Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Fire on the Mountain

Fire on the Mountain

By Bobby Neal Winters
Now my widow she weeps by my grave
Tears flow free for her man she couldn't save
Shot down in cold blood by a gun that carried fame
All for a useless and no good worthless claim
--Marshall Tucker Band


The desire to be great ruins lives.
I’m not the best speller and that last sentences was anti-intuitive, so let me repeat it: The desire to be great ruins lives.
We are taught from the time we can understand that we are to aim for the stars, “You might not get there but you will go farther than if you aimed on a level with yourself.” I don’t want to argue against that as a means of building your self-confidence to try difficult things.  
But we have to work on our sense of reality.
You are never going to be president of the United States.  Seriously and especially if you are reading this you aren’t.  Let’s do the math.  You have to be 35 to be president.  Say you are one of those rare folks who is vigorously healthy until you are 80.  That gives you 45 years.  There will be at most 12 presidents in that time interval.  We could say there are 300 million others, but according to Lawrence Lessig, author of Lester Land, there are only about 144 thousand who, because of financial considerations, can even think of running.  So you have 12 chances out of 144 thousand.  That is a 0.00008 probability of being elected.  
That works out to 1 chance in 12 thousand.  The odds of dying by firearms is about 1 in 6000.  So the average person is twice as likely to die from a bullet than even a rich person is of being elected president.  
And if you aren’t rich, your probability is zero.
What is driving me to write this?
It is about a type of personality that I’ve seen on campus. It’s among the students; it’s among the faculty.
Those of you who remember the television program Cheer might remember Diane Chambers.  She was a professional student. She had majored in everything.  She was going to be a great actress, a great poet, etc. Being good at anything--and certainly being a good waitress--wasn’t enough.
As a result, she’s never stuck with anything; she never became anything.
I think that we should stop saying to aim for the stars.  I think there is a better way to phrase what is really the same sentiment: If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can move a mountain.  Or, as Confucius said, “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” (Okay, I’ve never read Confucius, but I’ve played a lot of Civilization.)   It’s not we who are great, it is the task isn’t as great as we think if done in small pieces, often by many hands over time.
This shields us from the poisonous idea that we are great or can be great or should be great.  It removes that distracting sugar bait of greatness and allows us to pursue a better goal: To be good.
There are two kinds of truth.  There are the truths that are true whether we believe them or not: If a closed population does not maintain a 2.1 average birthrate, it will disappear in time.  Then there are things that if you believe and act on, will become true: Moving a mountain or building a cathedral would be examples of this.
If you do something over and over, you will get better at it.  If you walk 40 minutes a day, you will be healthier than if you didn’t.  If you practice a language 45 minutes a day, you will learn some of it. You won’t be a great athlete or a world renown linguist.  

But you will better yourself and, perhaps, be a benefit to others.  That’s not to be sneezed at.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fossils

Fossils

By Bobby Neal winters
I am constantly perplexing my daughters with expressions that come out of my mouth.  A frequent one is “I will have to lick my calf over.” This is because I frequently don’t get things right the first time and have to do them over.
Many people, maybe most people, will look at the phrase and be perplexed as well, but those who grew up in an agrarian society, at least one centered around cattle, are not confused at all.  When a calf is born, it is covered with afterbirth--amniotic fluid to those who learned about birth by reading about it rather than seeing it--and the calf’s mother licks this afterbirth from the calf.  If she doesn’t get it all, she will continue until she has, i.e. she licks her calf over.
It is a linguistic fossil.  It is embedded in my speech because I heard my mother use it all the time.  It is likely to disappear from use quite quickly as generations move farther and farther from that agrarian existence to find more and more of the natural world to be disgusting.
That is a shame because linguistic relics such as this are a part of our collective memory.  They are around everywhere.  There is, for example, Wednesday, Woden’s Day, reminding us of a time when our linguistic forebears worshipped the god Woden.
Place names also serve as cultural fossils.  Fort Smith, Arkansas; Fort Worth, Texas; Fort Scott, Kansas remind us of days--not that long ago--when this part of the country was very thinly settled and those few citizens out here needed soldiers for protection from the indigenous population of the region.  
Speaking of the indigenous population, we are reminded of them in other ways. The Washita River and the Ouachita Mountains are in central and eastern Oklahoma, respectively.  For those who don’t know, Washita and Ouachita are pronounced exactly the same.  It’s the English and the French taking the same Indian word which Wikipedia tells me means anything from “sparkling water” to “good hunting grounds” to “big buffalo.”  Regardless, you put these two words together and figure out that a lot of people have been across this patch of ground and none of them could agree on much.
Then there is the tree called bois d’arc in Oklahoma and Texas and hedge in Kansas.  Those of you who read French--and I only know enough of it for this example--might pronounce that bwah dark. And recognize it as meaning wood of the arc or wood of the bow.  It was a tree that the indigenous peoples used in making bows.  Folks in Oklahoma and Texas pronounce it bow dark, because they know this, but they don’t know French. This linguistic fossil reminds us through it’s meaning in French and it’s mispronunciation of the history of this region.
My visits to Paraguay have been a reminder of the religious spirit among those who built cities: Asuncion, Encarnación, and Concepción.  These are named after feasts of the Catholic Church.  Then there are the small towns of  Trinidad, and Jesus which are in Misionés.  This is a region of South America called Misionés that crosses the national borders of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil.  It was established by Jesuit missionaries.  I have to believe they had something to do with the naming.
On another continent, in another language, there is King’s Cross Station.  If you’ve read Harry Potter or have seen any of the movies, then you’ve heard of King’s Cross Station.  It is a railway station named after an area of London that was named after a monument to King George IV that isn’t there anymore.  So the physical monument is gone, but it was preserved in the place name and that has been further preserved in a work of literature.
This happens quite a bit I suspect.  There was a truck stop called The Dog House in Ada, Oklahoma. It used to be by itself, but the area where it was is built up now.  It was on the highway, but the cross street became known locally as Dog House Road. The Dog House is now gone; the official name of the street is Country Club Road; to old nesters such as myself it is still Dog House Road. It is a fossil.
My family and I went to visit the travelling King Tut exhibit that is now in Kansas City at Union Station.  We discovered that after his death, his name had been removed from a statue.  They know this, because while it had been removed from the front, it had been left on the back which was against the wall.  This is reminiscent of the scene from the old Cecil B. DeMille movie the Ten Commandments wherein Pharaoh has Moses’ name removed from all the monuments, an attempt to make history forget him.  I don’t know whether this was done to King Tut, but he did disappear from history until his tomb was rediscovered.
Let me now bring up the example of the Washington Redskins.  Redskins is an offensive word and quite frankly I don’t know if it was ever not offensive, but I don’t think they applied the name to a football team in order to offend anybody.  The fact is that the indigenous people of this land scared the European settlers at various times.  The Europeans considered the indigenous peoples to be fierce warriors, and being a warrior people themselves (learn more of the history of England!)  they considered this to be a compliment.  This offensive name is a linguistic fossil of the fear the European settlers felt. If you want the proper context, remember one ancient European king used the silver-lined skull of a Byzantine Emperor as a drinking cup.  
It was an honor, but sometimes folks would rather forego the honor.
What does one do with linguistic fossils?  I suppose we should with them what we do with the more usual sort of fossil.  Preserve them in some way, be mindful of them, study them and try to understand them, as we try to understand ourselves.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Books, Scholars, Debate, and Academic Freedom

Books, Scholars, Debate, and Academic Freedom

By Bobby Neal Winters
First people learned to write.  They wrote on clay. They wrote on animal skin. They wrote on the leaves of plants sewn together. They wrote on paper when it came along.  These writings were gathered into scrolls and codices.  Some gathered these writings together in one place.  And scholars were drawn to these places.
Scholars like to learn things.  You can learn things by looking at the world around you and figuring it out, but that takes a long time.  If you can have a conversation with someone who knows about it  so they can teach you about it, the process goes faster.  But those who know are sometimes far away, sometimes they are busy, and sometimes they die.  That is why you need a book.
Anyone who has ever written knows that people don’t always understand what you write.  What we say the first time even in speech can be ambiguous, and can only be clarified in a dynamic give and take process.
So when scholars were drawn to the places where the books were gathered to read the books of those long dead, they clarified the interpretation of the books by open discourse.  Two honest individuals can read the same book and come to different ideas of what that book means.  They can attempt to come to a mutual understanding by stating their reasons for interpreting a passage one way or the other, and then the other side is free to examine the reasoning.
There has been a long history of this sort of debate.  Back in the twelfth century, I believe, Peter Abelard had some interpretations that impinged upon the church doctrine, running him afoul of Bernard of Clairvaux (later know as Saint Bernard). Abelard challenge Bernard to a debate, but upon arriving there discovered it was a trial for heresy.  After hearing all the charges, Abelard sat in silence for half an hour (a record for professors that still stands) and then said that he appealed to the Pope.  Today Abelard is remembered for bedding a student and being castrated by her brothers; and every time Bernard’s name is mentioned people think of  a large, friendly dog with a barrel of booze around it’s neck.
That paragraph got out of hand. My point is that scholarly debate has a long, checkered history.
Mathematicians have it easy. When other scholars say things,people sometimes want to shoot them. When mathematicians speak, more often we hear people say, “Please shoot me.” It’s one of the blessings of being in a technical field. Many other disciplines don’t have this luxury. Their study leads scholars into areas that people understand, care about, and have strong opinions on.
There is a long history of scholarly debate, as I pointed out before.  The argument/ counter-argument means of proceeding is one way. There have always been some who, instead of going after your argument, go after you.  There have been duels; there have been fisticuffs; and sometimes people who disagree with you go after your livelihood.  
This last is a common technique in and out of academia. There are a number of outspoken entertainers who will testify to this.  At the university, we have the tradition of tenure and academic freedom to protect open debate.  It is somewhat ironic that often scholars have to keep their mouths shut to get tenure.  I rather suspect that tenure was developed to protect academics from each other as much as to protect us from political forces from the outside.  I am sure someone will tell me if I am wrong.
And I hope they do tell me if I am wrong.  This is how we learn.
There is also something to be said for structuring academic debate, about keeping things in technical language so as not to draw laypersons into the debate, but whatever rules are set up there will still be ugly incidents.
But we have to keep talking.
(Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like” the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. )

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Viking Strain

The Viking Strain

By Bobby Neal Winters
This recent trip to England was for me an attempt to get back to my roots.  A distant cousin of mine in Mississippi, who I have to this day never met, had traced the Winters family tree back some 9 or 10 generations back to England.  We had been Winter then, having only acquired the “S” after crossing the Red River from Texas to Oklahoma.
This last fact I’d known most of my life, chafing under the shame of having ancestors too illiterate to spell their own name.
During grammar school, I’d thought the family might be German.  Dad had remarked that when he’d entered Germany during the Second World War, he’d been approached by the locals saying, “Vinters, Vinters,” having read the Winters on his name tag.  His remark had been, “They must be kinfolk because they are the poorest people in town.”
The knowledge that we were of English ancestry shouldn’t’ve come as a surprise, of course, given the part of the country we came from: the South.  
The family tree painted a nice picture of our family.  We’d settled in North Carolina and then every generation my branch of the family had moved west: Georgia, Northern Alabama, Northern Mississippi, Texas, and Oklahoma.  And now a jog north into Kansas.  Apparently we had a family trait of thinking that things would be better someplace else.
I suppose one reason for not realizing our English heritage is our image of the English being so refined.  They speak with English accents for goodness sake. They are automatically smarter, better educated, and more refined than us.  My family made jokes about bowel movements for goodness sake.  Men would emerge from the toilet beaming with pride regarding their recent accomplishment.
Having learned our origins, an urge began to grow in my belly. Unconscious, at first, it began to make itself known with urgency.  I must go to England. I must see from whence my people emerged.
The towns mentioned in the family tree were in East Riding of York, so it was determined we would go to York.  We flew into Heathrow, and then took the train from King’s Cross Station into York.  I’d bought us First Class tickets into York, so we drank proper tea like our English ancestors as we made our way north.
When you, as an American, think of England as it is now, it will help you to think of it as a historical theme-park. It is clean, well-kept, easy to get around in but you do a lot of walking, and while many things are free, they do make you pay theme-park prices for others.
This is in particular true for York.  The center of the park--in this way of thinking--is the walled city.  There are parts of the wall that go back almost two-thousand years.
First the Romans were there; then the Saxons; then the Vikings; then the Normans.  The Normans were so damn vicious that settled that.  They made the English call cow meat beef, and once that was straight history spun on like it should.
I noticed right off that all of the people around looked like kinfolks.  I also noticed that most of them were tourists.  Hmmm, maybe after two and a half centuries making a connecting would be hard.  
We pushed on.
We visited the museums.  First the Yorkshire museum where we learned York was founded by the Romans. It was easily defended and at the confluence of two rivers. They called it Eboricum.  When the Vikings took over from the Saxons, they called it Yorvik.  The Romans had built in stone, which the Saxons had inherited, but the Vikings had built in wood and mud.  The image began to form in my mind that this was sort of a mongrel place, with many streams of the human river coming together. Maybe the English weren’t all Masterpiece Theater.
We next went to the Yorvik Viking Museum. Standing in line, I ruminated about the genetic mix of the people in the area.  I wondered if the Viking strain explained two of my daughters’ blond hair.  We were drawn into the bowels of the museum wherein there was a ride taking us through a mock-up of a Viking village.  There were roboticized figured depicting people of the village in various everyday activities including one fellow straining in a Viking outhouse.
Upon exiting the ride, we went into an exhibit of archeological finds in the area. There were skeletons which had clearly been killed by violence. There were skeletons who’d suffered malnutrition. There was pottery, weapons, coins, campfires, all manner of the accoutrement of ordinary life.
In a way that is counter-intuitive to me, the wetness of the English soil allows the preservation of organic objects.  This enabled the archeologists to stumble upon something I am sure made their day: Viking poop, a specimen of which they have preserved in the museum.
This, at last, was the connection with the place I had been looking for.  I could imagined one of the men in my family, exhausted from his exertions, turning to look upon his creation, and upon seeing it’s magnitude having a wish to share this with others.
I can hear the words in his mind.  If only there were a special building where people from all over the world could gather to take a look at this.  And, yes, they should have to pay before entering.  It is only right.

So, yes, I do now believe that my family came from this place. I believe there may be a bit of a Viking strain in us leaving blond hair in some and an appreciation of scatology in others.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

An Okie in England

An Okie in England

By Bobby Neal Winters
I am not a travel expert, though I’ve done my share of traveling recently.  It occurred to me that someone like myself with the correct level of ignorance might be the right person to help someone making a first trip to England.
Let me start out with a tip that will work for any international trip.  Take a pen on the plane and keep it handy. Also keep your passport handy.  They always make you fill out that card declaring whether you’ve been to a farm or are carrying anything interesting.  You’ll need you pen and passport number to fill it out. Do it as soon as you can, put the card in your passport, and then forget about it until you go through passport control.
Once you are done with passport control, you’ll want some local money.  I’ve always had good luck with cash machines and only rarely do I directly exchange cash.  It doesn’t hurt to have some dollars with you just in case (I find $500 is a comforting sume), but this time I only had about $20 American on me.  I hit the ATM in Heathrow for 200 pounds and my cash needs were taken care of for the  non-London part of the trip. (In London they have shop-vacs at regular intervals to suck money out of your pocket; just saying.)
You’ve got your money. Now your job is to get the hell out of Heathrow, an entirely charmless place.  For this, I recommend the Heathrow Express.  It’ll take you from Heathrow to Paddingtion Station in 15 minutes.  From there, you will need to figure out how to get to your train.  Here I am assuming that you don’t plan to stay in London. If you do, that’s great, and I’ll have more to say about London later.
Let me now make an important distinction. There are subway stations and there are railway stations. Yes, I know that subways are trains, but that is not a helpful way of thinking.  Think of them as hollow worms that you ride around in underground.
We were headed to York, so we needed to take a train that left King’s Cross Station. To get to King’s Cross we took the underground from Paddington Underground Station to King’s Cross/Saint Pancras Underground Station and then climbed up out of there to got to King’s Cross.  If you are tired and hungry by this point, there is a McDonald’s across the street from King’s Cross. No one will look askance at you if you get the Quarter Pounder.
These things all need tickets. You buy the Underground tickets at touchscreen kiosks.  Often there will be someone with a day-glo jacket about to help you. We found these folks to be very helpful.  Keep your tickets because you need them to leave the station.
I bought my train tickets online ahead of time.  I used this link.  You don’t buy your tickets directly from this site. It is a frontend for the different railways that serve the different parts of Britain. There is a different company that takes you to York, for example, than the one that takes you to Salisbury. Don’t worry, it all articulates nicely.
I got First Class tickets to take us to York. Best money I spent on the whole trip. We got to sit together as a family and they kept bringing us tea and the various accoutrements that are a part of that wonderful practice.  Tea, we discovered, has marvelous regenerative properties, as any fan of Dr. Who would know.
I am not sure that anyone looked at my ticket before we got on the train.  There were times when we needed it to get past a turnstile, but there were times when we didn’t.  On this first leg, I’d printed off the tickets, but on the rest of the trips, I used my printout to get them from the ticket office or my credit card to have them printed out from a kiosk. (Again, there are helpful agents that will direct you.)
When we arrived at the station in York, we got a cab. My plan had been to walk to the hotel because it looked like walking distance on the map--and it was walking distance--but after traveling for that length of time I, personally, get a little punchy.  I would suggest have the address of your hotel ready because they might not know where it is. There are so many bed and breakfasts it is not reasonable for any cab driver to know them all.
Another point is that you will not necessarily be able to navigate there in the way you do here. They give directions in terms of landmarks as opposed to intersections. Also their idea of what is short for walking is at odds with our.  They are a nation of walkers.  We began to tell each other to “walk like you’re English” whenever we needed to speed up.
Once at our bed and breakfast, we discovered a bus stop which we could use to get to where we needed. In our case, we just headed to the old city of York which is right next to the railway station.
One thing I did that didn’t work out well was to rent a car. I realize now that I was defeated before I began because I didn’t know what I was up against.  The problem is NOT driving on the left hand side of the road.  It is the road itself. None of the roads were designed with the automobile in mind.  It is a system left over from a gentler time when one could come to an intersection and pause to think for a moment.  Folks from the middle part of the country with the rural areas we have here have the wrong mental model to begin with.
You could with sufficient planning and forethought do it. I have confidence in you. However, you are on vacation, so act like it.  If you want to go to a smaller town you can still get there by train or by bus.  One of our more pleasing discoveries on the trip was the town of Knaresborough (nairs burro). It is the home to 14000 souls, but the train stops there.  Buses go to other small towns.  
It is not America: You don’t have to have a car!


The great thing about bed and breakfasts is they provide breakfast. Take the full breakfast because for all the walking you will be doing you will need it.
Eat in the Pubs, but remember they are not exactly like restaurants.  The ones we went to had menus on the table, but you had to go to the bar to place your order.  Try the cider. Get a pint of it if you are a man.
Find the tea shops and take tea.  As I mentioned earlier, it is wonderfully restorative.  And if it has been raining and in the fifties, the hot beverage helps.
If all else fails, there is American-style fast food.  McDonalds is almost exactly like here. KFC is trying to go native.  Beyond that I can’t say much because we tried to stick with the tea shops and pubs as we were able.
There is a lot to see in York and you don’t need my help to find it.
From York, we went to Stonehenge. This was the most poorly planned part of our trip.  You need to buy your ticket ahead for Stonehenge, but we hadn’t. We got lucky because the weather sucked in the early part of the day, so we were able to walk in.  
To get there, you go to Salisbury. We took the train from York to London King’s Cross, took the underground to Waterloo Station, and took the train to Salisbury.  Salisbury is the place you ought to stay because they’ve got a great cathedral and so forth, but we stayed at the Holiday Inn Stonehenge which is actually in Amesbury.  We took a cab out to Stonehenge from there and had a devil of a time getting one back.  I think it would be better to stay in Salisbury and take the tour bus that starts from the railway station there.
Okay, let’s talk about London.
London is expensive. The prices would be high even if they were in dollars, but they are in pounds.  There were 1.70 dollars to the pound when we were there. We left our bags at Left Luggage at Waterloo Railway Station coming back from Salisbury.  This was 10 pounds per bag for the time we left them.  We then operated with Waterloo Station as base.  It is right next to the London Eye and, in short, right in the middle of everything.
We were lucky and were able to get tickets for the London Eye on the day. I’d been trying for a week to buy them online, but my credit card company had been being difficult.  I bought a riverboat tour at the same time.  This was a mistake because I also bought a Hop-on, Hop-off tour bus ticket and they include a riverboat tour too.
The London Eye is an icon of the age and there is a nice view from there.  It is also important because you can almost always see it and it doesn’t blend in with the other buildings.  Keep it in sight and you will never be lost.
It is there on the south bank of the Thames between London Bridge and Westminster Bridge which is a happening place.  Quite frankly if you spent the afternoon there it wouldn’t be wasted.  There are street performers, cafes, and people from all over the world. We only had half a day in London, so we skipped all of the museums and simply toured it on the Hop-on, Hop-off bus. There is a blue police box right outside the Earl’s Court Underground Station, and we saw it, by gum. It’s about a 20 minute trip on the underground from Waterloo Station. You have to go to Green Court and change lines there.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

English Vacation

English Vacation

By Bobby Neal Winters
I have minded the gap. I have ridden trains, underground and overground. I've been in train stations mighty and humble. I have waited on cabs at Stonehenge with people that I love. I've ridden in hotel shuttles with total strangers. I've driven a rented car on the left hand side of the road for one hour fifty-nine minutes of which I was trying to get it back to the place from whence I rented it.
I have stood on ancient walls and walked them.  I have stood within the walls of a church that was finished before my hemisphere was discovered and took longer to build that my country has existed.
I've drank proper Yorkshire tea. I've eaten the full English breakfast. I've had jacket potatoes and bangers and mash. I've eaten Kentucky Fried Chicken in twilight at 9pm in a place where I am not sure they know what Kentucky is. I've eaten a quarter pounder on the south bank of the Thames and was damn glad to get it.
I have scaled castles; have stood on queue; have paid to pee.
I've rented rooms, rides, and cars in a place that has been known to tax sunlight. I've bought chocolate, t-shirts, and thimbles in a place called a nation of shopkeepers.
I've been on tour buses, tour boats, and a giant ferris wheel across from a cathedral. Have listened to tour guides, both funny and dull.
I have heard people speaking my native language and have been mystified at times.
I have visited “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

It was a good time.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

NUC on Wood

NUC on Wood

By Bobby Neal Winters
A few years ago, I went through a period of building computers.  Built an Itty-bitty Ubuntu box and a media center, going through the process one piece at a time.  I liked the one piece at a time model.  You plan out your project; you order your piece for the week; you get it in the mail; then you order your next piece et cetera until it is done. Then you put it all together.
This was a great way to spread out both the expense and the joy.  And indeed as a big part of these projects are to keep my otherwise mischievous mind occupied, it was very effective. Something with four parts would take four weeks to complete and so keep me in a happy place for a whole month.
My path from computer building took me to Arduino and to Raspberry Pi. These categories are both amenable to the one piece at a time model.  
Then earlier this year I happened upon the NUC (Next Unit of Computing) computer.  This is a computer that has a tiny (four inch by four inch) motherboard but will support I3, I5, and I7 processors.  I thought that this would be great.  I could make one and put Ubuntu on it, I would have a Linux box small enough to sit alongside my Windows box but powerful enough to do something beyond the Raspberry Pi level.
And to cut to the chase, I’ve got something working. I got it all to work out today.  Let me go back to the beginning, though, and say some things that might (MIGHT) smooth the road for any of the rest of you who might want to trek down the same road.
The first thing is that I was not able to get the one piece at a time method to work out all that well. Let me explain. When you list out the pieces of a computer, what do you have:
  • Case
  • Power supply
  • Motherboard
  • CPU
  • Memory
  • Hard drive
I was not able to get those first four separately.  Actually, it’s not that simple. I bought the case. I have it sitting unused over to the side right now.  I wasn’t able to get a motherboard to fit it.  I looked my eyes out over the Internet, but the only ones I could find came in lots of 10.  I didn’t want 10. I wanted one.   Within my searches, I came upon a product that combined the first 4 of these.   This was a bit pricey, but it did include a lot.
Here is an opportunity to talk about the power supply.  When you make a computer--even an itty-bitty box with an ITX motherboard--you put the power supply inside.  With this type of machine it goes outside. You use the same sort of power supply that you use on your laptop, your printer, or on most of your peripherals. A mickey-mouse power cord (if you’ve seen one, no explanation is needed; if you haven’t none will do) goes into a transformer which will then connect to your computer with a jack.
Over the next couple of weeks I bought the memory and a solid state hard drive.  Okay, memory is boring.  The SSD is exciting and even--dare I say it--sexy. It was $75 for 120 GB which looks pricey if you compare it to the standard hard drive where the same money will get you 750 GB, but Lord have mercy this smokes.  You turn on your computer and your operating system is loaded.
In building computers these days, my observation has been that if it weren’t for the front-panel connections it would be as easy as putting Legos together.  This already had its equivalent of the front panel connected, so assembly was just snapping the memory cards and the solid state drive into place.
The challenge I had in putting my NUC box together came after the machine was totally assembled: installing the operating system.  As I said, the entire raison d’etre of this box was to run Linux. You can go to the Ubuntu page and download Ubuntu and even get instructions on how to install it from a USB stick. And it “installs” very quickly and easily.  The scare quotes are there because getting it to boot after you’ve gotten it installed is an issue.
I have succeeded in that.  I am not going to tell you the exact method because I am not sure it’s reproducible. It required Internet searches and fiddling with the BIOS.  Once I got it to boot, the fracking keyboard I have wouldn’t work.  I finally installed a wireless keyboard I have lying around and it worked.

I was able to get it to run headless by installing xrdp on it and using remote desktop from my windows machine to login.   At this point, I have no methodology to recommend more specific than some combination of stubbornness and patience.