An Old Friend

Steering the ElephantI take a lot of pictures for all sorts of reasons, but one is to force me to be in the moment. I started my journey with photography when I was 13 years old, using a Kodak Instamatic 404. In my teens I progressed to a Miranda Sensorex, producing images for three high school yearbooks, and further use through my college years. I learned early on that a high quality picture was more than pushing a button to release the shutter. Education and reading certainly helped in understanding the photographic process, but in order for that knowledge to sink in required taking thousands of pictures in all types of lighting situations with numerous types of film. In the beginning the number of good images to bad images was a minuscule percentage. On the up side, that one really good image was enough to bring me back to take a few more.

Back then, the concept of shooting in manual meant not using the camera’s rather simple light meter – a far cry from what that means today in our digital camera world of auto everything. I am glad that I had to learn the basics of photography by using a non-automated camera. Film was (and still is) expensive, from purchasing the roll to developing and printing it. Even if you developed your own black and white photos (which is a very cool, rewarding way to spend a few hours), the cost was not insignificant – enlargers, chemicals, paper, and accessories. It was financially advantageous to remember that taking a picture was a process. A by-product of that understanding of process is emotional and mental focus.

Today I use a digital, mirrorless camera, an Olympus OM-D E-M1, and depending on the situation I shoot in manual mode. Most of the time I set the mode dial to aperture priority, sometimes manually focusing, or changing the light compensation value, or the f value. Even with all of the sophistication of this camera, I still have to take my time and remember the steps needed to take a good picture – how much light is available, how much depth of field do I want, what lens am I using, what shutter speed do I want, why take the picture, and how do I want to visualize the final image. A terrific mindful activity. When I am taking a picture, I can not be thinking of anything else. Time slows down.

I still read a lot and the Web has been invaluable for me. One site that I visit a lot is The Online Photographer, edited by Mike Johnston. Mike had a request the other day for readers to send in a picture of a new camera, and for those who did not have a new camera, to send in one of their oldest cameras. I no longer have the Instamatic or the Sensorex. I went looking for my oldest.

Yashica FX-D with ML 50mm 1.7 lens, ©2016 RAR

This was my birthday present when I was 30. It was THE camera from the ’80’s to the early 2000’s for me. I used it so much, I wore the pleather cover off of it. Now it has this interesting canvas look. It never let me down.

I took this earlier today. I like the lens so much that I still use it on my E-M1, manually focusing it. Some of the pictures on this site were taken with this lens. I am glad Mike made the request because it reminded me of the great times I had using this camera, all of the practice, and all of the prints. It was good visiting with an old friend, reminding myself about the importance of process, and reminiscing.

Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock… Off-On-Off, Off-On-Off

Steering the Elephant I found myself looking up the definition of the words genome and gene expression because I did not understand how they were being used in an article. The search led me to a very interesting magazine piece that introduced me to cellular clocks called, How The Body’s Trillions Of Clocks Keep Time, by Veronique Greenwood. I know about circadian rhythms, the master clock, and dark-light cycles relating to sleep and wakefulness, but I did not know that cells have their own clocks, and the extent that these clocks are being coordinated by the master clock. It is a very interesting article and can be read at either Wired and/or heard at Quanta Magazine. There is an image of blue-green algae protein that is worth the trip.

It is all about timing

In general, cellular clocks and the master clock do much more than regulate when we wake and sleep. These clocks trigger all kinds of things during the day and night, such as when nail growth starts and stops, or when we eat, or how we combat disease, and so much more. There is an interesting line of research linking circadian rhythms and DNA repair, along with the relationship between circadian clocks and cancer. There is another study researching the administration of chemotherapy later in the day, rather than early in the morning, so that hair loss is minimized.

As Ms. Greenwood points out, except for embryonic stem and cancer cells, the vast number of cells that affect humans are those with clocks. According to Bianconi et al there are 37.2 trillion human body cells. One wonders why an organism with that many cellular clocks does not have clock mash ups.

In a description of the work performed at the Panda Research Lab housed at the Salk Institute, a five step process related to cellular clocks is described which helped me understand why one does not have clock mash ups:

  1. Turn on/turn off cycles – Cells can activate and deactivate. A portion of a cell turns on (the rhythm), beginning a process of converting DNA (transcription) into RNA, which in turn creates proteins (translation) used in the protein activity of that cell. At some other point, that same portion of the cell turns off. One moment your hair grows, the next moment it stops.
  2. Time – There are systematic times throughout a 24 hour period where cells change their function. Daily cellular rhythms are guided by the expression of genes, i.e. genetic instructions — the turning on, turning off cycle.
  3. Autonomy — Cellular clocks can run autonomously, meaning that they do not have to have a master clock to function — A potential for mash ups.
  4. 24 hour cycle — Circadian rhythms are the name for this 24 hour cycle and are controlled by the Master Clock.
  5. Coordination – The master clock (suprachiasmatic nucleus), using a non-visual light sensing process provided by the retina, coordinates the 24 hour cycle for behavior and physiology — Moderating the potential for mash ups.

Starting with #5, Coordination, a non-visual light sensing (photic) process means that there are photo sensitive cells (Retinal Ganglion Cells) in your retina that do not generate images, but are sensitive to wavelengths of light. The optic nerve conveys these sensed wavelengths to the suprachiasmatic nucleus where they are interpreted, and coordinated with cell clocks throughout the body as to what type of light wavelength is being sensed and what to do. Morning light is blue (wake up), evening light is red (get ready for sleep), and darkness is darkness (go to sleep).

Jumping to #3, Autonomy, where the cellular clocks can operate on their own, could create problems if it were not for the master clock coordinating activity. Hence, mash ups are avoided. More than the avoidance of mash ups, the master clock organizes cellular clocks in a way to help the host organism survive efficiently and predictably. The simple recommendation of, “get a good night’s sleep”, takes on a whole new dimension when we consider the role light wavelengths play in the daily cycle of all those cellular clocks. Blue light not only signals that it is time to wake up, a message is sent to those cellular clocks that are supposed to work in the morning to turn on, and for those cellular clocks that work in the dark to turn off. And on the rhythms go, turning on and turning off, throughout the 24 hour cycle.

From a top down perspective, the more we find out about cellular clocks and circadian rhythms, the easier it becomes to understand why it is important to pay attention to things like how we avail ourselves of natural light and sleep cycles. It is one thing to continuously stay up too late surrounded by blue wavelength artificial light, and think we can make up our need for sleep on the weekend, which we do not. It is quite another thing when we realize that pushing our system by undervaluing natural light and the importance of sleep, we are messing around with the mechanism that coordinates 37.2 trillion clocks that need to work together every day.

Mash ups anyone?

Something To Help Me Slow Down

Steering the ElephantI was looking for something to store my headphones in or on and was not successful in my search for quite some time. I either did not like the look or did not want to spend as much on a stand as I had on the headphones. I am also difficult to buy presents for, especially at Christmas. In general, the things I like are either expensive, or I do not wait for some special occasion so that they can be given to me. Considerate but impatient.

So every Christmas, my wife and children ask me what I want. I stammer around trying to think of something, am not successful, then tell them that I don’t need anything and a card would be wonderful. I understand that if I were the one asking for suggestions from them, that answer would be totally unacceptable. As I have matured, I try to give general suggestions for presents rather than a specific request.

A few years ago when the question came in December, I asked my children to try and find me something for my headphones. They were successful, very successful. On Christmas Day they presented me with what I considered to be an exceptional gift. Since then it has turned out to be better than I had imagined.

Here is Headphone Man.


Headphone Man, ©2013, RAR

His job was to live at the end of my desk and keep track of my various headphones. Since his arrival that Christmas, I have learned he does more than that.

I take a lot of pictures, and he helps with some of my ideas. One year he dressed for all of the national holidays, and I captured each one, some in color, others in black and white. He is quite versatile. He celebrates special occasions, like graduations and weddings. All are photographed. Occasionally I send his picture to those who I think might enjoy seeing what he is up to.

Now, I am somewhat dyslexic and I tend to think graphically, so my first impulse is to show someone a picture and wait for his or her reaction. This works for some of the people I know. It does not work for everyone. Some people need a little narrative about what they are seeing. In regards to pictures of Headphone Man, the question is usually one of perplexity – what’s with the Headphone Man pictures? In every case when the question is asked, I answer:

“Whimsy… a moment of mirth… no brain… no ears… no arms or hands… no genitalia… but, something is going on in there, look at the expression on his face, it never changes!”

I have not had anyone not smile at the picture once they hear this answer, and subsequently become a fan of Headphone Man.

As I said, Headphone Man sits at the end of my desk. He has been there for almost three years. No matter what is going on in my life, how rushed or focused I am, when I look his way, I smile and momentarily slow down. That is good for me.

He does more than watch out for my headphones, he watches out for the head the phones go on, as well.

He has been stylin’ lately. Lookin’ good, too!


Headphone Man, ©2013, RAR

Yikes… What Is That!

Steering the Elephant

Here is what you should know about what this is. Within you there is a systematic way to react to stressors, and most of the time the system works very well. At other times, this systematic process can work against itself which can degrade how you do things. If the systematic way you react to stressors works against itself for long periods of time, there is a very good chance that something on you will break.

Stress Reaction 2
The chart above depicts your body’s stress regulation system when reacting to daily stressors, in a very simplified way. The complicated (meaning scientifically dense) way is explained by Megan Gunnar and Karina Quevedo.

So what does the chart describe? It is describing the neurobiological reaction that helps us cope with stress. There are two systems in your body that react to stressors, the SAM, or sometime called SAS (sympathetic- adrenomedullary system), and the HPA (hypothalamic- pituitary-adrenocortical system). They are coordinated with each other by the hypothalamus. The SAM and HPA are on either side of the Blood-brain Barrier, a barrier that protects the brain from harmful things floating in your blood. The SAM is part of the sympathetic nervous system, the part that readies the body for flight or fight, and resides in the lower brain stem and spinal cord. It is on the opposite side of the Blood-brain Barrier from the HPA. The hypothalamus activates adrenal gland secretions along with central nervous system coordination to execute activation of SAM and HPA. SAM reacts to fast, fight/flight types of stressors, where as HPA reacts to more complicated, long term stressors.

Generally, the system can adapt to stressors and balance both physical and psychological needs, quite well. However, during prolonged periods of negative stress, some of the secretions that activated the HPA to enhance the reaction, also deactivate the HPA as a protection. So, if the SAM is still reacting to a stressor and the HPA is deactivating the system’s response to the same stressor, you got a problem. Continuously pushing the system beyond its capacity to adapt to a stressor can do harm to you…in all kinds of ways!

Regulating reactions to stressors is not the only function the hypothalamus is involved in. The hypothalamus plays a central role as the pacemaker for one’s circadian rhythms, which are behavioral and bodily processes that are modulated within a 24 hour time period and repeat every day. Waking and going to sleep, eating and defecating, changes in your heart rate and blood pressure throughout the day, and body temperature increasing in the morning and decreasing in the evening; are some examples of circadian rhythms. These internal rhythms are genetically coded and certain rhythms are affected by day-night light cycles. Disregarding circadian rhythms and day-night light cycles can adversely effect hypothalamic response to stressors.

Putting this into perspective, I started out discussing the neurobiologic system used to respond to any stressor. The good news is that we have a great way to accommodate and adapt to the stressors in our lives. The bad news is that if we ignore the stressors that are taking a toll on us, we are putting ourselves in jeopardy. I also added two other pieces of information that can effect how we react to stressors that are not usually talked about in a discussion about stress reactions – circadian rhythms and day-night light cycles. I have not gone into depth on those two, but will in a future post.

If you are trying to figure out how well you are adapting to the vagaries and grind of daily life, it is important to understand that there are three pillars to your analysis, not one:

  1.  You have an internal systematic way to react to stressors and that system can work against itself causing damage,
  2. You have a genetically coded set of circadian rhythms and you need to know how to predict them, and
  3. Your circadian rhythms are guided by day-night light cycles, both of which can degrade the effectiveness of your SAM-HPA system.

Practically speaking, if you are an early riser, like to work hard all day long, take few breaks, don’t drink much water, eat at odd times, and stay up late at night — you are playing with fire.


The Look of Joy

Steering the ElephantI do not know a whole lot about Cosmology, other than its focus is understanding the Universe. The purpose of this post is not about the Universe or more specifically, Cosmic Inflation or gravitational waves. It is about surprise, elation, and validation. It is also about passion expressed by people who usually are thought of as being withdrawn, dry, and out of touch — inhabitants of the Ivory Tower.

If you watch with the sound turned off, you see two people unexpectedly hearing wonderful news, and how it hits them in waves. It looks some what like the Publisher’s Clearing House surprising a new millionaire.

Most of us know the reactions of those in groups we identify with, and little about others. We think we are different and unique. We are not.

This is what we look like when we are joyful. Enjoy.

How Are Those Numbers Being Used?

Steering the ElephantHaving lived in Louisiana for 7 years and appreciating its history, social vibrancy, culture, food, and music, I also came to appreciate its quirkier sides. I had a neighbor who thought that if a quart of beer could get cold after one day of refrigeration, it would be really cold after a week. I knew other people who would point up over their heads when answering the question, “Where is north?” There was a women living down the street who had scores of plastic rose buds blooming from her Camellia bushes all year round. And there are people there who do some very interesting things with chicken claws and other bird parts to keep the world in balance. So if someone were to ask me whether I thought it likely that a certain portion of the population of Louisiana, say less than 1.2%, thought the sun rose in the west rather than the east, I’d answer, ”possible… but not probable.”

Public Policy Polling released favorability data on August 21, 2013 for the State of Louisiana. The results from the poll included favorability ratings to questions about Presidential and State Governor performance levels, same sex marriage, gun sales background checks, Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln, Jesus Christ, prominent regional football coaches, and who was responsible for the lack of Federal response to Hurricane Katrina – George Bush or Barack Obama.

Guess which one was talked about in the News media?

Here are a few of the headlines:

More Louisiana Republicans Blame President Obama for Hurricane Katrina Response Than Bush

A Third Of Louisiana Republicans Blame Obama For Hurricane Katrina Response Under Bush

Forgetting the relevant Katrina detail, eight years later

Dana Milbank: Embracing misinformation on Obama

Every one of these, and many other articles, reported that 29% of Louisiana Republicans believed that Barack Obama was responsible for the lack of Federal response to Katrina. They went on to analyze why so many Republicans would believe this, or, gave reasons why Republicans would answer this way. Nowhere was there an analysis of the poll. Nowhere, in any of these articles, was there a reaction of ‘possible… but not probable.’

When I heard the report that 29% of Louisiana Republicans blamed Barack Obama for the lack of Federal response to Katrina (2005), my first reaction was, “Obama was not President then”, which lead to my second reaction, “Show me the data!” What were the polling questions, who was polled, how were they polled, how many were polled, and what was the margin of error?

Through an automated phone survey, (you know, the ones that come up on Caller ID as “Polling” or “Unavailable” – the one phone call we all have been waiting for and want to answer), 721 people were asked to respond to 26 questions. Within the 721 respondents, 274 identified themselves as Republicans and were asked 5 more questions.

From the 274 self-identified Republicans with the special extra 5 questions, 80 respondents (29%) answered question 2, stating that Barack Obama was responsible for the poor Federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The error rate for this question is +/- 5.9%.

Let’s put this into some context:

80 people out of a state population of 4.6 million people — 0.00174%
80 people out of 2.9 million people registered to vote — 0.00276%
80 people out of 789,000 registered Republicans — 0.01014%
80 people out of 186,000 Republicans likely to vote — 0.04301%
80 people who answered a robo-call and did not hang up!
80 people — using the survey sample and backward projecting to the population of likely voting Republicans — would represent 54,059 (+/- 5.9%) people
54,059 people as a proportion of the state population – 1.18%

Is it likely that 29% of Louisiana Republicans think that Barack Obama is responsible for the lack of Federal response to Hurricane Katrina?

Possible… but not probable.

Is it likely that the media, with all of its analytical resources, will publish and comment on scintillating statistics without questioning the statistic?

They did it, in this case. Likely, possible, or probable do not figure into it.

What about us? How likely are we to use a statistic without questioning its validity?



Steering the ElephantWhat did the sky look like today?

I have asked this question many times when first working with groups of people who are trying to reduce their reaction to negative stress. Almost universally I get a blank stare, unless all hell is breaking loose, with sirens going off and various things falling to the ground. Otherwise, they ask ,”Why?” As homework, I have them look at the sky for at least five minutes a day, before our next meeting. No other directions.

On any typical day, my experience is, most people do not know what the sky looks like. They know what the weather is supposed to be, but they do not look up, or out, long enough to take it in. I think that is unfortunate – a missed opportunity to take a meaningful, personal moment. Gazing at the sky is totally under your control.

These are just a few of my gazes:

RAR 1 2013


RAR 2 2013


RAR 3 2013


RAR 4 2013


RAR 5 2013


RAR 7 2013

 When people come to their next meeting on reducing negative stress, I ask if they have done their homework. Some have, some have not. We usually spend the next 15 or 20 minutes talking about what they have seen and how much they had missed by not looking up. Usually by the next meeting, everyone will have done their homework. By the fourth week, many times I have to limit the conversation on what they had seen. Sometimes, sunsets are all people can talk about. For many of these people, this simple activity becomes an important moment, something that is theirs, and if they are inclined, they can share their moment.

Once you begin to look at the sky, you want to tell someone about it.

Here’s some homework for you:

  1. Look up at the sky for a minimum total of five minutes each day
  2. Tell yourself what you are seeing
  3. Use your imagination
  4. Tell someone what you saw


Steering the ElephantMindfulness is the next great thing — that has been developing for thousands of years. Unless you have been living under a rock, you have at least heard about Mindfulness, if not read an article about it, or, participated in Mindfulness instruction and practices.

Since this is such an interesting and vibrant area, I am providing links to websites and blogs related to Mindfulness. The list will be updated periodically. To view updates in the future, go to the Table of Contents, on the right, and access this Mindfulness article – you will be brought back to this page. The latest sites will be on the top of the list. Remember, anything that is highlighted, italicized, or generally  looks different from the standard text, will probably take you to a source if you scroll over it and click it. Alternatively, you can go to the Mindfulness Links on the right for all the links in alphabetical order.

The Greatest Gift was Attention

…Multitask cofigurations…
… IBM System/360…
… Redefines the relationship between a program and a task…
… Mutiprogramming environment shifts the focus from one program, one task to shared code – many tasks each with own priority…
…Operating System/360 – task management, not program management…

Multitasking, in 1965 was described as a way for tasks, or processes, to be lined up so that the central processing unit ran at peak efficiency. Specifically,

In all multitask configurations, regardless of the manner in which tasks are created, existing tasks are arranged in a task queue according to priority… Control is always given to the highest priority task in the ready condition”.

Clearly, in 1965, multitasking was understood to mean task prioritization, minimizing wait states for computer central processing units.

Two and a half generations later, multitasking has moved from the realm of the computer to the parlance of human beings.  When applied to the human condition, the popular definition of multitasking has been modified to – doing many things at once, and doing them well.

While a CPU can be built to take advantage of task switching, the human brain cannot. There is a wealth of research demonstrating that even when we try multitasking, we are really task managing – rapidly switching our focus from one thing to another to another. When we try to do more than one thing at a time, problems occur. As an example, Dux and colleagues discuss the bottlenecks in the frontal region of the brain, which affects performance, when an individual tries to do more than one thing at a time. These bottlenecks create momentary wait states.  Monsell describes the response when changing from one task to the next and the subsequent degraded performance as a task switch cost.  Foerde describes two types of memory, declarative (an awareness of what has been learned) and habit (a lack of awareness of what has been learned), and how the two memory types vie to mediate task performance.  The outcome from this multitask competition can be that new learning cannot be used in a flexible, dynamic way, again negatively affecting performance.  We have a hard time with memory management in a multitasking situation.

Other research is showing that people who are high media multitaskers think that they are very good at juggling various tasks, when they really are not. Ophir, Nass, and Wagner found that not only are high media multitaskers not very good at performing tasks, they also found that high media multitaskers were more easily distracted by the environment than those who are low media multitaskers. The “high” group had difficulty determining what was important to pay attention to.

Before multitasking was elevated to something to be emulated, the behavior was defined as: being distracted, not paying attention, or losing concentration. Now people take pride in saying that they are good multitaskers, even in the face of mountains of research that says different. Wang and Tchernev found that one reason people multitask is that it makes them feel good, whether it helps them or not. These researchers go further suggesting, if you multitask today, there is a high probability that you will multitask more tomorrow.

So far I have concentrated on the internal effects of multitasking on an individual.  There are consequences externally to the individual as well. The obvious ones involve physical harm and destruction to others – cell phone use in cars is similar to driving while intoxicated at the legal limit. There also are subtle consequence to our relationships with others. In an interview conducted by Frontline, Clifford Nass discusses the long term effects of multitasking for individuals and posed the following,

“One of the biggest points here I think is, when I grew up, the greatest gift you could give someone was attention, and the best way to insult someone was to ignore them. …The greatest gift was attention. Well, if we’re in a society where the notion of attention as important is breaking apart, what now is the relationship glue between us? Because it’s always been attention.”

As our culture races to do more with less with all its technological advances and gadgets, it appears that we, individually and collectively, are creating a false hope that we can do many things at once, with little consequence. The science does not support this. What science does support is the notion that focusing on one task before moving onto the next task produces better performance. Not only can we keep our attention focused, we can demonstrate to others that we are paying attention. This brings us back to the original IBM definition of multitasking – task management to optimize the CPU, control is always given to the highest priority task in the ready condition.

The Way You See Is How You Think

Most of us never give any thought to how we see.  We just look at something, and there it is.  Clear as a bell.

Quickly look left or right and there is no blur.

One of the things interesting about this phenomenon of everything staying in focus is that while we perceive that our vision is very controlled and directional, the eye is constantly moving.  The purpose for this type of involuntary, coordinated, rapid eye movement (saccade) allows us to build a three dimensional map that represents what we are seeing.  When whatever we are looking at expands past 20° of view, our heads move slightly to keep the field of view continuous.  Our brains appear to hold on to an image for about 1/15 of a second.  If something occurs in our visual field during that time – like rapidly flipping through still pictures – we perceive a sense of continuous motion.  Involuntary rapid eye movements are controlled at two levels of our brain: cortically and subcortically.  The double connection helps us understand and see faster.

Major point #1 – You can only focus on one thing at a time – visually.

When we look at something, the center area of view is in focus with the rest of the visual field somewhat out of focus.  The following pictures illustrate how the eye focuses.  Start with the cake in the center of this picture.

When you look at the cake, it is in focus and the rest is slightly out of focus, or blurred. In the next picture, the focus is on the plate on the left.

As you move your gaze from the cake to the plate, the cake blurs and the plate is sharp.

Moving on to the glass in the upper right corner continues the pattern of new focus and blur

We see without being aware of what is going on because the:

  • time lapse is short,
  • optic nerve connects to two parts of the brain,
  • eyes rapidly move in a coordinated way.

In an earlier post on selective attention, I linked to a video – The Monkey Business Illusion – where the viewer is asked to count the number of ball passes made between team members.  I have shown this to a number of groups, and the viewers who focus on the passes and do not think about anything else, arrive at the right number.  There were also viewers who thought that someone on the other team was going to do something, so they tried to watch for that while counting.  None of these viewers counted the correct number of passes.

Every viewer to a person missed the forest for the trees.  If you have not seen the video, go look.  I have given you a hint – the other team plays by the rules, so that should not be a distraction.

Two things are going on in the video related to what people observe.  First, if visually focusing on the ball, the background is blurred.

The second component is an intellectual one.  The directions for the video tell the viewer to focus on certain parameters.  When processing the information presented, the viewer “blurs out” information not pertinent to the task.

 Due to the directions, the viewer’s intellectual focus is restricted more than normal as well.

Major point #2 – You can only focus on one thing at a time – intellectually.

Which leads me to the following conclusion:

Major point #3 – It is not possible to multi-task.  At best, you can rapidly serial task.

We can only focus on one thought, idea, or problem at a time.  When we think of something else, we move our intellectual focus to that, with the previous thought slightly blurred.  If those thoughts occur closely enough to each other in time, we perceive that they are occurring simultaneously.

Rapidly serial tasking can be distracting when trying to accomplish something, like trying to count passes or taking in your environment.  It also explains why people misunderstand what others are saying to them when the listener is “multitasking”.