Auto Pilot

Autopilot Engaged

When I got into work this morning, as I fumbled with the keys to my office, I noticed I was distinctly dry. Not sweaty at all.

Granted, it’s cooler than it has been. It’s only 81ºF right now. Still it’s a wet morning, and the humidity is 84%.

But the key factor here is not climate but route. Now that I’m no longer taking my daughter to daycare in the morning, I have two potential routes to work. There’s a short way and a long way. The long way is more pleasant. I take it when I can. A little extra exercise won’t kill me.

I fully intended to take the long way this morning. But if I’d taken the long way, in this humidity, I’d definitely have broken a sweat.

Searching my mind, I discovered I had no recollection of coming by that longer route. In fact, the only images bouncing around in my head showed the grit and grime of the short ‘n’ ugly route.

I was perplexed. How could I have gone that way? I distinctly remember setting off to go the other way. I’d gotten my keys out of my pocket, but I was still fumbling in the fog of my mind.

After a minute or so it came back to me: I’d stopped to take a photo of a clogged storm drain. Tropical rains a-coming, y’know. Do you enjoy flood water in your home?

If you think the City of New Orleans is going to clean the catch basin in front of your home please rethink that plan. If you don’t clean the catch basin in front of your home it is you who will suffer the consequences.

But I digress.

After taking the photo, I was preoccupied with thoughts of tropical storm warnings and photography and street flooding and who knows what else. I was at the intersection of the two routes and headed off the other way.

The next thing I knew I was on campus.

So apparently I can turn off my brain and my body will still find its way to work. My old dorm buddy Andrew Pelloso describes this as “reverse-zen.”

That’s how it felt, anyhow. Of course, in reality, my brain still gets the credit. My boss, who is a psychologist, tells me I was running on memory. Not declarative memory, which we use for recalling facts and figures, but procedural memory.

When needed, procedural memories are automatically retrieved and utilized for the execution of the integrated procedures involved in both cognitive and motor skills; from tying shoes to flying an airplane to reading.

Riding a bike is another classic example of procedural memory. People often say you never forget how to do that. For my part, I was not only riding a bike, but navigating some fairly complex terrain with virtually no memory of having done so after the fact. Apparently I’ve reached the autonomous phase, the third and final phase of learning a task according to Fitts and Posner’s three stage model of learning. I can now execute this task with a high degree of automaticity.

And here I thought I just had my head stuck up my ass.

Photo credit: Autopilot Engaged by H. Micahel Miley, licensed under Creative Commons

Vortex of Memory

I’ve been feeling the pull of the past. If memory is a drug, then journals are the paraphernalia true addicts need to get that extra kick. Which is why I’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve my handwritten journals even after they sat under water for two weeks after Katrina.

Lately I’ve been revisiting the ’80s, in particular the year I lived in Sweden, and even more particularly the week I spent visiting Moscow and Helsinki and Tampere, Finland. Besides my journals, I have a copy of a 26-page letter I wrote to a friend recounting every aspect of that week in excruciating detail, very possibly the longest damn thing I’ve ever written. (Seriously, as many words as I crammed on each page, that letter’s probably longer than my master’s thesis.) I’ve been reminiscing about the Etelämäkis, the family who hosted me on that trip. I even tried looking them up on Facebook, but I was misspelling their name.

I’m not entirely certain why I’ve been preoccupied with that certain time at this certain time.

Then, a few days ago, something strange happened. The Etelämäkis contacted me. (Yes, via Facebook.) It seems Erkki and Raili are coming to the States to visit some friends. As fate would have it they’ll be on the Gulf Coast, so they are planning to rent a car and come visit us in New Orleans.

I couldn’t be happier, but it’s also just a little spooky.

Time Travel Through Photography

I was sorting through some old photos the other day, and I came across a set taken on October 16, 1999. As I looked at them I was overwhelmed by a sense of bittersweet melancholy. (Is there any other kind of melancholy?)

This was the first coherent group of digital pictures I ever took. I published the set on the web, the first of several such sets, generally presenting a “day in the life” or similar. Dammit, it was so complicated back then. I was pretty proud of myself for cooking up the automated Photoshop scripts to generate the thumbnails and so forth, and of course I hand-coded all the HTML.

991016 Index

Looks kind of like a Flickr set, huh? But with Flickr and other such tools, it’s all so much easier. I do like the sparse simplicity of my original interface better, but of course there’s no facility for comments or any of the other features that make a system like Flickr so compelling.

But moreover, looking at these old pix, there are the memories of that day nine years ago. Nothing special about the day itself. Just a random Saturday. Just some fragments, a few scraps snatched from the clutches of time. We had just moved to New Orleans a few months earlier. We didn’t know how this city would get in our blood, how this city would break our hearts.

Lazy Cat

We’d adopted a couple cats, Lucy and Bilal. In the captions I note that “we don’t know too many people here, and we’re not planning to have kids, so the cats keep us company.” Sadly enough Bilal died in a tragic fall three years later. Lucy stayed with us through our Katrina evacuation and our return to the city, but she disappeared mysteriously two summers ago and we never saw her again.

As for the neighbors shown in the set, the renovation of their Uptown home came out beautifully, but they sold it just before Katrina and bought a house in Lakeview. They lost everything. But they’re still here. We run into them around town from time to time. Those little girls are in college now.

3 Girls

But mostly I’m so glad I took these pictures, otherwise I would have just my vague recollections. That impetus to document and preserve quotidian details is the same one that has driven me to keep journals off and on since I was ten years old, the same one that drives me to keep this blog. I’m glad I this “day in the life” photo set, and it reminds me I need to do another one soon.

I highly recommend it.

I’ve posted the whole set to Flickr. Check it out or see the original incarnation.


Sand dollars are of the phylum Echinodermata, class Echinoidea. Xy found this one on the beach in South Carolina.

Sand Dollar

Back when I was working on Interactive Taxonomic Zoology, I knew the phylum and class for lots of creatures. But while walking on the beach, I found I’d forgotten. I couldn’t even remember the three classes of sponges.

No Quiet

Yesterday was the last day of classes here at the university, and today is the first day of finals. Usually there’s a quiet day in between, but not this semester. I guess it was another casualty of Hurricane Ivan.

I recall one particular finals week when I was a college student, back in the late eighties at Indiana University. A group of us were sitting in the lounge of the dormitory; we had eaten breakfast and were waiting to go to our various final exams. A pall of gloom hung over us, a palpable aura of impending disaster.

An older janitor walked through the room, saw our long faces, and without breaking stride, he cracked, “Might as well smile, kids — there ain’t shit you can do about it now.”

What sublime wisdom! I have tried to live my life by that philosophy.