Morse code

Every so often, I set myself the challenge of trying to learn something to which I’ve had little or no exposure; or I might try to learn something I’m convinced I’m not good at. As both an educator and a human being, I find it’s useful to remind myself what it’s like to start learning something from a low level of competence.

My most recent challenge of this sort is Morse code. Some years ago, I started trying to get my amateur radio license, for which you then had to learn Morse code, and I found myself completely unable to do it. I was able to memorize most of the letters, but I never got to the point where I could actually copy Morse code. Part of my problem was that Morse code is heard, not seen, and I am a much weaker auditory learner than visual learner.

But this time, I decided, I’m going to do it: my goal is to learn Morse code well enough that I can copy it at better than five words per minute, with better than 90% accuracy. I bought an audio CD with Morse code instruction put out by the American Radio Relay League, and I found a free audio course online.

What you’re supposed to do is to spend 15-30 minutes twice a day listening to the Morse code recordings and writing down the characters you hear. On the first day, I tried listening to 30 minutes of Morse code, but I couldn’t concentrate that long; I found it surprisingly fatiguing. Nor has it gotten much easier; I’m two weeks into this project, and 15 minutes is still the most I can do. Nor can I yet force myself to listen to the Morse code recordings twice a day; once a day was as much as I wanted.

But ever so slowly it is getting easier. Today I managed to copy a whole sentence in Morse code. It was a short sentence — “Code is heard, not seen.” — but it was very satisfying to finally feel a small sense of competence.

What I’m going through is normal, of course. Whenever I’ve tried to learn something new, learning is painful at first, and it takes what seems to be a long time to get any easier. There aren’t many rewards at first, and those few rewards aren’t worth very much, so you have to exaggerate the importance of early victories to yourself. And you have to ignore the feeling that you are completely incompetent, and just forge ahead, willing to be foolish. I think it’s important to remember to be kind to yourself when you’re learning something new.

This, obviously, is the sort of thing children go through all the time. It also occurs to me that many of the people who come to our congregations having grown up with no exposure to organized religion go through this same sort of thing. And in a society where we are increasingly disengaged from communal activities, it’s really hard to learn how to get socially engaged and build social capital. It can be quite difficult to learn something completely new. It’s much easier to sit at home and stare at the computer screen or TV screen.

Update, two years later: I found myself completely incapable of learning Morse code. Similarly, I find it almost impossible to learn foreign languages. I do not seem to have a very good auditory memory.

Music and empathy

The San Francisco Classical Voice Web site has an interesting article about musical activity and the development of empathy in children. Written by journalist Edward Ortiz, the article states:

The study defined empathy as a child’s having an understanding of the emotional state of another. A total of 52 children — 28 girls and 24 boys — were split, randomly, into three groups. One met weekly and was immersed in interactive musical games and was composed of 13 girls and 10 boys. A second undertook group activities that involved the use of written texts and drama, but no music. Another group took no interactive activities at all.

The children involved in musical group interactions scored higher on an empathy test given to all the children both before and after the activities. “The relationship between music and empathy seemed to be a particularly good match,” said [Tal-Chen] Rabinowitch, the lead researcher. [Link to full article]

According to the article, it may be that participation in other group activities could also result in higher scores on the empathy test; however, one of the control groups in the study did participate in other types of group interactive activities, with no increase in empathy scores. It also appears that individual consumption of music (e.g., listening to recorded music) or playing music as an individual (e.g., performing in a piano recital) would not result in increased empathy scores.

However, Ortiz writes, more research is needed: “Ultimately, the research can only be seen as preliminary because of the study’s small size, and must be tempered by the issue of confirmation bias….”

Three bikes

A bright red Ducati Hypermotard bike was parked on the street in front of us. Next to it was some kind of Harley, and behind them in the same parking space was another bike, but I couldn’t see what it was without getting up from the table where we sat in front of the coffee shop. A short man with white hair and a wizened face strolled up the sidewalk smoking a cigarette, and stopped to look at the Ducati.

Three guys walked out of some store somewhere, all similarly dressed in black protective nylon or Kevlar jackets and trousers, two of them carrying their motorcycle helmets under their arms, while the third was wearing his. The short man with white hair started talking to the guy who got on the Ducati.

I expected the three motorcyclists to leave as quickly as possible, but they talked to the white-haired man, easily old enough to be their father, for a good ten minutes. I heard the white-haired man talking about a motorcycle he once owned, one with a two-cycle engine. Interested, the guy on the Harley said, “Must have taken a lot of oil.”

Carol started listening to their conversation too. At last the three motorcyclists backed their bikes out of the parking space and drove towards Oakland, and the man with the white hair walked into the coffee shop behind us. “I expected them to blow that guy off,” I said, “but they just kept talking to him.” Carol said of the guy on the Harley, “He had such a sweet expression on his face.”

She’s wrong, but it’s OK

I started reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir I Love a Broad Margin to My Life. I almost stopped reading before I finished the tenth page.

At the bottom of the ninth page, Maxine Hong Kingston begins talking with Mary Gordon:

[Mary Gordon says:] “It’s capitalistic
of us to expect any good to come from peace demonstrations,
as if ritual has to have use, gain, profit.”
I agreed, “Yes, it’s Buddhist to go parading
for the sake of parading.” “Can you think of a writer
(besides Chekov) who is holy and and artist?”
“Grace Paley.” She smiled. “Well, yes.”
Obviously. “Thoreau.” “Oh, no. Thoreau’s
too Protestant, tidy, nonsexual. He goes
home to Mom for hot chocolate. No
sex, no tragedy, no humor.”
Come to think of it, Thoreau doesn’t make
me laugh….

This is where I almost stopped reading. Doesn’t she get it? Walden is a hilarious parody of all those early nineteenth century adventure books where the protagonist travels to some exotic place and has adventures; the fact that Thoreau goes home to have hot chocolate is part of what makes it funny. Thoreau is constantly poking fun at himself. Admittedly, his puns are often terrible (the title Walden is itself a pun on Waldo, the name Ralph Waldo Emerson was known by, and on the poverty-seeking Waldensians). And Thoreau’s humor can be broad and even a little crude, like twelve-year-old boy humor. But when you read Thoreau out loud to a group of people, you get belly laughs. Maybe this is what comes when we no longer read literature out loud: the words just form in our heads, and we lose touch (literally) with the physical reactions words can provoke.

I decided to forgive Maxine Hong Kingston’s inability to get Thoreau’s humor. She can’t help it if she doesn’t have an inner twelve-year-old boy who likes bad puns and broad humor. And the rest of her memoir is pretty good, although it’s not very funny.

Another view of Occupy

In the most recent issue of California Northern: A New Regionalism, D. Scot Miller sums up his experience of Occupy Oakland in his essay “The Hungry Got Food, the Homeless Got Shelter: The First Days of Occupy Oakland.” It’s worth tracking down a copy of this magazine just to read Miller’s essay. He gives one of the best summaries yet of what Occupy Oakland was trying to do, written by someone who was there from the beginning:

The hungry got food, and the homeless got shelter. The street kids who smoked and drank at the plaza before Occupy arrived continued to smoke and drink — and now they passed around books from the free library. People were helping each other, looking out for one another, and turning their backs on the stresses of foreclosed homes and benefit cuts. I saw people being radicalized by conversation and generosity….

If that’s what Occupy Oakland stood for, Miller also provides one of the best summaries I’ve yet heard of what Occupy Oakland stood in opposition to: Continue reading “Another view of Occupy”

Happy 100th, Woody

Today would have been Woody Guthrie’s one hundredth birthday. To celebrates, below is a link to a PDF of a song sheet of the public domain version of “This Land Is Your Land.”

PDF of This Land Is Your Land: public domain version

It’s sized to fit on half of a standard 8-1/2×11 inch sheet, which means it will fit into most orders of service. You will have to print and trim the sheet before you use it. If you want just the lyrics, the public domain version lyrics are easily obtained on Wikipedia.

“But,” you say, “isn’t ‘This Land’ a copyright-protected song?” Quick answer: No, not the version he published in 1945…. Continue reading “Happy 100th, Woody”

“Religion Is Not About God”

Dick said I should read the book Religion Is Not About God by Loyal Rue (Rutgers University, 2005). Dick is right, I do need to read this book: Rue manages to link two of my primary concerns, religious naturalism and the growing crisis of overpopulation. I’m slowly working my way through the book — slowly, because periodically I have to stop and think about what Rue is saying.

To tempt you into reading the book, I found a 5 minute online video in which Rue presents one of the key concepts of the book. Come on, you have five minutes — sit for a moment and watch this video:

By the way, Jerome Stone, a recognized authority on religious naturalism, passes this positive judgment on Rue: “One of the best treatments of religion by a religious naturalist is Loyal Rue’s Religion Is Not About God” (in Religious Naturalism Today [SUNY Press, 2008], p. 4).

Creatures of habit

I’ve been thinking about the nature of human beings recently — “theological anthropology” in theology jargon. Unitarian Universalists have this myth that we are rational human beings. Neuroscience increasingly confirms that this is a myth, not fact, and that we humans are not particularly rational beings.

If we were rational in the way Unitarian Universalist myth seems to assume, all of us would floss our teeth regularly — of course many of us don’t floss regularly, because we are not as rational as we’d like to believe. But you can use your rational mind to change your behavior by making use of the power of habits — tiny habits, that is. Jenny told me about a technique being developed by BJ Fogg, director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford, called “Tiny Habits.” Back in January, KQED summarized the difference between Fogg’s approach and classic behavior models:

“The strength of a habit is defined, at least the way I see it, is how much of a decision was that behavior. So if you’re deciding ‘yeah, I’m going to go to the gym today,’ it’s a pretty good indication it’s not a habit. Habits are things you do without deciding,” says Fogg.

Classic behavior models focus on decision-making as a key component of behavior. Fogg is trying to get away from that by working on a new model of habit formation that’s built on baby steps.

Read more at Fogg’s Web site, (And thanks, Jenny, for the tip!)


It all started on the drive back from General assembly in Phoenix. We turned off Interstate 5 to head up over the Pacheco Pass, and soon Carol turned the car into a roadside fruit stand. “This is the one,” she said. Some of the apricot trees hung over the parking area, and the owner of the stand charged just fifty cents a pound for fruit she picked from the parking lot. She must have picked ten or fifteen pounds of apricots. I’m vaguely allergic to apricots; I ate half a dozen, got the beginnings of a little itchy rash, and that was then end of my apricot season. But Carol’s apricot season was just beginning.

When we got home, the kitchen was soon dominated by jam-making. On the counter near the stove were pectin, canning jars, jar lids, and bags of sugar. On the stove sat a big pot for cooking fruit and another big pot for sterilizing jars. On the counter on the other side of the sink was the big bag of fruit waiting to be processed. Before long, all that fruit had been cooked into jam, and Carol got some more cheap apricots at a farmer’s market, and made more jam. Jars full of deep orange apricot jam sat cooling on the kitchen counter, and every once in a while one would make a little “tink” sound as the lid sealed into place.

Apricot season is coming to an end. Soon there will be no more bowls full of apricot pits in the kitchen, waiting to be put on the compost pile; there will be no more jars cooling on the counter, and no more “tink” sounds at unexpectedly moments; no more orange drips of jam in odd places. The kitchen will return to normal. Two or three dozen jars of jam now sit quietly in the kitchen closet waiting to be given away and eaten. And we’ll wait for apricot season to return again next year.


After services this morning, a visiting Unitarian Universalist from St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, told me while he was in California he was going to visit Rosemary Matson. He told me that Rosemary Matson’s husband, Rev. Howard G. Matson, had been a chaplain to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and Rosemary herself continued to be involved.

On the Farmworker Movement Documentation Web site, I found more information about Rosemary and Howard Matson. Howard Matson helped found the National Farm Worker Ministry, an interfaith group supporting farmworkers. Together, Rosemary and Howard had created the Unitarian Universalist Migrant Ministry. Both of them worked with Cesar Chavez and other major figures in the struggle to gain rights for Mexican Americans. Rosemary Matson recorded this anecdote about Chavez:

I remember my unexpectedly providing lunch for Cesar and 15 of his delegation at our home in Berkeley. They were between meetings in Oakland. A trip to the deli for pans of lasagna sufficed for all except Cesar, who I found out was a vegetarian, drank carrot juice, and needed a nap.

We have just completed a “Justice General Assembly” focused on immigrants’ rights. Although Rosemary Matson received an honorary degree from Starr King School fo the Ministry, I cannot help but think we should be paying more attention to those Unitarian Universalists who have been working on this broad issue since the 1960s.