Thursday, November 30, 2017

Becoming a Senior Pal

"This is something I need to pay attention to."

I got a voice mail from a person whose name I did not recognize; she left a friendly message so I returned her call.

"Hello … ?" she answered, a little hesitantly.

"Hi, I'm Walter Jost, returning your recent call."

"HI," a relaxed voice said. "I was calling about the SPIFF program … that's an acronym for Senior Pals in Fun and Friendship. It's a program at ( the school at which I'm volunteering ) school. Do you have a child or grandchild there?"

"Gosh," I said. "No, no I have neither."

"I wonder how I got your name," she replied.

"Well, I am a volunteer there, working once a week with second graders. Perhaps … ?" I offered.

She explained that SPIFF joins an older adult with a student, for the year, in fun and friendship, which includes monthly all-group meetings, during the week, during the school day, for a fun event. I had just barely started with my math students and hesitated to go further. Still, the idea had appeal.

"Thank you for calling," I heard myself say, "but I don't think that's something I am interested in at this time."

"You're very welcome, thanks for hearing me out."

Several weeks passed; I was enjoying my math students.

"Hi Walter," the email began, "Can you be a SPIFF pal this year?"

It was from my Learning Buddies teacher. He suggested I could partner with one of the boys with whom I was already working, or one of his other students. He also sent an explanation of what SPIFF is.

"This is something I need to pay attention to." I did not need my wife's input this time.

By then I was more interested than when I got the first call, but I was unable to make the initial meeting. I responded that I could not make the first meeting but I was open to participating. What's next, then?

There was no 'next.' He wrote, "The first get-together is pretty important so maybe this year it won't work out."

"One meeting is that important? Are you kidding me?" I replied only that I was disappointed, and my disappointment told me I was not only open, but wanting, to be a senior pal. No response.

The teacher greeted me jauntily when I showed up for my next shift. "So, Walter, thanks for coming this morning. You'll be a SPIFF pal for Eric?" I was simultaneously taken aback and instantly glad to know that I could still be a SPIFF partner … with one of the boys I was already working with to boot. "Can you stay for a while after your work is done with the boys? You and Eric can do some of what you would have done at the first meeting."

"Yes, I can do that," I replied … enthusiastically, I hope.

We spent close to an hour together after our class. He showed me his 'welcome mat,' which told me about him, which he had not finished. He gave me an IYQ ( I Like You ) teddy bear, and then decorated it, we traced each other's hand on a single piece of paper and decorated them, and he asked me 10 pre-determined questions, interview style, so he'd learn some things about me. "Where did you grow up?" "What guidance would you give me about life?"

"Have a nice Thanksgiving," I said to everyone as I left the area. My heart was full and I looked forward to adventures as a senior friend to a second grader.

If you would like to comment but don't care to use the comment field, send an email to

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Our Replacements II

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about our soon to be automated lives.  This is about the ramifications.

I am a Libertarian.  I have two big reasons for that.

1. I believe Capitalism is the best way we currently have to fairly divide up our resources based on who contributed to creating those resources.  That drives people to create resources.

2. I think it is wrong to take what someone has earned, and give it to someone who didn't earn it.

3. I think governments is bad at everything it does.  It is unfortunately in the best or only position to do some of the things we need doing.

Libertarianism makes sense in a world with scarcity.  But how about a world without scarcity?  One where we have automated 90 plus percent of what we want done.  We can't reward people with the resources they need in exchange for their contributions to society if it's hard to find a way to contribute to society.  And why hold back resources at all if they're nigh unlimited?

The big problem I see to start is despair.  Suicide is often a success problem.  People afflicted often don't feel needed.  A job often gives someone a place in society.  People without a place in society often don't feel needed.  Even rats in a society without a place in that society will act in self destructive ways.  We will need to find a way to reorganize our society.  We can find a way, but there will be causalities.

The next issue I see is protecting us from each other.  With limitless resources comes limitless power.  We need to make sure people don't take advantage of that in negative ways.  Like making antimatter to blow each other up, for example.

And my last big concern is the singularity.  This is what people call the moment that machines can make a machine smarter than itself, and does so.  The difference between a person making a thinking machine, and a machine making a thinking machine, is like the difference between getting cut on a saw, and getting cut on a chain saw.  It's gonna be fast.  We might not recognize a person 1,000 times smarter than the smartest human, and it my have very different goals and priorities.  This is a subject of many thousands of words.  I'll just say this could be the best thing that ever happened to us, or the absolute worst.

Humans are doers.  We have done amazing things, and continue to surprise ourselves.  I do think we can solve these problems, but they are problems that need to be solved.  I'm not sure who first said 100% unemployment should be the goal.  I do agree though.  I believe in a bright future.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Another Time for Thanks

It's that time of year again ... time for thanks. I share some specific things that occurred since last Thanksgiving for which I am aware of being grateful. 
  1. My sister-in-law visited and stayed with us and we had a wonderful time.
  2. Ellie found significant help for her arthritic pain from a place here in the Twin Cities that specializes in treating arthritis. Read more here.
  3. I am able to make a different in the lives of other volunteers working in the Pathways ministry at my parish and they are able to tell me they appreciate it. Mentioned here.
  4. Benjamin's and my friend who has brain cancer has seen his cancer stop growing and he has felt quite good all year. We have continued our monthly dinner get-togethers, frequently supplementing them with a walk around a lake or a round of 'mini-golf' at a nearby park.
  5. Amazon ( good ol' Amazon ) customer service resolved a mix-up in a 2016 Christmas order and delivered the correct item in time. Written about here.
  6. Ellie and I had the internal fortitude to decide against an upgrade to our internet service with a company that we did not feel good about, because we did not feel good about it. More here.
  7. There is a political organization that is non-partisan and at work in Washington. I am aware of it and a member.  I had intended to volunteer for it, but that has not yet happened. Read more here.
  8. The Republican plan to repeal The Affordable Care Act failed, and I wrote to Senator John McCain, who complained about the process yet voted to let it continue. Here. When the vote( s ) counted, he voted against repeal and I sent thanks to him and the two female senators who stood with him. I wrote about that here.
  9. I discovered both that I have a heart problem ( here ) and that I really like "my cardiologist" ( story is here ).
  10. I also discovered that my heart problem is a fairly minor problem, which, in my view, if one is going to have a heart problem, is a nice kind to have.
  11. A friend of mine pushed me to pursue being a DARTS volunteer ... a reader of stories, once a week, to a small group of grade school children. With a small push from my wife, I agreed and this has turned into much more. Becoming a Reading Buddy. It's not reading but Math.I have a wonderful first day experience.
  12. During a segment of an online retreat I attended, I relived, and wrote a poem about, a significant moment of love for my wife. Read it here.
  13. As a fallout from being a DARTS volunteer ( 11 above ), the teacher with whom I am working recruited me to be a SPIFF ( Senior Pals in Fun and Friendship ) senior person. I agreed and  am paired up with one of the boys with whom I am working on math. My heart bursts with joy.
  14. Ellie and I have finished the learning how to live together again that we began when she moved back home at the end of 2015. We are not the same as we were before she left, but our love is deeper and both of us know and understand that.
If you would like to comment but don't care to use the comment field, send an email to

Monday, November 20, 2017

Christmas Timing

There I was; Christmas Day.  Christmas with my family had gone well, and I was on my way to friends to give two little girls presents.  Crepe paper ribbon seemed like a great idea.  Who knew it would rain on Christmas day?  I had thrown on a small garbage bag, that covered the top 90%.  Two buses later, as I reached their home, the bottom 10% was nearly mush.  But I could always rewrap it, if need be.  Little did I know there wouldn't be time.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas the eldest daughter told me twice that she was getting a pogo stick.  I finally asked the mom, "Are you really going to give a five year old a pogo stick?"  She told me she wished she had, but her presents were already purchased.  Cha-ching!  Christmas is easy.

So, a little research, and it looked like Fisher Price makes the perfect pogo stick for a five year old.  It even has a wide base that can be removed as she learns.  It was sold out locally, which is always a good sign of a popular toy.  Fortunately, I was able to pick one up off Ebay with a very reasonable markup.  And while I was at it, I found a pretend pogo stick perfect for her three-year-old sister.  It's even shaped like a unicorn, which is what she had just picked out as a Halloween costume.

I arrive at their place drenched to see a holiday spread.  It turns out uncle Adam and his new wife are in town, and will be here any minute.  I'm welcomed to stay.  I do a quick assessment, and the present is very moist at the bottom, but covered.  I figure a five year old might not even notice.  I figure right.  They both loved them.  I only had a moment to bask in the hugs before uncle Adam arrived.  It had been less than five minutes total, and I was out like a Santa in the night.

Good timing?  You don't know the half of it.  The next day I find out uncle Adam and his new wife got the little one a toy pogo stick, same model sans the unicorn theme.  And they got the older one a pogo stick perfect for ten to fifteen year old, which she is not.

Do your research people.  And run those gift ideas by mom and dad.  Black Friday is upon us again.  I'm ready.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

This Baby's Bottom is not about a Baby

"Must be the newness."

 I'm a pen freak …  I'm addicted to fountain pens. Because of this addiction, I was the proud recipient of a new fountain pen for my birthday. This is a workday pen, affordable, the same model as one I already own. I had also gifted this model to a friend ( attempting to ensnare him in the addiction ). I was very pleased …

… until I wrote with it.

Some pen aficionados advise swishing a new pen with water before filling it with ink, to make sure any potential contaminants left over from the manufacturing process are removed. Others, not so much. I have done both, but usually come down on the side of 'not so much,' usually because I am eager to write with the new pen and don't want to take the time to wait for the swished water to completely dry before inking and writing.

Of course, I would not put a pen with any moisture into a bottle of ink to fill the pen; that risks ink contamination. My perfectionism compels me to believe that. So … I just filled my birthday pen without swishing, and it didn't write particularly well the first time. It was a bit hard to start and it skipped a little bit. It didn't feel quite right … the nib on paper provided neither the smooth gliding action nor the clean line that are the reasons for using a fountain pen.

"Must be the newness." I figured the entire thing was new, and it needed a little time to get used to my hand, the angle at which I write, all that sort of stuff. So I continued to write with it ( real stuff like notes to myself, my journal, notes of important telephone calls, and just horsing around with the pen ) and it improved. But it was still not right. Five quick downstrokes, for example, would yield four nice lines and one with a skip in its middle. My signature has a long arc above the name from about the second letter to the second last letter of my last name; this inevitably had a noticeable skip in it.

What did I do? Duh! I cleaned the pen, running water through it a hundred times ( not really, it only seemed like that many ), sucking water with the converter and pushing it out, in and out. Then I ran water just out, with a rubber syringe, intended for ear-washing, pushing into the nib assembly from the back where the converter normally goes. Then a few more cycles with the converter. The water ran clear; I was sure I now had a clean pen. Writing would be proof.

It wrote much better, but still not quite right. And my signature's long arc still failed to be perfect. Darn! I tried one other trick I have learned about nib maintenance; the results failed to change.

The pen's nib is replaceable by its user ( me ) and I have another pen just like this one. I thought I should try swapping nibs to see what happens. "Yeah, I should do that," I thought several times. As a natural procrastinator, I easily put this off.

I finally found an appropriate time to do the experiment; I swapped nibs and the problem followed the new nib to my original pen. The older pen with the new nib had a flawed writing performance … while the new pen, with an older nib, wrote perfectly. Alleluia!

I am a pen addict, I happened to have a spare nib of this type, replaced the underperforming nib on the older pen and all's good in my pen world.

Upon close inspection of the new nib, it appears to possibly have a problem known in the trade as a "baby's bottom" and, someday, I may try a fix for that condition. There is no rush, though, I'm happy.

If you would like to comment but don't care to use the comment field, send an email to

Monday, November 13, 2017

Turned Down for... Princess

While browsing the toy section of Walmart, like a normal person, I ran into a collection of all the Disney princesses.  All eleven.

Now my astute audience has obviously noticed that eleven is not the number of princesses that Disney has.  Princess Leia, for example.  Well, not all princesses that are Disney qualify as Disney Princesses.  You have to be human, for example.  So Nala from the Lion King is out.  You also have to be animated.  That excluded Princess Leia, and many others.  Princess Giselle is up for debate on this point, but what I'm really interested in here are the ones who were definitely snubbed.

The eleven pictured are:
Snow White, Tiana, Ariel, Aurora, Jasmine, Belle, Cinderella, Pocahontas, Rapunzel, Mulan, and Merida.

Of those, the one that got in without qualifying is Mulan.  She wasn't born royal, and didn't marry royalty.  Disney just says she earned it.  I can't really argue with that.  But who does qualify, but didn't make it in?

Moana, for one.  She is clearly the daughter of her people's leader.  They might just be dragging their feet on that one.  Or purposely holding off to avoid calling attention to the next two.

Elsa and Anna!  Two glaring omissions.  Both were clearly born royal, and very popular.  How could they be missed?  Rumor is they are so popular that Disney doesn't want to hurt sales of their merchandise by lumping them in with the reset.  I imagine a box with those two dolls would be worth as much as the box pictured with all the other combined.

The others I am aware of are:
Princess Kida from Atlantis
Jane from Tarzan
Megara from Hercules
Vanellope from Wreck It Ralph
As far as I can tell, these all qualify to be Disney Princesses.  They have been willfully excluded.  I assume because they were not popular.  Not that the princess were not popular characters on those movies.  The problem is that the movies they were in were not popular.

And, "yes", it is a big deal.  They have a coronation ceremony and everything. : - P
Let me know in a comment if I forgot anyone.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

First Day with Advanced Second Grade Math Students

"Yes, my grandma lives close to 110."

The teacher brought four boys to the hall. "Hi, Walter. These are your students … I'll let them introduce themselves."

"I'm Walker."

"Did you say, 'Walter?'," I asked, incredulous.

"No; Walker." I must have looked at him quizzically, as he spelled it.
"W … a … l … k … e … r."

"Oh, I get it," I said. "Your name is that of the Gospel writer!" I said to Luke. "I have a good friend with your name, Eric."

Isaac was the fourth; I didn't have anything to relate to his name, but it was unusual and I knew I would not forget it. The teacher returned to his class, leaving me with four bundles of nervous energy to deal with all alone.

"You all have an assignment in your math workbook that the teacher gave you, right?" I asked.


We were outside the classroom, in an inside corner of a library, next to stacks of books. "We have four tables," I said, pointing, "let's each of you go to one of them and work on your assignment. If you need help, ask. I'll check your work and when everyone is done we can get on with the other work. OK?"

They quickly dispersed to their tables; apparently it was OK. A peaceful moment followed.

Soon one had a question; his hand went up and he looked over to me. I hurried to his seat. One of the problems involved the number 421. They had to know where the hundreds place was, the tens and the units. "I am almost certain I didn't know these kinds of things when I was in second grade!" When I answered his question he gave a look that said, "Oh, of course … I knew that!"

He finished first, I checked his work which was all good. By the time I was finished, two others had finished as well; they waited patiently ( or not ) for me to come check. A quick scan, minor error corrections, and three of the four boys were done. I checked with the fourth; he was nearly done, finished in front of me and gave me the work to check. The math was all good, we fixed a couple of minor spelling errors and we were ready for the advanced work.

We gathered around one of the tables, I pulled out my Continental Math League ( CML ) material, pulled out the other four packages of the same material, and handed them out. "These will be yours," I said. "Put your name on the front." The clock on the wall read 9:00 or so; I had them until 9:15. "Not much time left," I thought.

"I want you to know I am excited to be here with you, to do this work with you. I am enjoying being here. I also want you to know I was scared to death as I drove to the school this morning. Afraid I'd screw up, do something wrong." While they seemed amazed I might have been nervous, it seemed important for them to know.

"Let's look at the first problem," I said. There were two additions: thirty-two plus twenty-seven and forty-one plus twelve. The question: how much must we add to the smaller answer to make it equal to the larger answer? All the boys were adding the two sets of numbers together before I could pose the question. That was forgivable … the two sets of numbers begged to be added. We soon had the answer. Six.

Second problem: Betty was driving her car and noting the miles on the odometer. Attempting to relate this to their lives, I said, "So, that might be like driving down the road from the school here to Highway 110, right?"

"Yes, my grandma lives close to 110," Luke said.

"So, she lives down at Dodd road and 110?"

"Yes, she does."

"This problem is like driving from the school to Luke's grandma's and then almost back, right?"

"We need the boys back in class … ," the teacher, breaking my reverie.

"Oh, OK, sure, of course." Then, turning to the boys, "Give me your books, get your workbooks. You need to return to the classroom."

The teacher was kind, but firm. "You're working under the clock," he said, pointing. "They can tell time." I learned it's my task to get them back to class promptly. "Thanks for coming in … we'll see you next … oh, no, we won't see you next week."

"MEA week?" I figured out loud.

"Yes, Thursday and Friday; school is out Wednesday for teachers' meetings. We'll see you in two weeks."

Already feeling emotional attachment, I waved goodbye, saying, "I enjoyed being here and working with you. I'll see you in a couple weeks." I virtually floated down the hall, so glad was I to have decided to give this a try.

If you would like to comment but don't care to use the comment field, send an email to

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Awaiting Our Replacement

Driving a car is not something a baby born today will ever need to do.  This should be obvious to anyone.  That's a large portion of our labor market.  But what many people seem to miss is that it isn't just cars.  If a computer can move a car, it can move anything with the right peripheral.  A pallet in a warehouse, for example.  Or a plate of food in a diner.  That's a lot more jobs.

Could my job as a computer repair technician be done by a computer?  Haven't they replaced many of us already?  There was a time when we also repaired computer hardware.  Now faulty hardware is simply replaced, because automation made it so inexpensive it isn't worth the time to repair.

What got me thinking about this is Google's AlphaGo program.  The old version was smart enough to beat any human, even Go Masters.  The new version is much better.  And the big improvement is that it's entirely self taught.  It got there by playing many thousands of times the number of games as a Go Master could in a lifetime.

Imagine a program like AlphaGo, but its job is to make human students able to pass a test.  It will eventually say things like, "Playing this video clip explaining the Pythagorean Theorem has .073% better comprehension than this video clip."  I watch educational videos on Youtube all the time.  Many are just vector graphics and a soothing voice.  How long before this kind of program can create them itself, and tweak them until test scores go up?

You might tell yourself that if this trends persist, we'll all be artists someday.  Are you sure computers won't be able to create art?  "This color shift to painting A4524 is .054% more aesthetically pleasing..."  Or how about, "A 12% percent increase in tempo to song B4585 increases the conveyance of the emotion: 'sadness' to 43.2% more listeners ."

I don't think I'll see that in my lifetime, although I'm very hopeful about the self driving cars.  I don't think it's many generations off, however.  And who knows, we might dramatically extend lifetimes before mine ends.  I think this future should be a good one.  A very good one.  I'll talk about what might go wrong in a later post.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

My First Learning Buddy Assignment

"If 1 chicken can lay 3 eggs in 4 days, how many eggs can 3 chickens lay in 8 days?"

The week after my training I received a forwarded email. "Do you know a retired engineer or someone who enjoys math?", "4 very nice boys in my new class who are high-achievers in math" and "I could use a volunteer who would be interested or available to work with them on fun, challenging, multiple-step Continental Math League problems." My friend just sent it along. It was an email the coordinator had sent to established volunteers.

"Of course I sent it," my friend said. "I just wanted to make sure you saw it. You'd be perfect."

There was his eternal optimism again, his compliments.

"I didn't get it, but I think I'll call and put my hat in the ring for this. It sounds good. You don't mind if I tell her you are the source of my knowledge of it?"

"No, of course not. In fact, I'd like you to tell her that."

"I haven't been taught second grade math for a long time. Teaching of math has changed. I wonder if I could actually do that." Many stories of parents who couldn't make heads or tails of their child's math books came flooding back to me. I intended to address these doubts with the coordinator. All of them, however, vanished in the excitement of possibility when we spoke the next day, "I heard a rumor you have a need for a retired engineer who likes and is good at math. That sounds like it was written for me."

Within ten minutes, she and I had spoken, she checked with the teacher who had the need, she returned to me, and I was scheduled to start the next week, 8:15 AM, Wednesday. She'd be there to introduce me to the teacher and show me around the school.

Then the doubts returned ... the horror of parents with their children's math books. I communicated with the coordinator. Long story short, she arranged for me to meet the teacher the day before I was to start, to see and get a sense of the material I'd be dealing with.

He showed me two sheets of math problems stapled together; "This looks to be about 2 months of work," he said. It's possible my face flushed. "Maybe you'd like this booklet," he picked it out of the activities box containing the material for me and my students, "it's got the answers in the back. The students' copies of this booklet are in here, too; they also have the answers."

"They won't race to the back for answers?" I likely stammered it out.

"Oh, no, they get it that they don't learn anything that way."

He continued, "So … they will come out to you here in the hall. They will have work that the math class has assigned to the whole class. You'll have to make sure of that before you work the Math League problems."

"I make sure it's done … or … ( my second thoughts were flooding back then ) I make sure it's done correctly?" I asked.

"It has to be done correctly," he said. "I'm sure it will be and that should not be a problem for you."


"Great, see you tomorrow, 8:15. Thanks for coming in."

I reviewed the material at home … Continental Math League material. Some seemed pretty simple: how much larger than ( 3+4+8+6+4 ) is
( 2+9+8+5+7 )? Others seemed significantly harder: If 1 chicken can lay 3 eggs in 4 days, how many eggs can 3 chickens lay in 8 days? "Second graders can do this?"

None of this seemed unfamiliar to me, nothing like the fantasies I was having when nearing panic about this assignment. Confident I could handle the math, and even teach some if required, I went to sleep more easily. But I still wondered how I'd handle four second-graders all by myself for forty-five minutes.

If you would like to comment but don't care to use the comment field, send an email to