Learning, again


Last month I talked about how my father would teach me to count whenever we went somewhere in the car. I have always greatly enjoyed learning new stuff. I loved school and I always enjoyed beginning a new job – the computers, the software, the people and all the processes and procedures found at every company. I enjoyed it so much that I went to work at a new job forty or fifty times in my career, not to mention learning new people and skills numerous times in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics.

Now that I am retired and have a little bit of free time, I spend much of my time learning from the huge number of tools available on the Internet just by using my smartphone. During my TBI rehab at the Centre for Neuro Skills the therapists often used online TED Talks to help us learn more about the mental and physical problems we were experiencing from brain injuries, strokes and other learning disabilities. I really enjoyed learning so much just by watching and listening to these talks, especially since my ability to read is so limited. I could just sit and learn.

So after I was out of rehab and on my own I began looking for other online sources of education that did not require a lot of reading. The first thing I found was Curiosity where I get informed with 5 new amazing topics, delivered daily. For example, today’s topics are “Universal immune cells may have cured two babies of leukemia: Off-the-shelf, on-the-spot cancer therapy could be around the corner,” “The first Big Mac ATM popped up in Boston in 2017: Could robots replace fast-food workers?” “You can watch Dutch people take illicit drugs online in the name of science: They trip so you don’t have to,” “Kids prefer pets to their siblings: But boys and girls view pets a little differently” and “A single LEGO brick can take 950 lbs of pressure before it cracks.” These topics range from subjects like medicine, technology, research and the universe to history, science and much more. Every day I get five more of these memory expanding presentations most of which are spoken and displayed with little or no reading required. For the few that are mostly text, I have learned how to pause the presentation so I can read it.

In addition to Curiosity I have found many more such learning opportunities online, many of them on YouTubeList25, Today I Found Out, SciShow, Healthcare Triage (by Dr. Aaron Carroll),  Big Think, The School of Life, Wonder Why, Inside Science, Gross Science, Thoughty2, How the World Works, etc. (like Curiosity covering a wide variety of interesting knowledge topics). By also using blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and other online media sources, I learn about other kinds of knowledge from politics (Reason magazine, The Fifth Column), skepticism (James Randi, Richard Dawkins, Penn Jillette, Neil deGrasse Tyson) and statistics (Gapminder from the late Hans Rosling). I also watch a few things on TV, mostly on PBS, such as NOVA, Nature, FRONTLINE, PBS News Hour and Washington Week, but also skeptics like Mythbusters (Discovery Channel) and Adam Ruins Everything (truTV).

So you can see I am not lacking for things to do. So now I must stop writing this blog and go watch my learning sources.


My memory


My son Evan and his wife Mirjam moved into our house in Garland just over a year ago, bringing with them my beautiful granddaughter Ellie Jade, who is now twenty months old. I get to spend quality time with her every day, and of course I especially enjoy seeing her learning to speak, count, identify colors, our names, and everything else. Just a couple of months ago she could not correctly name any of the colors – they were all purple – but since then she has really learned to nail it. Red, blue, yellow, black, white, (and of course, purple) – she knows them all. Whether it is the color of everyone’s clothes, cars on the street or pictures she sees on TV or in her books, she can recognize and remember quite a few.

Last night Mirjam was working with her on a clock puzzle where Ellie had to name and arrange the numbers from one to twelve on the face of the toy clock. Ellie is not able to do these numbers yet, often giving the wrong number, but I know it won’t be long before she masters this learning drilling.

Of course working with Ellie like this brings back my own childhood education. For me the worst part of my traumatic brain injury is the loss of so much of my memory.

My parents spent a lot of time working with me just as Mirjam and Evan are now doing with Ellie. I remember riding in the back seat of our car while my father would have me count as high as I could. It took me forever getting up to twenty – this was when I was about two – until I figured out that after you reach twenty all the rest of the integers were simply the first ten digits with “ty” added as suffixes. One through ten were easy, but eleven through twenty were different enough that it took several more months. But the rules for everything beyond twenty were so repetitive that I could easily count to a hundred and beyond by the time I was three.

I also recall my father giving me lots of logic problems to expand my way of thinking. One that I recall was this: If a bottle and a cork cost a dollar and a dime, and the bottle costs a dollar more than the cork, how much does the cork cost? The quick intuitive answer is 10¢, but when I thought hard about it I realized 10 cents is only 90¢ less than a dollar. The bottle actually casts $1.05 making it one dollar more than the nickel cork.

Basically my father was teaching me to be skeptical about what everyone else tried to tell me, because many things we are told are simply just wrong. He would say, “don’t follow the crowd, but thing for yourself and always ask for scientific proof, not just opinion.”

Those were the kinds or things my father taught me throughout my childhood and that I hope to pass on to Ellie. Don’t just take things at face value, but learn to examine everything and think for yourself.


Why my reading problems are so disheartening

Kansas City Missouri

Kansas City Missouri

Besides my memory problems, not being able to read very well is a devastating result of my brain injury. Mostly the problem is how slowly I read now, although there is still some problem with not being able sometimes to remember which letter is which. It is similar to dyslexia – it can take me a few seconds to figure out which letter is which, especially with certain letters, like P and R or M and N. What makes this so extremely frustrating is that I have been reading since I was four years old.

I taught myself to read from watching television. My parents had a daily subscription to the Dallas Morning News and each morning they would take the daily TV listing, which in those days was just four stations – channels 8 (ABC), 4 (CBS), 5 (NBC) and 11 (Independent) – channel 13 (KERA/PBS) wasn’t established until 1960), and fold it into a small rectangle about four inches wide and ten or twelve inches long. The schedule showed those four channels between 6am and midnight for each day. I had already learned to tell time by then and would compare what was written on the schedule with the name of the program that came on the TV. This included Roy Rodgers, Romper Room, Mickey Mouse, Sky King, My Friend Flicka and many others.

I already mentioned that I learned early on how to tell time. And in addition to early reading I’m told I was swimming by the time I was three – I don’t recall ever not being able to swim – I could read maps and count before I started kindergarten at five. Texas did not have public kindergartens back then but my parents sent me to a private one, St John’s Episcopal School, near White Rock Lake. (St John’s moved a few blocks east and the building where I attended kindergarten is now Dallas Academy.)

So with all this self-education, I would often go with my parents and my grandmother, Mamaw (Mary Elizabeth Cassidy Spreng) to Garland’s Nicholson Memorial Library to get books to read. I really enjoyed the library’s collection of children’s biographies and by the time I was ten I had read them all, mostly about the presidents, inventors, scientists, and others.

When I was twelve my other grandmother, Ella Mae Shaw Teague, and I rode a train from Dallas to Minneapolis to spend the summer with our family in Wisconsin. My parents drove up at the end of August to bring us back to Texas. As usual my father drove – I was only twelve – and my mother, the family navigator, manned the Rand McNally road atlas. This was in the days when much of the Interstate Highway system was still being built and we had problems in Kansas City. I-35 took us over the toll bridge over the Missouri River, but then dumped us onto city streets where mom could not find where I-35 picked up again. So we made our way back across the river where we tried again. And again. By the third attempt, the toll taker recognized us and let us cross a third time without having to pay. We Mom still could not figure out how to get back on I-35, Dad had her give me the atlas to let me try. Sure enough, I found her mistake and got us back on our way to Texas. From that time on, I was the family navigator.

I realize all of this sounds like bragging, but It’s not my fault. I just had a mind that could quickly learn and remember much of what I heard and read. I never really had to study, not even in college. So it’s now so hard for me to have lost the power of my memory and my ability to read well.

Autonomous automobiles

Google Self Driving Car

Google Self Driving Car

“Tesla, Nissan, Google, and several carmakers have declared that they will have commercial self-driving cars on the highways before the end of this decade.” says Ronald Bailey. There are still a few hurdles to climb, but one of the biggest advantages of autonomous automobiles will be in the number of lives saved. Since the invention of the first gasoline powered car in 1886 by Karl Benz, more than 3.5 million people have died in the United States in motor vehicle accidents (currently over 32 thousand people per year). That is more than 2.5 times the number of war deaths in all wars since the Revolutionary War in 1775 – over 1.4 million US soldiers.

Self-driving cars will have many advantages, too. When I worked at the University of Texas at Dallas employees who opted for mass transit rather than buying a parking permit were given a free annual DART pass that was valid to anywhere DART traveled, at any time. Soon many employers will offer similar options to utilize autonomous vehicles instead of taking up space for parking lots.

The cars Google is testing are electric rather than running on gasoline, so there will be a drastic reduction in damage to the environment. Eventually, we will not all need to own our own cars. Similar to the way Uber and Lyft are changing the way taxi service works, where in cities like New York, Chicago, and even Dallas, you can use your smartphone to get a car to pick you up in about five minutes or less. Self-driving cars owned by companies like Google will get to your home – or office or wherever you are – in about two or three minutes to take you wherever you need to go. When you arrive at your destination, rather than having to find a place to park, the car will drop you off at the door, where it will then be free to pick someone else up or move to a remote storage center, similar to the ones now used by DART to store its buses and trains. There are some 600 million parking spaces in American cities, occupying about 10 percent of urban land. In addition, 30 percent of city congestion originates from drivers seeking parking spaces close to their destinations. A fleet of shared driverless cars would free up lots of valuable urban land while at the same time reducing congestion on city streets. When not in use, the cars will be cleaned, serviced and recharged for the next day.

Driverless cars will dramatically change the shape of cities and the ways in which people live and work. Researchers at the University of Texas, taking into account issues such as congestion and rush hour patterns, found that if all cars were driverless, each shared autonomous vehicle could replace 11 conventional cars. In their simulations, riders waited an average of 18 seconds for a driverless vehicle to show up, and each vehicle served 31 to 41 travelers per day. Less than one half of one percent of travelers waited more than five minutes for a ride.

Proponents argue that they will be much safer than vehicles driven by distracted and error-prone humans. Google says that so far during six years of real-world driving tests covering over 2 million miles in California and Texas, their cars have been involved in 16 accidents, in none of which were its vehicles the cause. This means the cost of insurance will come down as fewer humans will be doing the driving. Self-driving cars will also allow people who cannot drive – children going to school, seniors, the blind, etc – to travel when and where they might need.

Given that driverless cars are in fact safer, every day of delay imposes a huge cost. People a generation hence will marvel at the carnage we inflicted as we hurtled down highways relying on just our own reflexes to keep us safe. Watch this TED talk by Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s driverless car program.

Crimes or medical problems?

Garland Police Station

Garland Police Station

A couple of months ago I posted here about Libertarianism and Matt Kibbe’s book Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff. I am now taking a class at the Garland Police Department called the Citizen Police Academy, where we hear officers describe activities such as recruitment, traffic, jail operations, etc. This past week we heard presentations about vice and narcotics.

I found these topics especially disturbing, mainly because I do not believe that either of these issues should be considered crimes. If anything, drug use and prostitution should be viewed as medical or social issues, not things that require incarceration. As a libertarian I believe the government, especially the police, are here to protect us from physical harm and loss or damage to our property.

As far as I can see, putting someone in prison for taking drugs is worse than the drugs themselves, for the user, his or her family and for the community. Drugs should be legal and controlled. They call illegal drugs “controlled substances,” but they are anything but. In fact, as far as drugs like marijuana, heroin, cocaine and meth, they are only controlled by the black market. If you need Valium, Oxycontin, or amphetamines, you can readily pick those up at your neighborhood Walgreens or Wal-Mart (with a prescription from your doctor). Controlled substances are available on the street in unknown doses and with varying amounts of added adulterants. Drug laws undermine order by creating criminal enterprises in communities that wouldn’t exist without a black market, by locking up millions of people for consensual crimes imposing on them all the limitations that come with incarceration and a felony record. More than half the federal prison population are there because of drug charges.

Even prostitution and some other non-violent and victim-less crimes – gambling, loitering, transience, homelessness – should not be a cause for arrest and imprisonment.

I love learning about the work done by our local police department, and I am grateful that they offer us this opportunity to learn more about what they do and how they do it. While the United States represents about 4.4% of the world’s population, it houses about 22% of the world’s prisoners. We need to seriously rethink our nation’s judicial system.

Family Recipies – NOT!

Lasagna Cupcakes

Lasagna Cupcakes

I have always loved watching the cooking shows on television. From Emeril Lagasse and Alton Brown to Rick Bayless and America’s Test Kitchen. But I never try to cook anything from them; I just like to watch!

My ancestors were Swiss, Alsatian, English, Cornish, Irish, German and Scottish, but I did not get any food heritage from any of them. My paternal grandparents lived their adult lives working – and eating – in hotels. My maternal grandparents could not afford to waste food by letting their children learn to cook. So all of my love for food has come from cook books, restaurants and my mother, who didn’t learn to cook until after she left home and got married.

I do remember a few things my grandmother Eula Teague (nee Shaw) made, like fried chicken and collard greens, but I especially remember her wonderful fresh hot biscuits and home-made pear preserves. Since no one in my family knows how to make those the way she did, the recipes died with her. I have spent more than 35 years trying to find something close to those pear preserves, from store bought versions to friends, family, and everyone we have visited, and nothing comes even close. Hers were cut very large and soaked in tons of molasses and sugar. One time, about 20 years ago, we took our friend Libby Foster to visit her friends in Hemphill, Texas, where they served us some pear preserves that were very similar to what my grandmother used to make. But when I asked for the recipe, I was told that that would be impossible. The family we were with had bought the house because the former owners had died, leaving everything – including all the furniture and whatever was in the pantry – to the future owners, including a few jars of those pear preserves!

My mother learned to cook from Betty Crocker, neighbors and radio and TV cooking shows. I have a few recipes from her for some of my favorite desserts (see the bottom of this blog for one of them), but she recently turned 90, so now I must get as many of her recipes as I can before it is too late.

So Jean and I have very few family recipes. Most of ours come from Jean’s large collection of cookbooks. Most of our favorite foods come from El Chico and Furrs. But I have used recipes from cookbooks and cooking-show websites to learn how to make wonderful dishes like Jambalaya, Aarti’s lasagna cupcakes, and a few others. I made the Jambalaya for a church pot-luck, and when I went to the grocery store to get what I needed from the recipe, I bought double the amount needed. Not because I wanted to make twice as much, but because I wanted to be able to make it twice if I screwed it up the first time!

Chocolate Dollars

  • 1 cup butter or margarine
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 squares melted chocolate
  • 2 eggs

Add sifted:

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups flour


  • 1 cup chopped nuts


  • Place on two 16 inch sheets of foil
  • Roll to about 1-inch thickness (the diameter of a silver dollar!)
  • Refrigerate overnight, or at least four hours
  • Unwrap and slice ¼ inch thin
  • Place on greased cookie sheet and
  • Bake at 380° F for 9 minutes, but NO LONGER!
  • Let cool, if you can wait that long

From the kitchen of Vesta Spreng. Vesta learned to make these – in the late 1940’s when she was first married – from a recipe provided by Julie Benell on a WFAA AM radio cooking program.


Firewheel Town Center

Firewheel Town Center

Garland’s police department has a program called the Citizen Police Academy, where residents may attend a twelve-week course about the workings of the Garland police department. The course takes place each Thursday evening between 7pm and 10pm over three months. The course covers such things as department philosophy, ethics, internal affairs, training, traffic, DWI enforcement, neighborhoods, gangs, narcotics, criminal investigation, forensics, deadly force, firearms, “special weapons and tactics” (SWAT) teams, bomb unit, family violence, building searches, and various other topics. There are also several individual activities including visits to the shooting range, communications operations (9-11 calls), jail observation and patrol observation.

Last night at 10pm I reported to the Garland police station for what they call a ride-out – a shift-long ride with an officer as he makes his rounds responding to calls from dispatch. I spent six hours riding with officer Thomas responding to calls from throughout Garland, mainly around Firewheel Mall in police/fire quadrant 31.

Riding with Officer Thomas we responded to incidents like fist-fights, complaints of neighbors playing loud music, domestic disputes, a parked car blocking someone’s driveway, a motorcycle that slid off an on-ramp approaching the President George Bush Turnpike, a robbery at a Taco Bell that was actually the responsibility of Dallas police because it was outside the Garland city limits and a young man who had pulled off Shiloh Road into a business entrance at about 4 am because he was too sleepy to drive home (someone at Valspar Corporation called 9-11).

All-in-all, it was an enjoyable and informative experience for me, and except for the motorcyclist who had a broken bone, no one was injured or arrested. Officer Thomas handled every case with grace and understanding, aware that many of these things happen every day, and need to be treated with compassion.