Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Gray Matters

When he and I are in the same company, my nephew—who seems to need an audience to feel whole—entertains himself and sometimes others by taking comic jabs at me.  I smile, sometimes offer a retort, but mostly wonder how he feels when he is alone at 3:00 a.m.

But on one significant occasion, while a few of us usually scattered family members were gathered in the hospital during his mother’s, my sister’s final hours, in a context of optimism v. pessimism, my nephew uttered what I feel is the most accurate summary of my personality I’ve ever heard:  “Some people see the glass half-full, and some see it half-empty.  Uncle Rog sees the glass half-gray.”  Everyone, especially me, roared with laughter.  It was a compellingly cathartic interlude.

I think most in the group associated the description with my crêpe-hanging, Eeyorish attitude.  And I accepted that.  Why not?  But today, from a letter to the editor of the Times, I discovered what is probably my reason for focusing on the gray.

We live in a time when we crave black-and-white certainty, as reflected in the obsession with quantification. The humanities teach us how to live, thrive and find meaning in a world that is painted in multiple shades of gray.  BEATRICE REHL
New York, Aug. 16, 2014”  (emphasis added to this excerpt)
And there it was, glowing like a red-hot branding iron, a summary of my personal perspective, testifying to why the humanities have played such a central role in my life.  They guided me through my academic career, during which I eschewed the majority theories, and explored, applied and wrote of the source evidence that contradicted the majority theories.
I take comfort in my idea that questioning the accepted ideas is what makes us become better, more human, less accepting and ultimately, as Ms Rehl indicates, thriving as we find meaning in our lives.  In short, the humanities provide us with access to rise from quantitative certainty into qualitative ambiguity, to experience self-transcendence in our world of separation into nodes of self-absorption.
Unfortunately, this praise of the humanities also serves as its eulogy.  The forces driving our society and our culture see little value in the quality of ambiguity.  Ambiguity, in its nature, offers no opportunity for metrics.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Succulence of the Bitter Heart

America needs to heed his words.  He envisioned

"a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, 'Is it good, friend?'
'It is bitter—bitter,' he answered;
'But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.'"

Americans have had a tough time with this young writer who died at age 28.  They loved his romanticized war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, but not so much Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, a naturalistic portrait of the deceit and manipulation of America's juvenile optimism and faith that hope springs eternal...for everyone!...unless you're poor.  In fact, Crane demonstrates that the poor, in their desperation, are the ready prey for the grifters and con artists, even when they're dressed as benefactors (see my post, "The Paul Vallas Scam").

I've always been impressed by the difference between the great admirers of Crane and the lukewarmers among prominent American writers.  When you read some of the stories, like "The Blue Hotel" and "The Open Boat", you understand that he had grown to accept the taste of the bitter heart.

I've always admired another of his poems (which I've quoted here in a previous post); I think it represents an expansion of his vision to include everything.

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dangerous Thinking

Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn't break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility.  . . . Open thinking points beyond itself.
Theodor Adorno

That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise.  . . . nonthinking is even more dangerous.
Hannah Arendt

Quoted to begin "Thinking Dangerously in An Age of Political Betrayal", a very thorough and engaging essay by Henry A. Giroux, that will make you question everything from what actual learning is to the whimper of a decaying culture.

Below are some other mots justes:

• Insofar as the laws of mathematics are certain, they do not refer to reality; and insofar as they refer to reality, they are not certain…The important thing is not to stop questioning. - Albert Einstein
The utmost extent of man's knowledge, is to know that he knows nothing. - Joseph Addison

  When students cheat on exams, it's because our school system values grades more than students value learning. - Neil deGrasse Tyson

   Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers. – Voltaire

 What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. - Christopher Hitchens

   To fear death is to think that we know what we do not know. - Socrates

[Source:  Generation Terrorists, a marvelous place to wander through]

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Voices of Reason

Here are voices of reason who want to provide better access to education for EVERYONE.

Jonathan Pelto and Ebony Murphy have decided that it's time that the truth about education reform should be brought to the attention of the tax payers by way of the ballot box.

It's the way reform is supposed to happen in a democracy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

You, Them And Facebook, Et Al

As I read Jaron Lanier's op-ed today, I considered writing  a brief response.  I knew that would be problematic, not only because most of what I write is typically not brief, but also because I would seem once again and unnecessarily to be curmudgeonly negative about the culture I happen to live in.  So I let it rest.  But that also bothered me.  I have something to say to all the lemmings rushing to be friended or followed or linkedin or tweeted, groping and grasping for a "social" beingness to assure them of their ontology.

See.  That's why I hesitated to write something.  I get going about how people need to think about what they're really themselves.  But they think or, I guess, believe that places like Facebook, and Twitter and Quora and even Wattpad simply want to facilitate their sense of social well being, what used to be called "popularity."

But while I scanned the recent visits to my posts for this week, I discovered that I had already written about this.   See my post for Monday, September 16, 2013.

But I think the Lanier piece does a better job of explaining to us just how manipulative the avarice of social media can be.  He's kind of an interesting person.  He works in the world of online media and has acquired some opprobrium from the online hawks out there.  But I think they don't read hm carefully.  As this current piece suggests (and to paraphrase Shakespeare), he wants us to understand that the fault is not so much in the purveyors of social media but in ourselves from our lack of judiciousness.

Oh, almost forgot.  Disclaimer:  As you might have guessed from what this blog's banner says, having multitudes of friends and followers has never been one of my top priorities.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Big Data for Social Good

Disclaimer: I am neither a computer scientist nor a data scientist, nor a statistician.  Moreover, I assume, like most people I am conflicted about whether Big Data is a benevolent master or a malevolent servant, infecting what's left of the good parts of being human.

All that said, I had a look at this video by Drew Conway (who happens to be my son) on how Big Data can and should be used for social good.  And in his view the heavy lifting of analysis and application so far has been done by volunteers, so it doesn't need a lot of money.  Have a look.  It's about 25 minutes long, and it's not full of esoteric vocabulary and complex theories.

Things can get better.  But we need to want them to.

Friday, June 13, 2014

If Only We Could Listen Surely (a belated testimonial)

If only we could listen surely
Then here’s to Leo*, too long gone—
Who knew what poetry is, who
We thought could use some of
Our schooling to oversee him—
Who bent low to keep the food
Coming because
The words could never stop—
Who listened politely and ignored
Our constructs and numbing flotsam.
You created lines of flow and rupture,
Rapping long before it got a name.
So much for scholars’ delights.

Thirteen years since then, and I’ve
Passed your marker already by three
But still, and this is it, really, why
This now, this now so many years gone and
How you passed almost unnoticed so few
Bothered to honor your resting hulk, and
The why, I suppose, is that fact, that
Actually of my countdown coming along.

You earned the little grub you got grubbing
The hard way…I never could see you there,
A seller of stuff to material minds.
What you really had for us we couldn’t buy
And anyway it was for giving, not for sale

You made me want to meet Amelia, Mrs. Brooks,
To be there, to save Federico from our madness
Smashed against the wall, to assert its foul
Righteousness, oh yes, you knew it in your bones,
Which is why you gathered your clan to cross America,
Welcoming the air of Walt, Allen and Hart, bound in the
Soul and heart, the sound in lines of America,
Flow and rupture, with them, you accused
In the bluster of your full-throated love.

You were always able to see the unseen ones,
The cowering, fearful woman, pushing cart,
Portering the motel in Provincetown, her spirit sister,
Your Amelia, the kind of love so deep it takes
Your voice to dig it to our lives, the kind of love
That put Boppledock in sauce draining wonder in Mass.

It’s why they looked askance at your honoring
Dylan and Federico and Hart and all the others
In your clan, who took the risks and hated the price.
America always has the price, the America you
Showed what love means, who couldn’t care less.

*Leo Connellan, Connecticut poet laureate, 1996-2001
(read "Crossing America" here)
(from: "Amelia, Mrs. Brooks of My Old Childhood" go here and scroll down)