual, verbal or mental manipulation of data or things. Skills can be readily measured by a performance test where quantity and quality of performance are tested, usually within an established time limit. Examples of proficient manipulation of things are skill in typing or skill in operating a vehicle. Examples of proficient manipulation of data are skill in computation using decimals; skill in editing for transposed numbers, etc.”

You musicians out there know the importance of practice — endless scales and hours with “Hannon.” The same is true of skills such as welding, soldering, and painting — practice makes perfect. It is not just about muscle memory and “wax on, wax off” that is the key to skill development. I spent many a long hour in the library pouring out solutions to math and physics problems until I could almost instantly shape a solution into its component parts and quickly perform the intermediate calculations.


Ability is about the overall capability to perform the task or function. “Ability statements refer to the power to perform an observable activity at the present time. This means that abilities have been evidenced through activities or behaviors that are similar to those required on the job, e.g., ability to plan and organize work. Abilities are different from aptitudes. Aptitudes are only the potential for performing the activity.” And now we hear it: Aptitude. Aptitude is not about education. Aptitude is a talent or gift innate in the individual.

Before we go on to discuss aptitude, just a reminder that, in many ways, ability is a combination of all the student attributes from knowledge to skill and certainly aptitude. In industry, it is the ability that matters. Some of the smartest people I know are not worth beans in industry because they are not able to really do anything. A story I can tell is about a smart person I met in the Navy, but they put him in the tool crib passing out parts because he just had no common sense. At one point he took all the shop’s screwdrivers and sharpened them on a grinder. Why he thought screwdrivers have to be sharp is beyond me. But he was brilliant! Maybe he knew something the rest of us didn’t know?


So now we’re down to it. The part you cannot learn. The part that you come equipped with. The “-ility” you are born with. Your talents or gifts.

The use of the word “gift” has a biblical and spiritual connotation. The Apostle Paul spoke of our spiritual gifts given us to be used in the Lord’s service. We don’t all have the same gifts, and that is as intended. Paul used the human body as an example and different functions of the eyes, the ears, and the legs. Yet it is in the synergistic function of all these different gifts that the wonderful whole is realized. Some of us have the gift of music, some the gift of teaching, and some the gift of hands and building. All are needed.

So it is essential that people are not “beat over the head” about their lack of a particular aptitude. Remember the stage mother driving her child to success where the child has no business in the theater. That never turns out well, does it? Each should develop his or her abilities the best they can. It takes hard work, and there are limitations, and aptitudes vary, but we must all bloom where we are planted.

Since you can’t really train people to have aptitude, in our programmer retraining curriculum we used tests such as IBM Information Processing Aptitude Test (IPAT). It had previously been validated, and we used that process and information as the basis of our overall validation of the programmer curriculum. (The IPAT is also well known in educational circles as a standard for aptitude testing.)

The Navy had a whole battery of aptitude tests including those that measured aptitude for math and communications (I scored very high on those) as well as aptitude for sonar operation. That test was a series of tones in an earphone and you would identify which tone was highest, the first, second, or third. That was a lot tougher test than it sounds like (oh — humor), and I didn’t do so well. Since I have a tin ear, that is no surprise. (Nor is it a surprise from those who have heard me play the guitar!) Oh well, I still love music, even if I’ll never excel at it.

One aptitude I seem to have, much to my benefit, is the aptitude for study and understanding. I can’t explain how lessons come so easy to me. Is it my memory? Is it my clear thinking? Is it my thought processes? I don’t know. I just know I’ve always excelled in school. I have an innate ability to take tests well. First, I don’t stress. But more important I don’t “argue” with the teacher or test writer. I quickly determine just what it is that he or she expects as the answer, and give it.

I graduated from engineering school summa cum laude and was a three times winner of the Colorado Scholars Award. But it was much more a measure of my natural ability and aptitudes than a statement of how hard I studied. After all, I was working and raising a family while going to school, and I didn’t spend that much time with the books. Granted I got a degree in something I was already trained and experienced in, electronics. So I was able to focus on the details in class, since I already knew the basics. That helped. But more important, I just seemed to have a natural talent for this stuff, and I benefited greatly from that.

Ever since learning about Instructional Design, I’ve keenly aware of how KSAs show themselves in individual performance, as well as in my own learning and living. Plus a healthy respect for aptitudes (and attitudes too).


Let me give you an example of aptitude or gifts from two people I know. The first is a young man, a talented musician with a degree in music. (As an aside, I have found musical talent to be typical in those with great math ability as well as I have found that musicians make good programmers. Something about patterns and synthesis!) He is also an avid photographer and videographer and has a business doing this kind of work.

After reviewing some samples of his work, I asked him if he was aware of the “rule of thirds.” Now the rule of thirds is an example of “Knowledge.” It is a fact that you would learn in photography classes, and has to do with framing a picture or scene and where you place people and objects. Although novice photographers will often place a head in the middle of the frame, it is much more esthetically pleasing to place the head one-third of the way across the frame. This can be combined with implied actions to create a balanced photo.

He responded that he had not heard of this rule, but that he had watched a lot of TV and seen photos, and his framing just matched his experience. I was immediately reminded of this quote from Edward Weston: “Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.” His point is that the natural ability takes charge — not knowledge or skill.

You can find many books (and internet sites) that will teach the rules of composition, but that will not make a person a skilled photographic artist without the innate ability. It won’t hurt, and I recommend study of the body of knowledge for anyone who is pursuing an intellectual career, but ability is really key to high levels of success.

Let me contrast this young man with another person I know. She has been taking pictures starting at a young age. She’s taken many classes on photography in high school and college, read books, discussed picture taking on blogs, and yet — since she lacks innate ability or the photographic “gift” — her photos are all rather pedestrian. Oh she tries to copy the things she has learned, taking pictures of walls and light fixtures, but it just isn’t there. One of her problems is framing. Her pictures usually put the object of interest in the exact center of the photo. That's called "bulls eye" framing. It is not very interesting nor artistic. She just doesn't have the natural ability to realize that. It is obvious she has no "gift" for photography. Her pictures are rather boring ... she usually tries to spruce them up with computer apps that add frames or strange coloration. Her work is rather pedestrian.

Now don’t get me wrong, she is an accomplished photographer and can take nice snapshots for the photo album; she can focus and set the exposure correctly; she has the knowledge; but her work just doesn’t inspire like the young man’s work I spoke of. In fact, if you look at her pictures, the heads are usually right in the middle of the frame! Now that does not subtract from the joy this lady has in photography, but if I was a career counselor, I would suggest another line of work. I think it is wonderful that she gets so much enjoyment from her photography, and I would never tell her to quit shooting. Excellence, on the other hand, requires gifts.


So that is what I dealt with in instructional design. There are many variables including different learning styles and a student’s work ethic that are all important in education. But the old saying about silk purses and sow’s ears applies. I believe in effective education and the need for quality teachers and good curriculi, but the focus must be on the learner as well. Attitude and aptitude have a big of an impact on overall learning as measured by KSAs.

Still it is the teacher’s goal to develop the greatest KSA in all of his or her students that they are capable of. I always tried to make learning fun, only taught meaningful (and validated) objectives, and focused on each student performing to the best of his or her ability. I was always prouder of the student who struggled, but worked hard and accomplished a lot than the “bright” student who didn’t really try and did not accomplish anywhere near what their ability would allow.

And let me tell you, I had a lot of students in that latter category. They were coasting through life, at least my class, and they made me very sad. To this day, my most meaningful memories of teaching are those students, less gifted, but so full of can-do spirit and attitude that they stood out in my memory. God bless them.

So there you have it. Some have the gift. The rest of us must work hard, and still possibly not accomplish excellence. I recommend pursuit of excellence, but I also teach and preach joy in living, joy in learning. Don’t be afraid to try. In fact, you just may have the gift.

The next time you take a class or an online self study or just try to learn from a book, think about the knowledge, the facts you are learning. Organize the facts, study the facts, memorize the facts — it is all good. Think about the skills — do the homework people, that is how the skills are learned.

Use the learning, do something, construct something, create something. That is the ability. (A little trick I do when I'm trying to learn something or planning on attending a class: I try out the task or tool and get a little practice first. Then the class will make a lot more sense. I wrote programs in C++ before I took my first C++ class. Same with Java. I play with the topic first before I begin serious study. That yields context and helps for the relationships with what you already know and ties the new learning into your conscience.)

But the aptitude — well that is given to us at birth. You can polish that aptitude and practice and learn, but without the gift, it can be very frustrating. Work through that frustration. If it is something you love, then accomplishment is reward enough in itself. We may not all get to play at Carnegie Hall, but we can still drag the bow across the strings and make beautiful music for ourselves. Now, where did I put that guitar I want (need) to practice?

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Tuesday morning I returned to work. I took my usual route — the back way — and enjoyed the beautiful, “crisp” mountains. They stood out clearly in the autumn air with their powdered sugar peaks against the brilliant blue sky. There was not a cloud in the sky to mar the solid blueness. For those of you who have never lived in Colorado, let me explain. My unscientific view is that we have about 330 crystal clear days a year, with only a month or so spread out throughout the year of cloudy overcast. Colorado would be the perfect state for exploitation of solar power. It seems most days are clear and bright and nearly cloudless.

Our altitude is part of it, but more importantly is the very dry climate. After all, clouds are just moisture condensed, and this is the high plains desert with little moisture summer or winter. That gives us the snowy powder our ski resorts are so boastful of, the higher than average occurrence of skin cancer, and these bright, crisp, and beautiful mornings.

In previous centuries it was this very air that made Colorado a mecca for those suffering from tuberculosis and other lung and respiratory conditions. You came here for the “cure.” To this day we lead the nation in research on respiration at institutions such as Denver’s National Jewish Hospital and University of Colorado Hospital.

You start at the foot of the mountains, here on the high plains, at an elevation of a mile high. Then it is up to the many high country communities at 8,000 feet or more. Leadville is over 10,000 feet. And the mountains! Colorado has over fifty 14ers. Compare this to Alaska which only has 21 peaks over 14,000 feet, although it can brag of the highest peak in North America.

I consider myself to be in good health and excellent shape, yet I have to admit that when I reach the summit of Pikes Peak (14,115) the air is very noticeably thin, and I don’t feel like running up any stairs. The top of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is 12,183 feet. There I’m a little more comfortable, although the lack of O2 is quite noticeable.

Funny thing about air. We can go weeks without food, and days without water, but only minutes without air. No wonder then that Genesis speaks of God breathing the very breath of life into us. Genesis 2:7 (NIV) — “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

Proof of life: breathing!

I grew up in Montana. Back then the state motto was “The Treasure State.” It was on all the license plates. It was a very apt theme for Montana. I was told that every valuable mineral found in the US is found in Montana. We had coal and oil, gold and silver, copper, lead, molybdenum, and uranium, sapphires, diamonds, you name it and it could be found in the ground in the Treasure State.

(My mother had a beautiful sapphire ring my dad had purchased that came from the nearby Yogo mine in the Belt Mountains of Montana. Many decades later I had a jeweler special order a Yogo Sapphire ring for the love of my life. It cost me about half an arm and part of a leg, but such precious beauty deserves only the most precious beauty!)

Then at some point after the sixties, Montana changed the catch phrase to “Big Sky Country.” Now I agree that Montana is a realm of great vistas and big sky, but that slogan would be equally true for Wyoming or Utah or — especially — Colorado. We are truly big sky country here.

My dad was a weatherman. That wasn’t his primary title. He was an Air Traffic Controller with the FAA, but not what you are imagining. He didn’t sit at a big radar screen and direct airplanes — that is “air route traffic control,” and there is a big center here in Longmont. He didn’t sit in a tower and direct landing and departing aircraft — that is “tower controller.” He worked in “flight service stations.” These were originally located at small, non-commercial airports and he mostly worked with private aviation and pilots. They would come to him to file flight plans and get weather briefings. By the late 90’s these flight service stations had all be consolidated into big centers that communicated with small airports via telephone.

Finally, at the dawn of the 21st century, flight service completely disappeared, replaced by the internet and a few personnel at air route traffic centers. Fortunately, my father retired before his job was replaced by modern computer networks.

One of his duties was to take weather measurements. He would record wind and temperature and, using a sling hydrometer, he’d calculate the relative humidity. He would turn on a large spotlight aimed straight up and, using a protractor to measure the angle to the cloud illuminated by the light, he would calculate the ceiling. That’s the height of the lowest clouds and an important parameter to aircraft flying visual flight rules or “VFR.”

He would come home and tell me all about clouds. The low clouds: cumulous, stratus, and stratocumulus; the middle clouds: altocumulus and altostratus; the high clouds of cirrus and cirrocumulus; and finally, the king of them all, the great thunderheads that can rise from below 6,000 feet to well about 50,000 feet. To this day, even the big jumbo jets give these powerful engines of nature a wide birth.

He and my mom slowly moved west in his FAA job, living in Great Falls, Livingston, and Bozeman, Montana before moving on to Spokane, Washington and his final destination, Hillsboro, Oregon. Oregon is the exact opposite of Colorado. I estimate there are 30 days of clear sky per year. You can go outside day after day and never see a nearby mountain peak due to the haze and fog and clouds. Then, on one glorious bright day, you will sight Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker and the infamous Mt. St. Helens. These mountains too are over 12,000 feet, but they tend to be solitary mountains rising from a ground level of only 1,000 feet or so. Thus they do shame the many Colorado peaks. Still Colorado seems to retain the crown owing to the vast number of peaks populating the high country and this middle of the great Rocky Mountain Range.

So it is while living in Colorado that you come to appreciate most “air.” Clear blue, thin and dry, healthy and invigorating, and the word I always use: “crisp” air. A joy of creation, a must for life, the ocean in which we swim — AIR.

Michael W. Smith —

This is the air I breathe

This is the air I breathe

Your holy presence living in me


Those who have read my most recent note know that I am fascinated by light. I consider light the essential phenomenon in so many ways.

Biblically Jesus referred to himself as the light of the world. "Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ “(John 8:12 RSV) And we are told to shine the light. ”You are the light of the world — like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden.” Matthew 5:14 NLT)

Light is the primary means of experiencing the wonders of creation, from sunrise to sunset, from a baby’s smile to the smile of your baby, from the nearness of a microscopic view of tissue to the "farness" of the distant stars. Light is the primary way we communicate with the creation. (Of course we also have touch and taste as well as hearing, but none of these senses give us the near/far perspective we obtain from light and vision.)

Light is key to much of modern physics from the study of optics and gravity by Sir Isaac Newton to the study of electromagnetic forces and Maxwell’s equations to the discovery of the special theory of relativity and the general theory of relativity by Einstein to the black holes of Karl Schwarzschild and Stephen Hawking. As I have already related, it was in the deep study of Maxwell’s equations that I reached the pinnacle of my scientific studies and comprehension. I saw the light!

And it is light that gives us life here on the earth. With all the discussion about energy and nonrenewable and renewable sources of energy, it may not be apparent that all energy comes form the sun. Either directly in the heat that gives us wind power and water power to the plants that give us coal and oil. Even the energy of radioactive materials found in the earth had their birth place in the stars — and our sun is just one of many stars — albeit the closest.

So let’s talk about stars or suns. As the night sky will testify, there are many, many stars in the sky. Most are very distant with the nearest night time stars Alpha Proxima. This is a triple star formation in the constellation of Centarus. These stars are approximately 4.2 light years from earth. That is, it takes 4.2 years for the light, traveling at just under 300,000 miles per second, to reach us. But, of course, there is a much closer star, the one we call our sun. Its formal name is “Sol.” Sol or our sun is approximately 93,000,000 miles from the earth. That means the light from the sun or Sol reaches us in just 8.3 minutes.

Our sun is not particularly special in the spectrum of all the stars, and thank God for that. The fact that our sun is rather ordinary and steady is key to life on this earth. It is not the biggest sun by far, but not the smallest either. You see, stars (or suns) have a life cycle. They are born, they live, and they die. However, the timescale on which this occurs is millions of years.

So where does sunshine or the light from the sun come from? This is a question that has intrigued mankind for thousands of years. Ancient myths had the sun as a large burning object carried in a chariot across the sky. Many ancient cultures recognized the sun as key to life with its warmth and light, and even made it into a god. Genesis tells us that the Lord placed the Sun in the sky to govern the day, and rule it does. Due to the bright light of the sun most stars and even the moon cannot be seen during the day. Only the very brightest can compete with Sol during the daylight, and have to wait for nightfall to make their presence known.

Before we start discussing just what makes sunshine, let’s do a little review of physics. As you all remember, all matter (or stuff) is made up of atoms. These atoms are combinations of three atomic particles. First are electrons. Electrons are negatively charged and orbit around the atomic nucleus. In the nucleus are protons and neutrons. Protons have a positive charge and weigh a little more than 1000 time as much as an electron. Neutrons are electrically neutral and weigh an amount about equal to a proton plus an electron.

Electrons, being negative, are attacked to the nucleus which is positive. This is called electrostatic attraction and, as you all recall, unlike charges attract. But what about all those positive protons so tightly packed in the nucleus? Since like charges repel, what holds these particles together? The answer is something called the “strong nuclear force.” This force only operates at very short distances, but it is responsible for keeping the nucleus of an atom together.

There are only four fundamental forces in the universe. Gravity, which holds us bound to the earth and earth bound to the sun; electromagnetic force, which is much, much stronger than gravity and binds the electrons to the nucleus; strong nuclear force (also called the “strong interaction") which is able to overcome the repulsion force of the electromagnetic force and binds the protons to the nucleus, and finally the weak nuclear force (or weak interaction) which is also present in the nucleus of the atom and binds the proton together.

Binds the proton together? I thought a proton was as small as it gets? No, these three fundamental atomic particles, the electron, the proton, and the neutron, are thought to be made up of even smaller particles called “sub atomic particles” and this is the frontier of modern physics as these subatomic particles are explored and explained. The strong and weak interactions will become important as our discussion of sunshine continues.

Now that we have the atomic components down, let’s start building atoms. It is the number of protons in an atom that determine the element. For example, an atom with only one proton is called hydrogen. If it has two protons, it is helium. And so on through the periodic table. Oxygen has 8 and Iron has 26 protons. At the higher end of the table we find lead with 82 protons and uranium with 92. There are some elements, very short lived and not found in nature with over 110 protons, but these elements are very unstable and don’t last very long before splitting into atoms with less protons.

So, with an understanding of these basic building blocks, what makes them shine, how do they grow, and how do they eventually die. A star is born when a massive cloud of hydrogen gas, many times the size of our solar system, is slowly compressed by the force of gravity. The gravitational force compressing the gas gradually heats up the gas, as gravitational energy is converted into the kinetic energy of the hydrogen atoms.

As temperatures keep increasing, the electrons are torn out of their orbits and you get a soup of electrons and nuclei called a "plasma." Plasma is the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid, and gas.

Normally, the repulsive charge of the protons within the hydrogen plasma is sufficient to keep the atoms apart. But at a certain point, when the temperature rises to 10 to 100 million K (a measure of temperature similar to Celsius, but with no negative values) a nuclear reaction occurs. (Zero K is absolute zero, and lowest possible temperature, which is -273.15 degrees C. So 10 to 100 million K is hot, hot, hot.) At this temperature, the kinetic energy of the protons (which are just hydrogen nuclei) overcomes their electrostatic repulsion and they slam into one another. The nuclear force then takes over from the electromagnetic force, and the two hydrogen nuclei “fuse” into helium, releasing vast quantities of energy.

This is called nuclear fusion. The energy released is related to a conversion from mass to energy given by Einstein’s equation e = mc2. That is a small amount of mass (the quality of matter that gives it weight) is lost since the nucleus of helium weighs slightly less than than the nucleus of two hydrogen atoms. Recall that c, equal to the speed of light, is a very large number, and in this equation it is squared making it much, much larger. So a tiny amount of mass converted to energy yields a tremendous amount of heat and light.

In other words, a star is a nuclear furnace, burning hydrogen first and creating nuclear “ash” in the form of waste helium. A star is also a delicate balancing act between the force of gravity, which tends to crush the star into oblivion, and the nuclear force, which tends to blow the star a part with the force of trillions of hydrogen bombs. A star then matures and ages as it exhausts its nuclear fuel.

Our sun is a “yellow” sun. That is the burning of hydrogen into helium produces a spectrum of light in the yellow range. This light can be modeled by stating a temperature in Kelvin that a large black body would have to be heated to so it would produce the same spectrum of light. Sunlight is modeled as 5,000 K. As this light is reflected and refracted during the day, it can be modeled as between 5,000 and 6,000 K. Lights that are designed to simulate sunlight would be in this range. Incandescent lights designed for use with photography and simulating this color of light have been around for a long time. What is new is fluorescent bulbs that produce light in this color range. These fluorescent bulbs are a great benefit to photographers and videographers because they produce much less heat than incandescent and don’t require as much power to operate. I have a complete range of soft and hard light sources using these special bulbs, and they are a lot cheaper and lighter and easier to use.

I won’t get into the evolution of stars and how they change as the hydrogen is eventually exhausted. The final result can be everything from a “red giant” to a “white dwarf” and even a supernova and neutron star or pulsar. Under certain conditions stars may actually evolve into black holes. These are such massive stars that even light cannot escape the pull of gravity, and so they appear black.

Our own Sol is about 5 billion years old. It is considered a middle aged star, and should burn for anther 5 billion years before its supply of hydrogen is exhausted, so you don’t need to get too worried about the sun burning out in our life times. When one first hears the life history of stars, one may be a bit skeptical. After all, no one has ever lived 10 billion years to witness their evolution. However, since there are uncountable stars in the heavens, it is a simple matter to see stars at practically every stage in their evolution. For example, the 1987 supernova, which was visible to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere, yielded a treasure trove of astronomical data that matched the theoretical predictions of a collapsing dwarf with an iron core. Also the spectacular supernova observed by ancient Chinese astronomers in 1054, left behind a remnant, which has now been identified as a neutron star.

Before I close, I mentioned the nearest star other than our own sun, but what is the farthest star we’ve observed? Well that honor is currently held by a star discovered on April 27, 2009 — a self-destructing star that exploded 13.1 billion light years from Earth. It detonated just 630 million years after the big bang, around the end of the cosmic "dark ages", when the first stars and galaxies were lighting up space. The light from this early star is giving us a front row seat to the most ancient of creations.

Just like my daddy used to say …

He used to say soul shine,

It’s better than sunshine,

It’s better than moonshine,

Damn sure better than rain.

Yeah now people don’t mind,

We all get this way some time,

Got to let your soul shine, shine till the break of day.