Saturday, July 18, 2015

#Terrorism versus Lightning, and the American Addiction to Fear

Terrorism is in our headlines, across our national media, and in almost every speech given by every national politician. Since 9/11, and in fact well before 9/11, terrorism has, well, terrorized Americans. It is time to seek perspective, ask what this culture of fear is doing to our country, and seek ways to deny the terrorists the right to divide us with fear.
Fear is an insidious ailment because it both addictive and contagious. Physiologically, fear acts much like stress, which underlies so many of the ailments that claim lives or at least reduce quality of life.
Relative to the total population, in a typical year, the chance of an American citizen being killed by a terrorist are roughly one in 20,000,000. Compare this to their risk of...
Dying in a car accident: 1 in 19,000;
Drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 800,000;
Dying in a building fire: 1 in 99,000;
Being struck by lightning: 1 in 5,500,000. 
Of the ones that I researched, being struck by lightning is the only mode of injury ridiculously rare enough to be compared to death by terrorist attack.
As an American who grew up in a war zone and actually knows what it's like to have a loaded AK-47 pointed at me, I find it very deeply troubling that so many Americans live in a state of fear; spend so much of their time watching cable "news" which packages, sells and multiplies that fear. And many Americans habitually vote for more fear every four years or so.
For this reason I implore my dear, fellow Americans to get in their car and drive... just drive across the country. Drive thousands of miles on our awesome wide open roads and feel that peaceful sunlight and breathe that peaceful air and enjoy that scenery. Unplug the fear and drive. It feels good.
We should also remember that lot of good people have worked hard or even died to give you that a sense of freedom, peace and security. Yes, I speak of Tom Sullivan, David Wyatt, Carson Holmquist, Skip Wells, and Randall Smith, and all of their colleagues in Chattanooga and across the armed forces, and their families, and their friends. It actually devalues the sacrifice of all of our service people when we do not appreciate what we have and what they worked or even died to protect. 
We should remember that the root intent of a terrorist is... to terrorize. The statistics are very clear, and we should deny the terrorists the pleasure of cultivating fear in our minds. The terrorist are failing in the physical fight, and we can defeat them in the mental fight at home as well, simply by enjoying what we have.
So please... take advantage of our freedom and our peace at home. Yes, of course, we do need to remain ever vigilant, and continue efforts to thwart terrorism at home and abroad, but.. never forget to enjoy what you have and the price the nation has paid to secure it.
America is the rarest of rarities- a huge, wealthy, gorgeous and mostly peaceful land where we don't have to live in fear. America is the place where we have the liberty and luxury to worry about other things... like whether to put a lightning rod on the house.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

American #HigherEd and the Liberal / Conservative Squeeze

American Higher Ed circles have lately been abuzz with news about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's actions in his state, which appear designed to trim academic programs and confront unions. With the recent announcement of Walker's candidacy in the 2016 election, his actions in Wisconsin will bring more scrutiny and dissent.
Of course, educators are right to study and question Scott Walker's motives... and, in fact, the motives of any and all politicians, very few of who have any knowledge about Higher Ed or education in general. However, Higher Ed is struggling with much larger and broader challenges than Mr. Walker. Reduced resources from the States and Federal funding agencies; legacy costs; rampant misunderstanding of tuition inflation, the "college for all" concept ...which seems designed take the "higher" out of "higher education." Just to name a few.
An unfortunate political circumstance that is currently afflicting higher ed is what might be called the liberal-conservative squeeze: opposed forces chewing into support for Higher Ed from opposite ends.
The fringe Republicans' vendetta against Higher Ed is well known, so I won't dwell on that here. I'll simply point out that the Democrat's wondrous-sounding, beautifully egalitarian, "college-for-all" speak has inflicted grave damage as well, because it tends to devalue the on-campus, 4-year experience in favor of MOOCs and other measures that aim to take tuition revenue away from schools.... revenue that actually pays teachers' salaries. It amazes me that Ed advocates on the left don't realize that as soon as they assert the possibility of replacing current instruction with lower cost methods e.g. MOOCs, the more cost-conscious conservatives will seize upon that as evidence that faculty really aren't worth what they are paid.
Moreover, the Democrats' concept of simply shifting tuition costs for students to the broader public (via the tax base) also sounds lovely, but it does absolutely nothing to address rising costs, and isn't politically viable in many states. That leaves the Democrats with no better option than to advocate for a large private-to-public shift at the Federal level, which is unlikely to succeed, given the political ineptitude and inefficiency of the Education Department.
In my opinion, there has been far too much emphasis in Higher Ed media on Mr. Walker; far too much focus on the unfolding political machinations in that one state. Walker is ultimately a bit player, an ephemeral political being. Wisconsin will eventually overcome him and emerge stronger because of it, perhaps even with some benefits from a few of his ideas. To put it another way: if an institution can truly be decimated by one short-term, partisan politician, then it's not much of an institution. Surely we are more resilient than this. I offer this wisdom from the University of Virginia, where we know a thing or two about deep political intrusions.
In summary, a far greater long-term challenge to Higher Ed across America than Mr. Walker is this phenomenon of the liberal-conservative squeeze. It has the candle of Higher Ed burning at both ends, and if we don't address it soon (pardon the hyperextended metaphor) the light will soon go out.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Meeting (Among Friends)

Begun at mid morning after many greetings, the silence is at first awkward. Somewhere, a beeping device and then a whisper. Traffic nearby. A train whistle, off in the distance. Another beeping...really? That one is at least outside. Then there is the shifting of human mass upon the benches, the creaking of old wood. It takes good time.
True quiet is difficult to establish, and it's not all their fault. There are too many songs in my head; too many things for my fingers to do; too many reasons not to be quiet. Minutes pass, and then more. The room is a bit warm, so I loosen my shoes and set my feet upon them and find a comfortable posture.
When quiet is finally set among us, there is the wait. Will someone speak? What will they say? No one need speak, actually: we all know what is in our minds after this week. It is written on every face of every color and age.
Light streams in past the clouds and through the skylights, and I have calculated well: it doesn't touch me. It would be too warm, with those ceiling fans off for the sake of the silence. My corner is dark and cool... and comfortable.
After a time, a different tight compels several to stand and speak. You don't need to know what they said; it is for us there, and it is sincere and beautiful. There is perceptible relief when someone speaks... the silence is just too much for most of us; except, perhaps, for a few of the white-haired old Friends who have built up a tolerance for such things.
After the messages, the doors open and a rather beautiful, willowy young lady enters, in a light and flowing dress. She is accompanied by boisterous children. One is not even two feet tall, African in appearance, who flashes the peace sign and scurries to his white guardian. She wears her usual peace shirt. The children disturb the peace, but in the best possible way. 
Then there is the most beautiful occurrence: a very young girl in braids darts into the open space in the center of the room. No one attempts to restrain her. She stands comfortably at the focus of twelve benches facing her, in our circle... or is it more a square? In any case, she drifts around that center, almost dancing, and facing each direction in turn: north, south, east and west, around and around, facing all of us for a little time, like an uninhibited little muse. Then she meanders back to her mother's side. I am sure there is a common sense that we have all witnessed something
The Speaker brings this all to a close, and a call to propose a hymn. "There is a Bomb in Gilead," one woman says... or so I heard it. Fortunately, the children distribute hymnals and I see that it is the Balm that is our subject. Our hymn is a familiar old spiritual, and its final verse is special, or at least a bit more special than the rest:
"You don't have to preach like Peter,
You don’t have to pray like Paul;
Just tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all."
Finally, we introduce ourselves and make little comments. One woman relates her child's marriage, and the truer friends wave their hands in their charmingly goofy way. For some mystical reason, the introductions always follow a clockwise helical pattern from the back row to the center, like a welcoming maelstrom of friendliness. It ends with the willowy young woman who tended the children. She doesn't seem at all taxed by them.
A few more words and announcements, and that is the conclusion of another meeting. Time for us to stand and shake hands and wander out from whence we came... and wonder what just happened.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Conservatives *do* have a point... but it's not what they are talking about

One of the most unique and successful features of American democracy, the Federal-State system, has taken several serious hits from the Supreme Court over the past few days.

First there was the Obamacare ruling, which essentially upholds the establishment of a costly, bureaucratic and complex system across all states... even if any particular state's citizens don't want it and opted not to set up a health insurance 'exchange.' This is particularly contentious for many conservatives who celebrate the principle of self-determination and fear that they are being asked to pay for someone else's health care.

Next came the ruling on same-sex marriage, which some religious conservatives may perceive as the single most fundamental affront to their religious traditions in all of US history. The opinion offered by Chief Justice Roberts makes it clear that he (& an aging but nevertheless vocal minority) considers this Supreme Court ruling an intrusion on historical tradition. Some conservatives will now feel that they are being asked to fund the marital benefits of same-sex couples, even if they are religiously opposed to same sex marriage.

There have been many other perceived abrogations of states' rights, in recent years, notably 'Common Core,' which some conservatives fairly(?) see as a Federal program to teach to a Federally-controlled test and thereby control what our kids learn. And then, after the horrid tragedy in Charleston perpetrated by a very sick lone wolf, there was the sudden popular outburst against the rebel flag, which still proudly adorns many walls and pickup trucks across the eastern half of the country. Some conservatives perceive that the Federal government is attempting to define a traditional symbol as hateful....when they don't see it that way.

The point that conservatives could make, but dare not for obvious historical reasons, is that the relevance of state law is rapidly eroding. Given the transition to larger multi-state and multinational corporations and gargantuan Federal programs, many state boundaries have become virtually meaningless in terms of fiscal and social policy.

I will attempt to state what I think conservatives might fairly argue. In my view, the very best argument they have is that the flag of these United States has fifty stars, not one. Moreover, the states have historically functioned as relatively independent places to test new programs and policies, some even quite radical. Consider, for example, Massachusetts' Obamacare-like health care law; the current experiments with legalized marijuana in Colorado; the sale of state bonds for higher education in Oregon; the various contentious laws concerning abortion, particularly in the late term; and indeed the legalization of same-sex marriage prior to this Supreme Court ruling.

In essence, the conservatives could fairly argue: if it's not broke, why fix it? States have been experimenting with all manner of contentious issues... for generations. Why compel states to do what they could decide to do on their own?

I can offer counter-arguments to the above, but for the sake of argument, I present what I consider to be the conservatives' very best case, and the one that I believe they may present in the next election.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The so-called #confederate flag

Quite a vocal debate has ensued since that disgusting, racially-motivated murder by the young fool in Charleston, which took the lives of nine innocent Americans at church. The most prominent leaders across the political spectrum have weighed in.

Foremost, I must say that I'm not quite comfortable with what it says about our society that we are already talking about flags and abstract meanings rather than good people's lives ended much too soon by ignorance. Nevertheless, the flag topic is on the table, and I must offer comment, because there is an awful (and I do mean awful) lot of misunderstanding about the 'confederate flag" and the 'southern heritage' that some falsely claim that it represents. It represents something far more insidious, and its continued presence is deliberate for that reason.

At issue are actually four flags. It is important to note this detail, if we really attempt to understand what hateful disease was festering in the mind of this young fool, as opposed to simply sinking him to the bottom of the ocean and forgetting that he ever happened. (Which is tempting... but we do need to try to effect some good from this awful event, if at all possible.)

One flag that confounded this young fool's brain is the current American flag, which, of course, represents national unity. Obviously, the concept of people from different races and religions coming together to help each other through shared commitment to civility did not reach the young fool, during whatever inadequate upbringing he had. And so the young fool trampled and burned our flag.

Then there are the [apartheid-era] South African and Rhodesian flags that he wore, which represented two precarious regimes in a part of the world where this young fool has actually never tread. No one can assume that he knows what they represent. I happen to know a thing or two about those two flags, but will save that for another thread. Let's proceed to the main topic of discussion.

And then there is the so-called "confederate flag"... which isn't actually the confederate flag, and never was... and was in fact rejected for that purpose. What some southerners now call the "confederate flag" was at best a northern Virginia battle flag used by Robert E. Lee during the confederacy. Moreover, the familiar design offered by pro-slavery racist William Porcher Miles has little if anything to do with southern heritage. Of course, the rebel flag and its meaning have changed over time, and it now represents many things to many people. To me the rebel flag represents a backward mentality that I cannot tolerate... because it is by its own nature intolerant. I do not apologize for this strong point of view.

In the context of the recent discussions about the controversial "confederate flag," I have read the term "southern heritage" tossed about. We are supposed to believe that the flag somehow represents the south or at least its history. But I can think of *many* more positive symbols of southern-ness than a flag designed by a pro-slavery racist in the 1800s. Do people claim there is really nothing more positive to represent the south and its heritage than the rebel/confederate/battle flag? If so, that is sad for America and even sadder for the south.

God bless the United States.

Friday, June 12, 2015

#Google, the French, and le droit à l'oubli

The French are again challenging Google over the company's neural algorithm and associated indefinite caching. Apparently they'd like for Google to reset the search history on routine basis... and to extend that practice globally. Google has already been compelled by Europe's highest court to forget some things:

What you need to know about the 'right to be forgotten' on Google

A key part of Google's search is the use of historical information, i.e. what you searched for in the past and related patterns, which may be established by what other people searched for. The search algorithm apparently functions quite similarly to how our brains retrieve info: the more you try to recall something, the quicker and more facile that process of recollection becomes. The brain is trained.

The problem is that once a pattern is established, there is no fresh search. Ever. The search network becomes 'wired.' Thus arises a reasonable complaint that a search engine can, in effect, steer traffic away from less-visited sites, perhaps placing local business at a disadvantage. If you want a search engine to feature new sites and services, you'd need to wire in some bias toward them.

A related issue is that once something is online, it tends to get parroted and cached all over, so that it never ...ever... goes away. (Hence internet 'truthification'... the tendency for even the most blatantly false info to live on and on)

What if you didn't want a statement or indiscrete photo to remain immortal on the internet? It'd be very hard -if not impossible- to expunge. This is going to be a very big problem for young people, who are likely to say or do things online that they later wish they hadn't. Their indiscretions are on permanent record.

Google does a very fine job of finding exactly what people want. That's a good thing, but also a bad thing, according to the French. Everyone should have le droit à l'oubli. And maybe they have a point.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Barenboim's Big Piano

Conductor-Composer-Pianist Extraordinaire Daniel Barenboim has collaborated with Belgian instrument-maker Chris Maene to produce an interesting straight-strung grand piano. He was inspired to do so after playing Franz Liszt's imposing concert grand piano, which is straight strung.

Barenboim says that the new piano has "more transparency, more clarity." He probably means that the piano sounds more pure... from the bench. I doubt very seriously that it makes any difference at all by the time you're at a typical audience's distance; a spectrum should bear that out. The performer sits in the near-field, so to speak, of the piano's sound. The audience sits much further away... in the far field.. and thus likely hears a typically overtoned spectrum, no matter how you string the harp. The audience is hearing sound enriched by the modes of the sound board and splayed off the lid. This is my initial thought; I'd be interested to see some data, to see if I am right.

Moreover, the cross-string design came into being for several good reasons:

(1) A cross-string piano is much more compact;
(2) Crossed bass strings pass over the middle of the sound board, giving better resonance;
(3) $$$!

Furthermore, I speculate...

(4) Technicians have been working on cross-string grands for ~150 years and I suspect this new (old?!) design will present new maintenance challenges;
(5) The forces on the harp are probably better balanced with cross stringing;
(6) I'd expect better overtone resonance with a cross string design, i.e. more cooperation between the strings.

So will the Big Barenboim succeed? I doubt it. But it's still interesting!