Archive for the ‘Time to Reflect’ Category

  • When “You Are Special” Is Not Enough

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    The advice about the “Intersection of Life and Work” is often rich on Penelope Trunk’s “Brazen Careerist” blog, but this week’s posting, “Time Management Is Not About Tasks,” is particularly insightful and practical.

    It’s all about the art of time well spent and constructive criticism vs vapid compliments.

    And don’t miss her reference to Get Rid of the Performance Review!: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing — and Focus on What Really Matters, a fascinating book by Samuel Culbert, professor at the UCLA school of business.

    Trunk does not blog on a fixed schedule. She says, “I post when I have something to say that may be of value to my readers.” I feel much the same about my blog and appreciate your patience through my sometimes lengthy gaps in publication and the fact that you do come back to read what I have to say.

  • The Minimalist’s Guide to Cultivating Passion

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    Today, one of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits, hosted a guest blogger, Cal Newport, who posted a fun and informative “Guide to Cultivating Passion.”

    No airy-fairy passion potion, this is a nitty-gritty, how-to find and nurture passionate pursuits in our own lives.

    Newport’s piece begins with a nod to comedian Steve Martin. He quotes from Martin’s 2007 memoir, Born Standing Up, where Martin says: “I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.”

    “If you do the math,” notes Newport, “this sums to fourteen years of hard work before Martin saw returns on his investment. That’s a long time to remain focused on a goal without reward, especially when the path is ambiguous (‘The course was more plodding than heroic,’ Martin recalls).  But as he makes clear in his book, Martin found a Zen peace in the simplicity of his pursuit. He describes with relish, for example, the importance of ‘diligence’ in becoming a star — a term he redefines to mean the ability to not work on unrelated projects — and he labels ‘loss of focus’ as an ‘indulgence’ that success cannot afford.”

    But Martin’s example is just the beginning of this great post. Newport goes on to say, “Even if we agree on their value, how do we find these passionate pursuits in our own lives? This is the thorny question I address in this post.”

    Whether you are lost in the wildernesss searching for your passion or, having identified it, are frozen in passion paralysis over the life-changing implications of this discovery, you need to read Newport’s analysis of the “thorny issues.”

    One tip, I particularly love is that, “You need to be exposed to many things…. You should expose yourself even though you might not know if you’ll be interested.”

    “Put another way,” says Newport: “take a step back; relax; then open your eyes to patiently take in all that’s out there.”

  • Aging Gracefully: 10 Ways to Age Like a Frenchwoman

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    First, we had Mireille Guiliano‘s humbling, but delectable, exposé French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, which has the indomitable French femmes moving from bread and chocolate to states of desire with barely a repressive nod.

    Then, Guiliano, ultra chic and, of course, skinny femme fatale that she is, tackled the boardroom in Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire: Business Sense and Sensibility, which captures the devoir of velvet gloves, words and handshakes amongst myriad other savvy and sophisticated workplace techniques.

    Now, as if these humbling how-to’s were not enough, Ann Morrison weighs in on the Mystique Francaise with her recent NY Times article: Aging Gracefully: the French [Woman’s] Way.

    Morrison’s ode to the femme fantastique, of a certain age, begins, “I OFTEN see an elderly woman in my Paris neighborhood waltzing down the street to her own imagined music, flashing a slightly demented smile at everyone she passes. Anywhere else, I would cross the street to avoid her. But she always wears a matching, if slightly kooky, outfit — like the red print skirt, loose cardigan and scarlet cloche hat she wore one day this spring — has great posture and is beautifully made up. She clearly loves being herself. And she makes me think that in France, women might forget everything else as they age — but never their sense of style.”

    “Looking attractive, at any age,” she continues, “is just what Frenchwomen do, especially the urban ones. For Parisiennes, maintaining their image is as natural as tying a perfect scarf or wearing stilettos on cobblestone streets. Beauty is a tradition handed down from generation to generation. …For Frenchwomen, aging seems to be a matter of mind over makeup. If women feel good about themselves, right down to their La Perla 100-euro panties, they look good, too. Françoise Sagan once wrote, ‘There is a certain age when a woman must be beautiful to be loved, and then there comes a time when she must be loved to be beautiful.’ And many Frenchwomen seem to be well loved as they get older — by their tight-knit families, their friends and, perhaps most importantly, themselves. Case in point: my loony neighbor — completely coordinated, perfectly made up, thoroughly French.”

    Before you throw up your hands and say peut-être in Paris but never in Pougkeepsie, read Morrison’s practical how-to: 10 Ways to Age Like a Frenchwoman.

    C’est la vie!

  • Creativity: Inspiration May Come Like a Bolt Out of the Blue But Execution May Take A Lifetime

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    Today’s artistic forensics – new digital imaging techniques, laser scanning, ultraviolet illumination and state-of-the-art computer software – are delivering fantastic insights about the creative process and how the artist works.

    Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society, New York

    High-Tech Matisse, the recent NY Times article by Carol Vogel, for example, describes how technology has revealed that Henri Matisse’s “Bathers by a River” went through a eight-year (1909-1917) evolutionary process as the artist revised the painting time and time again.

    Vogel notes, “Although art historians could always track the changes of that period by studying his [Matisse’s] paintings in progression, one by one, until recently they had no clear idea of exactly how those changes were developed: how much hands-on experimenting went into the new work and what formal processes of study, revision and rejection were involved. Now those mysteries have been largely solved, thanks to an extraordinary array of technologies deployed in putting together “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917,” an exhibition that opens next week [July 18, 2010] at the Museum of Modern Art. The show offers a rare opportunity to look beneath the surface of Matisse’s work to see a creative evolution that until now only his eyes had witnessed.”

    Matisse was already an international star when he returned to Paris from Morocco in the spring of 1913. At this time, “he began creating paintings that were simpler and more layered than the boldly colorful, sun-filled canvases that had been his signature. At the same time he started dipping his toe into Cubism, which was in full flower with younger artists like Juan Gris, Georges Braque and, of course, Pablo Picasso, whom Matisse began to see a lot during those years.”

    “While he admired Cubism for its inventiveness, the more instinctive Matisse was also suspicious of its intellectual emphasis. At the same time he also admired the work of Paul Cézanne — in particular his carefully constructed compositions — as Matisse began to reconsider his own working methods and fundamental ideas about making art.”

    By 1917, Matisse abandoned the Cubist approach and adopted a style closer to Impressionism. “He felt he’d done what he set out to do and thought it was crucial to keep changing,” said John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus at the Museum of Modern Art. “He didn’t want to become a prisoner of that style.”

    Matisse said, “Bathers by a River” was one of the most pivotal works in his career, and now we can see why. This visual eight-year timeline delineates the evolution of Matisse’s creative inspiration and execution in extraordinary ways.

  • Squirrels: What Senior Job Seekers Can Learn from the Furry Critter’s “Phenomenal Elasticity of Body, Brain and Behavior.”

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    Courtesy of Multiverse.org

    The more I discovered about the much maligned squirrel in this fascinating article, Nut, What Nut? by Natalie Angier, the more I realized the creature’s feisty spirit and resilient demeanor are the very attributes intrepid job seekers need.

    Did you realize:

    “Squirrels can leap a span 10 times the length of their body, roughly double what the best human long jumper can manage?”

    “They can rotate their ankles 180 degrees, and so keep a grip while climbing no matter which way they’re facing?”

    “Squirrels can learn by watching others — cross-phyletically, if need be. In their book Squirrels: The Animal Answer Guide, Richard W. Thorington Jr. and Katie Ferrell of the Smithsonian Institution described the safe-pedestrian approach of a gray squirrel eager to traverse a busy avenue near the White House. ‘The squirrel waited on the grass near a crosswalk until people began to cross the street,’ said the authors, ‘and then it crossed the street behind them.’”

    “’Its primary visual cortex is huge,’ said Jon H. Kaas, a comparative neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, ‘A squirrel’s peripheral vision is as sharp as its focal eyesight, which means it can see what’s above and beside it without moving its head.'”

    “A squirrel has the benefit of natural sunglasses, pale yellow lenses that cut down on glare….’Gray squirrels use their sharp, shaded vision to keep an eye on each other,’ reports Michael A. Steele of Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. Steele’s research team observed that, ‘when squirrels are certain that they are being watched, they will actively seek to deceive the would-be thieves. They’ll dig a hole, pretend to push an acorn in, and then cover it over, all the while keeping the prized seed hidden in their mouth.'”

    Amazing as these traits are, they amount to peanuts compared to this extraordinary eye-witness account of Squirrel daring do captured by Angier:

    “I was walking through the neighborhood one afternoon when, on turning a corner, I nearly tripped over a gray squirrel that was sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, eating a nut. Startled by my sudden appearance, the squirrel dashed out to the road — right in front of an oncoming car. Before I had time to scream, the squirrel had gotten caught in the car’s front hubcap, had spun around once like a cartoon character in a clothes dryer, and was spat back off. When the car drove away, the squirrel picked itself up, wobbled for a moment or two, and then resolutely hopped across the street.”

    That’s resilience! Just the kind needed to launch oneself into the job-seeking orbit and survive!

  • Aging: Pithy Perspectives from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Beyond

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    The Wizard of Oz's Glynda

    “Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese!” is the pungent observation from actress, Billie Burke, perhaps most famous for her role as Glynda the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz.

    In their book by the same title, authors Kathryn and Ross Petras, have collected such provocative insights and more in what they call their “manual for living well to celebrate the wisdom and perspective that so often go hand in hand with experience.”

    Their nuggets come from 350 individuals who are: “1.Over sixty; and 2.Have something to say.” The list of luminaries included is impressive and diverse; it is well worth a read.

    A second great read is Roger Rosenblatt’s, Rules on Aging: A Wry and Witty Guide to Life.

    Roger Rosenblatt, acclaimed essayist and NewsHour with Jim Lehrer regular contributor, boldly offers – not your standard How-to’s seven or even ten easy steps – but a “whopping 56 rules for wisely navigating life into your golden years.”

    Rosenblatt describes his brief treatise (a mere 140 pages) as a “little guide intended for people who wish to age successfully, or at all.” He adds that “growing older is as much an art as it is a science, and it requires fewer things to do than not to do.”

    His advice on everything from party etiquette to office politics (“Never work for anyone more insecure than yourself”) is valuable reading for any one at any age. In fact one reviewer commented: ” A person of any age can profit from it. Perhaps a better title would have been; ‘Rules That Give You a Fighting Chance to Reach Old Age Without Succumbing to Stress or Having Someone Kill You.'”

    Rule #31 is particularly pertinent in this regard: “Do not attempt to improve people, especially when you know it will help.” Rosenblatt, reflecting back to Rule #2  adds: “Nobody is thinking of you – unless you tell them about their faults. Then you may be sure that they are thinking about you. They are thinking of killing you.”

    This is a must read for anyone who has a tendency to take themselves too seriously!

  • Happy Independence Day!

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    Holiday greetings from Maine…

    Georgetown, Maine, photo by Elizabeth

    It is sometimes forgotten that Maine was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the American War for Independence. Our illustrious history – including a “sugar party,” pre-dating the more famous Boston Tea Party, which also fueled the fires of rebellion – can be found in this timeline from the Maine Historical Society.

    Five Islands, Maine, Lobster Pound, photo by Elizabeth

    We are renown for much more than our fabulous lobsters. Still, nothing can compare with grilling a fresh lobster and some corn on the cob for a holiday dinner to be topped off with a scoop of homemade ice cream crowned with strawberries picked that morning, and fireworks in the evening.

    We watch the fireworks sitting atop an old stonewall – remains of a fort which guarded the entrance to Casco Bay Harbor during the Revolutionary War. We also overlook the yard where hundreds of Liberty Ships were built and launched during World War II. Ironically those ships were modeled on a British vessel. Clearly, once we had achieved our independence from England and from Massachusetts, we began to share in a truly sportsmanlike manner, and – speaking of sports – that includes our love for the Massachusetts’ based, New England Patriots, Super Bowl Champions!


  • “Science is reshaping what we know about getting older. (The news is better than you think.)”

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    Illustration by Sarah Cline for Newsweek

    Jim Emerman, Executive Vice President, Civic Ventures, highlighted this fascinating Newsweek article, This Is Your Brain: Aging, on his recent web posting.

    I found these first words – “Science is reshaping what we know about getting older. (The news is better than you think.)” by Sharon Begley, science writer for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal, very encouraging. The rest of her article, I might add, is just as upbeat. That being said, I was predisposed to like it because I am a visual learner and I love the article’s accompanying art, which pictures six interconnected cog wheels chugging away in a spiffy looking brain.

    Begley points out how researcher, Timothy Salthouse, Director of the Salthouse Cognitive Aging Lab at the University of Virginia, was troubled by a paradox he identified in a graph he had created:

    “The graph shows two roller-coastering lines. One represents the proportion of people of each age who are in the top 25 percent on a standard lab test of reasoning ability—thinking. The other shows the proportion of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies of each age. Reasoning ability peaks at about age 28 and then plummets, tracing that well-known plunge that makes those older than 30 (OK, fine, 40) cringe: only 6 percent of top scorers are in their 50s, and only 4 percent are in their 60s. But the age distribution of CEOs is an almost perfect mirror image: it peaks just before age 60. About half are older than 55. And the number under 40 is about zero.”

    His deductions are: “First, in real life, rather than in psych labs, people rely on mental abilities that stand up very well to age and discover work-arounds for the mental skills that do fade. The second is that some mental abilities actually improve with age, and one of them may be the inchoate thing called wisdom, which is not a bad thing to have when running a company.”

    Begley says such insights: “are producing a dramatic, and hopeful, rethinking of what happens to the mind and brain as we age. Some of the earlier bad-news findings are being questioned as scientists discover that the differences between today’s 20-year-old brains and 80-year-old brains reflect something other than simple age, and instead have to do with how people live their lives. And a deeper understanding of normal cognitive aging is producing interventions that, because they target the cell-level brain changes that accompany aging, promise to be more effective than memory exercises and crossword puzzles.”

    Read the article in its entirety to learn more about recent brain research and about some of the successful “interventions” available to foster healthy aging. Begley includes free ones such as walking which is just as valuable for your brain as it is for your heart, lungs and waist line, and others, which she notes contain little or no value other than the revenues they will generate for those folks rushing in to take advantage of the anti-aging intervention market.

    Estrid Geersten, tandem parachute jumping at age 100. Courtesy, Guinness World Records

    Speaking of paradoxes, the article also contains a subset – a slide show by Tara Lewis of “Super Seniors,” achievers doing everything from skydiving to climbing Mt Everest.

    The paradox for me is that, other than Nola Ochs who graduated from college at age 95, are these “Super Seniors” really optimizing their cognitive reasoning skills in these wild escapades???

    Nola Ochs, Courtesy Charlie Riedel, AP

  • Rabbits, Privet Hedges and a Planters Peanut Bar: How John Updike Brought What Is Peculiar to the Moment to Glory

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    Many times we have tried to describe the importance of details – in your writing, your work and your self-marketing – in this blog.

    This morning, when I read Sam Tanenhaus’ article, John Updike’s Archive: A Great Writer at Work, I was struck by a remark he quoted from Adam Begley, a critic and literary journalist now at work on a biography of Updike. Begley said, “Updike’s archive may be the last great paper trail. Anyone interested in how a great writer works will find here as full an explanation as we’re likely to get.”

    Tanenhaus says, “In addition to literary ore, the archive offers a picture of an all-purpose, do-it-yourself man of letters who typed his own manuscripts, designed his own book jackets, chose type faces and binding cloth and kept careful lists of corrections (down to errant accent marks) for new editions of his work.”

    “Updike was also leaving a trail of clues to his works and days: an enormous archive fashioned as meticulously as one of his lathe-turned sentences. ‘The archive was vitally important to him,’ Mrs. Updike said in a telephone interview, especially in his last days. ‘He saw it not just as a collection of his working materials, but as also a record of the time he lived in.’ Today the material crowds an aisle and a half of metal shelving in the basement of Houghton Library, Harvard University’s rare book and manuscript repository.”

    “There is even a wrapper from a Planters Peanut Bar, as lovingly preserved as a pressed autumn leaf, evidently used by Updike to describe the moment when Rabbit, addicted to high-cholesterol junk food, greedily devours the candy and then, still unsatisfied, ‘dumps the sweet crumbs out of the wrapper into his palm and with his tongue licks them all up like an anteater’ — an early warning that he’s headed for a heart attack.”

    Be sure to listen to Updike’s remarks in the video interview included in this article.  Updike says, “I do not think of myself as writing stylishly but rather precisely.”

    He remembers details such as the time he described the way in which “a man who’s about to leave his wife runs his fingers over the top of a privet hedge.”

    Updike says, “This age needs men like Shakespeare, or Milton, or Pope; men who are filled with the strength of their cultures and do not transcend the limits of their age, but, working within the times, bring what is peculiar to the moment to glory. We need great artists who are willing to accept restrictions, and who love their environments with such vitality that they can produce an epic out of the Protestant ethic… Whatever the many failings of my work,” he concluded, “let it stand as a manifesto of my love for the time in which I was born.”

    We cannot all write like John Updike, but we can try to capture details “Peculiar to [our] moment.”  These are the details that will illuminate our lives, our experience and our passions – be it for the work we hope to continue or the manifesto we wish to leave behind.

  • Is Watson, the Machine that I.B.M. Hails as Its Latest and Greatest Super Computer, Truly “Smarter Than You Think”?

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    What Is I.B.M.’s Watson? by Clive Thompson is the first in a new NY Times Magazine series called “Smarter Than You Think.” The articles are designed to examine the recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics and their potential impact on society.

    My first quibble is just who does the NY Times “You” represent? Many of us are aware of the advances – and lack thereof – in AI (Artificial Intelligence), so I do not accept the “you” sui generis but we should not waste valuable blog time on semantics. Of course, we could argue that “Watson” is all about semantics, but we won’ let that impede our discussion here.

    First, we should make clear that Watson is not a super computer. Watson is actually a super program housed in a computer named Watson.  And, lest you think I.B.M. has crossed into the realm of clever fiction to name this computer after Sherlock Holme’s able assistant, Watson, as in, “It’s elementary my dear Watson!” I.B.M. has not. Watson is the last name of father and son Thomas Sr. and Jr., who led I.B.M. for more than 50 years.

    Thompson writes that, “For the last three years, I.B.M. scientists have been developing what they expect will be the world’s most advanced “question answering” machine, able to understand a question posed in everyday human elocution — “natural language,” as computer scientists call it — and respond with a precise, factual answer. In other words, it must do more than what search engines like Google and Bing do, which is merely point to a document where you might find the answer. It has to pluck out the correct answer itself. Technologists have long regarded this sort of artificial intelligence as a holy grail, because it would allow machines to converse more naturally with people, letting us ask questions instead of typing keywords. Software firms and university scientists have produced question-answering systems for years, but these have mostly been limited to simply phrased questions. Nobody ever tackled “Jeopardy!” because experts assumed that even for the latest artificial intelligence, the game was simply too hard: the clues are too puzzling and allusive, and the breadth of trivia is too wide.”

    Ahhh, clearly I have missed a beat here. I never realized that “Jeopardy!” was the sine qua non of intelligence.

    Thompson reports, David Ferrucci’s, I.B.M.’s senior manager for its Semantic Analysis and Integration department, and head of the Watson project, main breakthrough [my note: in creating a program aka super computer which could compete on “Jeopardy!”] “was not the design of any single, brilliant new technique for analyzing language. Indeed, many of the statistical techniques Watson employs were already well known by computer scientists. One important thing that makes Watson so different is its enormous speed and memory. Taking advantage of I.B.M.’s supercomputing heft, Ferrucci’s team input millions of documents into Watson to build up its knowledge base — including, he says, “books, reference material, any sort of dictionary, thesauri, folksonomies, taxonomies, encyclopedias, any kind of reference material you can imagine getting your hands on or licensing. Novels, bibles, plays.”

    Watson’s speed allows it to try thousands of ways of simultaneously tackling a “Jeopardy!” clue. Most question-answering systems rely on a handful of algorithms, but Ferrucci decided this was why those systems do not work very well: no single algorithm can simulate the human ability to parse language and facts. Instead, Watson uses more than a hundred algorithms at the same time to analyze a question in different ways, generating hundreds of possible solutions. Another set of algorithms ranks these answers according to plausibility; for example, if dozens of algorithms working in different directions all arrive at the same answer, it’s more likely to be the right one. In essence, Watson thinks in probabilities. It produces not one single “right” answer, but an enormous number of possibilities, then ranks them by assessing how likely each one is to answer the question.”

    Read the article in its entirety for it is fascinating in unexpected ways. And you, too, can pit your mettle against Watson’s in your own personal game of “Jeopardy!”: Watson Trivia Challenge. Above all, do not miss the readers’ rich, intelligent and reasoned comments on this article. I have included a few (anonymously) below:

    Comment # 4.  “…But it’s been a long time since we’ve been toying with this idea of a computer competing with a human for intelligent answers to questions. Take a look at the 1957 movie “Desk Set” with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.”

    Comment # 6. “While I am certainly impressed by it, Watson is not truly artificial intelligence or the holy grail that represents. AI requires abstraction, creativity, situational awareness and so forth. This is a speech recognition to keyword database search to speech synthesis machine on steroids. Impressive gimmick, but no HAL9000.”

    Comment #14. (Speaking of purchasing stocks) “Predicting the illogical or ‘gut’ feelings of a given investor is not possible since the investor has no idea what they will do until they do it. It would be difficult to write an algorithm that can predict the random behavior involved with such choices.”

    Comment # 36. “Watson reminds me of the computer in the old I.B.M. building on 57th and Madison that had a computer and printer/typewriter in the window. You could ask it questions and it would come up with answers. So what’s new? It’s still all about the programming, and still all about how much information can be crammed into Watson’s very limited — compared to a human being’s — memory.”

    One of my particular favorites is # 32. “The real question is whether Watson, not being human, can ever ‘learn’ from its mistakes?”

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