Complacency and American Girl Dolls

Two recent books warn Americans that our society stagnated after the moon landing: The Decadent Society and The Complacent Class. Both imply that the 2000’s are running on the fumes of the Saturn V rocket. We have barely altered our physical world in decades, improvements in cell phones notwithstanding.

This has launched an interesting debate (you could even call it a game) where people look for counterexamples. Here’s the most recent one I’ve seen

This week I saw a reinforcing example of stagnation.

In the 1990’s I used to read the American Girl doll catalogue from cover to cover every year. Everything is terribly expensive but also delightful to look at. I had the Molly doll and I read a few AG books about how she was inconvenienced on the homefront during World War II. She complained about having to eat turnips from a Victory garden, but she was encouraged to be patriotic and support a cause greater than herself. Her father is away with the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

I was a little dismayed when I saw that you can now buy a mini Molly doll for your 80’s doll. My life is now “historical”, so I am officially old. Great.

It’s not lost on me that American Girl is playing on nostalgia to sell more product. Millennials like myself might buy this mini Molly doll so we can re-live memories of childhood vicariously. However, I’m going to use this to illustrate “the great stagnation”.

You can be inwardly focused or outwardly focused. The WWII war effort was a time when America was dynamic and focused on achieving great things.

“Courtney” the 80’s doll is pictured next to a Pac-Man arcade machine. Her goal is to keep herself sufficiently entertained. She can listen to her Walkman if Pac-Man gets boring.

Today, 40 years later, people are still starting at screens just like Courtney the 80’s doll. The reason we are buying a mini 1940’s doll to gift to a 1980’s doll is because so little has happened since 1980.

You can make jokes about an infinite recursion of American Girl dolls. It’s funny because it won’t happen. You can be inwardly focused or outwardly focused. Molly’s America is outwardly focused, and that makes her exciting.

I don’t think anyone is going to give a 2050 doll a mini Courtney 80’s doll. I’m even more certain that no 2050 doll is going to get a mini 2010 doll complete with tiny 2010 iPhone.

Maybe by 2040, there will be something new to ignite the imagination.

Incidentally, LEGO seems to think humans will be on Mars soon.

EWED Recommends Gifts for 2020 Holidays

For the past two weeks, several of us have been describing books and items we enjoy. I’ll summarize all of these potential gifts for both adults and children here. We’ve got everything from what goes in a perfect cocktail to gifts under $20 for toddlers. Hopefully this helps you cross someone off your holiday shopping list.

Things for Adults

Lined pants for cold weather (Joy’s review)

The gift blog that has the most reader traffic to date is Jeremy’s blog on cocktail ice. The True Ice mold is going to transform your home bar.

Along the same theme, Doug suggests ingredients for an Old Fashioned.

More light will make you happier. For example the Day-Light Sky Lamp (Scott’s review)

Scott reviews camping tents. The Ozark Trails 9-Person Instant Cabin is fun and huge and easy to set up.

Books for Adults

Jeremy says Werner Troesken’s book The Pox of Liberty is a great book for understanding the current pandemic. Interestingly, it was published in 2016! We have been vulnerable to a disease outbreak for a long time.

Doug recommends The Sabbath. Doug made a great point in his review that people in quarantine might not be getting any rest even though their schedule might look empty. A quote from Doug’s review: “genuine rest — not diversion — seems necessary in the tensions of our present moment.”

Review of How the Scots Invented the Modern World. I’ll borrow from the book’s own tagline “How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World”

Doug reviews The Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture (a set of books).

Undergraduate students review Tyler Cowen’s excellent The Complacent Class of The Complacent Class. Review #1 and #2.

for Kids

Joy suggests several different toys for kids. See the blog for a bike and a tablet game. A fail-safe mid-budget present for a 4-8 year-old is this remote control car ($25). For the even younger crowd (I suppose geared toward girls) is  Minnie Wooden Magnetic Dress-Up ($10).

Joy reviews several books for kids. Most recently, I have been reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with my elementary-aged son and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s important to read fiction together. We are having great talks about these vignettes on the sea voyage.

Gift for adults in cold weather

It can be hard to shop for adults. I received a GREAT adult Christmas present last year: fuzzy pants. You might already have pants, but do you have fuzzy lined pants?

As far as I know, Eddie Bauer is the best brand for this. https://www.eddiebauer.com/s/men-s-lined-pants?keyword=Men%27s%20LIned%20Pants will get you started. They have lined pants for men and women.

This makes a good Christmas present because, for many people, it’s cold at Christmas time. These pants are a game changer for being happy in cold weather.

Something to be aware of is that these pants are not good for hot weather. If you have a long hot season where you live, then these pants can go into storage for a bit.

Ice!

Continuing with our gift recommendations, Joy has asked us to recommend another gift besides a book (see my recommendation of The Pox of Liberty last week). I have one clear recommendation: ice. But not just any ice: clear ice.

Some of you might wonder what all the fuss about ice is. But if you have every been to a cocktail bar, you can clearly see the difference: clear ice just looks better. I won’t make any strong claim that clear is has better flavor. This value is primarily aesthetic. It’s a little indulgent. But it’s worth it. Since we’re all drinking more at home, recreating the charms of a good bar is half of the fun.

How do you get clear ice? You might find many suggestions on the internet, such as using distilled water or boiling your water. These don’t work. A few years ago, you only had two good options: buy a Kold-Draft machine for several thousand dollar, or get your ice out of a lake.

Thankfully today, there are many ice cube molds on the market that simulate the way nature makes ice: slow, directional freezing. The best one I know of is called True Ice, but you can find other similar molds. These are all around $40. Perhaps it is a bit much for yourself, but the point of gift giving is to find something the recipient wouldn’t have thought to purchase themselves, and they still enjoy. Otherwise, just give them cash!

And furthermore, while $40 for a mold that produces something your refrigerator already makes might seem silly, keep in mind that ice has a long history of being a luxury product. For fascinating history of the early commercialization of ice, read this article about Frederic “The Ice King” Tudor (for a longer treatment read The Frozen Water Trade).

Here are two cubes I made at home with the molds described in this blog post. Can you tell the difference?

Of course, I am assuming that you already have a basic 2 inch ice cube tray. If you don’t already, start with the Tovolo King Cube Mold before you really get into clear ice. These cubes are great for drinks that don’t need a clear cube since they aren’t clear themselves. They are also the perfect size for shaking cocktails.

And one last thing: fancy ice cubes aren’t just for alcoholic cocktails. Kids love them too. Put some plastic army men or other little toys in the ice cubes as they freeze, and they make great bath toys.

One final tip: if you pull an ice cube directly from the freezer and pour room-temperature liquid over it, the ice will break, ruining your beautiful creation. Set the ice out for about 60 seconds before pouring that delicious drink.

Brighten Your Day with a Light Therapy Lamp

It is that time of year in the Northern Hemisphere when the days are getting shorter, the nights longer, and the sun hangs lower in the sky. Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) probably affects all of us to some extent. What to do?

Well, I understand that studies have shown that exposing your retinas to bright light, in the sunlight wavelengths, can improve mood and functioning. A variety of therapeutic lamps are available. Some of the least expensive ones sit on your table or desk, and shine up at a slight angle while you read or watch a movie. An example of this type is the Nature Bright SunTouch Plus ( $49 ), shown below. The lamp is ideally positioned quite close to your eyes, say 12 inches (30 cm), in order to get the recommended photons into them.

Our family has gotten a lot of mileage out of a somewhat more expensive but more versatile lamp. This is the Day-Light Sky lamp  ($113).

It has joints at the top and the bottom of its support arm, so you can use it like a desk lamp, to give strong lighting to some project you are working on, or have it therapeutically shine into your eyes, like this happy camper:

In that mode, you’d want to keep your gaze level or only slightly downward, since not much light would get into your pupils if you had your head down reading. Our family uses this on the counter or table whilst preparing or eating breakfast (it is best to get your photons in early in the day). It also works well positioned beside your shoulder as a cheery reading light.

Joy Recommends Toys 2020

We at EWED are making recommendations for holiday gifts. This post is about items that my kids are actually using.

I’ll be putting up links for your convenience. I have gotten lots of kid stuff from neighbors, either buying through websites or just be getting hand me downs. I love the idea of re-using kid items and clothes.

FUN remote-control car. “RC Cars Stunt Car Toy, Amicool 4WD” It doesn’t get stuck. It can flip over and go over many terrain types. It’s not large, meaning it doesn’t take up a lot of room in your house, but it delivers a lot of fun! Can be fun both indoors and outdoors. ($25)

Bikes: You have probably heard about balance bikes. We started on a Strider balance bike (no wheels, kids just kick to go forward).

I wanted to make the transition from balance bike to pedal bike and skip the training wheels stage. I was able to do that, but another item was necessary. Get a pedal bike that is SMALL. I actually got mine from a neighbor, but I found a link that looks similar. The bike in the link has training wheels, but I assume you can take them off. If the wheels of their first pedal bike are SMALL, then they can’t get hurt and the can’t go very fast. My 5-year-old thinks this is really fun. I don’t have the headaches of either him getting injured or worrying that he’ll take off and be out of sight quickly.

Great cheap toy for a toddler. My 2 year old loves the Melissa & Doug Minnie Wooden Magnetic Dress-Up. This has inspired hours of play and conversation. ($10)

Let’s be honest. The kids are getting screen time. When the pandemic hit and daycare (temporarily) closed, I decided to get much more lenient than I had been before about screen time.

Magnus Kingdom of Chess is a great tablet game ($8). My 5-year-old son plays it on an iPad mini. I had made some unsuccessful efforts to interest him in real chess before buying the game. He loves the video game, but what’s amazing is that since he’s started playing the video game, he has become much more interested in playing actual chess with me. In fact, he asks me to play him in chess now. Before I used to worry that how would he even succeed if he hadn’t mastered chess by age 5. Now, he’s actually asking me to play him in chess and I’m thinking secretly ‘I don’t have time for this. Shouldn’t you be playing outside?’. (In our case, my son got some help from parents with playing the game. He might have had a hard time doing it completely by himself.) Let me be quite clear, my son has NOT mastered chess, but his understanding of the pieces really went up because of the video game.

There are also several completely free great apps made by Khan Kids and PBS Kids.

Camping in Style in an “Instant Cabin” Tent

This is the time of year when we often think of gifts to give to others, or for others to give to us, if they are so moved. So I will share an item which took a bit of research to lock in on, and which has worked out very well in practice.

When I was in my teens, I was content to throw a sleeping bag on a tarp right on the ground when camping. In my 20s, I used a half inch thick dense foam pad, a classic Ridge Rest. I wanted a little more cushion under me in my 30s, and so graduated to a 1.5 inch thick self-inflating sleeping pad like this Stansport. For backpacking in my 40s and 50s, I craved yet more air space underneath me, especially for curling up on my side, and got good usage out of a narrow, 2.5 inch thick inflatable sleeping pad.

Now my wife and I are pretty much done with roughing it. We still enjoy the great outdoors, but find we enjoy it even more when we have essentially all the comforts of home, which includes a full size queen air mattress. It takes a pretty big tent to accommodate that plus all our other gear, without feeling squashed.

I have had some large tents in the past, which were very tedious to set up. So I was pleased to find a huge, airy tent, which almost erects itself. This is the Ozark Trails 9-Person Instant Cabin.

Image from Amazon website

The main room is 9 x 14 ft, which is plenty big for glamor-camping (glamping) for two people. In huddled masses mode, probably 8 bodies would fit comfortably. The tent has a screen room across the front, for a bug-free place to sit. The fly over the screen room provides a roof over the door to the main room, keeping out rain even when the tent door is opened.  Here are two views from within on our latest camping trip, first looking out the door through the screen room, and then looking straight up through the roof before we put the fly over the tent at the end of the day.

As an engineer, I am tickled by the clever joints that allow you to make the structure arise with just a few strategic tugs. Going from stage 2 to stage 3 in the photo below takes all of fifteen seconds. Taking the tent down for storage simply involves doing all these motions in reverse. The tent itself stays always attached to the poles.

Image from Amazon website

The only major drawback is the price, about $300, which is a lot for a tent. Considering our wants at this stage, for us that is a fair exchange. It gives us much of the space and utility of a small pop-up camper trailer, for a fraction of the cost.

Teaching with SAS Viya: First Report

I teach a 400-level data analytics course to undergraduates at the Samford business school. Every semester, I have students apply the concepts we learn by using some analytics software. This semester, it was imperative that I choose a product that students could access from their own computers. We cannot all be together in the computer labs due to Covid.

For the first time, I am using SAS Viya for Learners. Currently, the students are learning SAS Visual Analytics through the Viya platform. SAS makes detailed tutorials that make it easy to teach software to a class. Something that I’m particularly happy about this Friday is that the product works. Class time is not getting chewed up by students who get errors that are difficult to troubleshoot.

(Of course, I tested the software myself before asking students to use it. Anyone who has taught large classes knows that there is no way to fully anticipate the problems that could arise when dozens of humans with different computers all try to do something.)

Something to know about SAS Viya for Learners is that it is free but the free version does not come with the whole range of functionality that SAS Visual Analytics offers. What seems most significant to me currently is that students cannot upload data into the program. There is a library of datasets to work with. That is what we are using for demonstrations and homeworks.

In previous semesters, students have been instructed to find their own data online and use that for their final project. This semester, students will use data that is pre-loaded into the SAS Viya for Learners library. There are many right ways to do a final project. Having less decisions to make about what data to use will allow students to focus more on the analysis and presentation.

So far, all we have done is logged in and built confidence with the interface. That’s the first step with any software. It works. The tutorials give excellent guidance. I will post another update as we get further along with SAS Viya.

No coding is needed (not even SAS coding). I have concluded that coding and data analytics are separate skills. They are both good skills to have. Sometimes teaching coding along with data analytics is appropriate. But the trade off needs to be recognized. Time spent learning to code, to some extent, takes away time spent learning about data analytics. Feel free to fight me on that in the comments if you disagree.

I also use a textbook to teach this course. So, SAS Viya is not the only resource.

Least Hypocritical Artist: Rich Mullins

I’m creating a new award: Least Hypocritical Artist Award. Rich Mullins is the winner.

The most human and not-overly-polished collection of works by Rich Mullins can be found here. You have to order it as a CD. I do not know of any digital platforms selling it. I bought a used copy for less than $3.

Since I have a CD player in my kitchen (left there by prior home owner) I have been listening to this album all week. Rich Mullins is a tremendously talented musician. These album tracks are live concert performances with jokes and introductions. Maybe I appreciate it especially this month because concerts and public gatherings cancelled for Covid. A DVD of a live concert is also included with the CD.

Because of social media, artists are getting in trouble when they say something that doesn’t fit the polished image their managers try to cultivate. Public figures disappoint sometimes. The spectacular fall of Jerry Falwell last month is an example of someone who presented a certain image to the world that turned out to be false.

Rich Mullins claimed to be a Christian, but he didn’t claim to be perfect. Rich Mullins put his whole heart and life out there. No surprises. You can’t disappoint your fans if you never tried to hide anything. Mullins was a bit self-deprecating in public but radically generous in his private life. He followed the example of St. Francis of Assisi. He lived very simply despite his modest professional success.

Mullins tragically died in a car accident at the age of 41 in 1997, when I was still too young to fully appreciate him. You can find his best selling albums and you can buy his popular songs on iTunes. This album is the best one that I have found for getting to know the man.

Bento Lunchbox Centerfold

The magazine version of school lunches is like the magazine version of humans. It’s unbelievable. My header image for this post is a picture I took of a glossy centerfold in Parents magazine.

I can’t stop looking at these bright colors and whimsical shapes. Are there parents who cut food into stars for their kids on a daily basis? As soon as women were told that we don’t have to physically measure up to supermodels, we immediately joined the bento lunch rat race. Check out this one from Instagram!

Personally, I am content to drool over the contrasting bright colors in the pictures of supermodel bento lunches and yet also never make them myself. I am new to the school lunch packing world. So far I have made PB&J on wheat every day. Take it or leave it, kid. Nothing smiles at my son when he opens his lunchbox.

As much as I refuse to join the bento beauty contest, I do like to pack fun sides in my son’s lunch. Fruit, cookies or pretzels add crunch. It was the cute unattainable pictures that inspired me to invest in this bento-style lunchbox.

That link will take you to the product on Amazon that I bought and really like. My 5 year old can navigate the snaps. It’s well made. You can take it apart and clean it easily. The extra compartments make it easy to add snacks that stay crisp.

The alternative is to send several items in zip lock plastic bags that mush around in a (semi-waterproof, maybe) zipper lunchbox. ‘When I was a boy’ (girl, actually) that’s what we had. I love NOT having that mess of moist flaccid baggies to deal with.

Econ Pop Up: Lunch boxes are qualitatively better than they used to be. Cell phones are obviously better than they used to be. This makes is difficult to accurately measure inflation. The US government tries. They track how prices of products change over time. Usually, products become a bit more expensive every year. We say that the real purchasing power of $100 declines with inflation. However, I’m glad that I live today. I’d rather have $100 to spend today on our better stuff than $100 to spend in 1994 when I was toting my soggy lunchbox to school.