Archive for January, 2014

Exploring Human Behavior

One of the concerns of life is getting outside of ourselves.  We all observe the behavior, language and appearance of others and make judgments.  Busy as we are, however, it is often difficult to reflect on what we see and hear and fit that into our own behavior.  In addition to providing us with theories of how things (and people) work and descriptions of human activity (mostly bad), reading provides us with opportunities to observe human behavior as described by another person.  It takes experience in reading to distinguish between authors who have selected material to support their own view of the behavior being described, and those attempting to describe a person or human situation as it really is/was.  Even with experience, however, I continue to be sucked into an author’s bias because I know little or nothing of the situation they are describing.  With this warning about potholes in the road to using reading as a guide to useful knowledge of human behavior, I give you my judgment of two books that have been good for me.

Alexander McCall Smith is a Scottish author to whom I was introduced by my wife and daughter.  The book is The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, the latest of a series (fourteen so far) about Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. One Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana.  In this series the detective does not search for clues, she finds them in human nature.  Mma Ramotswe founded the agency, took in an assistant who married in a previous story and has a baby in this story.  There are two cases that have to be solved, however, the story is really about the relationship between the two detectives.  The story begins with Mma Ramotswe considering how she will replace Mma Makutsi now that she has a baby and proceeds through the two cases in which Mma Ramotswe finds she really depends upon Mma Makutsi.  Smith ends his story with the two detectives involved in setting up the office and an environment for a closer, more equal relationship.

Smith was born Zimbabwe, taught law at the University of Botswana and medical law at the university of Edinburgh in Scotland.  He seems to me to have worked hard to get the  physical and social environment right.  All of this particular series uses a well told mystery to get at human relationships.  Beginning with the first story, he works his way through each new book with a story about human behavior that is not limited to Botswana.  It is a series that three of us in this family discuss and laugh and think about.  It is through these interactions that I came to see the nature and cohesiveness of the series.

The second book is Brothers, Rivals and Victors, by Jonathan Jordan.  This is the story of the relationship of Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George Patton, the three senior American generals in Europe in World War II.  All three of these men served together in the period between the two world wars.  Eisenhower came to know both Patton and Bradley at separate times and they became quite friendly.  When Americans became part of the second war it was through Africa, Sicily, Italy and then France.  These three men were the senior generals, with Eisenhower in command and Patton and Bradley army commanders.

The author tells the story in biographical form from the days when they were friends through the strains of command and differing ideas about dealing with the Germans.  These different circumstances changed the nature of their previous friendships.  The author writes in a manner that makes his story compelling through brief biographical relationships that shift as WWII imposes different demands on the three men.  The author’s prose carried me effortlessly along to the end of the war.  The history is accurate, but it is human interaction that is the focus of the story.

In both books, one fiction and one historical biography, I came away with insights into human behavior, perhaps not new but seen in a different way.



Perhaps the central tenet in John Dewey’s theory of education is the role of direct personal experience in learning. While I have spent a professional lifetime trying to understand, explain and relate this concept to students, I have just had a lesson of my own in experience.

On Monday, January 13. I had my first day of volunteering at the local hospital in a four hour stint as a member of a team moving patients around in wheel chairs. The men I worked with had been performing this activity for years. Socially, they were very good to work with; understanding my worry that I would get lost in the warren of halls they insured that one of them was with me on all of my trips. One of them turned out to be a friend from the past with whom I had stood on summer swimming pool decks timing our children in swimming meets. All of the three men were my age and we were succeeded by four women who appeared to be our age (let’s just say retirement). The escort desk is covered for eight hours each day except on weekends by four volunteers. There are other functions in the hospital also done by volunteers.

After recovering from four hours of pushing wheel chairs by taking a nap in the afternoon, my mind led me to a consideration of the economic benefits of volunteers. For example, one of the two men who oversee this blog has just finished being trained to be a visitors’ guide at the Library of Congress and the other has been a volunteer in the local police force for a number of years. Nursing homes, museums and art galleries are further examples of organizations that depend on volunteers. Youth activities and groups of all kinds, cooking and serving meals in kitchens for the homeless and delivering meals to those who are homebound. The list seems endless and probably constantly changing.

Then, the question of what can be considered volunteering arose. For example, our church donated its Christmas offering of $25,000 to a clinic offering medical help to the poor and operated by volunteers. The people who operate the clinic are clearly volunteers, but what about those who donate money so the clinic can provide a service not available otherwise to the people who come to it. Right or wrong, I decided that providing support for volunteer activities should be considered part of the volunteer activity.

The census bureau has figures about those who volunteer, but I could find nothing about the economic aspects of the activity. Wikipedia, itself the result of volunteer activity, has an extensive selection on volunteers and volunteering that does not venture into the economic value of the activity. My not very thorough search led me to which used figures from another organization:  “According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 61.8 million individuals in the United States contributed 8 billion hours of volunteerism in 2008 alone.The economic value of all this volunteering? $162 billion U.S. dollars.”

Thanks to Sam Roudebush plowing through the internet we have a thorough report, The Social Impact of Volunteerism, that takes on all (I think) aspects of volunteerism in a crisp presentation including economic value. I now have volunteers pop into my mind when I go into public and semi public institutions.


Truth or Consequences

Truth and Consequences


The case of Edward Snowden and government secrets continues to rumble through the news and the opinion articles. Opinions vary from “he did an evil thing and should be punished” to “he is a national hero for revealing secret dirty dealings by the government.” Even reading all that is available doesn’t lead me to a decision one way or another. The one point I do understand is that historically governments have gathered information about each other and that is in the interest of the country. Releasing this kind of information is not only an embarrassment to our government, but potentially set back our information gathering in other countries. This I clearly see as a danger to all of us in the United States.

This morning’s Washington Post (January7, 2014) carries an article by Richard Cohen. He examines both sides of the issue and concludes that we should let Snowden off the hook. Well, I’m not so sure.

In the same paper, Eugene Robinson deals with collecting and using all this information. He ends with a recommendation that the NSA should not store this information, just analyze it for the “right tidbits.” Since I assume that analysis is ongoing, then is storage the real problem? If the telephone companies don’t already store this information, why would they want to start?

In this world of competing national interests and the intrusion of non governmental groups in that struggle, information has become even more necessary in determining governmental actions. Whereas governments once relied mostly on informal contacts between government representatives at various levels to ferret out each others intentions, they now have to deal with the likes of Al Qaeda in the form of national independence groups. Searching radio and telephone transmissions yielded Osama ben Laden and heaven knows what else. So, part of our issue is safety vs privacy. For some time now we seem to have opted for safety.

So, this capacity moves governments beyond dealing with each other and into searching through international electronic transmissions. Also, into my life and that of everyone else who communicates with others. Where does a government’s need to know (and protect) end and my protecting my privacy begin?

When someone like Snowden gets over his head in information about potential dirty doings, what does he do? Obviously he can’t go to a superior and say, “This has got to stop.” On the other hand, with the increasingly sophisticated means of gathering information out of the blue, why should an intelligence agency not use them?

Finally (for now), this brings us to Robert Samuelson who thinks the NSA is performing a necessary task that is hedged around with restrictions that prevent it from getting personal information without cause. Besides, he says, use of the internet and social media we voluntarily participate in tell more about us than NSA can gather through gathering telephone conversations. As I write this, two conclusions are uppermost in my mind. One is that you pretty much must have your mindset in a particular direction before you write articles that advise on the meaning of some action. Two is that for those of us seeking direction, we don’t get it from articles each of which presents a different set of information from those of other writers taking a different direction.

What I am left with is that it is difficult to make up your mind about contemporary actions about which you know little.

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We walk past offices, look in and gaily say Happy New Year. Professors and students exchange the greeting (although it may mean “happy that I’m not in your class this semester). The list goes on as we spread these greetings around pretty much without thought.

Arbitrary divisions of time mark our lives; new year (also so signifies the end of one tax period and the beginning of another), birthdays (excitable when young and more and more ignored with age), national holidays (a few of us gather to commemorate and the rest race to the sales), change of seasons (driven by extra terrestrial forces but hyped even though there is no immediate change in the weather).

As I look back through my life there are a few things that stand out; joining my first ship, marriage, appointment as assistant professor. There are others, but these make the point. Most of life runs along without calendrical divisions making much of a mark.

So what is the point? Is there one? Am I just a grouch (certainly not!)? So-

                                                  Happy New Year!

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