The opposite of dyslexia

I had some initial difficulty in learning to read. My mom tried to teach me with some instructional material from a newspaper supplement, with no success whatsoever. I was a motivated learner, but the whole premise of the instructional material—which was based on phonics—made no sense to me at all.

I learned to read more or less all at once on the first day of first grade, when the teacher flipped through some big cards with words on them, together with pictures that were supposed to help indicate each word’s meaning. (I remember that “ball” was one of them, and that “go” was another.) I was stunned to realize that many of my classmates were ahead of me—they could read these words, and I could not.

But immediately, after just four or five cards, I grasped that the fundamental unit of reading was not the letter (which is what all that phonics-based stuff had implied). It was the word.

I was instantly off and running. I generally only had to be exposed to a printed word a single time to learn it. There were still a few (sufficiently frustrating to be memorable 50-plus years later) instances where adults refused to just tell me what a word was, trying to coach me through the process of “sounding it out”—something that I was never able to do—but within a day or two I was reading well above grade level and never looked back.

Even now phonics is only something I understand backwards. The spelling of English words is interesting in how it freezes in time a brief period in the midst of vast shifts in pronunciation, but I still find preposterous the idea that it’s easier to memorize sixty or eighty common spellings of the 40-odd phonemes that make up English, to learn dozens of common exceptions, and then to use that knowledge to “sound out” a word, than it is to just learn all the words.

In my experience, just learning all the words was trivially easy, while sounding a word out was virtually impossible.

I am given to understand that dyslexia is roughly the opposite of this. People with dyslexia are unable to make the jump to what is called “whole-word” reading, and are basically forced to stick with “sounding out” every word.

This is mostly important only in that I think it illustrates why it’s stupid to standardize on one way of teaching reading just because most people will learn to read just fine either way. Some people—me on the one hand, dyslexics on the other—will only be able to learn to read one way, and it’s not the same way.

Although it’s not important, I do have a recent illustrative anecdote to relate.

One side-effect of the way I perceive words is that I have no idea how they are spelled. It wasn’t until I was in college (and realized that I simply had to learn how to spell) that I bit the bullet and learned how to spell the only way that works for me: I need to memorize the list of letters that makes up a word. To this day, if I have not needed to write a word, I do not know how to spell it. For example, I did not know how to spell “Los Angeles” until after I moved there—and even then I didn’t learn it for several weeks until I had to write it down for some reason.

A related side-effect is that certain words that have similar shapes get conflated in my brain. Especially if they have somewhat congruent meanings, I will simply not realize that they are not the same word.

I mention all this now because a specific instances of it came up yesterday. Jackie had put calamine lotion on the shopping list, so I was picking up a bottle of the stuff. I read the label to see if the generic would be just as good as some brand-name version, and was surprised to see that “calamine lotion” is a specific thing: calamine lotion USP.

Reading the label so carefully made me realize for the first time that calamine is something different from chamomile. To my brain the words look an awful lot alike, and they’re both key ingredients in traditional remedies, so I had just slotted them in as the same thing.

Two asides here.

First, it was only while drafting this post that I realized that chamomile has that h as the second letter. As I said, if I haven’t written a word, I have no idea how it is spelled. This always made the suggestion that I should “look it up in the dictionary” to find the spelling especially frustrating. I remember attempting to follow that instruction once and then coming back to my dad some ten or twenty minutes later and saying that I had looked at every word in the dictionary that started with the letters “ax-” and yet had been unable to find “accelerate.”

Second, the brand-name stuff, because it doesn’t follow the USP formulary, isn’t even calamine lotion; it’s just some skin protectant lotion with a similar color that happens to have calamine in it. Who would want that?

Achievement unlocked: One-arm hang

In the Runner’s Rehab class I’ve been taking, which is mostly lower-body alignment, mobility, and strength, Ashley usually includes a few minutes of upper-body work as a bit of a break. We’ve done hanging from the high bar, playing with parallel bars, playing on a climbing rope, etc.

One time when we were hanging, Ashley asked if I could hang from one arm, and I said, “I don’t know. I haven’t tried in a long time. I can sort-of brachiate on the monkey bars, so I guess I can hang for at least a moment….”

So I figured I’d try, and: Wow! I can hang from one hand!

How I twist when I hang by one hand.

I haven’t done it for time yet. When I hang from one hand my body turns out. I haven’t yet gotten that under control enough to hang for very long without feeling like I’m going to twist my shoulder.

Still, it give me a feeling of considerable satisfaction to be able to hang from one hand, even if just for a few seconds.

I don’t think this twisting is really a strength issue; more a motor-control/patterning issue. It shouldn’t take me long to get to the point where I can control the twist, at which point I’ll be able to hang for as long as my hands are up to it, and I think they’ll be up to a reasonable amount of one-arm hanging pretty quickly.

What good is a militia anyway?

The reason that a well-regulated militia appealed to the founding fathers was that they hoped it would eliminate the need for a standing army.

If you had the whole body of young adult men armed and trained, it was hoped you could raise an army very quickly in case of need. If that were true, Congress could insist that the standing army be run down to just a cadre of specialists and officers. Then, in the event that you needed an army—because you were invaded, or needed to invade someone else—you could mobilize (i.e. draft) the militia to fill the ranks with soldiers.

The founders knew perfectly well that a government with a standing army could not be resisted by the people, even if the people were armed. A standing army was always going to be more disciplined, more highly trained, and better equipped than a militia could possibly be.

So, the purpose of the militia was to eliminate the need for a standing army. If you could make a militia work that way—quickly go from a bare cadre to a fully mobilized army simply by calling up the militia—then you’d be in a position where Congress could insist that the the army in fact be a bare cadre, meaning that neither presidents nor generals could use the army until Congress actually raised one.

It’s an appealing idea, particularly to someone like me who is very doubtful about trusting presidents or generals. Sadly, the evidence is pretty good that it doesn’t work.

This was clear even before the sorts of modern, high-tech weapons and other equipment that take extensive training to learn how to use, and then nearly constant on-going training to preserve the capability.  It took five years to go from a 16,000-man army to a 1,000,000-man army during the civil war. The ramp up for WW I was quicker but also smaller—manpower grew by 16 times in two years rather than 62 times in five years, but that was from a much larger base—basically, a smallish standing army, not merely a cadre waiting to be filled out.

The experience of the U.S., at least as far back as the civil war, is that fielding an army by mobilizing a militia simply can’t happen fast enough to respond to an enemy with a standing army. (The experiences of Switzerland mobilizing to resist a possible Nazi invasion and Finland mobilizing against the Soviet Union at around the same time are interesting, but do not I think make the contrary case.)

Given all that, I’d have to say that a militia is pretty much obsolete, and has been for a couple of centuries at least.

Hedonistic movement

When I started writing about frugality for Wise Bread, one of the points I tried to make was that my perspective was basically a hedonistic one: I was not denying myself things I wanted; I was instead choosing to spend my money purely on the things I wanted most. It recently occurred to me that I am approaching movement in exactly the same way.

My mom suggested that my lifestyle—healthier now than it was a few years ago, and much healthier than it was for many years before that—might help me live a long time. I admitted that this is something that I think about, but in fact long life is really a secondary (or even tertiary) consideration. I’m doing the things I’m doing—eating better, moving more, moving more of me—not because I think it will make me healthier when I’m old, but because it makes me feel better right now.

(I’m sure my friend Chuck will come along in the comments shortly to point out that I’m already old. Thanks in advance, Chuck.)

My point here is that my movement practice is a hedonistic one. I feel better when I move more. I feel better when I move more of me.

Although there is a psychic benefit—thinking that I’m doing something healthy makes me happy—and a long-term aspect—my workout three days ago has left me feeling better today, and I’m sure my exercise practice over the past three years has made me feel much better right now that I would have felt without it—these things are not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about this: I feel better while I’m moving. Going for a run feels good. Going for a walk feels good. Picking up something heavy feels good. Stretching feels good.

If a movement doesn’t feel good, I immediately quit doing it. I could probably get stronger faster if I was more willing to push through the pain of picking up something that was just slightly beyond my capability, but I don’t. I don’t because the whole endeavor is a hedonistic one. I’m not doing this to get stronger faster. I’m doing this because it makes me feel good right now. If it doesn’t make me feel good, I stop.

Losing a job

My friend Mart lost her job this week.

I know all about losing a job. Over the years I was fired or laid off four times.

Getting laid off is humiliating and insulting. The process is stressful and and unpleasant. The aftermath, where you have to deal with your feelings about the fact that other people kept their jobs while you lost yours, at the same time that you deal with having a sharply lower income, layers more stress and unpleasantness on top of that.

Losing a job is also frightening. It fills your future with unknowns.

The middle time I was laid off, my former employer hired an expensive outplacement firm to help us make the transition. We had a series of meetings at an off-site location where a counselor gave us advice on dealing with the emotional and practical issues. Although the somewhat simplistic advice was another layer of insult piled on top of the insult of being let go, it was actually pretty well done. I used what I learned there for pep talks that I’d give former coworkers when they were let go. I used it as the basis for part 1 (losing a job) of the Wise Bread series I wrote on getting by without a job.

These last few decades—as the whole economy has adjusted to eliminate the working-class jobs that used to provide a middle-class standard of living—losing a job has become even worse than it was back when I lost mine.  And yet, while losing a job is a pretty bad thing, but it’s not always purely bad. Even people who love their job don’t love everything about it. (Mart in particular, I think, loved books a lot more than she loved her job at a bookstore.)

Still, losing a job sucks, even if things go as well as possible after that.

Visit Mart’s website! Consider buying her book!

Basic Unix stuff and Syncthing

My brother insists that I write a blog post about this, even though it’s really just basic Unix stuff and not anything the least bit esoteric, or even related to Syncthing really.

I didn’t want to sync my entire music library to my phone, because it’s huge, and about half of it is just stuff that was either of merely passing interest, or really no interest at all. So, I decided to create a folder I called “Core music,” that would contain the other half of my music library—all the stuff I might actually want to listen to. However, I didn’t want to make copies of 7 GB of music files, because that would be crazy.

My first thought was just to create a folder with symbolic links to the music I wanted to sync to my server (and thence to my phone). But that didn’t work at all. (That is, Syncthing just syncs the symbolic links, and since the music wasn’t on my server, on the server they didn’t point to anything.)

My second thought was to make hard links, but even though I’m a Unix nerd from way back, I initially started by trying to make hard links to the folders that had the music I cared about, because it has been years since I did this sort of thing. Of course that didn’t work at all. (You can’t hard link to a directory, for reasons.)

Finally, I created this little function:

function linkmusic { pax -rwl '$1' ~/Music/Core\ music; }

Then I could invoke it by cding into my iTunes Music folder (where the directories actually are) and then invoking the function for each folder I wanted in my “Core music” folder. (My natural inclination is to go to the folder where I want the music to end up, but then the pax command didn’t do what I wanted, because it wanted to copy the whole directory structure, but I just wanted to copy the directory structure starting at iTunes Music, so that’s where I wanted to be when I invoked my function.)

So, let’s hope that Steven is happy now that I’ve documented this.

Strength, functional strength, and hypertrophy

I’ve been lifting weights regularly for at least 25 years–shortly after we got married I convinced Jackie to start lifting with me, and we lifted together all those years until we moved and let our membership in the fitness center in our old neighborhood lapse.

Any time during that period, if you’d asked me what my goals were, I’m sure I’d have told you that functional strength was what I was going for. I’d have just called it strength, but functional strength is what I’d have meant: The ability to do things that took muscle power—to pick up heavy things, carry heavy things, climb stairs with heavy things, etc.

The actual exercises I did, mostly with machines, were poorly selected for developing that strength, but that’s just because I didn’t know better, not because I was secretly going for something else.

As a secondary goal I’d have told you I was interested in the general health benefits of being strong—stronger bones, more metabolic activity, etc. Once I learned about lower insulin resistance I’d have included that.

One thing I was never interested in was hypertrophy. That is, I was only interested in bigger muscles to the extent that they’d be stronger and provide the associated metabolic advantages. If I could have gotten that with small muscles, I’d have been totally fine with that. In the privacy of my own brain, I was even a little disdainful of people who lifted for the aesthetics of having bigger muscles.

I did know that stronger muscles and bigger muscles pretty much go together. Competitors in sports that involved moving your own body—and especially sports that involve your body up a hill or mountain—have always sought ways to make their muscles stronger without making them (much) bigger. It’s possible—just barely, at the margins, to a limited extent—but by and large getting stronger means getting bigger.

I mention all this because I’ve taken an interest in hypertrophy, for a very specific reason: At my last physical, my doctor suggested that I should quit losing weight.

I’m not quite sure why—I’m just about at the mid-range for “healthy weight” (based on BMI, which has its flaws, but which probably provides pretty good guidance in my case) and well above underweight. Maybe he was just concerned in case I wasn’t in control of my weight loss. Maybe he was worried that I might be losing muscle as well as fat. I’ll ask him at my next physical.

At any rate, that left me with a minor dilemma. My weight, at the midpoint of the healthy range, is just where I want it. (Even before my doctor mentioned it, I had already decided to quit losing weight, when I realized that if I lost much more weight I’d no longer be size “medium” and would start being size “small,” and I didn’t want to be small.)

However, I still have more subcutaneous fat than I’d like. To lose that fat without losing weight, really my only option is to build more muscle.

So, for about a year now I’ve been working on that, with pretty limited success. Hypertrophy is hard. It’s also harder to measure than weight, which makes it hard to know if I’m having any success or not. In fact, I haven’t even tried to measure my muscle hypertrophy. (Measuring my chest and biceps and such puts me a little to squarely in the group that I mentioned being privately disdainful of, although I probably ought to get over it.)

In any case, so far I’m sticking with just measuring strength and figuring that hypertrophy will follow.

And let me reiterate just how weird it feels to have even this much of a focus on hypertrophy.

Running my own server again

A year and a half ago, my brother gave me a Raspberry Pi 3 as a birthday present, suggesting that I should use it to run my own server.

I used to run my own server. A friend who liked to build such things had built it. It had two ethernet ports, one connected to my cable modem and the other connected to my WiFi router, and it was running OpenBSD (then the most secure OS easily available) and was configured to serve as a firewall.

I used it as a server in other ways. I put an extra disk drive (40 GB!) in it where I could store files that I might want to access from elsewhere. (In particular, when I went to Clarion I copied my latest draft of my current story there each evening, in case of catastrophic computer failure.)

It didn’t require much upkeep, but it required more than none—which turned out to be more than I wanted to devote to it. At some point a serious security flaw was discovered in the OpenBSD release I was running. By then most desktop machines had built-in firewalls as did most routers, and I had Time Machine as a backup solution. It seemed safe to give up my server, and easier than updating it.

In the years since then, the use of cloud services has become ubiquitous, to the point that practically everything I do ends up in the cloud—my photos go to both Flickr and Google. I also use Dropbox (where I have Scrivener stash a backup copy of everything I’m writing) and I stash some amount of my music at both Google and at Amazon.

That’s all great—those services are well backed-up, and the servers are very likely running the latest security patches—but I really like the idea of having my own data on my own machines. But I want that without giving up the advantages of having my data in the cloud. Hence wanting to have my own server.

All that as prequel to my brother coming to visit this past week, and helping me get my Raspberry Pi server up and running.

Once the basic install of Raspbian was up and running, I went ahead and ordered a bit of hardware for it. I got a short ethernet cable to connect it to my router, so that it doesn’t have to do WiFi for basic connectivity (although WiFi and Bluetooth are built in). I also got a slightly more powerful USB power supply for it, mainly because I also got a portable USB hard drive that takes its power from the USB port, meaning that the power needs to be available to the Raspberry Pi. Finally, I got a case for it, so that I don’t just have a naked circuit board sitting on my dresser.

This time the hard drive is 1 TB rather than 40 GB.

For cloud functionality I’m following my brother’s example and running syncthing, which has the advantage of being able to handle being behind a NAT and not having a port exposed to the outside world. I’m running it on my Android phone as well and sharing my photos with a third place: my server. The server then shares them with my desktop machine, so they’re available to use. (That’s how I got the photo above: Taken with the phone and then transferred to the desktop within about a minute.)

I’m still sorting out my sharing strategy. I don’t want to share my whole Music folder with my phone, because it would use all the space there. (I’ll probably end up making a folder with an “essential subset” of my music to share with the phone.) I don’t think I want to share my whole Documents folder on my desktop machine, but I’m not sure yet. For the time being I’m sharing a folder I call “Active writing” with the files I’m currently working on, on the desktop, the server, and my laptop. That way they’ll be available wherever I want to work on them.

Other things are tougher. I’d like to have my own calendar server, but that doesn’t seem easy. I should go back to my post on the google-free option and see what else I was thinking about that I might now be able to implement.

For now, though, I’m pretty happy.

My previous server was rack mount width and maybe four or five inches tall, about the size of a stereo component. This one is maybe 3 inches by 5 inches, rather smaller than the hard drive it’s sitting on.