Astronomists prevail in annual competition

Award season is upon us and the competition is stiffer than ever. I don’t know about you, but I thought the campaigning was a little over the top this year. Every day, something new in the–the solar system chocolate bar with the bite out of it; the “who dwarfed my planet” t-shirts; the stuffed Tweety on an ice floe–but I guess those PR mavens know their stuff.

The votes are in… the envelope please… “Plutoed” wins! The crowd goes wild! “Climate Canary” mumbles something about it being an honor just to be nominated, but everyone knows it’ll be face down drunk in the gutter soon after the awards banquet.

That’s right. “Plutoed” (which means to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the planet formerly known as Pluto when the evil genius astronomy overlords decided Pluto no longer met their definition of a planet and relegated the poor thing to dwarf status, thus rendering 100 years of science textbooks unusable, and giving the poor un-planet a short man’s complex to boot) narrowly defeated “Climate Canary” (an organism or species whose poor health or declining numbers hint at a larger environmental catastrophe on the horizon) in the American Dialect Society’s annual word of the year contest.

Some society members speculated that the unusually brutal campaigning had more to do with the old and new generations of the science vocabulary guild duking it out than any real competition between “Plutoed” and “Climate Canary,” whose advocates sent elaborate boxes of feather pens to voters in a last ditch effort to win approval. It’s stories like these that make me feel better and better about the hours I spend working on my scrapbooks.

It took a run-off vote for “Plutoed” to emerge victorious, whereas last year’s winner, “Truthiness“–coined by fake news pundit Stephen Colbert as “truth that comes from the gut, not books”–easily beat out contenders such as “Assmosis” (the process by which some people seem to absorb success and advancement by kissing up to the boss rather than working hard) and “Blamestorming” (sitting around in a group, discussing why a deadline was missed or a project failed, and who was responsible). “Truthiness” was also voted Merriam-Webster’s #1 Word of the Year for 2006 based on votes from visitors to their Web site, making it the “People’s Choice” award winner.

However, even with all of those accolades, “Truthiness” still hasn’t been invited onto the red carpet to be included in the dictionary itself. Apparently they don’t get Comedy Central as part of the basic cable package in the heartland.

“Polyamory” is in the dictionary now. That’s right, the “state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time” has become such common practice that Merriam-Webster added the term to the dictionary this year. In my dating days we called it “sleeping around.” It was “playing the field” when my mom was young, and “ensuring the spread of your seed” when the cavemen were strutting around the campfires of old. Nowadays, my husband calls it “Please?” and I call it, “Dream on, finish the dishes.”

“Supersize” (where you increase the size of your order by at least two pounds of potatoes) and “Gastric Bypass” (where they reduce the size of your stomach to make you lose all that supersizing), also made the dictionary this year, as did “Sandwich Generation,” which has nothing to do with food or obesity, unless you count the dried prunes and smashed peas two-fer in the shopping carts of baby boomers who can look forward to changing two sets of diapers till their twilight years.

If you’re worried the cost of diapers might keep you from joining the “WOOFs” (well off older folks), you can always supersize those Depends at Costco, the ultimate “Big-Box” (a word now found in your friendly neighborhood dictionary, available twice as thick at half the price on aisle three). Be aware that those Big-Box bargains might cause some “Unibrow”-raising (a single continuous brow resulting from the growing together of eyebrows) from your friendly neighborhood “Biodiesel”-driving (a fuel that is similar to diesel fuel and is derived from vegetable sources such as soybean oil) “Drama Queens” (people given to excessively emotional performances or reactions) now appearing in a dictionary near you.

In other word awards news, “YouTube,” (used as a verb, meaning to use the YouTube Web site where people submit their own videos) was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by the American Dialect Society. Kind of Plutoes the whole award, don’t you think?

Originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound

The Handwriting is on the Wall

By wikipedia:en:user:Sotakeit (w:Image:Cursive.JPG) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By wikipedia:en:user:Sotakeit (w:Image:Cursive.JPG) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In case you’ve missed the writing on the wall, cursive writing is going the way of eight-track tapes. Today’s students will almost certainly be the last generation to learn handwriting, and I’m not sure that this is a bad thing.

Until the 1970s, penmanship was a separate daily subject taught through sixth grade, but a recent survey of primary-grade teachers found that most now spend 10 minutes a day or less on it. Even kindergarteners are learning keyboarding instead of handwriting. And while we used to celebrate a National Handwriting Week, today marks the celebration of National Handwriting Day. There’s not even a parade, despite the fact that it’s also John Hancock’s birthday today, for which my husband and I usually exchange the traditional gift of fountain pens and parchment paper.

So much for the longevity of longhand.

After all, effective communication is the ultimate goal, so why bother with a time-consuming, archaic method of communicating when so many high-tech, high-speed methods are available? Anyone out there who is worried about the development of the next generation’s communication skills should watch how skillfully the average13-year-old wields the text message function on his cell phone. Of course spelling will be the next part of the curriculum to go, but that iz a topic 4 anoth col.

Sure, I’m a little dependent on my laptop–OK, I was semi-suicidal the day my wireless card stopped working–but that doesn’t mean I have anything personal against handwriting. Until recently, I took a certain amount of pride in my penmanship. It’s extremely legible, which is the point of writing. The other cool thing about it is that in defiance to all of the handwriting experts who say that they can predict your personality traits by looking at something you’ve written, my sister and I have almost indistinguishable handwriting and distinctly different personalities. It’s eerie when I get something in the mail from her. Cue the Twilight Zone music: “I don’t remember writing that.”

I used to wonder if my son’s writing would look the same as ours did. Would genetics kick in, the shape of our hands perhaps? With two professional writers for parents, it was no great surprise that our son was an extremely verbal, great natural communicator. He started out this way on the page too, filling his kindergarten journals with imaginative stories about silver-tongued aliens and basketballs that could fly five zillion feet in the air and return with the snap of his fingers.

Then came the dreaded D’Nealian Alphabet.

Bearing only a slight resemblance to the loopy cursive writing style that I was taught in elementary school–and have barely used since–the D’Nealian Alphabet is designed to be a bridge between printing and cursive writing, adding curves and slants to the traditional circle and stick printing that children learn first.

Sounds simple enough. Almost logical.

Not for Koss. His previously legible printing quickly curved and slanted its way into oblivion. Before we knew it, none of us knew what the heck he was writing about. His sentences became shorter and less and less coherent. There was so much red ink when he got his papers back that I thought he might have had another bloody nose. The poor kid was thinking and worrying so much about his handwriting that he forgot what he was trying to say.

His well-intentioned first grade teacher gave him extra handwriting homework. Just imagine how much fun it is for a six-year-old kid to do an extra two pages of letterforms a night. A-A-A-A, B-B-B-B, C-C-C-C, D-D-D-D, just shoot us now and take us out of our D’Nealian misery! Talk about D’wasting D’time.

But his motor development is fine. You should see him put together those Bionicle pieces. What he suffers from is called dysgraphia, otherwise known as “bad handwriting.” Luckily, we’re living in an age where it doesn’t really matter that much in the larger scheme of things.

I’m doing a little happy dance because Koss’s teacher this year is letting him use a computer for some of his writing assignments.

I’m sure my own second grade teacher is rolling over in her retirement home. I can just hear her say, “Penmanship is extremely important. Don’t you know that the health of at least 1 in 10 Americans is endangered by the poor handwriting of their physicians?”

To which I’ll say, “So what. By the time Koss graduates from medical school there won’t be any more prescription forms, we’ll have prescription chips embedded in our bodies.”

And she’ll reply, “But did you know that up to $95,000,000 in tax refunds are not delivered because of unreadable tax-forms.”

And I’ll say, “Haven’t you ever heard of Quicken?”

To which she’ll reply, “But more than $200,000,000 in time and money is lost because poor handwriting results in phone calls made to wrong or non-existent numbers.”

I could tell her about cell phones and email, but at this point it seems more merciful to send her a little hand-written note, thanking her for teaching me how to write…or just transfer her to voicemail.

Originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound

Decisions, Decisions …

Wheat ThinsIt’s the Wheat Thins that get me every time. The anxiety starts as soon I walk down the cracker aisle. Should I go for the low sodium or the reduced fat? The ranch flavor looks good too, but the Harvest Five-Grain Wheat Thins are on sale. What’s the difference between those and the multi-grain kind again?

Before I know it, my head is spinning with visions of calorie and cost calculations and cheese combinations and I’ve spent 17 minutes that I don’t have to spare talking to myself and staring at a shelf full of crackers. What are Chicken in a Biscuits? How do they get them in there?

Am I the only one who has problems making such mundane decisions?

Apparently not.

Decision-making is a source of stress for enough people that you can actually get a degree in Decision Science these days. Evidently Carnegie Mellon University is one of the leading centers in the world for studying decision-making, so I checked out their website to see if they could help me.

No luck. Apparently in order to learn how to make decisions scientifically there are lots of math classes involved, which seems like it would take way too much math. If I could calculate things in my head faster, then I wouldn’t have any problem making simple decisions.

There are some decisions–whether or not to quit a job, have a baby, color your hair, lie about whether you ate that last piece of See’s Candy–that should require a little bit of agonizing over. I’m not talking about those kinds of decisions. But agonizing over what kind of crackers to buy can’t possibly be normal. Right?

I turned to the experts.

Psychiatrist Lynne Tan says it is. “People agonize about the consequences of their decisions. There’s always the fear of getting it wrong.”

“Beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress. And, in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression,” according to Barry Schwartz, Ph.D., author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.

The only time I really feel depressed about having too many choices is when I realize how much time I’ve wasted trying to make a choice that ultimately, won’t really make that much difference. So the Honey Wheat Thins might clash a little bit with the spicy pepper jack cheese. Is that really worth spending another minute of my life thinking about? I think not.

According to Dr. Schwartz’s book, most “good” decisions involve these steps: Figuring out your goal or goals; evaluating the importance of each goal; arraying the options; evaluating how likely each of the options is to meet your goals; and picking the winning option. The easy to remember acronym for this is FEAEP. You then use the FEAEP results modify your goals, the importance you assign them, and the way you evaluate future possibilities.

What the FEAEP? I’m sorry, but the consequence of making decisions using that technique would be that I’d spent my entire life talking to myself while wandering the aisles at the grocery store.

From now I’ve got a new decision-making technique–the Coin Of Destiny (COD, patent pending).

I can’t believe it took me so long to decide on this method. It’s so simple. I should have thought of this years ago. Pick a coin. Don’t spend more than three minutes picking out the right coin. If you’re tempted, close your eyes and pick the first coin you touch. Now it’s time to make your next decision. Flip the coin. If you don’t like the outcome of the flip, take the opposite choice. It’s a nearly foolproof approach.

Oh, and if you don’t have a coin handy, check out, a virtual coin flipping site which offers a choice of 91 different coins from 28 different countries.

Come to think of it, the Eeny Meany Miney Mo Of Destiny (EMMMOD, patent pending) might just be the way to go. I’ll decide later.

Originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound

An Interview with Arcelia “Chello” Gladden

Home ownership means the fulfillment of a dream for many, but for Arcelia “Chello” Gladden, buying her first home also gave her an injection of self-confidence.

“I’m so pleased with myself, because I did it on my own. I didn’t have a husband. So I really did this on my own and with all the help of Coastal Housing Partnership (CHP) and my work,” she says. At the time she bought her first home in Lompoc, in 2003, Gladden had been working at Raytheon in Goleta for 29 years and renting the same home in Santa Barbara for 15 years.

Her rental unit was sold and the new landlord raised the rent considerably, which made Gladden think that it might be time for her to become a homeowner.

She went to an employer-sponsored CHP seminar and came away convinced that it was time for her to take the plunge. “I listened to them and they just put a bug in my ear. I just thought to myself, I’ve got to do something. I’m going to end up probably homeless. Because we weren’t getting any raises and my rent was going up, up, up. It was not a good thing,” she says.

Gladden looked around, but she was reluctant to move to Lompoc, even though it was more affordable than Santa Barbara. “I hated the idea, but I needed to invest my money.”

CHP sent her to speak with a loan officer at Santa Barbara Bank and Trust, who helped lead the way. Gladden used her pension money to purchase the four-bedroom home for “a little under $300,000.” Shortly after her first seminar with CHP, Gladden, her recently divorced daughter and grandchildren moved in.

Two years later, in 2005, the house’s value had increased by more than $100,000. Now an enthusiastic believer in real estate investments, Gladden refinanced the house using CHP benefits and used that money to buy a second house in Lompoc that she rents to her daughter.

Gladden has nothing but praise for CHP and frequently urges her colleagues to take advantage of their services. “I found them very, very helpful to me. I wouldn’t have done it without them.”

Originally published in the Coastal Housing Partnership Newsletter