Jan 28

The Good Nudge

Another Obama program that may or may not survive in the new Administration.

A recent (January 23, 2017) issue of The New Yorker contains an article (“Good Behavior“) that describes the final days of an Obama initiative to use behavioral science in the service of improving government performance.

The article focuses on the Flint water crisis, and mentions several other projects that have used this approach.

The story is a hopeful one, in the sense that there are possibilities for doing good with the proper application of what is called “choice architecture.” There is also a warning here, that such an approach is value-neutral, so can be used in a negative way, as well. Trump, Hitler, and Stalin are all cited as people who have used “the behavioral arts” to influence public opinion.

George Lakoff has lectured and written on this subject for many years, pointing out many of the same themes that are mentioned in this article.

Language matters; it reveals our values and it helps shape them, for better or for worse.

Jan 18

Look What I Got in the Mail

I was 15 years old.

My grandmother had sent me this notecard. I knew it was coming, because she had told me about it. “Someday,” she told me, “you will be very proud to have this.”

I didn’t have to wait; I was proud of it from the moment she told me about it. I was very close to my grandmother. For years, I often went to visit her and spend time with her in her office after my school day was done. She told me stories. She gave me things to read. She showed me things in her world, which was the Historical Room in the Stockbridge Library. I loved every bit of it.

So now, 55 years later, I am still proud of my heritage.

Jan 16

Let’s See if I Can Tape This All Together

What do cupcakes and chocolate have in common? I guess that’s pretty obvious, but Scotch Tape?

In September 2009 Scientific American devoted an entire issue to “Origins” and I’ve chosen three of my favorites to link together here.

First up: cupcakes: where and when were they invented, and whence the name?


If you click on the images in this post, you will see full-size (readable) versions, in case you care to look at the details. Then, click the “back” icon to return to reading the post.

The point of this “Origins” blurb is that the cupcake is probably an American invention, first noted in 1826, and was likely a variant of the British “pound cake.” I’m not much of a baker, so I used my mathematical propensities to come up with a likely explanation for the names of these two cakes. A pound cake, I reasoned, weighed a pound, and I remember my mother’s folk wisdom, which she drummed into me when I was young and learning about such things in the world, “A pint is a pound, the world round,” she would chant whenever I asked her how many ounces were in a cup or a pint or a quart. As it turns out, things are a lot more complicated than that, but my childhood understanding that a pint of water weighed about a pound, and both contained 16 ounces, made it easier for me to do conversions.

So, when I read that the American cupcake is a downsized version of the British pound cake, and being familiar with the traditional shape of the cupcake, I immediately fantasized that cupcakes must have been baked in small cups, unlike the pound cake, which must have been baked in pint-sized mugs.


In this miraculous Age of the Interwebs, I was able to discover that the origin of the name “pound cake” came from its simple proportions: one pound each of flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. This recipe became popular in the early 1700s, perhaps because it was an easy one to remember. A cake of any size, made with these same ingredients in equal proportions, is called a pound cake.

Although my intuition about the origin of the cupcake name seems to have more support among food historians than the explanation given in the SciAm version, there seems to be some disagreement as to when the name first appeared. Some sources have 1828, instead of the 1826 mentioned here. In any case, the 1796 date is often cited as the date of the first known recipe, published under the name “a light cake to bake in small cups” — a recipe which gives the lie to the idea that it is simply a smaller pound cake, both upon inspection and because the author gives a separate recipe for a pound cake. .

_A light Cake to bake in small cups_.

Half a pound sugar, half a pound butter, rubbed into two pounds flour,
one glass wine, one do rose water, two do. emptins, a nutmeg, cinnamon
and currants.

Evidently the “small cups” referred to any cups that happened to be available, not to the 8-ounce standard measure of a “cup” or “glass” that came to be used later. Metal baking trays came later still, and the paper holders we are familiar with did not come into widespread use until the 1950s.

Early cupcake recipes often followed the “1234” formula, which also makes it clear that they were not a smaller version of the pound cake. “Quarter cakes” these were sometimes called, not because of their size, but because of their four ingredients: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs.

In my excursions through the history of cakes, I noticed (not for the first time) that many older references used the word “receipts” in the same way we now use “recipe” — these words have related etymologies.

In the Middle Ages, a doctor’s instructions for taking a drug would begin with the Latin word recipe, literally, “take!” Recipe is a form used in commands of the verb recipere, meaning “to take” or “to receive.” The verb receive itself comes from Latin recipere, but through French—as does the word receipt, which was once commonly used to mean “recipe.” From its use as a name for a drug prescription, recipe extended its meaning to cover instructions for making other things we consume, such as prepared food.

The “recipe” in a drug prescription is now universally abbreviated to “Rx” — I imagine that most people don’t know what it stands for.

I wonder if my mother ever knew that the British Empire used the Imperial Pint of 20 ounces. There were still 8 pints in a gallon, making the Imperial Gallon 25% more voluminous than the American version. Also, as I discovered in my trips to Canada back in the day, 25% more expensive. MPG were better, though.

I trusted my mother’s keen sense of practicality when it came to dealing with life’s pragmatic challenges. I remember chatting with her one time in the early 1970s, about 10 years after I had left Stockbridge to move to Springfield. I can’t fix the exact date, but I know it was after the moon landing in 1969, and before she moved out of our old house in South Lee, eventually to become the first resident of the new housing project for the elderly in Stockbridge named Heaton Court, after a brief stay in an apartment near the end of Park Street, the street where we had lived in my early childhood.

There was no television set in our home for most of my growing-up years. It remained that way until my mother won a small black-and-white set in a charity raffle conducted by the Elm Street Market. I suspected that Mike Abdulla might have put in the fix for her, probably knowing that we were one of few families in town without a TV. But perhaps is was just a stroke of good luck. In any case, it became a fixture in the house, though in my teenage years I spent less and less time at home, so didn’t really watch it much.

On that day I remember, I looked at the TV set, and that set me to thinking about how our family had made a tardy move into that era. I used to watch TV at friends’ houses, although my mother placed a strict limit of 2 hours on Saturday and 1 hour per day during the week. I had to choose carefully. The first time I ever saw a TV show was in the Rinsma’s house on Yale Court. We were invited over to watch their new set. The screen was probably 8 or 10 inches on the diagonal, set inside a huge cabinet, and it was hard to see, what with all the people crowded into the living room. The show we were eager to see was live, as were most shows in those early days. Finally, the time arrived, and Ed Sullivan came beaming into our midst.

While pondering that, I remembered many of my mother’s stories of her youth. She had told me that when she lived on Hawthorne Road in Stockbridge in the late 1920s, there were still more people using a horse and buggy to get around than were driving automobiles. She also told me about the early days of radio, and of the trolley cars that used to ply the Berkshires. We would take the train from Stockbridge to Pittsfield once a year to visit Santa Claus at England Brothers Department Store on North Street. That was where I saw and rode, for the first time, an escalator and an elevator!

When I was young, and we were living on Park Street, we had an ice box. It was an exciting day when our first refrigerator was delivered. For years after that, though, my mother would refer to it as an ice box. “Mom!” we would object, “it’s not an ice box, it’s a fridge!” Similarly, she called aluminum foil “tinfoil” because that’s what it had been when she was growing up.

Breaking out of my reverie, I wanted to know what my mother thought of all those changes. “Mom,” I said, “you’ve seen a lot of new technology during your lifetime. You’ve seen automobiles come into common use, you’ve witnessed the advent of television, you know that I work with computers that didn’t exist just a few years ago, and now you’ve seen a man walk on the moon. This must all seem rather astounding to you. I’m just wondering, of all these marvels, and with all the other new things you’ve seen, which one would you say has made the most difference in your life?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, she answered

Yes, that’s right, she said, “Scotch Tape!”

I would never have guessed that. I could see how she might say mimeograph machines, or color film, or something fairly prosaic, given her penchant for down-to-earth results, but Scotch Tape?! That took the cake.

And we can take the cake into the realm of chocolate. My friends Joe and Roxanne have recently experimented with several dietary changes, and have rejected most of them, but have decided to stick with being gluten-free. Needless to say, this has become quite trendy of late, with an article I read not long ago asserting that one-third of Americans are trying to cut back on or eliminate gluten from their diet. I had no intention of being a trend-setter when I moved away from eating gluten about 15 years ago. I had been very sick for quite some time before I figured out the cause.

In my early days of being gluten-free, obtaining bread, pasta, and other basics was next to impossible. Mostly, they were available only in health-food stores, and what was on offer was often unappealing in terms of taste or texture. As more people have discovered that going to a gluten-free diet makes them feel better, demand has increased to the point that almost every restaurant has identified which items on the menu are gluten-free, and supermarkets have special gluten-free sections.

Joe had a milestone birthday last September, and Roxanne secretly made a chocolate cake for him to bring and share with our hiking group. The cake was a big hit, with everyone (me included) exclaiming, “This is gluten-free?” in disbelief.

Joe, being the cook of the family, has shared with me many tips on brands to try of bread, pancake mix, and the like. I’ve been a little hesitant to get into chocolate cake production, however, since I think substituting sugar for gluten is probably not the way to a healthy lifestyle. Chocolate, however, now that’s a different story! At a recent party at their house, chocolate cupcakes were on offer. I begged to be able to take one home, and I was presented with not one, but three, as well as some chocolate chip cookies.

This short piece extols the health benefits of chocolate. The cupcake version comes with a fair amount of sugar, I suppose (I don’t really want to know!). Everything in moderation, I’m told.

Also, I note,

Chocolate may also be good for the mind: a recent study in Norway found that elderly men consuming chocolate, wine, or tea — all flavonoid-rich foods — performed better on cognitive tests.

I don’t know what their definition of “elderly” was, but I’m not taking any chances! Excuse me; I need to go get another cup of coffee.

Jan 14

Birds Did Not Evolve from Dinosaurs; They *Are* Dinosaurs

The January 2017 issue of Scientific American contains a fascinating article (behind a paywall) on the evolution of birds. Using birds as an example, the author makes several interesting points about evolution. Some are quite specific to feathers and such; others are more general, such as

Evolution has no foresight; it acts only on what is available at the moment…

His example of bird evolution points out that feathers evolved long before there were wings and flight; probably originally for warmth, and later for display. He points out

There was no moment when a dinosaur became a bird… It was a journey.


Birds, therefore, are just another type of dinosaur.

Birds as we know them today did eventually evolve long before the larger dinosaurs became extinct. Their mobility (flight) and small size enabled them to inhabit environmental niches that were not able to be exploited by their larger cousins. These same features also enabled them to survive through the cataclysmic event that led to the end of what we think of as the Age of Dinosaurs.

There is a graphic that shows the family tree, in which mammals (which branched off 252 million years ago) are the oldest survivors, followed by lizards and crocodiles. Later came many of the groups of (now extinct) large dinosaurs, such as the sauropods and tyrannosaurs. Later still came groups (also now extinct) that had many birdlike characteristics, followed finally (at least 100 million years ago) by birds resembling those we know today.

The graphic also pictures anatomical features that distinguish birds from other modern animals, such as “quill pen” feathers, a fused spring bone (the “wishbone”), and a keeled sternum to anchor large chest muscles used for flight.

The hallmark traits of birds accumulated over tens of millions of years and in many cases originated for reasons unrelated to the purposes they now serve.

The author does not philosophize or speculate about why birds have been so successful, but he does point out that birds

…carved out a completely new way of life, and today they thrive as upward of 10,000 species that exhibit a spectacular diversity of forms, from hummingbirds to ostriches.

Birds, unlike ants and humans, are not eusocial (although there are a few examples of intergenerational cooperation), nor is flight/gliding unique to them (think bats and flying squirrels). Yet they were here first, and evolution finds it hard to knock out a successful occupant of any particular niche. Perhaps they will still be around long after humans have disappeared.

Addendum: just saw this in the January 23, 2017 issue of The New Yorker:

Frankly, I don’t see the resemblance.

Jan 12

What Do Plants See?

The latest (January 2017) issue of Scientific American has a short blurb entitled “Veggies with Vision” that harks back to speculation and studies of over 100 years ago.


In 1907 Francis Darwin, Charles’s son, hypothesized that leaves have organs that are a combination of lens-like cells and light-sensitive cells.


For some reason, research in this area went dormant until very recently. Now, scientists seem to be again taking up the study of such ideas. Perhaps they learned about it on the wood-wide web (it is now known that plants — including trees — communicate with each other via various chemical signals).


Although the evidence for eyelike structures in higher plants remains limited, it is growing.


I’m looking forward to learning more about this over the coming years. Meanwhile, behave yourself while out walking in the forest!

Dec 04


Following my comments, you will find an excerpt from an original essay, “Walking,” by Henry David Thoreau that appeared in The Atlantic in 1862; there is also a link at the end for those who want to read more.

Henry David Thoreau was the proto-environmentalist.

said Bill McKibben. Thoreau was also the one who, perhaps in a moment of self-reflection, said,

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Many, if not most, people seem to benefit from time spent wandering in the woods, although Thoreau called us walkers a “select class.” The peace and quiet, the natural beauty, the bird songs, the evidence of creatures passing nearby, the breathtaking vistas; all of these things, and more, inspire a reverence for our place in the greatness of nature.

For those of us who are autistic, though, the call of the wild and the balm of the woods is more than a simple pleasure. It is a welcome, and perhaps even needed, antidote to our quotidian trip through the turbulent world in which we find ourselves. I don’t know if Thoreau was autistic, although many signs point that way. In any case, he has inspired generations of people, autistic and not, with his vision of simplicity and oneness with nature.

Years ago, when I worked long hours in a high-pressure job in the fast-paced world of Wall Street, I found this connection with nature to be an essential ingredient in my every day; the one way to sooth away the stress arising from my job. During working hours, I faced a constant barrage of incoming data, a requirement for social interaction with clients and peers, much travel, high expectations for piercing analysis; all accompanied by the background of city life and its cacophony and chaos.

My escape came in the form of a daily run, first thing in the morning. I averaged six miles a day, and I ran wherever I found myself. When I lived on the East Side of Manhattan, in the early 1980s, I would run with a friend down 2nd Avenue, and then back up 1st Avenue. We ran very early in the morning, before there was any traffic to speak of, so we didn’t have to stop for red lights at most intersections. One frigid winter morning when our breath was not only visible, but cracked and fell to the ground as we exhaled it, my friend turned to me, “Remind me why we are doing this?!” I thought it was for the exercise, but I later realized it was for my mental health.

I moved to the Upper West Side, and that gave me access to Central Park. I had a different running companion, and every morning we ran together around the six-mile loop in the hour before they opened the Park to automobile traffic. When I traveled, I sought out similar venues. In some places, such as Frankfort and Zurich, I stayed with friends or in a hotel on the outskirts of town so that I had access to the countryside. In London, I became fond of St. James Park, Green Park, and of course Hyde Park. Tokyo was much more of a challenge, because the city has very little green space. So I ran around the perimeter wall of the Imperial Palace (several times, to get in my six miles) because it was the only place I could find that allowed an extended path with no traffic lights.

These days, I live in the countryside, but on two or three days a week I will take a walk with friends, or by myself. We are lucky, here in the Berkshires, to have many entities that have preserved and protected large portions of our landscape. Although there is more work to be done to connect many of these properties to create wildlife and walking corridors, at least we seem to have evaded the fate that Thoreau feared:

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; … and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off…

Here, as promised, is the excerpt and link:

June 1862
by Henry David Thoreau

It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit. Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class …

The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours,—as the swinging of dumbbells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!

Moreover, you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking. When a traveller asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors” …

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the wood-side. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape …

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only,—when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come.

Volume 9, No. 56, pp. 657–674

Read the full article here.

Shantih shantih shanti

Nov 08

#Pantsuit Nation

Today is Election Day.

As the hashtags #Pantsuit and #Nation sweep the internet, I am reminded of a day many years ago when I made a momentous decision involving a pantsuit.

I know, I know! Hard to imagine a pantsuit being involved in an earthshaking moment, but this one was.

In the late 1960s, I was a supervisor and trainer for the newly-minted college graduates who came to work for the insurance company in Hartford where I had been employed, originally as a computer programmer. In those days, not too many people knew what a computer was, let alone what a programmer did. The field then was called “data processing” and that’s what it was — the insurance company had set out to replace the sea of clerks, who wrote on and filed index cards, with computers that could process and file premium payments, as well as claims. The company also was awarded the contract to process all transactions in Connecticut for the new Medicare system.

I was born in 1946, and my age cohort was on the cusp of the change in societal attitudes around the roles of women. I was an ardent feminist (although I don’t think I used that word in those days), and an advocate for equal treatment of women in the workplace. Many, if not most people younger than I shared that attitude, but few people older than I did.

My management style seemed to suit people who felt isolated and left out of the mainstream. As a result, I was often assigned oddball or problem employees. With the insight I’ve acquired over the years, I believe that I was sympathetic, even empathetic, to people of color, folks with dodgy pasts, gays, women, and other mistreated people because (unbeknownst to me at the time) I am autistic, and had experienced the same kind of isolation and misunderstanding.

Many of the new hires who reported to me were women, which was unusual because they were coming in at a fairly high level. Of the 2,000 or so people who worked in the building, most were women, but almost all of them were doing clerical jobs. I think there were about 200 officers of the company, and only two of them were women.

One day in 1969, one of the young women I supervised came to me with a question. Cheryl was a bright, eager, recent college graduate, married, and I held her in high regard.

“Would it be all right if I wore a pantsuit to work?” she asked.

I was taken aback at the idea of a woman wearing pants to work, not because I opposed the idea, but because it just wasn’t done.

“What do you mean, ‘pantsuit’?” I cautiously inquired.

“Well, I have this nice beige polyester outfit that looks very businesslike, but it is a jacket and pants, not a skirt.”

“I see. And do you wear a blouse under the jacket?”

“Yes, a white blouse. I think it looks very professional, but I’ve never seen any woman wear pants here, so I thought I’d ask if it’s okay.”

I hesitated. I wondered if this was my decision to make. Perhaps I should go up the chain of command, or call the personnel department. Then the rebel in me took over. The hell with it, I thought, it’s a great idea. Shake ’em up a bit. One more step toward equality.

“I don’t see a problem with that!” I said. Of course, I did, but I was willing to live with the consequences.

Cheryl beamed. “Okay, thanks!” she said, and I put the matter out of my mind.

The next day she arrived at work in her pantsuit. I don’t remember thinking it was the cat’s meow, but it was as she described, very tame and businesslike. To me. But oh! the firestorm!

Shortly after the workday began, Cheryl came over to my desk and sat down. “What do you think?” she asked.

“Looks nice.”

“I’m getting a lot of funny looks.”

“Don’t worry about it!” I reassured her. “The outfit is just the way you told me it would be. I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

It didn’t take long. I soon got a call from someone in personnel, asking me if I had approved the outfit that was causing such a stir. Yes, I confirmed, I did — why? was there a problem with it?

“We’re not sure. We don’t have a policy about that, but it seems we may need to create one to address all the complaints we’ve been getting.”

There followed a fairly long conversation in which I vigorously defended Cheryl’s right to wear pants. Hard to believe in this day and age, but at the time it was a big deal. Several hours later I got a call back. “We’re not going to make an issue of it, and we decided not to have a formal policy, but it’s okay. Women can wear pantsuits.”

I went over and told Cheryl, and all her friends within earshot gave her a big cheer.

The Revolution had begun!


Oct 15

50th Anniversary



On October 15, 1966, I was married for the first time.

That day, like its counterpart 50 years later, was a bright sunny day in the Berkshires, with the autumn foliage on full display. When I think back on the next few years of my early twenties; a time of hope, and dreams of the future, I guess I could get maudlin about how things did not turn out entirely as I had wished. Instead, I find myself remembering most vividly the positive things that happened during those years.

Which is not to say that I have forgotten the agonies and the arguments and the negative experiences of those days. I wish I could say that I learned from my mistakes, but I’m not sure that I did. It would be many years in the future that I would learn of my autism, and be able to reflect on how not having that understanding contributed for most of my life to severe emotional instability.

I like to think, with what grains of wisdom I may have acquired in my old age, that I could have been more successful in my personal relationships in those days, but of course it is not possible to do things over. So I have to admit that, despite the many happy memories I carry with me, I do still remember the cloud that hung over me in those days.

The picture above is cropped from one I took on this anniversary day of a framed canvas reproduction of a 1955 painting by Bernard Buffet. This canvas was a gift from my wife, Deborah, and is one of the few artifacts I have of that marriage. She told me she was attracted to the painting because it reminded her so much of me.

Apr 23

Acceptance Is Belonging

A beautiful essay, written by my friend Amy Sequenzia, for Autism Acceptance Month.

Autism Acceptance means more than love and understanding. It means belonging.

Amy lived in Great Barrington for a time, and was very active in CATA. She has published a collection of poetry.

Apr 23

An underreported feature of planned changes in US currency

I am very pleased with the change of heart that places Tubman on the twenty and leaves Hamilton on the ten. Tucked away at the end of this article is another hugely important change, one that is long overdue. Many (if not most) currencies have different sizes for different denominations, enabling people with poor or no vision to be able to tell which bills they are handling.

U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios told reporters … that the new currency will include … “For the first time in our history, … a new tech-help feature intended to aid the blind and the visually impaired,” Rios said. “This is a new, complex and critical, important element in the production of modern U.S. currency.

As a disabled person, I am keenly aware of what a poor job our society does in providing accommodations that are needed for full inclusion. This one improvement is a huge step forward both symbolically and for its pragmatic value.

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