25 September 2011

Good News from Googley

Here in Mexico many people still pronounce the word "Google" like they would if it was a Spanish word and it sounds something like "GOOG-leh" or "GOOG-lay". No matter how you pronounce it though, the people from Google continue to amaze me. I was having trouble with my Firefox web browser and I had heard that the Google browser named "Chrome" is much more stable and even faster. I downloaded Google Chrome browser and installed it with no problem and found that it is similar to Firefox and that I could even import my Firefox bookmarks very easily. Not only that but there are plug-ins and add-ons available just like with Firefox.

"So what?" you might ask. Well, I'll tell you. I noticed that in the Google search engine in the Chrome browser there is a little microphone icon. If you hook up a microphone to your computer or if you already have one you can click on the microphone icon and then speak into your microphone and enunciate whatever you are looking for. In a flash it will provide the links just as if you had typed in the search parameter with your fingers. It works so well that it is scary. I played around with it and you can even use it as a calculator. For example, to convert 72 degrees Fahrenheit into degrees Centigrade all you have to do is click on the microphone and say "72 F in C" and it will return 22.2222222 Degrees Centigrade. Suppose that you want to know how many kilometers there are in 5.4 miles. Just "click" and say "5.4 miles in kilometers" and it will automatically return "5.4 miles = 8.6904576 kilometers". There is a whole host of mathematical functions that it will perform in response to your voice commands.

Now, here is something for students of Spanish. If you go to "Google Translate" in the Chrome browser you can speak the English sentence that you want to have translated into Spanish and it will return the Spanish translation. For example, if you click on the icon and say "I am going to the store" it will immediately return "Voy a la tienda" and then if you want to hear it in Spanish you just click on the little speaker icon and a pleasant voice will repeat the phrase so that you can hear how the words are pronounced.

While I was at my local Walmart stocking up on supplies from China I found a stand-alone microphone that is used for conference calls for 54 pesos or about $3.87 U.S. I just plugged it into the computer and it sits on the desk and it will pick up a voice from anywhere in the immediate vicinity without having to speak into it directly. Now I just tell Google what I need and it is delivered to me as if I were a king. Hey! I am a king! So then why doesn't somebody king me?

23 September 2011

A failure to communicate

In the 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke” there is an unforgettable line that was used twice, once by the prison captain (played by Strother Martin), and once by Cool Hand Luke (played by Paul Newman). The line is:

What we got here is a failure to communicate!

Based upon some reading that I have been doing lately I discovered that I may have a failure in communication with myself…not my present self, but my future self. The theory goes that your present persona is not exactly the same as your future persona and may not be operating under the same set of circumstances. The emotional state, physical state, and environmental conditions surrounding your present self may be completely different from that of your future self. So how is it possible that our present self can communicate successfully with our future self?

I remember that when I was a little boy we actually did communicate successfully with our future selves through the U.S. mail, albeit that it was only one-way. Each spring at the end of the school year the Dominican nuns who taught at our school would require that we bring two unused “penny” postcards to school. In those days it only cost three cents to mail a letter and one cent to mail a postcard. The plain prepaid postcards were a manila color and they already had a one cent postage stamp printed on them. We would address these postcards to ourselves and on one of them we would remind ourselves to go to mass on the Feast of the Assumption on August 15th because it is a Catholic holy day of obligation…one of those days which the Church tells us we must celebrate in order to meet the minimum level of commitment to the Catholic faith. The Second postcard was to remind us of the date when school started up again after summer vacation. The nuns would mail the postcards a couple of days ahead of the target date and we would in this way notify our future selves of the event. A typical postcard from my present self to my future self would go something like this:

Dear Bobby,

Don’t forget that August 15th is the Feast of the assumption and you m
ust go to mass because it is a holy day of obligation. I hope that you are having a wonderful summer vacation.

Your friend,


Of course we forgot all about these postcards during the course of summer vacation and when they arrived in the mail it was a nice surprise. I always felt a little sad, however, that I couldn’t write back to my friend because he (me) was no longer there.

My solution to this inability to communicate effectively with my former self is to form a committee of present and former selves to impress upon my future self the course that we have collectively charted. Many of the decisions that we make regarding plans for our future are impulsive if not compulsive and are based upon the emotion, circumstance, or environment of the present. I guess that’s why some people say that you should “sleep on it” before you commit to a definite decision about anything.

I am going to try an experiment. Whenever I decide to make a commitment to do something I will start a log and record my present thoughts and feelings about the subject. Then I will wait a day or two and revisit the subject and note whether or not my new “present thoughts” coincide with my original “present thoughts” and make whatever adjustments necessary. After a few more of these exercises if I still believe that the commitment is worthwhile and desirable then my present self along with my committee of former selves will agree to commence. Every week or so thereafter I will call a meeting and review the log to see if the present results agree with former expectations and if not, an adjustment will be made. If at some point the thoughts of the present and former selves seem to indicate that the pursuit should be abandoned, the review process will continue for another week or so to see if the “committee” is still in agreement. In this way my future self cannot complain that the original commitment was not his but was something imposed upon him by my former self because in actuality he was with me every step of the way and hopefully…we will have no failure to communicate.

21 September 2011

Hoe to the end of the row!

In my job I am training an assistant who will take my place when I eventually retire. He is a very bright young engineer from the state of Veracruz. He is 25 years old and his name is Arturo. Among other things that I am teaching him I am helping him to improve his English. I made a pact with him that everyday I will teach him something but every day he must also teach me something. It is turning out to be a nice little game from which we both benefit. Today I made a comment in English about the necessity to complete projects to the last detail and I said that we must always "hoe to the end of the row". Then I needed to explain in Spanish what I meant by "hoe to the end of the row". There was only one problem. I couldn't remember the word for "hoe" in Spanish so I drew a picture of a hoe and Arturo said "Ahhh, un azadón". So once we established that the word for hoe is "azadón" (ah-zah-DOHN), I could get on with the explanation.

Naturally when talking about the hoe the subject of hoeing weeds came and that lead to a very interesting conversation. Arturo told me that labor for hoeing isn't paid for by the hour but by the "tarea". The equivalent English word for the Spanish "tarea" is generally "task" or "chore" and in the case of school children it means "homework". However when it is used in reference to farm labor it is a unit of measure used to denote area. Arturo told me that where he is from there are twenty tareas in one hectare and a hectare is a metric unit that is equal to about two and a half acres. He said that a man can hoe about four tareas in a normal day and five tareas if he works from sunup until early evening. That sounds just about right because I found some information from the University of California that states the average time to hoe an acre of a crop such as broccoli is twenty-two hours and four tareas is equal to about a half an acre so you can see that hoeing a half acre is a full day's work.

"Well", you might ask, What does all this hoeing pay?" The answer is like most othe things, "That depends". It is a negotiated price that depends on the type of crop, the availability of labor, the time of year, and other variables. Arturo did give me the current rate for cutting sugar cane and from that we might be able to make a good guess. He said that sugar cane harvesting is paid by the square meter but there are two rates. If the underbrush is burned off with a controlled fire before harvesting then the labor paid is forty centavos per square meter. If the underbrush isn't burned off first then the job pays a higher rate of fifty centavos per square meter. If we relate that to "tareas" we can calculate that since there are ten thousand square meters in a hectare and twenty tareas in a hectare then one tarea will equal five hundred square meters which at forty centavos per meter would yield twenty pesos per tarea and at fifty centavos would yield twenty-five pesos per tarea. There are about twelve two to three meter stalks stalks in each square meter and harvest entails cutting the stalks and removing the tops and leaves. If a man can cut four tareas of sugar cane in a day at the fifty centavo rate then he can make one hundred Mexican pesos or about seven dollars or so at the current exchange rate. That isn't much for a full day's work in the hot sun so please say a little prayer for the sugar cane workers the next time you sweeten up your cup of coffee.

Now, about hoeing to the end of the row, I hope that you enjoy this poem by Douglas Malloch published around 1926. The name of the poem is "Bill Brown".

Bill Brown

Bill Brown made a million, Bill Brown, think of that!
A boy, you remember, as poor as a rat.
Who hoed for the neighbors, did jobs by the day,
Well Bill's made a million, or near it, they say.
You can't understand it, well, neither could I.
But then I remembered, and now I know why.
The bell might be ringin', the dinner horn blow,
But Bill always hoed to the end of the row.

Bill worked for my father, you maybe recall.
He wasn't a wonder, not that, not at all.
He couldn't out-hoe me, nor cover more ground,
Or hoe any cleaner, or beat me around.
In fact I was better one way that I knew:
One toot from the kitchen, and home I would go,
But Bill always hoed to the end of the row.

We used to get hongry out there in the corn,
You talk about music, what equals a horn?
A horn yellin' dinner, tomatoes and beans,
And pork and potatoes, and gravy and greens.
I ain't blamin' no one, for quittin' on time,
To stop with the whistle, that ain't any crime.
But as for the million, well, this much I know:
That Bill always hoed to the end of the row!

13 September 2011

Well Hellooooo Dali

I read in the news where the Dali Lama recently visited Mexico and commented that contrary to what he expected from reading in the press he found Mexico to be a peaceful country with many friendly people. He went on to say that if he had just relied upon what he heard on the BBC and other news outlets he would have believed that Mexico was a violent country under constant attack with rampant bloodshed everywhere. However, one reporter pointed out that it is the duty of the media to report any kind of violence and to do anything less would be disingenuous. The reporter said that less reporting on violence in Mexico won't make it go away and that there is a phrase in Spanish that calls it “using your finger to block out the sun”.

For the benefit of my fellow students of Spanish who may not know the phrase, it is:

No se puede tapar el sol con un dedo.
The sun can't be covered with one finger.

In general it means that you can't correct a big problem with a small solution or in other words you can't minimize a serious situation by pretending that it doesn't exist.

Speaking of coverups...one of my favorite quotes that is attributed to Abraham Lincoln goes, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time". That would be a good one to use on the current crop of politicians in Washington D.C., or as Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto said after the attack on Pearl Harbor, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." I hope so. I hope that all the bickering in congress has awoken the giant to the extent that the American people get directly involved. I think it is high time for everyone to put aside their vain and petty differences long enough get behind President Obama and get the United States moving forward again. The rest of the world will follow.

11 September 2011

Thank you for calling...

The other day I encountered an intriguing video item from the AT&T Archives on the AT&T Tech Channel called "Now You Can Dial" about the change from operator assisted calling to the adoption of the dial telephone. The change took place around 1954 as a result of the development of the transistor in 1948 which made automatic switching systems possible. I remember the change very well. In those days we still received twice a day mail delivery that was very reliable so the telephone wasn't as important as it is today and was only used sparingly. I remember that we used "exchange names" in front of the phone numbers at that time. I still remember our phone number from when I was a little boy. It was "Capitol 7-3577". When we changed over to the dial phone it became "CA-7-3577". When my grandparents moved out to the newly created suburbs their new number had no letters. It was "299-2865". At the time we thought that was very strange and it took some time to get used to it. One thing that I am curious about. After they switched all the letters in the phone numbers over to letters why did they retain the letters? Do you suppose that the telephone company could foresee that one day we would be texting and using Twitter?

You should be able to view the video below. If not you can go directly to the AT&T page by clicking here.

09 September 2011

I think therefore I "Khan"

I have been very lax lately about updating my blog but not because I am lazy. I am busy learning new things. One of the things that I have been learning is the math involved in statistical analysis and probability distributions. That is something that I have always been interested in and I felt that if I didn't buckle down and learn it now then I never would. In searching for suitable study material I stumbled upon something called the "Khan Academy". It is a non-profit organization founded by a man named Salman Khan. He started out by making some You Tube videos to help his cousins with their homework and this activity blossomed into a full time teaching career using You Tube videos. The Kahn Academy now has over 2400 videos on a variety of subjects from math to biology, to civics, to chemistry, and many more. The current course that I am taking is covered by seventy videos that average about ten to twelve minutes each in length.

The thing about the Khan academy videos is that the teaching is great, the subject matter is very current, and you can learn at your own pace. You can also pause the videos whenever you want so that you can take notes and you can reverse them to repeat certain sections or you can replay them as many times as you wish to make sure that you understand. The nicest thing is that there is no charge for this. I love the format and I think this may say a lot about the future of teaching and learning. There is an overview of the Khan Academy in the form of a "TED" talk that you can access by clicking here. The home page of the Khan Academy can be accessed by clicking here. I am living proof that you "Khan" make an old dog learn new tricks and I urge you to check it out. In the meantime good luck and good learning. I'll see you at the top.

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About Me

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.