Thursday, July 29, 2010

Old Friends

The illness of my friend Dave has inspired me to think about enduring friendships.   Dave is now in recovery from brain tumor surgery and many of us have been praying for his recovery as he goes through the radiation and chemotherapy.   We go back a long way - all the way to 1954 when we met at Cornell where we both were enrolled in Agricultural Engineering studies after transferring respectively from Syracuse U. and Purdue U.   We both settled in at Cornell after shaky starts at the other institutions.   We went on to double date  sorority sisters that later became our wives.   Dave's marriage has endured and wife Letty is a jewel of an upbeat person.   I was not so fortunate to have equal success in the first marriage, but thankfully the second time around has been a joy.  Friend Dave was a helpful confidant in during my trying times.

Dave and I were roommates along with our mutual friend John Long during our latter undergraduate years.   Subsequently we both became Assistant Professors of Agricultural Engineering and enjoyed successful academic careers.   As we move through our retirements and our senior years we remain aware of the good times we shared and the blessings we have received.  Although we no longer frequently see each other, the lasting friendship remains and thus each day he is in my thoughts and prayers as he deals with this challenging event in his life.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cause and Effect

Last night I finished reading "Freakonomics"  by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.  This is another provocative book that examines the underlying elements that influence economic and other outcomes.  They write about the hidden side of everything.   They have an interesting take on relating cause and effect as they analyze some fascinating data bases.    I like the way they probe the underlying data to mine elements of causality that seem to make sense after the fact.   However, I am skeptical of their procedures as being successful in predicting outcomes for the future.   And some of their correlations are hard to accept.   Their final epilogue chapter throws the reader a curve.   In all the preceding chapters they connect data in  a logical manner to the outcomes of people and systems behavior.   However in the final chapter they tell of two individuals whose success or failure contradict all elements that should control their behavior.   In effect, serendipitous events seem to trump all the other predictors.

The chapters on parenting are especially challenging to understand and accept.   These chapters wrestle with the nature versus nurture issue in a child's development.    They basically conclude from a California data base that the child's success is more correlated with who the parents are rather than what they do to nurture the child.  That is, for example, socio-economic status of the parents has a major correlation with success.   I wrote about this earlier as I pondered the phenomena of physician families producing physicians and health care workers and attorney families producing attorneys etc.    Although in the context of massive data banks these type of correlations exist, it is also true there are individuals that are mavericks succeed in spite of the negatives in their lives.   As one who has parented seven children in one way or another, I still like to think that nurture does count for something.  In a way good nurturing is no guarantee for success but it does give one comfort that you at least have set up the conditions for success.   After that, serendipitous events may well create some havoc or a boost.  Who knows?

Finally, "Freakonomics"  has made be recall my days in working with the Engineering Admissions process at Cornell.   Through our entrance criteria we attempted to select the student applicants most likely to succeed.   Logically we should see a correlation of combined SAT scores with the Grade Point Average achieved in the program.    In the aggregate is was true that on the average, there was a strong correlation between SAT scores and GPA.   However, if one broke out individuals from the masses it was common to find highly successful students with low SAT scores and also the reverse would happen.   I can only conclude that there were many hidden aspects of the students behavior and preparation that we did not know or understand.  I guess that bottom line is that humans and political and economic systems are so complex that we are unable to comprehend all the aspects of cause and effect.   This demands that we should always test the conventional wisdom.  There may well be something we missed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

500 Million Plus One

I have entered the Facebook age. At least I waited until over 500 million people joined Facebook. By now I suppose another million may have joined and on it goes. All of this has caused me to reflect on when and why people embrace new technology or behaviors. What is the incentive? And what is the benefit cost ratio? My incentive for Facebook is to connect with friends and family in a new way and more frequently. That is the benefit. However this has been at the immediate cost of spending significant time learning Facebook procedures and voyeuristic peeking at the profiles of people that I only peripherally know.

Much of my career involved creating new machinery for fruit and vegetable harvesting and handling. We often worked with agriculturalists who were early adopters of new technology. Early adopters of new technology do not always reap the most benefit from the innovation because of the process of perfection of the device or process. It seems there is an optimum time to adopt a new development. Early enough to be ahead of the competition, but not so early that one suffers the losses from the failures during the perfection stage. Agricultural economists who have monitored farmers rate of adoption of new technology has demonstrated that the pioneers have an economic loss while the second wave users probably benefit the most. The late adopters of technology are also penalized by being at a competitive disadvantage and loss of profits in the middle stage.

We have seen a number of the innovators come and go. The fate of Facebook looks promising at the moment and I suspect that we may be in the highest benefit to cost ratio time. However, there still seem to be some flaws. I am a bit antsy about the privacy settings and issues. Right now I am struggling to resolve how much I am willing to reveal of my life and to understand the controls for privacy. For me the jury is still out on Facebook.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Geezer Students

Yesterday I attended a professional meeting, Northeast Agricultural and Biological Engineering Conference in Geneva, New York. This is a section of the parent organization Agricultural and Biological Engineering Society. It has been several years since I have attended one of these meetings and it was good to connect with some of the research and projects that are currently under way at Northeastern universities with biological, environmental and agricultural engineering departments. It was a time of reacquainting myself with old friends, former students, and new members of the the society.

It was refreshing to find that I was not as professionally stale as one might be 14 years after retirement. The fundamentals of engineering do not necessarily change with time. As new technology comes along, old problems become more tractable and we make progress.

Three of my former students were at the meeting and all of them were complimentary of the experiences that they had in my classes. One who I had taught surveying and drafting was especially appreciative of the knowledge imparted in my classes. He claims to have often found employment with various engineering firms because of those special skills. One of my former students actually falls into the category of being a "geezer". Dr. Arthur Johnson was one of my earliest students in a machinery design course is now retired from the University of Maryland. I can't believe he is sixty nine!! At the time he took my course, I was a mere six years older than him. Art has been an extremely successful engineer who is a fellow of several professional societies and author of three books related to biological engineering. We have collaborated frequently on the development of biological engineering education. (See his photo above.)

Perhaps one of the greatest things about a long career at a university is the connections that you make with your students that last a lifetime. Hats off to my now geezer students. And as I am now advising current students, I look forward to enabling their success during their time a Cornell and to live long enough to hear of the professional success in the future.

Friday, July 16, 2010


I had contact with two gentlemen over 95 years of age today. One at lunch and the other through reading his memoirs of growing up in Pittsburg, Kansas - Dr. Dale Corson. Both of these men have had outstanding careers and made significant contributions to society. Dr. Corson was an outstanding president of Cornell University and Dr. Royse Murphy is an internationally renown plant breeder and former Dean of the University Faculty at Cornell. It is striking for both these men that a series of serendipitous events converged with their ambitions, creativity and education to enable them to make enormous contributions. Their early childhoods took place on Kansas farms and both did not start school until they were seven. From humble beginnings as sons of farmers they reached the heights of academic and worldly influence. It is challenging to think of why these persons rose to such high levels of attainment out of the thousands of their generation from the same humble backgrounds. I am sure much of the success was simply they were smarter and harder working than some others. On the other hand, there also had to be some random juxtaposition of people and events converging at the right time to spur them to greater heights.
I guess all of us as we become more senior can point to serendipitous moments in our lives that were seminal in directing our personal and professional lives. Rather than thinking it is mostly chance, there is a part we have responsibility for. It is not what happens to us alone, but it also is how we deal with what happens to us.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Learning to Drive

This past Friday my wife and I visited the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY. Our day vacation had the goal of seeing the countryside and satisfying my desire to review the history of aviation and motorcycle development in the Fingerlakes. The drive was pleasant, the lunch excellent and the museum stay intriguing. Along with boat, buggies, planes, motorcycles and bicycles their were some vintage automobiles. I was especially taken by a 1940 Buick Special coupe. See photo above. This triggered a memory of learning to drive with a standard shift 1939 Buick Special owned by my parents. Since I grew up on a farm I was introduced to driving a vehicle at an early age. My first experience was basically to steer a 1930 Model A stake body truck in a field while my dad loaded it with cabbage or other produce. The truck would idle along in low gear and I was instructed to turn the key off in case of need to stop immediately. I don't think I could reach the clutch at that time. Later on I learned to clutch and shift gears and drive on the farm roads. By the time I was 13 I had graduated to driving the 1939 Buick. Standard shift of course.

Glenn Curtiss was bicycle manufacturer first and moved on to motorcycles with a stage of motorizing a bicycle. As a youngster I was a tinkerer too. At age 14 I motorized my Schwinn balloon tired bicycle by mounting an old washing machine engine on the rear, rigging a spring pulley clutch to the drive belt and manually throttling the engine. I could manage about 16 miles per hour both up hill and down on the country roads. This was more learning to drive another vehicle. Of course tractor driving was another skill acquired on the farm with John Deere Model B tractor with a hand clutch and individual wheel brakes.

By the time I was 16 I was more than ready to obtain a driver's license. Passing the written test was a breeze. The road test was more challenging because I took the test with my brother's 1947 Chevrolet coupe that had something like a vacuum shift that was quirky. This was especially challenging when you had to stop on a hill, put on and release the hand brake without rolling backward. Fortunately I was successful on the first try.

I out grew my motorized bicycle and ended up with a Cushman motor scooter with about a 5 horsepower motor. Top speed of about 45 miles per hour. The scooter was easy to learn to drive and provided economical transportation, albeit somewhat dangerous. In my 30's I became interested in motorcycles and eventually received a license for motorcycle operation that I hold even today.

I think everyone has some form of adventure in the process of learning to drive. For many it is a traumatic and challenging adventure. For those of us that have had multiple children go through the learning to drive stage, we heave a sigh of relief when our youngsters master the rules of the road and skills to drive safely. Thankfully, I think all of my children/step children have learned good driving skills and so far, thank God, they have had just a few injury free accidents and one non life threatening injury.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


About a week ago I finished reading the book "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip Dick. The book is the reading project for the Cornell class of 2014 entering freshman class. As a faculty adviser I thought it would be appropriate to be prepared to discuss this book with them. This book is also the basis for the semi cult movie Blade Runner.

This sci-fi novel explores a future earth that has been decimated by atomic warfare that has caused most humans to emigrate to Mars. The Mars colony is assisted by androids that do most of the work. Androids escape from Mars to travel to earth to mingle with humans and attempt to pass as humans. These androids are considered to be a threat to the Earth society and are hunted down and destroyed by bounty hunters. A bounty hunter is the protagonist and the novel wends its way through the angst of the bounty hunters life of pursuit of and eliminating androids. The androids are more or less physically indistinguishable from humans. However a test has been developed to measure reactions to hypothetical critical situations that humans would encounter. Essentially they test evaluates empathic reaction. The bottom line is that androids lack the ability to feel empathy.

The underlying theme of the novel forces one to consider what it is that makes us human and to be alive. The writer basically establishes empathy as the overreaching element that makes us human. The author also introduces the complexity of human connections to animals. In the futuristic Earth world almost all of the animals and even insects have become extinct. However, technology has created life like replicas to satisfy the human need to interact with animals. These animals mimic the same need that real animals have for care. Thus a connection into the empathetic need for humans to feel tied to all living things. Thus for the androids, do they actually dream of manufactured sheep?

Empathy is truly a valuable human trait that makes us able to care for others and to live a meaningful life. Empathy enables us to love and experience the joy and pain of others. Without this trait we are simple the android automatons going through the motions. I suspect that our prisons are mostly filled with individuals that have somehow become short of empathy. With empathy we are able to help others and empathy of others is able to heal us.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Stainless Steel, Sweet Corn and Strawberry Shortcake

Much of my childhood was growing up during World War II when consumer goods were in short supply. Some of our cookware was enamel pans that would often chip and then develop a hole as the underlying metal rusted. I remember that these pots could be repaired with a special kit that would seal two washers over the hole.

Post World War II consumer goods began to be manufactured and in the late 40's and early 50's there was a strong push to market high quality stainless steel cookware. The routine was a dinner cooked in the vendors ware at a home hosting a group of guests followed by a pitch by the salesperson to buy their products. Thus my mother attended one of those events and ended up purchasing a full set of pots and pans of various sizes. These goods were of remarkable quality and durability. Upon the passing of my mother I inherited this cooking set. We still use those pots and pans today. In fact this past Monday night we cooked our sweetcorn in water boiling in a large roasting pan from this set. This cookware in use over 60 years still looks almost as good as the day it first appeared in our farm kitchen.

So how does this lead to strawberry shortcake? It is tied to my memory of the strawberry shortcake my mother used to make when I was a youth. At a recent dinner out at the Antlers Restaurant I was offered Strawberry shortcake as a dessert. When I quizzed the server about the type of cake used I was told it would be pound cake. I immediately rejected the choice as I recalled the delicious baking powder biscuit my mother used as a base for our desserts. A flaky, warmed biscuit with a slather of butter. On top of this we would pour the cream from our own cows. My dear wife remembered my response and so with our meal on Monday she produced a replica shortcake of my childhood recollection. It was fabulous!! So a dinner of corn on the cob, pots and pans memories and the coup de gras of strawberry shortcake. Life is good!

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Yesterday I finished the book "Blink" by Malcom Gladwell. It is a provocative best seller on the process of thinking. The idea of thinking without thinking and also issues of how we respond to situations based on the kind of thinking we do were illustrated. We tend to make judgements both with our conscious and unconscious minds. The book illustrates that we can leap to incorrect solutions with both processes but in some situations it is clear that relying on and immediately acting on unconscious thinking is the best remedy. We can sometimes immediately assess a situation with a very thin slice of information and act immediately.

As a tennis player, I have often made a shot without thinking simply based on the ball return and an immediate assessment of the position of my opponent on the court. I didn't analyze, I simply thin sliced the information available and acted. That is not to say that there isn't value in analyzing the game of tennis and also preparing with a lot of practice. The author of "Blink" illustrates this with his own examples.

Another part of the book that intrigued me was the work on reading facial expressions as a means of understanding what a person really is thinking. The face has an extraordinary array of muscles that shape the face to display what is going on in the mind. I think we have all experienced the person who expresses praise with words but by the appearance of the face we know that it is false. Or someone may laugh at our joke, but they are really not amused if you look into their eyes that do not twinkle. While I was in graduate school at Iowa State University in the 1960's a fellow doctoral student had suffered from a disease that had paralyzed the muscles of one side of his face. Apparently this can occur later in life from exposure to chicken pox. This paralysis, was striking in that you had right face with expression and left face with none. To have the emotions illustrated on one side contrasted to the other blank slate was disconcerting and in recalling it now explains some of the discomfort it caused in our initial conversations. Fortunately repeated exposure dulled this reaction. My wife told me today that people who have botox treatment for wrinkles can end up with frozen expressions. What a tragedy!

Clearly the mind is a complex thing. As an academic I have engaged in a lot research that involved conscious analytical thinking and study. However, I do believe that breakthroughs that I achieved on a project almost always came from sudden unconscious flashes of insight from the unconscious mind.

I guess the conclusions I take away from this book are:
1. That I will be more alert to reading the expressions of folks I encounter.
2. I will listen more closely to my intuition arising from flashes of insight.
3. I will keep on synthesizing what I learn from both my conscious and unconscious thinking.

Friday, July 2, 2010


July 1, 2010 I officially completed my responsibilities as Trustee and Trustee President of the Board of Trustees of the North Central New York Conference of the United Methodist Church. During these past six years I have accumulated hundreds of e-mails and other documents relating to trustee responsibilities. These documents range from simple letters to copies of various contracts and agreements that I have signed. Most of the documents exist only in electronic media although I do have a large file full of paper records. Much of yesterday and today was spent in culling out computer files that were trivial and likely of no historical or official value. With the termination of my responsibilities I am looking forward to purging my computer of files that I will no longer need. Those files that I think could be of value to the new trustees of the merged conferences are now archived on CD's. I will keep a copy and will send a copy to the archives of the conference along with my crate of paper files.

Property issues that our group of trustees had been handling will be handed off to the new Upper New York Conference Trustees. During my tenure as a trustee we developed procedures for handling property, insurance and investment processes. I hope that our archival material may be of use in the future. However, I am wise enough to recognize that when a new entity comes into existence, often there is the desire to start afresh. So there is the need for me and my fellow trustees to step aside and watch from the sidelines and probably keep our suggestions to ourselves.

Most of the time when I have moved on to new tasks, positions and activities, I have kept only a small portion of the historical materials. I guess I am a minimalist in that regard. Others seem to be more organized in archiving their history. At lunch today my 96 year old colleague Royse Murphy mentioned a letter he had in his office that he had written to one of his students in the 1950's. I was stunned that he not only had it in his office, but also could refer to its content in the context of our conversation. I have made fits and starts at writing my memoirs and find that I have little documentation for some of my memories. Perhaps that is fine because I can interpret the events as I see them. Looking back in time can be interesting. However, I am satisfied with minimal archiving and more interested in looking forward to what the future has for me.