Thursday, December 31, 2009

Eye-opening breakdowns

At least twice, I have had computer problems that really helped me after I got over the initial shock of the problem.

Our first computer, in 1984, was an Apple IIe.  It had two disk drives, one for the program or software disk and one for the data disk.  I find that outline form of notes very helpful.  There is not much difference between the outline and merely listing one item after another.  Except with the outline, component parts of an idea are listed in indented form under the main heading.  This format is a natural with computers since the keys can be used to make indents quickly but they can be undone or changed easily.  The computer is great at offering several forms of numbering or lettering the headings and sub-headings, too.

So one of my first computer programs was Think Tank, an outlining program.  I wrote dozens of great ideas down in outline form.  I had outlines for my classes and myself, both incubating writing ideas and to-do lists.  One day, I decided to make a back-up copy of my main disk of outlines.  By mistake, I put a blank disk into the machine and told it to copy it and put the copy (of totally NOTHING!) on my best data disk.  When I realized what I had done, I was thunderstuck.  The only time, I had had a worse reaction from myself was when I dented our new Dodge against the side of our garage, but that is another (quite moving) story.

After calming down and seeing there was nothing to be done except accepting the fact, I decided I would just start anew.  First, I found I could not remember everything I had on that precious but now erased disk.  Second, I found that when I could remember, as when I had a printout of part of the disk, I no longer agreed with what I had written.  I refused to simply re-use previous writing.  It always needed updating or other editing. 

About a month ago, my Vista laptop would not load the main Windows program.  It just ran and ran but nothing happened. I hadn't used that machine for much so I wasn't disturbed.  I reloaded Vista from the disk that came with the machine.  In 25 years of personal computing, I had not ever had to do such a thing before.  I was tickled at how quickly and easily the basic system could be reloaded onto the machine.  But, I hadn't counted on how many other non-Windows programs were not reloaded on the newly arranged disk.  I found that the reloading had saved nearly all of the previous content in a special location.  Unlike businessmen with important work to do, I didn't want or need that and deleted it.  I had a chance to think about whether I really wanted or needed many of the additional programs and updates previously housed on the machine.  All that stuff takes time to check for viruses and is often simply not of interest to me. 

I doubt if "there was a reason" for my computer mishaps but they definitely helped me in the long run.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Exercise for America!

The famous WWII poster of Rosie the Riveter emphasized that women were an important part of the war effort.  Today, as Atul Gawande's article makes clear, health care costs are a national threat.  It is not as exciting or as focused as Hitler and the Axis but still an important challenge.  Just as Rosie and other Americans did their bit, we could do ours.  The usual points aresomething like
  1. don't smoke,
  2. exercise,
  3. get to and keep a good weight,
  4. stay hydrated, and
  5. eat a balanced diet
I haven't seen any government or political posters or ads emphasizing that taking these steps seriously can actually assist our country but I think it is true.  Can't you imagine a little bit of a tax break for those who can document to the IRS that they don't smoke, do exercise, have an OK body mass, are properly hydrated and eat a balanced diet.  

There could be  a focus on just one of the five points per year.  That way, the people and the system involved to document the citizen's personal contribution to good of the country could be smaller and simpler.

I am just guessing at the best principles to emphasize.  There might be others with more potential payoff.  Practicing body balance to lessen falls or developing more muscle mass might be more valuable to the U.S.A. or the world.  Reading more or sleeping more might eventually save more lives or better more of them.

The valuable points that the government would reward might be different for different age groups.  I have read that a very large portion of the total health expenditures of the country are spent on people aged 65 and older.  So, what older citizens could do to lower the bill and free more resources for others might be different from the best paths toward improvement for children or teenagers. 

Vitamin D has been showing itself to be especially important lately.  It might be that more of that vitamin or more for particular age groups would qualify them for a tax break or other benefit.  There might be other nutrients that are especially valuable or notably missing in our citizens.

We are all part of the greater whole and the state of our health is something that effects everyone else, not just ourselves.  If we all manage to pay taxes to support the community we live in, both locally and the larger communities, it seems that we might also take actions to assist those communities with our own health, to some extent.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Atul Gawande and improving

I make it a practice to pay attention when I find something by Atul Gawande.  He sometimes writes in The New Yorker and he has an article in the Dec. 14 issue on health care costs.  As usual, his subject doesn't sound like much and as you start reading, you may get depressed.  He recites facts and figures on US health costs and shows they are bad and getting worse.  But then he reveals that the US had very similar problems with food costs in the beginning of the 1900's.  That item covered 40% of the average household budget then.  Agriculture employed a great portion of all workers.  But with good government assistance and guidance, slowly and step by step, costs were driven down by research and communication.  Right now, the US is doing pretty well in that area.

There is such a thing as good government guidance and one version of it is the extension agent.  Growing up in the city, I had no experience with extension agents but they are a big part of Wisconsin.  A section of the University of Wisconsin is called UW Extension.  This is true of many other state universities, too.  The "Wisconsin idea" is that the "borders of the campus are the borders of the state".  It was seeing that idea in place and in practice that made me determined to move here.  The original idea of a university was knowledge of writers of the past.  It was thought that wisdom lay in the writings of the ancients, such as the Bible, Plato and Aristotle.  The educated and happy person gained wisdom and happiness by familiarity with such writings.  When I studied the history of higher education, it lld was still the case that universities all across the world tended to hold with that idea.  But when the Northwest Territory was opened for settlement in the US (the area we call the Midwest now), the law specified that a portion of each township should be set aside for a school.  In addition, each new state was not to be outdone by the eastern universities and founded a state university of its own.

Those new state universities were called on by the new settlers to solve problems, their current problems, not just be repositories of the past.  Of course, many of the problems related to agriculture and food.  So, extension agents were housed at scattered points throughout the state to bring problems to the campus for research and solutions to the citizens for use.  Thus, the motto that that borders of the campus are the borders of the state.

Note: Gawande is the son of two immigrants who are both physicians.  They are from India.  He is a staff writer for The New Yorker and an associate professor of medicine and public health at Harvard and he is a practicing surgeon.  Keep an eye out for his writing.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Unpredictable, that's what we are

This article in the Mind Hacks blog says that a researcher who is both a physicist and a sociologist built models similar to those used to model disease spreading to test the assumption that there are pivotal people in a group that launch fashions and opinions that then spread through the group.  His result imply that any member of a network can be quite influential.  He did find that some well-connected people do spread ideas or trends more quickly but only sometimes.  Basically, it seems that fashions and trends are relatively unpredictable.

The article reminded me of a conclusion I reached working with groups and committees, that I might as well not try to predict the decision eventually arrived at.  I had tried several times and was dramatically wrong repeatedly.  Of course, talking about a single individual is very different from impersonal models of what happens with everyone.  Still, I was often shocked at how wrong I was.

I tried for support from other members of my department to be head of the group.  I was shocked at how low I rated among the candidates and the unanimous support for others.  Why did people very close to me not support me?  I have never been clear about that. 

But it wasn't just me.  I served on a large committee of smart, influential and responsible people to fill an important position.  We did a wide search and received applications for highly qualified people, or so I thought.  But some thought a candidate too well-qualified!  They figured such a person would jump to some more attractive job too quickly and leave us hanging.  Some thought a candidate didn't fit well in a group like us.  After months of meeting and arguing and ranking and judging, the only decision to receive enough support to pass was to reject all candidates and search again the following year. I was surprised and not all that delighted at the thought of doing the whole thing again, especially when we had some candidates that looked world-class quite literally, as far as I was concerned.

The next year, a second search was carried out.  Another large batch of highly qualified candidates applied.  Similar objections were raised and accepted on what seemed to me equally questionable grounds.  After similar months of talk, the only candidate who had enough support was the temporary holder of the job, the same man who had held the job on a temporary basis for both years!  That experience really got my attention.  I thought back over other times when I was part of a discussion and realized how often some direction was taken in the end that no one had considered at the beginning.

Humans and human actions and alliances can be pretty unpredictable.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Hindsight with cataracts

They say "Hindsight is 20-20", meaning after we find out what happens, we can understand it all perfectly.  Hmm, maybe not so much.  The year 2009 is ending.  Do we understand it perfectly?  The recession and economic turndown is not something I perfectly understand.  I am pretty sure it had something to do with housing mortgages and customers and loan vendors arranging mortgages on houses that were way too high.  Too high for both the income of the people undertaking the mortgage and too high based on the expected value of the house and property. 

But there are other movements, forces and changes going on that also matter.  There always are.  So when will the hindsight be perfect? 

I like the fact that history is always being revised.  Madame Curie's discovery of radioactivity was a mystery.  Then, it was a great breakthrough.  Then it was a horrible source of death and bodily destruction as time wore on and more was known about the phenomenon.  (Some toothpaste in the '20's or '30's intentionally radioactive ingredients and were advertised as extra-healthy.)

Lynn and I listened to Philip Dialeander speak about the collapse of the Roman empire.  Turns out it isn't clear what exactly happened.  One of the leading explanations is evidently population collapse.  For reasons unknown, the population fell.  That was way back in the 5th century.  We revise our beliefs about what happened when and of course, as our lives and  conditions change, our explanations and understandings change, too.

No one spends more time with me than my wife.  We know each other pretty well.  Yet, we find that our pictures of each other, our grasp of each other's tastes and moods and desires are often out of date or incomplete.  If we, devoted to understanding and in constant communication and contact, don't really understand each other, what are the chances that I understand the U.S. Senate or the Russians or the Unitarians? 

I feel confident that some basic truths now about our family or our nation or our planet are up for change.  I don't know which they are and I don't know what sort of change or when.  I do expect it.  My hindsight is always being modified.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

one picture after another

I got one of those electric picture frames for my birthday.  I saw a slightly different model today.  Whether it is a little picture frame or a giant outdoor billboard, the idea that the graphic on it changes strikes me as something new.  It doesn't sound like much.  You have photos in albums so what is the big deal if a picture frame shows them one at a time in your living room?

How often do you sit down with the albums?  You probably have pictures tucked away that you haven't looked at in years.  Still, if somebody digs into the supply and presents a single picture to you, you might be surprised at how swiftly you are mentally transported to the place and time the picture was taken. 

Deciding on the set of pictures you want to have shown might take a little time.  But then you find that the picture files reside on a small "SD card", the same sort of device that holds the same sort of files in most digital cameras.  The cards are removeable and replaceable and surprisingly inexpensive.  We recently bought a 1 gig card for $10.  It may well be possible to get one with more memory for a still smaller price.  The thing is whatever set of pictures you choose to show in an electric picture, you can have another set or several sets on other memory cards.  You pull out one card and insert a different one. 

The free photo-handling program by Google called Picasa can find all your computer pictures that have the same person in them and group them.  That makes it easy to have a collection of pictures of your child at different ages that you can move to a memory card and show in an electric picture frame.  A series of places you have lived or images from the web of places you want to visit can be a collection.

Viewing pictures in a surprising place, viewing a set you haven't seen in quite a while, viewing pictures you normally would see together can jog your memory and bring loved ones close to mind.

Friday, December 25, 2009


I have really taken to Hawaiian music, at least what I have heard so far.  We have two CD's by Iz (Israel) Kamakawiwo╩╗ole.

One of the songs is"You are the wind beneath my wings".  The singer tells of his mate, calmly standing by and making a good life for them both while he gets all the fame and attention.  The image of someone being the wind that allows wings to function reminds me of this poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, called "Brahma".  Emerson and the other American transcendentalists knew about Eastern, Hindu and Buddhist thought, writings and poetry.  Since that part of the world has been thinking about spiritual things for several thousand years, their literature is rich with great ideas.

If the red slayer think he slays,
  Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
  I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near, 
  Shadow and sunlight are the same,
The vanished gods to me appear,
  And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
  When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
  And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
  And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
  Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

1856 [1857]

I love the poetic image that when I doubt God, the doubt itself is also God.  When I flee God, he is the feet I run away on and the path I am traveling.

Hope this is a wonderful and fulfilling Christmas and the beginning of a lovely 2010! 
(I get a lift just writing "2010".  A year with such good characters in it has got to be good.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009


We helped an elderly woman sort through her clothes.  She is well past 90 but is still interested in fashion and standing out in an impressive and attractive way.  She can barely stand and doesn't have the energy to sort through her tiny closet and lift out clothes that are out of season and not likely to be used for months.  If she can see the garment, she can make a decision as to whether it should be kept or stowed.

Similarly, we might free ourselves of much of our stuff if we could see it from a comfortable position and make an informed and sensitive consideration about keeping it.  To that end, inventories can help.  They don't sound like much.  An inventory is basically a list of what is currently in stock.  Stocks might include foodstuffs, clothes, CD's, leftover lumber, photos, books, etc., etc.  The list can be very simple, one or two words per line on paper, or quite complex, using a computer database such as Excel or the free Open Office database called Base.  Excel is known as a spreadsheet, which most people think of as software for math and taxes and so forth.  It is that, but it is also quite handy for what Excel refers to as a "list" such as a list of contacts with names, addresses, emails and phone numbers in separate columns. 

Making an inventory might be easier with the use of a camera or video camera. The point is to actually note in re-usable form, what you have, whether it is friends, books, trips taken or accounts.  Doing so is not especially difficult or challenging but can be eye-opening.  Several semesters of classes had enormous fun making inventories of the books they had read from the first ever to the most recent.  Sometimes, it is less challenging and may actually lead to better and more organized decisions if an inventory is made before cleaning or de-junking or giving away.  Once you have a pretty good idea of what there is to decide about, the decisions may go faster and make more sense.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Promising investment

I am thinking of applying for a grant or a business loan to start a tv station.  It might not work out.  I am thinking of broadcasting The Nothing Channel.  It will show nothing.  The cooking program will offer recipes for a nothing breakfast, lunch or dinner.  We will set a nice table and bring in a platter of no eggs and no bacon. 

In "Oh, God!", John Denver is in hot water, on trial for defaming and damaging a hot and popular TV evangelist.  We know he was doing exactly what God instructed him to do but others, including his wife, have strong or even stronger doubts.  Denver is representing himself in the trial, against the repeated advice of the judge.  When it is his turn to present his witnesses, he stands and says," Your Honor, I call as my witness Almighty God."  There is a stir but nothing happens.  Denver says that even though no one has appeared, there was a second when everyone anticipated the possibility that the Living Presence might actually appear, there in the room.  He appeals to everyone to consider the possibility and states that he himself had that event happen to him.

When I bring in a platter of no eggs and no bacon, making clear that the empty platter is not eggs and not bacon, it helps for a second, doesn't it?  For a second, we can all see eggs, fried or scrambled just as we like, on that platter.  We can see and smell strips of bacon, extra crispy or rather limp, the way we want it to be.  We can take a millisecond to consider if we really like eggs or if having them has just been a habit or a custom, maybe one it is time to change.

It helps to have no lunch for a minute or no cup of coffee.  It helps to stop, pause.  I like the fact that wide use of symbols, such as for start and more impressive, for pause:

for Start and 

  for Pause.  

Imagine having having a symbol for Pause, one that is getting international recognition!  Sure, many societies have trumpeted energy, initiative, take-action strategies but others have long emphasized the value of pausing.  A pause button will merely suspend the action, freeze it.  Re-pressing it to remove the pause will get you going again just where you left off.  You won't lose your place but you will have gained perspective and refreshment.

The Nothing Channel will remind its audience of the Pause button and the value of using it.  It will invite the audience to Pause an advertisement, maybe using the moment of silence to consider if the product being hawked is really one that will be likely to improve our lives and fit comfortably in with the dozens of other objects in our lives.

Watch for announcements of The Nothing Channel's Grand Opening and save your pennies to get yourself an investment in a piece of the action.  It's going to be nirvana.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Adventures with animals

I forgot to include among my farm adventures my visit to our nanny's farm.  My sister and I took a train ride with her to her family farm.   I remember feeding the chickens.  She gave me a tin can with some dry, hard corn kernels in it.  She told me to go into the chicken yard and scatter them on the ground.  I did.  It was easy. 

A little while later, she killed a chicken for dinner.  She grabbed a chicken by the head and twirled the body around and around.  Eventually, the body fell off and came to the ground.  The headless body ran along on its own feet until it crashed into a tree and flopped over,  blood pouring out of the neck.  After the body was still, she took it inside and got the feathers off.  As she cleaned the body, she showed me the gizzard, full of the corn kernels I had fed the birds a few minutes before.  She cut it open and gave me the kernels to take back outside and feed to the other chickens.  I thought feeding the same food to chickens twice was very surprising.

I have had pretty good relations with dogs.  There was one time when I worked at a large Scout camp that I needed to speak to one of the managers of the camp.  I was told he was in his house and I walked up his driveway.  His dog was standing between me and the house and barked once or twice and then leaped at me.  I was taken by surprise and twisted away from him.  He missed me and flew past me but snagged my shirt on the way.  Suddenly, I was stripped to the waist.  I turned and the dog was calmly sauntering off without a care.  I walked to the door of the house carrying the shirt and told the man that his dog had just torn it off.  Since I got the shirt back and the dog was acting totally innocent, no more was said about the incident.

Not many feet away from that house was a small campfire amphitheater where the campers gathered for ceremonies.  Once there was supposed to be a live snake in a skit.  They had a common black snake in a cloth bag but it had gotten away while trying to get it out.  One man reached for it and the snake bit him in the hand.  No skin was broken and the man grabbed the snake behind the head and held him.  I was asked to hold him until the skit came up.  I was sitting on a very low bench in the side of the hill, holding the snake down by my feet.  I didn't realize the snake wound his body around my forearm and my lower leg.  When it came time to stand and hand the snake off, I had to have help getting unwound.

Most of the time, that little amphitheater was not used.  So, the mockingbirds built a nest in a little tree at the top.  Working around the area one day, I felt a funny whoosh through my hair.  Mockingbirds are brave and raucous and this parent was trying to drive me away from their nest.  I left.

Walking along a tree trunk that bridged the river, I was part way across when I spotted a copperhead coiled on the trunk about 8 feet in front of me.  Oh, well, try later or cross somewhere else.  I turned and found another copperhead had slithered onto the tree behind me.  Yikes!  I waited for a while and the one in front slipped off into the water and swam away.

I know very little about horses, handling them or riding them.  So, at the stable, when they gave me Charlie, he looked fine to me.  We were given instructions on how to mount.  I followed them and swung into the saddle.  About 1 second later, Charlie seemed to be getting down on his knees.  As he lowered himself, the ground rose up at me.  I stepped off and Charlie rolled over.  I was mighty glad I was not in the saddle at that moment.  The stable mistress was put out with me for allowing Charlie to misbehave.  I got back on and was told to hold his head back, pulling his chin in.  I did and found that his big neck against my small little forearms was a tough contest.  I have no desire to ride Charlie again.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Farm adventures

I grew up in the city but my aunt lived on a farm.  It was 100 miles from our home, a big distance in my mind.

I remember her house smelling of cardamon.  I think it was part of pickling and canning.

One day when I was about 4, she asked me to carry a large crockery bowl to the pig pen and dump the contents in the trough for the pigs to eat.  The bowl and its contents were heavy and as I tipped them to dump into the slot in the fence for the trough, the bowl slipped out of my hands.  The bowl fell down into the trough and broke into several pieces.  The hungry hogs rushed to the food and jammed their snouts into the slops, tearing and cutting themselves on the broken pottery.  I immediately felt this was a world-class disaster.  I started yelling and screaming.  My aunt and uncle came running from the house to see what calamity had befallen me.  When they found they out, they assured me that the pigs would be fine and everything was all right.  I was amazed at the toughness of the beasts and the idea that they didn't need any special care for their wounds.

Another time, my cousin and I lay on the bed of a horse wagon out in the sun.  We each had glasses of water, little paint sets, paintbrushes and coloring books to paint.  It was pleasant.  My aunt called us into lunch.  We got up leaving everything where it was to resume later.  After lunch, we returned.  We were shocked that every bit of the paint was gone from our paint sets.  Everything was in place as we had left it but for the paints.  We were perplexed and went to our aunt.  She came out and looked the situation over and said the chickens had pecked our paint sets away.

My uncle was a beer and soft drink distributor but my cousin and I did not understand that.  Looking at the enormous stacks of cases of empty bottles gave us an idea for amusement.  Each of us took several bottles between the fingers of each hand and smashed the other ends against rocks.  What fun!  The sound alerted my uncle who came charging out of the house and let us know he was not pleased with our idea.  He informed us we needed to stop immediately and never pull that stunt again.  He seemed upset but I have forgotten all about that now.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Schools are too important not to improve

Some readers have protested that schooling is clearly wrong when it allows students to not pay attention to what they are supposed to pay attention to.  Aren't our schools good?  Didn't they produce you and me?

Yes, they are good.  I often warn education majors to beware these international comparisons that always show American kids way behind in calculus and such.  As I found out when visiting a British high school, American education is strong BECAUSE of what many perceive as irrelevancies, such as sports, clubs, musicals and such.  The Eight Year Study found that success in American colleges was often connected to the extent that high school students used these 'extra-curricular' opportunities and did not merely study the curriculum.

But there is a big BUT, a big caveat, a big However: Way, way too many students don't graduate from high school and way too many who even graduate from college don't find their education paid off very much.  What is good education is, how one like ought to pay off and how to determine whether it did pay off well has been the subject of very strong debate for 2,000 years.  That sort of debate has been especially rigorous in the U.S. for the last 100 years and still is.  But sources such as "The Unschooled Mind" by Howard Gardner make it clear that a great deal of the requirements of most of schooling don't seem to do that much for the students, especially over a period of, say, 30 years.

The problem with the schools is similar to the problem with Civil War hospitals: we lose too many!  We alienate too many.  We bore too many.  We need to find ways to do better.  Yes, you and I can pay attention when we decide to, even if we can't move about and we can't doodle or mutter to others.  But the evidence is clear that many cannot learn well under such circumstances.  Humans differ but most schooling, most education is has too few choices in both the content allowed, that is what can be studied or attended to, and the methods, that is, how one is to act while learning.  It takes more mental power and broader planning to accommodate more choices, to find ways that more personalities, more types of minds can get involved successfully.  But the special educators, new methods of gaming and multiple possibilities through computers, permitted use of videos and audios in addition to old-time essay writing are broadening the ways we can reach students and assist them to become alive and aware. 

The easy response to difficulties in class is punishment, toughness.  "Whip the little bastards and they will shape up."  There has been steady growth in the evidence that you lose fewer students and they gain more if they are not treated harshly.  True, some grow with harsh methods but more grow and grow better and stronger and wiser with tailored methods for their strengths, not their so-called "weaknesses", which usually means lack of ability to do things that a few writers in previous generations thought important.  All of this was understood by educators before I was born.  It has been re-discovered by those educators that don't operate in the classroom, the human resources departments of companies.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


The British Psychological Society reports on doodling as a strong aid to attention.  In this case, listening to a boring and detailed phone message about party arrangements.  The doodling helped with both the expected goal and a surprise quiz on unexpected aspects of the message. 

When Lynn listens to an audio or even when she watched tv, she likes to do something else with her hands, eyes and attention in addition to the target.  It helps her concentrate.  The linked article above explains the main researcher's theory that a little sidetask such as doodling or knitting or solitaire uses some additional brain that might have led attention astray into something else if it were not kept occupied. 

I have tried to keep the rules on where attention is to be directed in my class fluid and under the control of the student.  Old approaches of so-called "high discipline" where the student was required to sit bolt upright with hands clasped in front of the body were supposed to assure that the student was not distracted and was focused on the subject at hand, usually the teacher's voice.  Today, we know that such attempts at trapping and forcing the attention to be and to stay in one place are misguided.

Some extroverts do much better at learning if they can comment to a nearby friend while some sort of presentation is going on.   Similarly, if a student in class is texting or speaking to a friend, doing so MIGHT increase that student's concentration and grasp of the knowledge.  Chewing gum, moving about, stretching might all assist some learners at learning.

The arrangement where the teacher spoke and the students listened might have been optimal when there were no printed textbooks, no cellphones, no internet.  However, conditions are quite different now.  We are more aware that virtually nothing in the presentation by the teacher is all that important.  The teacher tries to force importance by threatening a tough test on the material but such a test will not require complete and absolute duplication of the presentation.  Therefore, the teacher or other test maker will pick and choose elements from the presentation and ask the student to repeat them or apply them or extend them or criticize them.  The selection of elements to be tested in an error prone process in the sense that what the teacher deems testable may never be needed at any time in the student's future life.

A good way to get a handle on the vagueness of the whole process is to make a quiz about a teacher's presentation and ask another teacher of the same subject to pass the quiz.  What often happens is that the other teacher is appalled at the irrelevancy of the questions and refuses to take the test, an option not open to the good and polite students trying to avoid "failing", whatever that is.

Friday, December 18, 2009

better than rumored to be

For a couple of years, I have taken a paperback book with me on trips in case the Kindle malfunctions.  It hasn't so I have not gotten into the book, which is "Everything Bad Is Good for You" which is not about binge drinking or cigarettes.  It is written by Steven Johnson, a respected science writer.  It is mostly about how video games are making people, kids as well as adults, smarter despite the usual bemoaning that our society is deteriorating.  Well, I got into the book in the last few days and it is worth knowing about.

When I was about 5 years old, my mother asked me to print my name.  When she saw I could do it, she took me to the main Enoch Pratt library and I got a library card.

She made a big deal of how smart I was and how lucky I was to have a library card.  From then on, libraries were much better than candy for me.  I had that card and I made it pay.

But over the years, I came to see that many other people aren't that crazy about books.  They know about them, they can read and they have for school but for many, most, in fact, I know and have checked, they don't see books as gold, as the big source of knowledge, thrills, perspective, guidance.

As I grew older, I watched many movies that touched my heart or scared me deeply or made me feel wonderful.  At the end of them, I watched the credits roll by.  I realized that in addition to the actors and the director and the producers and the writers, many other people contributed to the making of the movie.  I found that many books owe as much to the editor and the publisher as to the writer but few books have such a large group of people behind them as many movies do.  So, books are ok but they are not candy for everyone.  Not the way dating or sports or parenting or grandparenting or baking or hiking or woodworking or knitting are for some.

I have found that as far back as the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks, oldsters have bemoaned the deterioration of the youth: their manners, their knowledge, their morals, etc.  That discovery has made me cautious about concluding similar things myself unless I have very good evidence to back up my opinions.

Now, along come video games.  With modern computers and image software as well as the experiences of hundreds, probably thousands of adults and youngsters all over the world, the games are steadily getting better and better.

Steven Johnson cautions about applying old measures to new phenomena.  Yes, he says, judged by the standard of a morality play, the video games are not that much.  But that has been true for the last 500 years!  Literature, all thought, has become less moralistic, less certain, more aware of ambiguity and complexity, contradiction and contrast in life, in nature, in humans.  But, he says, judging the new games against a morality play is like asking how good a football player or a boxer Michael Jordan is.  Ok, but that is not where his world class talent lies. 

Had video games been invented prior to books, he postulates the bemoaning of kids being lost in the new-fangled, utterly passive, totally isolating medium of print and losing the speed, memory and awareness that video games produced in the earlier generations.  Several universities have created new departments of gaming since video games involve so many disciplines: computer science, psychology, English or other language, visual and audio arts.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ever wish bad times would recur?

Ever wish bad times would recur?  When I behave poorly in some way and realize a way to practice being better, it comes to me that I won't get the chance to be better until the stressful situation or challenge again arises.  I am afraid that by then I will have forgotten my resolve or my good idea on how to do better.  So, think "Durn it!  I wish I would knock over a water glass at the table again so I could remind myself not to use that language." 

I don't purposely recommit an error or make a mess just to practice handling the situation better.  But it is a sour fact that I will have to wait until an accident happens again to practice being my improved self.  Who knows when I will get another chance?  The length of time will be random.  The event will come upon me without warning and it may be a long time before it does. 

I have had this realization ever since it came to me the first time, when I was in about the fourth grade.  It is similar to the research problem of studying a rare disease.  You don't want to make the disease more common but its rarity makes researching it difficult.  You can try to simulate the problem in a computer.  You can try hypnotic suggestion to increase the chance of recognizing the next occurrence as soon as it happens and remembering to use the strategy or keep the vow you want to apply right away, too.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Choose life

In Deuteronomy 30:19, God says we can choose life or death but advises that we choose life.  There is the famous Hebrew toast "L'Chaim!" to life and its riches.  However, if we are better off choosing life, I wonder why the Almighty gave us a choice.  Why not just set us on the path of life with no chance of deviating or going astray?

I know that the subject of god is related to infinities and the limits of our understanding, not to mention memory, patience, emotionality/arousal, and many other aspects of being human.  Still I wonder why we might be designed so that we are capable of going astray.

The subject of human perfectibility is a difficult one that stretches way back in philosophy.  If we tamper with our DNA and our medical procedures, aren't we fooling with nature?  Do we have the right to do that?  Do we really have the power to do that successfully without making our lives worse?  Is it arrogance to try to improve our lives?  Is such an attempt trepassing where we have no business going?  Personally, I don't think trying to be better is messing with God's plan but I can see that humans do make poor and even nasty and despicable choices at times.

The author Dorothy Sayers wrote some mystery stories, including those features the hero Lord Peter Wimsey.  At one point in her life, she felt she had some insight into what being God must be like.  She thought her experience creating characters and shaping their lives must be a little like being the Creator.  She wrote "The Mind of the Maker" about her ideas.

There are times with our great grandchildren that remind me of the offer God made.  We can choose what we want but he recommends choosing life.  Similarly, we can offer a child American cheese or brie.  We might recommend the brie as the better choice in the long run and we might hope that the child's palate and maturity will lead to better things, not worse ones.  Maybe we need an ability to make a choice throughout our lives and that ability is fundamental to being able to live.  Still, we can make better choices and worse ones.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Disliking ads but not my favorite products

I was appalled to learn that my university gets more than a million emails a month and that more than 80% of it is spam.  Not the canned meat, of course, but "unwanted" email.  That seems like a big waste since I doubt if anybody at all makes worthwhile money from it. 

I talked with a student once and told her that she could submit work by email.  She got a downcast look and I asked what the problem was.  She got tears in her eyes and said she couldn't use email.  I thought she was one of those
rare students we get sometimes, who really did not know how to use a computer.  Sometimes, a person just never had a chance, especially in those days.  No, she knew how but her mail box was too much for her.  That very day, she had laboriously deleted 400 emails from her account but during the time she was doing that, 600 new ones came in.  I sent her to our campus help desk for assistance.

I just read the Wikipedia article on spam and it said that about 200 spammers in the world sent most of the bulk mailings.  I have heard that before and didn't like the thought of renegade spoilers causing the rest of world problems.  I still don't and I think careful investigations can distinguish criminal spammers from others.  Still, it is surprising how much one person's spam is another person's find. 

I don't like ads on television although I guess the money paid by advertisers supports the people who put on the programs.  I do get irritated by a loud commercials and even more by a loud commercial that just ran 15 minutes ago.  I am curious about just how much evidence supports the outlay of money for ads anywhere.  I suspect few do much.

Sometimes, I try to count the ads in a single interruption in a show but I usually lose count.  It is often 6 or 8 different products.  Can you imagine trying to speak to a group on 6 to 8 different, separate topics in the time allowed for ads and actually communicate the ideas.  The series on the set just makes a jumble of images.  With modern graphic abilities, there will elephants held in the hand of a baby or other striking images.  Way back in the days of David Ogilvy, research had already shown that when I show my product and explain its superiority over the other one, viewers often come away with the information that the other one was shown to be better.  They get confused.  I get confused. 

Still, advertising matters.  Just open a little business of some kind and see for yourself.  I find it is easy to forget the real function but then I recall the number of times, I have gone to a book in the stacks and found a better one beside it.  Discovery and information from the title advertised the book to me. usually fail when it give me "recommendations", sometimes recommending a book to me that I bought yesterday!  But there have been times when their system tells me about other books I might be interested in and I very much am.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hurray for the quick fix

Lynn and I try to pay attention to our spiritual lives and the spirit we have between the two of us.  Every now and then, we read something or do something to try to refresh our spiritual selves in addition to alternating weeks of writing a statement of where we we see ourselves spiritually.

We are fans of Parker Palmer.  I think his little "Let Your Life Speak" is his best work but many people have benefited from "The Courage to Teach" and other books.  Our friend Judy did the "40-day Journey with Parker Palmer" and we decided to work through the book and exercises, too.

The other day, we read Palmer's call to go beyond the quick fix that Americans so favor.  Have more patience and commitment, he urged, and go the distance to complete the task fully, slowly and thoroughly.  That advice seems open to modification to me. 

Another friend introduced me to the book by James Prochaska and others "Changing for Good".  The most striking things I learned about effective strategies for changing were a) prepare for changing (such as quitting smoking) and b) Try repeatedly.  These researchers found that trying and failing was a good indicator that some subsequent attempt would succeed.  So, go for the quick fix so long as you realize that it is one shot of many possible.  It is only going to be a start.  Any 'fix' to anything is temporary.  Hell, WE are temporary.

We work on things, we don't solve problems finally.  Yes, I will regain the weight but that is better than never losing it.  I will have weeds in the garden again but I did get it weed-free for a while.  We try and then we try again.  In fact, you can see that the quicker the fix, the better.  If we are going to try repeatedly, all the better if each try is fairly fast, no?

I understand the attempt to try to get us to be grown-ups.  Why not apply ourselves rigorously and wipe out the problem, succeed fully?  Good idea but in the modern world, there are so many projects that limiting ourselves to complete solutions only is silly.  Ultimate or final solutions are often not so final, after all. 

I respect the power and optimism of the quick fix.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Njoy Now vs. Njoy Life

When Lynn was looking for a good slogan, she might have chosen "Enjoy Life" but she chose "Enjoy Now".  I am impressed with the power of the difference.  Of course, it is good to enjoy life and to be aware of its pleasures, benefits and triumphs.  I think of doing that as counting my blessings, appreciating what is good.  There certainty is a great deal to appreciate, even when we are in pain or poverty or deep puzzlement.

But enjoying now is a little different.  Taking a moment to stop, "freeze" if you will, and just sensing.  Listening is good since you can pick up things in all directions.  Really taking a look at what you have been doing and where you are reminds you of the miracles you work with all the time.  Opening to the sense of smell makes sense.  We aren't dogs so we are not that great at picking up scents but still taste and smell bring up sensations, pleasures and information.

As people who are hurt or incapacitated know, just being able to stand, to take a step, to balance upright and walk are engineering miracles.  They are worth feeling with muscles and nerves.  Getting your hand to your mouth is not all that easy and if you can do it, take some satisfaction that you spent all that time as a baby practicing and mastered that move and still have it.

Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now" helps us penetrate the now more deeply and more appreciatively.  Deepak Chopra, too, and many others, emphasize that actually one minute ago is already in the past where it may be partially remembered in a biased and subjective way but it is really gone, as are all the minutes before.  One minute from now has not arrived yet.  All we really have is now.  Consciousness is our tool for knowing and sensing that we are here now, that we are what we are right now.  Fears and worries can be shelved and we can just luxuriate in this moment, as it is, that it is. We are knowingly, consciously a part of this moment.  We can enjoy now.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saving less

Lynn and I like to read to each other aloud.  It is fun to work at reading well and reading aloud allows the knitter or the worker a jigsaw puzzle to experience the same revelations at the same time as the reader. 

Lynn is a good housekeeper.  She has taught me the secret that it is wise to keep an eye open for overcrowding in closets, file cabinets, everywhere.  When you spot it, make a note on the calendar and when the date arrives, attack!  Toss!  Burn!  Give away! Donate! De-junk!

My favorite book on de-junking is "Clutter's Last Stand" by Don Aslett.  Aslett supported himself cleaning offices in college and the work turned into a lifetime occupation.  He built a company that cleans buildings and he knew that half of the time and expense of cleaning comes from getting rid of unneeded items that impede the cleaning.  His books are written in a lighthearted way with wit and imagination.  So, I wanted to read the book aloud to Lynn.  We needed to take a 40 mile trip and I took it along and read.

Just before leaving, we had de-junked a closet, finding worn-out towels and bath mats that needed to be thrown away.  The book was so good and so inspiring that when we got home later, we re-cleaned the same closet and ended up with two large bags of additional things that also deserved to go.

Aslett emphasizes that rather than rent extra storage or buying a bigger house, a little thought might show that really stripping down might be the better course.  If I toss the pillow that Aunt Sally gave me, the one that says "No Place Like Home", it doesn't mean that I don't love my aunt or that I didn't enjoy the pillow and the thought that came with it.  Quite a few people I know have given up the use of the garage for sheltering the car in favor of storing boxes and accumulated junk there.

I have an idea that the thrill of getting slimmed down and de-junked is much greater than people realize.  I guess the combined weight of the effort required to toss and the fear that Aunt Sally will be brokenhearted that I tossed her pillow keep me accumulating and accumulating.  It is easier to find just one little corner for the broken machine than to begin loading things for Goodwill and the dump.  But believe me, if you are older than 50, getting your shed back or that basement cleaned gives as big a thrill as good sex.

Friday, December 11, 2009

You, too?

I had little success in persuading people in my class to speak out.  I tried to persuade them that what they had on their minds would be interesting  to others in the room.  The students who knew this and did state their questions, compliments, confusions and complaints emerged as leaders.  They enjoyed their time in the class more, I think, from looking at their expressions and listening to their voice tone.

I was reminded of the general idea that what I do and think is not unique but is shared by others this morning.  I am trying to master Gmail, in more than one account at once.  I was looking at the Gmail (Google's email settings) to see what might be added to my interface, the tools and buttons I see and use.  As I read through them, I see there are small inventions, little additions often called "apps" for 'applications' or "applets" for little applications that can do things an efficient robot would not need done.  I am not an efficient robot, though, and neither it turns out are others who can write programs that modify or add to Gmail.  Do you want to quickly mark as read email you haven't read?  Do you want to preview a message or a link in one? 

As I read what is provided by others, I see again that my foibles and difficulties not mine alone.  Others get overwhelmed, too.  Others feel they alone don't understand what Hulu is.  They too are bored by football and eat too many sweets, too much brie and nuts.

I am not calling for a band of lazies to celebrate laxity and disorder.  I do find comfort in seeing my aches and worries are part of others, too. I do find strength to proceed against difficulties knowing that others are engaged in the same struggle.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Is it cold out?

Since it is beginning to be a more serious version of pre-winter, this  seems to be a good time to consider the subject of heat.  When the temperature drops to zero or below, we like to have a furnace that works.  We have a body temperature around 98.6 but we tend to lose that heat steadily and are only comfortable with a little assistance from clothing, blankets and some sort of fire or heating system.

Many people tend to keep their houses cooler in the winter than we do.  We keep the thermostat set at about 68 or 69°.  Even then, I am often wearing a sweater or fleece jacket over other clothes.  At times when I am chilled in the winter, I have been heartened by Robert Heinlein's statement in one of his novels that with all the heat we make with our wonderful bodies, all we have to do to be warm is to slow the loss of heat.  Just what a hat, mittens and a woolen scarf do.  Yet, when we cross-country ski or jog outside, we often produce enough heat that the body kicks into sweat to cool.

I think it is surprising that humans have managed to survive the 4 million years or so with such a narrow temperature range to work with.  If our core temperature drops below about 90°, we die.  If our core temperature rises to 110°, we die.  So, a 15 degree range is all we have to work with.  Absolute zero is -459 and the highest temperatures are way up there.  A web page at Cal Tech says the center of the sun is 27 million degrees.  Clearly, we operate on the cooler end of possible but we do need heat assistance.

I read in a book on biking that the optimum temperature for fairly active work is 55°.  Above that, we tend to spend some of our energy on keeping cool and not overheating.  I have heard that lumberjacks worked outside in temperatures of 20 below in shirt sleeves because they worked so hard.  The program said that such lumbermen tended to eat 12,000 calories a day because of their energy expenditure.

We used to have a 5th grade social studies unit on the question of why the countries of the temperate zones of the earth have advanced the most in technical and industrial development.  In Florida, Maryland or Hawaii, we have found temperatures around 90° difficult for maintaining high energy levels.  Just as I am accustomed to temperatures below zero, I realize that many places in our country and elsewhere on this planet have temperatures of 110° or higher.  Even in cool northern states, we install air conditioning in our houses if we can afford to. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Living in a world-wide web

A local store used to have a card under the glass counter at the cash register that read,"Congratulations!  You have won the distinction of being our very favorite customer.  Your award of 1,000 bison will be delivered to your front door tomorrow morning." 

Thinking of that message helps me get a perspective on modern communications.  It is well-known that teens often love to use computers and cellphones and what-not to do things, see things and communicate.  I believe that older people are slower in large part because they can envision some setup that launches a gift of a herd of buffalo at them.

This morning, I am sitting beside my little electric picture frame that shows memorable pictures and people in a continuous roll.  Meanwhile, I read about Boxee, some sort of software that may be able to show me downloaded tv shows and movies on my computer or tv set.  "Download tv shows" in Google brings up several sites that just(!) want my name and email address and will allow me to download many movies and shows "free".

Meanwhile, Wired has an article on Abilene Christian University where 97% of the faculty have iPhones and a large group of students have been given the phones for free.  To quote the article:
The traditional classroom, where an instructor assigns a textbook, is heading toward obsolescence. Why listen to a single source talk about a printed textbook that will imminently be outdated in a few years? That setting seems stale and hopelessly limited when pitted against the internet, which opens a portal to a live stream of information provided by billions of minds.

Not long ago, I joined the Sunshine Foundation which is trying to get more information from the government online and fully accessible.  From them, I got an email today that the Obama administration is proceeding with its efforts to move further in that direction.  By means of chat, blog and web site, the administration announced today further progress and plans toward greater transparency, participation and collaboration.  I know that Tim O'Reilly and his team have been calling for more public accessibility for quite a while.  They and other computer people have seen the power of properly organized and handled collaboration in the many open source projects.  What got my attention was this statement from the White House:
At, for instance, what started as 47 data sets from a small group of federal agencies has grown into more than 118,000 today – with thousands more ready to be released starting this week.

Keep in mind that a "data set" can be an absolutely enormous set of data. currently has 118,000 sets with many more on the way.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Doubts and uncertainty - Part II

One of the historical persons I think it is fun to know about is Kurt Godel.  He contributed mightily to the current situation of doubt.  In fact, stories and books about him often include the phrase "the loss of certainty". 

The geometry of Euclid has been a model of certainty for a couple of millennia.  Hobbes or some other writer a couple of centuries back describes in a famous passage how an open book showing a proof of what we call the Pythagorean theorem, the one about the square of the hypotenuse equaling the square of the other two sides riveted him.  Here, he thought, was the embodiment of God's thinking.  Here, man had perceived ultimate truth, had grasped Reality with a capital R, was thinking the way God must also think. Modern thinkers say," Not so fast!  Cool it a little."  There are some caveats and conditions to Euclid's work that one might need to understand if one desires to have everything work out.  As far back as the middle of the 1800's, Russian and German mathematicians were realizing that fundamental truths on a flat plane didn't always hold true on curved surfaces. 

The basic structure of plane geometry was attractive, though.  Start with some axioms that seem obviously true, self-evidently (!!! Beware!) true and build mathematical theory on those axioms.  You can't go wrong.

Along came Kurt.  He was not a very social guy or all that well developed at schmoozing.  In fact, he was famously, seriously introverted and beyond, up to perhaps a little off.  Take a look at his picture and you may be able to see what I mean.  Take a look at his story by Rebecca Goldstein and see that he barely talked to anybody at Princeton except Einstein.  But all that aside, he proved that any set of axioms rich enough to capture the truths of arithmetic would be either incomplete or contradictory.  That is, there would be truths that could not be derived from the axioms (incomplete) or contradictions could be derived from them.  Later work by Alan Turing, a British computer scientist and logician showed a same thing true in computing. 

Godel's work on "formally undecidable truths" has excited attention in many other subjects than mathematical logic.  (A key word here is "formally", that is by strict mathematical or logical operations.) This section on Franzen's book on Godel emphasizes ideas people have assumed Godel proved when he fact he did not:
"Among the many expositions of Godel's incompleteness theorems written for non-specialists, this book stands apart. With exceptional clarity, Franzen gives careful, non-technical explanations both of what those theorems say and, more importantly, what they do not. No other book aims, as his does, to address in detail the misunderstanding and abuses of the incompleteness theorems that are so rife in popular discussions of their significance. As an antidote to the many spurious appeals to incompleteness in theological, anti-mechanist and post-modernist debates, it is a valuable addition to the literature" - John W. Dawson, Jr., author of Logical Dilemmas: The Life and Work of Kurt Godel. Godel's Theorem has been used to argue that a computer can never be as smart as a human being because the extent of its knowledge is limited by a fixed set of axioms, whereas people can discover unexpected truths... It plays a part in modern linguistic theories, which emphasize the power of language to come up with new ways to express ideas. And it has been taken to imply that you'll never entirely understand yourself, since your mind, like any other closed system, can only be sure of what it knows about itself by relying on what it knows about itself. - An Incomplete Education, by Judy Jones and William Wilson"
Franzen goes on to say

But we do live in exciting, broadening times, when a complex 1932 proof in mathematical logic and computing theory gets so much attention and produces such speculation.

Monday, December 7, 2009

doubts everywhere

It is often noted that the last few centuries have undone some of the formerly stable truths.  Galileo and other scientists are said to have changed the picture of heavenly powers controlling everything that goes on.  Both the telescope and the microscope showed new worlds not previously suspected.  I read that the Pope gets scientific advice and updates all the time, which is a big change from the persecution the church gave Galileo.  Something like 400 years after forcing him to recant his findings and placing him under house arrest, the church forgave him and admitted its error.

Darwin further undermined certainty and the place of humans in nature with the realization of the evolution of organisms.  Modern genetic science is hard at work further understanding life and its methods and possible modification for particular human purposes. 

Freud and others showed that our baby natures still influence us when we are old and today we are well aware of the importance of the upbringing a child gets both from parents and from age peers.

Odd things from the study and theory of art and interpretation emerged during the middle of the 1900's and climaxed in scholarly areas about 1980 in "postmodernism" and related ideas.  Whenever I try to tell about this wave of thought and doubt, I look for short and clear statements as to what it was (is) about.  I say that it started in France and was part of a smooth, natural development of thinking about how to interpret writings and other art.  When you look up postmodernism, you often find odd mixtures of references to art, philosophy and political thinking.  I was in school before the climax of the movement and during doctoral studies in both psychology and philosophy, I never heard the word mentioned.  I was too early in my development.  But when Lynn got her doctorate, she ran smack dab into it. 

You might think in a field such as instructional technology and computing, there wouldn't be much call for theories that emerged from literary criticism and scholarship, but on many modern campuses, the search for hidden motivations and cultural influences is part of most research and formal conversation about everything.

So, this is another side of human thinking that has come to doubts and a grasp of how much is relative, temporary and mere convention.  It is not just cosmology and biology but all human thinking and history that is the subject of doubt and debate.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Norman Cousins wrote Anatomy of an Illness about his mysterious wasting sickness and his own participation in trying to get rid of it.  He felt the hospital was not helping him.  Too many interruptions while he was trying to sleep, checking his vital signs too often, too somber, too bleak.  He checked into a hotel.  He felt good laughter was what he needed and arranged to watch his favorite funny movies for a couple of hours a day.  He did much better with that routine.

The American physician Patch Adams, played in the movie of that name by Robin Williams, sought to introduce laughter and merriment into hospital and medical routine.

Today, the Mind Hacks blog reports that clowns did better than drugs at lowering anxiety in children aged 3-8 as they prepped for an operation.

We have participated in group yoga sessions of hearty, deliberate laughter.  We felt ill at ease at hearty laughter when there was nothing funny but even we got into the spirit of group to some extent when the laughing had continued for long enough.

Laughing can be individual and cognitive, that is, based on ideas.  Of course, it is emotional and seems to represent a kind of intersection of our emotional cognitive selves, as when a joke ends with a punch line that surprises and delights us.  But laughter is also social.  I didn't like hearing that since I felt I was too independent a thinker to be put into a mood of humor by others' laughter.  Or, I thought I wanted to be.  However, I've been watching myself and I see that the laugh tracks of tv comedies and group laughter in a party or meeting does affect me. I wouldn't be surprised it the effect is positive, even when I doubt it or resent it at the moment.

So, the next time I make a movie about tough cowboys, I will not have the wounded hero take a sip of whiskey just before his buddy sets about removing the slug from his shoulder.  He and his buddy and the rest of the posse will begin hearty and rigorous laughter so he can achieve an altered state of merriment and lowered consciousness of pain and fear.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

surrounded and disliked

I have been listening to Prof. David Ruderman on Jewish intellectual history 1600 to 2000.  Whether it is the story of the Jews or the tale of immigrants to America, the difficulties of being someplace where you don't understand what is going on, where everything is strange are always gripping.  This is the year 5770 in the Jewish calendar so they have quite a long history.  Whether it was military defeat and conquest or the arrival of a man that some took to be the long-awaited messiah the Jews had envisioned and desired, there have been many twists and turns that resulted in the Jews being isolated, abandoned, surrounded and disliked.  They have been thinkers and strivers and have tested just about every conceivable strategy to improve their lot while trying to remain true to their heritage.

From the 1600's to the middle of the 1800's, they made progress, at least in Europe at integrating themselves into the larger society and being accepted.  By the middle and late 1800's though, they took stock of their situation.  Pogroms (violent outbursts of both popular and governmental physical attacks on them and their property) coupled with fear, hatred and rumors about their lives and habits brought about attempts in new directions to find a way to live.  This was nearly a century before the Nazis focused public and governmental hatred and persecution on them.  Thinkers and leaders among them suggested two new strategies.  First, work for the restructuring of society so that the typical organization would be altered to give them a chance to fit in.  This was a time when it was very questionable whether Jews should be allowed to attend a university or professional school.  Second, find a place, a land, where they could have a country of their own.  That would include an army, a legislature and a chance to use Hebrew as the national language.

The book by Michael Chabon The Yiddish Policeman's Union, tells the fictional story of the giving of the land of Alaska to the Zionists who were searching for a land to live in.  Of course, what actually happened was that the British and other European powers worked to arrange the return of the land of ancient Israel to the Zionists, where they are struggling to make a go of nationhood today.  It hasn't been easy for the Israelis or for the Palestinians who have lived there for centuries.  Tune in a thousand years from now to see how it all turns out.

Popular Posts

Follow @olderkirby