Sunday, December 27, 2015

On The Importance of Tinkering

I recently read an article detailing how new hires at NASA's JPL lack a certain can-do problem solving ability that was evident in the older generation. Despite hiring the best and brightest from MIT and other ivy league schools, they were unable to solve novel problems that are encountered in the type of work that NASA does. Upon digging into their pasts it appears that most of this generation has never tinkered. Contrasted with the older generation who grew up taking things apart to see how they worked. The article laments that tinkerers are hard to find in today's up and coming generation.

I propose that the reason is rather simple: Modern devices are too complicated. We live in a day when every little thing imaginable has a microchip embedded in it. Inside that microchip are thousands of transistors, resisters, diodes, capacitors etc that make up all electronics. However, the modern microcontroller has taken over the function of these larger components and is effectively, a black box. When I was a kid, we would go down to the thrift store and pick up a load of old stereo systems and hack them apart for their components. We would then (try to) use these components to build various projects. These stereo systems were made up of discrete components that you could easily trace the circuits from. In fact, most of the cabinets contained a schematic diagram for repair shops to use. Today's young curious minds would have a hard time replicating our experiences. Open even the simplest electronic do-dad (if you can without busting it) and see if you can tell what anything does. All the discrete components are gone, replace by a single microcontroller with a swath of other miniature components that require specialized equipment to remove from the circuit board and would be pretty useless in a hobby project. Today, you can buy a plethora of small electronic kits to build anything from radios to glowing ties, but again, most of the components are pre packaged in a chip where the guts of the device are abstracted from the builder. It is kind of like ordering a Lego set where it is preassembled and actually is really just one big premoulded piece. All you need to do is add a couple of skids and attach the windows and boom, working helicopter.

Nowadays if you want to understand how anything works, you have to get a degree in advanced signal processing, electronics engineering, and manufacturing, and even then you only have a theoretical background. I miss the days when I could go to my local Radio Shack and pick up a 22k ohm resister and a spool of wire. You will be hard pressed to find any store that carries such things in your city, let alone neighborhood today.

The worst part is trying to get my kids to take interest in tinkering. They are perfectly satisfied with the black  box experience. They have complete faith in their electronic gizmos and never question how they work. I fear that in a generation or two, there will be no one left to build the next space ship because they will expect to be able to push a button and have it done for them.

Friday, April 11, 2014


This about sums up my entire life. Someone linked this to me at Tickld

ADHD is about having broken filters on your perception.

Normal people have a sort of mental secretary that takes the 99% of irrelevant crap that crosses their mind, and simply deletes it before they become consciously aware of it. As such, their mental workspace is like a huge clean whiteboard, ready to hold and organize useful information.

ADHD people... have no such luxury. Every single thing that comes in the front door gets written directly on the whiteboard in bold, underlined red letters, no matter what it is, and no matter what has to be erased in order for it to fit.

As such, if we're in the middle of some particularly important mental task, and our eye should happen to light upon... a doorknob, for instance, it's like someone burst into the room, clad in pink feathers and heralded by trumpets, screaming HEY LOOK EVERYONE, IT'S A DOORKNOB! LOOK AT IT! LOOK! IT OPENS THE DOOR IF YOU TURN IT! ISN'T THAT NEAT? I WONDER HOW THAT ACTUALLY WORKS DO YOU SUPPOSE THERE'S A CAM OR WHAT? MAYBE ITS SOME KIND OF SPRING WINCH AFFAIR ALTHOUGH THAT SEEMS KIND OF UNWORKABLE.

It's like living in a soft rain of post-it notes.

This happens every single waking moment, and we have to manually examine each thought, check for relevance, and try desperately to remember what the thing was we were thinking before it came along, if not. Most often we forget, and if we aren't caught up in the intricacies of doorknob engineering, we cast wildly about for context, trying to guess what the hell we were up to from the clues available.

On the other hand, we're extremely good at working out the context of random remarks, as we're effectively doing that all the time anyway.

We rely heavily on routine, and 90% of the time get by on autopilot. You can't get distracted from a sufficiently ingrained habit, no matter what useless crap is going on inside your head... unless someone goes and actually disrupts your routine. I've actually been distracted out of taking my lunch to work, on several occasions, by my wife reminding me to take my lunch to work. What the? Who? Oh, yeah, will do. Where was I? um... briefcase! Got it. Now keys.. okay, see you honey!

Also, there's a diminishing-returns thing going on when trying to concentrate on what you might call a non-interactive task. Entering a big block of numbers into a spreadsheet, for instance. Keeping focused on the task takes exponentially more effort each minute, for less and less result. If you've ever held a brick out at arm's length for an extended period, you'll know the feeling. That's why the internet, for instance, is like crack to us - it's a non-stop influx of constantly-new things, so we can flick from one to the next after only seconds. Its better/worse than pistachios.

The exception to this is a thing we get called hyper focus. Occasionally, when something just clicks with us, we can get ridiculously deeply drawn into it, and NOTHING can distract us. We've locked our metaphorical office door, and we're not coming out for anything short of a tornado.

Medication takes the edge off. It reduces the input, it tones down the fluster, it makes it easier to ignore trivial stuff, and it increases the maximum focus-time. Imagine steadicam for your skull. It also happens to make my vision go a little weird and loomy occasionally, and can reduce appetite a bit.

Hope this helps and please do share this so that more people can learn what its really like to have ADHD.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

They can do that?

So I met with the surgeon on Thursday. She tells me that they will remove part of two vertebrae to get to the tumor in something called a Laminectomy. They will then remove the tumor and stitch the muscles and tendons together over that spot without replacing the bone. I will have to lie perfectly still for 24 hours to allow the meninges to seal up. After that I should get up to move every couple of hours. I will likely be in the hospital for three or four days and then I can't lift more than 5 lbs for a full month after that. I can return to work once I can sit up long enough to type. This is going to be tough. But, with the help of the Lord, I can do hard things.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

On Finding Out That I Have a Tumor

I joined a club. It wasn't my idea, it just kinda happened. This is a club that nearly 1 in 3 people join at some time in their lives. Unlike many clubs, it isn't limited to a single area of interest. Its members cross all demographics and  types of people. Its initiation rite is administered by a doctor. In my case it was a phone call.

On Friday I had an MRI to look at what has been an ongoing issue. Since a year ago November, I have had numbness and burning in my legs. It started with my right quad and then quickly spread down my leg to my toes. A few months later it spread over to my left foot and across my backside. I went to see a doctor after a few months with no improvement or real change in symptoms. They quickly surmised it must be my back and ordered an MRI of my full spine and brain. Because my mother has M.S. they wanted to rule that out. I balked when they called to schedule the scan and told me what my out of pocket costs would be. Instead I said "No thanks" and went to a chiropractor. There was a nice Groupon deal for one in the area and it included a massage. The massage helped, the chiropractor made things worse.

The doctor told me to watch out for symptoms such as difficulty going to the bathroom. Naturally, I looked up the symptoms and came across cauda equina syndrome. All of the symptoms matched. Everywhere I looked it said go to the emergency room if you have any such symptoms. Of course, because I now had something to get really stressed over, I naturally obsessed over it. A few days later I was sure it was taking longer than usual to use the bathroom and the sensation was increasing in intensity so I had my wife drive me to the ER on a Sunday night. They wheeled me right into the MRI to scan my lumbar and what do you know? it was clean. In fact, it was very healthy. The doctor gave me some muscle relaxer and sent me home. I took it and felt amazing the next day. Almost all the symptoms were gone.

But they returned a short while later. At the time I was training for a triathlon that my wife had signed the whole family up for. She was on a fitness kick, which I was certainly supportive of. I had been running, biking, swimming and was the fittest I had ever been. However, I was not stretching before or after my workouts and I generally didn't know what I was doing. The doctor referred me to a specialist; a physiatrist. I had to have him write it down since I had never heard of this specialty before. The soonest they could see me was a month out. A neighbor recommended I see hers and I was able to get an appointment the next week so I did. He suggested I go to the physical therapist and referred me to their in house team. I set up an appointment and met with them a couple of times. They gave me some stretches to try. Most of them didn't help and some made it worse, but they gave me the knowledge of the nerves in the area of concern.

Armed with this new knowledge I went to the internet and again searched and lo and behold, another condition that matched my symptoms perfectly: piriformis syndrome. Everything fit, The recent move from couch potato to triathlete, the numbness and tingling, the burning. With this I went back to the physiatrist who declared it must be so and sent me back for more PT. Given the lack of improvement at their PT office however, I went to another practitioner whom my wife had had better success with and indeed I had myself on a previous flare up of tendonitis in my left foot. He gave me entirely different exercises and stretches and they alleviated my symptoms, though they did not eliminate them. I continued with this course for several months until the therapist that I liked in that office suddenly left to practice somewhere else.

By this time I had given up the triathlons and went back to my couch potato ways with the hope that it would reduce my symptoms further. During this time I had a flare up of pain in my groin. I went to the doctor who ordered another MRI, this time of my pelvis, which confirmed that pyriformis was an issue. but found no hernia, or indeed any cause for the groin pain.  For the rest of the summer and into the fall it neither lessened nor worsened considerably, however by winter, it was flaring up rather badly. At the first of the year (with a new FSA flush with cash again) I again made an appointment with the PT only this time a third office. She examined me and declared it must be my back despite my previous clean bill of health on that matter. Being outside of the university health network which is where the MRIs had been done meant she could not access those records. She gave me other exercises to try. Most made things worse.

I finally scheduled again to see the original physiatrist since he would have access to the MRI. After waiting a week for the appointment, he examined me and declared it to be neurological and referred me to their neurologist and to yet more PT. This time the PT helped again and I went for several weeks while waiting for an open appointment with the neurologist. The earliest was over a month out. When I finally got in to see her she did the pin prick test which the physiatrist had done, but took it all the way up my sides and back and found a clear line around the level of my belly button that was affected. She ordered an MRI. The same one which my original doctor ordered over a year ago. This time I insisted on the full scan. That meant another 3 week wait.

Friday I finally went in and was told I would have the results fist of next week. Less than three hours later however, I got a call from the Neurologist. She said my brain looked good. There were no issues with my upper spine either. However, there was a clear tumor on my thoracic spine and that I will need surgery to remove it immediately.

My world stopped.

That is something that only happens to other people.

The shock has begun to wear off. Since this was a Friday late afternoon, it meant that I have had the whole weekend to ponder this. I am hoping to meet with the surgeon this week and have the surgery complete withing the next week or two. Right now it is a waiting game.

As I have prayed, I feel to say "Thy will be done oh Lord" and to be grateful for the growth that can come from trials. I know that He is there and watching out for me and that no matter what the outcome, I will be ok because it is in His hands.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

When the right way isn't the right way

Recently I had an experience that affected me deeply. Seemingly out of nowhere I was prompted to move my family 50 miles north to another city. We put our house on the market, made preparations to move, and waited. Finally we felt we could wait no longer so even though we didn't have an offer, we went ahead and made one of our own on a house in the new city. We got approved and closed and moved. We waited nearly a year after that before we finally sold our first place at a loss.

I was angry at God. He told me to move but it didn't go the way I planned. I was frustrated at how we missed the market entirely. Even though looking back, there were numerous miracles that occurred to get us into this place and be able to afford two mortgages. It was clearly the hand of the Lord and I cannot deny it. Yet I was still angry because I wanted it to go the way I planned.

In almost everything I do, I feel there is one right way to do it. If I don't do it that way, even if it was successful, I feel like a failure. It is an OCD/Aspie thing I am sure.

Today I had a stark realization hit me. The thing is, there is only one right way to do things -  God's way. What ever he deems is right, is right. The insight that came to me was that even though the sale of our house and the move to a new city was not the "Ideal" way to me. It was exactly what God wanted for my family. He led us here and provided the means and just because it didn't go according to my plan, doesn't mean it isn't right.

I need to get over my way and let God work in my life and just do it his way. God doesn't promise it will be a bed of roses. He doesn't lead us down the pain free path that has no thorns or stones to trip us up. When the Isrealites were rescued from Egypt, they thought life should be easy. Instead the path led through the desert. When Lehi was told to take his family and leave, it wasn't a life of ease they were being led toward. The promised land isn't a land that took no work to live in. In fact, Nephi had this to say about it:
11 And the Lord was with us; and we did aprosper exceedingly; for we did sow seed, and we did reap again in abundance. And we began to raise flocks, and herds, and animals of every kind.
 12 And I, Nephi, had also brought the records which were engraven upon the aplates of brass; and also the bball, orccompass, which was prepared for my father by the hand of the Lord, according to that which is written.
 13 And it came to pass that we began to prosper exceedingly, and to multiply in the land.
 14 And I, Nephi, did take the asword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many bswords, lest by any means the people who were now called Lamanites should come upon us and destroy us; for I knew their chatred towards me and my children and those who were called my people.
 15 And I did teach my people to abuild buildings, and to bwork in all cmanner of wood, and of diron, and of copper, and of ebrass, and of steel, and of fgold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance.
 16 And I, Nephi, did abuild a btemple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of cSolomon save it were not built of so many dprecious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’setemple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of fSolomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine.
 17 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did cause my people to beaindustrious, and to blabor with their chands.

It wasn't until after all this that he summed it up this way:

 27 And it came to pass that we lived after the manner ofahappiness. 

Happiness comes from living by the Lord's way. Not our way. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

New Life

I have a new son. This is very significant seeing as how the last baby of mine that I held was nearly 11 years ago. This time around there are a lot of noticeable differences. This time, I am not frantically trying to take care of him while juggling midterms in my senior year in an engineering degree. This time I am not wondering if I can squeeze a few hours off of work to recover and still be able to pay rent. This time I have a pile of new clothes that generous friends and neighbors have brought by, along with all the trimmings of a proper nursery. I am not worried about being able to afford the doctor bills, diapers, and pacifiers. This time, as we went to the birth center (not the hospital) I was confident that all would go well. We had something of a birth plan. We knew what we were doing. Sure, there are a lot of things that can go wrong giving birth, but this time I was present and felt like I was contributing as I hummed for my wife to help her through each contraction.

Today, as I changed his diaper, he looked up at me with a peaceful and happy expression and I was suddenly hit with the overwhelming feeling of love that they talk about when you first hold your newborn in your arms. I had prayed for this. I was expecting it a while ago. I can honestly say, it is a new experience. The worries and cares I mentioned above precluded from my first encounters with my other children. Not that I don't love them as much. That love had to grow over years of time. This time was different. It was like a package of love that was dropped on the doorstep of my heart.

I have been reading the Old Testament and pondering how parenthood must have been like for Adam and Eve. How much we have changed and yet how much it is the same. How I never felt prepared for this parenting thing until now, and how generations pass on the same wisdom and follies of their parents. Adam was taught perfect instruction on how to raise a happy family. And yet he still had children who rebelled and fell away. In partaking of the fruit and signing up for the whole package of joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, it occurs to me that much of that came from his children. That is not very different from how Heavenly Father feels about his children.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Missing Alfredo: A Lesson in Empathy

It was one of those hectic weekends, where there is too much to do in the time you have. While we were out shopping, we decided to pick up something quick for dinner so we got a pan of the Costco chicken alfredo since it was conveniently on sale and it is something we all like. Upon arriving home, we had an hour to shower, eat, and get out the door to the evening session of stake conference. I popped the alfredo in the oven and noticed it said to cook for 40-60 minutes. Oh well, no time to eat then. We made it out the door with minutes to spare, giving our 12 year old daughter instructions on getting it out of the oven and serving it.

 After the meeting, which went longer than expected, we needed to pick up a few more things from the grocery store. By now my wife and I were both famished, but wanting to save money felt it best to go home and eat the dinner we had prepared, and which hopefully, had been put in the refrigerator and not left on the table for the cat to eat. Upon arriving we found that joy, it was put away, but upon removing the foil cover found to our disappointment that there was less than a single portion left for the two of us. On seeing this, my wife about broke down into tears. I was also disappointed as I had been looking forward to savoring this dish. We found our children in the basement in front of the tube raucously laughing at the movie they were watching and confronted them about the lack of vittles remaining to us, whereupon my daughter launches into accusations and excuses.

After splitting the remaining noodles and  paltry pieces of chicken that remained, and filling out the meal with a large salad, we waited until their movie ended and then sat our children down to discuss the situation. Actually, we had started with scripture study but it quickly became apparent that we needed to address the issue first. My wife accused our daughter of being selfish and she responded saying she didn't know she needed to save any for us, assuming we would get something while we were out. I said a prayer under my breath asking for the help of the Spirit. After a while of things getting worse, I realized what we were dealing with was a lack of empathy.

Now I just recently learned that it is extremely likely that I have Aspergers, an autistic spectrum disorder characterized by, among other things, a pronounced egocentricity and lack of empathy. Empathy is something I have struggled with my entire life. I could see that my daughter, who has many of my tendencies and character traits, also was struggling with this concept. I called a halt to the "discussion" and tried to focus it on the concept of empathy in these terms: that her choices had consequences which affected others, and whether malicious or not, or even intentional or not, caused us to lose out on a dinner we had been anticipating, causing disappointment and sorrow in us. We were not asking her to change it, that was impossible. We were not blaming her for our hunger, we are grown ups and can certainly feed ourselves. What we were asking from her was to see how her actions hurt us by trying to put herself in our shoes and acknowledging our feelings and to show some remorse.

It turned into a good lesson about the atonement and I realized that it was a lesson I had not fully comprehended until then either. Every day we do things to people to cause them pain. Physical, emotional, psychological, it doesn't matter. Even if it wasn't intentional or out of a sense of maliciousness, it can still happen. Sometimes there are ways we can make amends and sometimes there are not. Our daughter could not go back in time and undo her actions. She could not provide us with the same meal at the moment we wanted it. Acknowledging that and turning it over to the Lord, asking forgiveness of those we have harmed or offended is all we can do. Taking responsibility for the offense is important, even when it wasn't intended. This is a hard thing. It is something I have avoided most of my life. I am an  exceptional excuse maker and I see that my daughter has learned that skill very well. I want to change that about me.

 I don't know yet how to handle situations where someone calls foul and I have done nothing wrong. In other words I don't want to simply lie down and get steamrolled when I am not at fault. There is a fine balance that needs to be struck here and I need to investigate that one further. In the meantime, I will be sure to let my daughter know if she needs to save dinner for us when we are going out.