Thursday, December 10, 2009

Uncle Yoda

I have observed that old men become more compact as they age and that they begin to look like small benign wizards - our collective Grand Uncle Yoda adept in mystery, bestowing lessons to those who care to notice...

Yeats says it better...

"That is no country for old men;
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
a tattered coat upon a stick,
Soul clap its hands and sing."

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On Obama

Any discussion of the Obama presidency is multi-dimensional. It encompasses ideology, policy, expectations, hopes, disappointment, fear, and paranoia. The far right attempt to paint Obama as a Socialist, Communist, Muslim, anti-American other has had traction in a certain portion of the population. Considering that his economic policy is in the hands of the titans of American Capitalism, that his foreign policy is closer to McCain than even Carl Levin, that his health care reform plans have left the single payer option to wither on the vine, there can be no question that the far right paranoiac view of Obama is a fantasy that serves some other agenda, an agenda that is still developing.

My view, which is still fundamentally in support of Obama, despite his centrist policies, is rooted in the belief that he is operating responsibly and honestly. Obama is attempting to balance his own perspective, with his practical assessment of how to make incremental progress across a number of terrains. It is clear that the Democratic Party will not march in lock step with the President. The fantasy of the 60-vote veto proof majority has dissolved in the hands of Lieberman, Nelson, Building a majority party meant expanding what it means to be a Democrat, and those chickens are coming home to roost. So, on domestic policy, Obama has bravely, and at the expense of much of his popularity, thrown open the divisions in this county and in his own party in an effort to make some progress on providing health care to more people with less chance of being dropped from coverage in the crunch. This is not nothing, but far from universal health care.

On Afghanistan, the escalation is a most egregious betrayal for the anti-war left that supported him. But there are the following questions to ask: Is pulling out of Afghanistan militarily, and completely, an option, and if so, would it be acceptable for Obama to watch as the Taliban restored themselves to power? Or, is the position of staying with a more modest military footprint acceptable in the face of more sophisticated and lethal attacks? Can you as commander in chief, decide not to provide the strongest military profile if you are going to be lethally engaged? The dream of a pacified Afghanistan, and a stable Pakistan are a long way off.

The point is that there are no ideologically pure answers to actually governing this country. The purest ideologically driven governments, either theocracies, Stalinist regimes, or Fascist Dictatorships have the darkest track records. We have the messy, frustrating, debased mess of this democracy with powerful elites still holding the majority of the real power. Obama is not the supreme leader, as much as the fantasists would like to imagine him that way. He is working systematically, expending all his capital on real problems: Re-building and re-regulating the financial system, reforming health care, stimulating the economy, dealing with climate change, managing two inherited and complex wars, all under the shadow of massive unemployment, huge deficits and the treat of terrorism. He has his hands full, and at least he is an adult.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Hate Public Option, Love Medicare

The Health Care debate makes for some strange contortions, on all sides. But the current winner is the Republican Party, tea baggers and all going to the barricades in defense of Medicare. No matter how they got here, it is great to see the haters of all things Public defending every penny in the current Medicare system. Beautiful.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Indignation (by Philip Roth)...

Set in 1951 the second year of the Korean war, a studious, intense youngster from Newark, Marcus Messner, begins his sophomore year of college at the conservative campus of Winesberg College in Ohio. Meanwhile his father, the sturdy, hardworking, neighborhood butcher, seems to have gone mad - mad with fear and apprehension and worry of the dangers of adult life, the dangers of the world, the dangers he sees in every corner for his beloved son.

Before worry consumed him, this was the father seen through the son's eyes:

"You know Kosher meat has to be washed every three days. My father would take a whisk broom with a bucket of water and wash all the meat down. But sometimes you had a Jewish holiday, and though we ourselves weren't strictly observant, we were Jews in a Jewish neighborhood, and what's more, kosher butchers and so the store was closed. And one Jewish holiday, my father told me he forgot. Say the passover Seder was going to be on a Monday and a Tuesday, and he washed the meat on the previous Friday. He would have to come back on Monday or Tuesday to do it again, and this one time he forgot. Well, nobody knew he'd forgotten, but he knew, and he would not sell that meat to anyone. He took it all and he sold it at a loss to Mueller, who had a non-kosher butcher store on Bergen Street. Sid Mueller. But he would not sell it to his customers. He took the loss instead."

But Marcus has to try to find his own way. A way to navigate the worrisome waters of Indignation, of "ass-kissing and apologizing", of "lunatic piety, but "what else could he do, like the Messner that he was, but ... bang his fist on the Dean's desk and tell him for a second time, "Fuck you"?'

And so having thus lost his student defrment ...

"... that was it for the butcher's son, dead three months short of his twentieth birthday - Marucs Messner 1932 - 1952 - the only one of his classmates unfortunate enough to be killed in the Korean War, which ended with the signing of an armistice agreement on July 27, 1953, eleven full months before Marcus, had he been able to stomach chapel and keep his mouth shut, would have received his undergraduate degree from Winesberg college - more than likely as class valedictorian - and thus have postponed learning what his uneducated father had been trying so hard to teach him all along; of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one's most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.".

A beautiful book.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Face Of The Week...

Young Tarahumara mother and child - Guapalina, Mexico

Friday, November 13, 2009

Back soon...

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How many other things are we missing....


MusicianSomething to think about….

Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approximately. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later:

The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes:

A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes:

A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes:

The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour:

He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

The questions raised:

*In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?

*Do we stop to appreciate it?

*Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made.

How many other things are we missing?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - Mike and Son...

I wrote the below post, (called Dependable)... the comment below it was posted by a reader. These are people who know what is truly valuable.



I went to my local upholsterer, Mike, today to see about some slip covers. Mike is 83 years old. His wife died two years ago at 80 of undiagnosed cirrhosis of the liver. They were married 60 years.

Mike was a soldier in WW II and had 5 days of R & R in Nice, France. On his first day there he saw her walking on the street and he said the one phrase he knew in French and she stopped to talk with him in her broken English. They saw each other over the next four days (a movie, dinners) before he shipped out. When he returned to the States a year later he wrote to her, sent her an engagement ring and she came to the US. They were married shortly after she arrived. She worked as a hair dresser and Mike worked at the local Anaconda copper mill in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY and when they closed the factory he went to school to learn the upholstery business. He works by himself and has now been in the same small shop (his second) for 18 years. It's across the street from the empty Wonderbread warehouse on route 9A. He is listed in the yellow pages as "Dependable Upholstery".

Mike has two kids, four grandchildren, one great grandchild and a second on the way.

I showed Mike the material we chose for our slip covers from one of the sample books he gave me. On my way home my cell phone rang, "Steve, it's Mike. Hey I am sorry but they do not carry that material any more. I am really sorry buddy but what can I do? I hate these suppliers - they lie".

I told him not to worry about it - I'd come in next week and choose another material. I am looking forward to it.


mrjunction said...
Mike (the Upholsterer) is my dad, and he is an amazing person. He has more energy in one finger than I do in my entire body. At 83 years of age he still gets up for work, cooks, cleans the house, drives his grandchildren around...all with a smile on his face. He is rarely, and I mean, rarely in a bad mood...even though he has had a tough life.
He grew up poor, and his mom passed away when he was two. His dad, who immigrated from Italy spent the majority of my dad's youth in jail, so he was raised by his maternal grandparents. He grew up with his aunts and uncles who were of a similar age. At 18 he went into the Army to fight the war (WW II). While he was overseas, his older brother (by a couple of years) was killed in action in the Philippines. But even with all of this heartache and turmoil, there is not one ounce of depression in his body...never feels "Why Me?"...never acts like the world owes him something.
My dad never considered himself a success, and at one point in my life I told him that this was unacceptable! He couldn't be more of a success as a M-A-N. My wish is to be more like my father (Mike). The world would be a much better place if everybody was.
My dad, Mike, is my hero.....sounds like a success to me!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Evening Star and What Should I do...

"There’s plenty I don’t understand about myself, but nothing nags. Paradoxically, the deeper I got into neuropsychology the less interested I became in the details of my own inner workings. I’m not sure why. It certainly is not because I arrived at any great insight or understanding. I still experience the almost visceral sense of puzzlement over matters of brain, mind and selfhood that first drew me to the field. What happened, I think, was a shift – let’s imagine a neural switch somewhere in the frontolimbic circuitry - from one preoccupying question, What am I? to another, What should I do? It left me less inclined to bother about self-understanding than to consider the value of things, moral and aesthetic. How best to live? But here’s a nagging thought: might those two preoccupying questions turn out to be one and the same, like the evening star and the morning star?"

Dr Paul Broks is a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Plymouth and a popular science writer. "On Emotion", the first of a planned trilogy of plays by Broks and Mick Gordon, about emotion and magical thinking, was shown in the West End last December.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Fund Raiser...

The fund raiser at 88th and 5th Avenue was ten times more interesting than I had expected. First of all the setting... the upper east side - you get there and experience pre-deja vu - you know beforehand what the lobby is like, the rich wood paneled elevator, the doorman, the walk into the apartment directly from the elevator, the spacious apartment that feels not quite fully lived in (but maybe all houses feel like that when Company is coming over), the caterer, the blond hostess (black cocktail dress, pearls) and the host (dark suit with orange Hermes tie), their 8 and 10 year old spitting image kids, girl (in black dress) boy (tie and blue blazer), the art work on the walls, the furniture.
(There was a medical latex glove on display as part of the event (medical related project) and the girl, to Pop's chagrin, blew up the glove (like a balloon) during one of the speeches. It was impressive.
What was unexpected was how diverse and interesting the guests were. The Executive Director of the charity who spoke eloquently and with tears in her eyes about the agony of witnessing a mother and child die during delivery - and how preventable such deaths are with a blanket, some common medicine, a syringe... The Scottish former investment banker who retired to travel around the world and follow his favorite rugby team. The real estate agent who just sold an apartment for $12,250,000 (his largest sale ever). The former mountain climber who speaks Spanish and has a masters in public health and is going to Mexico in January to run a maternal health care clinic the organization is starting there (based on their clinic in Tibet); the documentary filmmaker who is also going to Mexico in January to make a documentary film about the project; and the a CNN producer who showed her short film about the project that was broadcast last year. There were different sets of good friends there - it was an intimate vibe mixed with new business development.
The Executive Director spoke for a few minutes introducing herself and the CNN film was shown and then going in a circle around the room everyone introduced themselves and said why they were there. Then the former Chairman gave an inspired speech about having been to Tibet with the project and he saw Tibetan children cry and those children would have died if not for this organization and each of those tears is a soul and once you have cried a soul's tears you are changed forever - - the speech was borderline nuts but awesome - the guy was channeling Baba Ram Dass. It was quite a beautiful speech actually.
The guests were all given a red string (the Buddhist / Cabala /Madonna type) and had the person next to them tie it around their wrists.
It is a worthy cause.

It was chilly walking down Fifth Avenue and then over to my car. Lexington Avenue was not very crowded. Winter is coming.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Teen girls and drinking...

I thought this was a smart article: it may be true that modern connectivity takes a particular toll on girls...

By Elizabeth Scott

When I was doing research for my young adult novel, Love You Hate You Miss You, I read a lot about teens and drinking, or, more specifically, teen girls and drinking.

Now, here’s the thing: teens, including teen girls, have been drinking since my parents were teenagers (which was in the Dark Ages). Certainly in the very rural area where I grew up, there were few things to do on the weekends but drink.

So teenage girls drinking isn’t anything new, but what does seem to be fairly new is *how* teenage girls drink.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all teenage girls–for every girl who drinks, you’ll find one or more who doesn’t. But for now, I’m going to talk about teen girls who do drink.

What’s happened over the past several years has been an upswing in the amount that teenage girls drink when they are drinking. There are many theories as to why, but I think a lot of it comes down to how much pressure girls face today. Not only are they expected to be beautiful and thin, they must also be smart, athletic, have an active social life, and participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible. And, of course, it never hurts to be popular.

And while girls juggle all this, they also have to deal with the intricacies of high school life, which is not for the faint- hearted. It used to be that you’d go to school and maybe talk to your friends after school or on the phone at night (how I used to envy people with their own phone line!) but now, if you have a cell, you can talk to anyone any time and anywhere. And while being able to keep in touch is great, it also adds another layer of things to do to a teen girl’s already busy day.

Juggling the jungle that is high school, along with planning for your future–at a time when you’re usually faced with a curfew and other parental restrictions, plus whatever rules the school feels like throwing your way–is overwhelming.

Teen girls are expected to be powerhouses–to know what they want, to know how to get it, and to be and do everything they possibly can to be their best, or, better yet, be even better than everyone else. (Although, if that should happen, you must never ever brag about it– being humble is also part of being a teenage girl.)

So is it any wonder that when teen girls do drink now, they drink a lot–and quickly? Drinking is a central nervous system depressant, but it also lowers inhibitions, and gives girls an outlet–as strange as it may sound–to relax. When you’re drunk–and if you’re really drunk–you don’t think about everything you’re facing, if only because you simply can’t.

The first thing many people want to do is stop teenage girls from drinking. I don’t think that’s a realistic goal, if only because some teenagers are more than likely to drink no matter what, but I do think that seeing a downturn in the number of girls who drink enormous amounts of alcohol would most definitely be a good thing.

However, more than that, what needs to be addressed is the underlying problem that leads to this increased drinking–and that is, quite simply, it’s virtually impossible to be a teenage girl today.

You may remember your teenage years with fondness or bitterness, and although a lot of things about being a teenager haven’t changed, one of the things that has is how much pressure girls face to do and be everything–and to keep in touch with everything that’s going on and everyone they know. And while teenage girls should certainly be encouraged to realize that they are smart and special and amazing–it should also be stressed that they don’t have to do everything and be everything in order to matter.

You don’t have to be perfect, and that is what frightens me the most–that so many teenage girls believe that they do, and chasing perfection–well, that’s what you’ll do. You’ll keep chasing it, because no one is perfect. And when you want to be perfect, or worse, are expected to be, it creates a lot of problems– and as some teen girls have discovered, one way to escape those problems is to drink as much as you can as fast as you can.

I don’t feel it’s my job to tell anyone what to think or do, but I will say this: remember when you were 15, 16, 17? Remember how intense everything was, and how your whole life was just waiting for the next day, the next thing, everything? Now add in about 1000X more pressure, and you’ll see what today’s teen girls are dealing with.

Could you handle that?

I know I couldn’t.

Elizabeth Scott grew up in a town so small it didn’t even have a post office, though it did boast an impressive cattle population. Now she lives just outside Washington, DC with her husband, firmly believes you can never own too many books, and would love it if you visited her website, located at

Friday, October 30, 2009


I went to my local upholsterer, Mike, today to see about some slip covers. Mike is 83 years old. His wife died two years ago at 80 of undiagnosed cirrhoses of the liver. They were married 60 years.

Mike was a soldier in WW II and had 5 days of R & R in Nice, France. On his first day there he saw her walking on the street and he said the one phrase he knew in French and she stopped to talk with him in her broken English. They saw each other over the next four days (a movie, dinners) before he shipped out. When he returned to the States a year later he wrote to her, sent her an engagement ring and she came to the US. They were married shortly after she arrived. She worked as a hair dresser and Mike worked at the local Anaconda copper mill in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY and when they closed the factory he went to school to learn the upholstery business. He works by himself and has now been in the same small shop (his second) for 18 years. It's across the street from the empty Wonderbread warehouse on route 9A. He is listed in the yellow pages as "Dependable Upholstery".

Mike has two kids, four grandchildren, one great grandchild and a second on the way.

I showed Mike the material we chose for our slip covers from one of the sample books he gave me. On my way home my cell phone rang, "Steve, it's Mike. Hey I am sorry but they do not carry that material any more. I am really sorry buddy but what can I do? I hate these suppliers - they lie".

I told him not to worry about it - I'd come in next week and choose another material. I am looking forward to it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I don't mind reactionaries being elected in reactionary areas. There are cultural, ideological, geographic and historical explanations for different political perspectives. But to waste a New England senate seat on Joe Leiberman is really frustrating. He was the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate! He has turned into a full right wing ideologue. It seems he needs to punish the Democrats who voted against him in the last primary. Take that, Joe is saying. He should be recalled. What a disaster.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The wind is still howling and the loft is shaking. I can barely see the horses outside the window 50 feet away because the dust is so thick...

...there is also a storm on the mountain heading this way. I love weather like this. Love you.


Below are the first two paragraphs of the novel, The Body Artist, by Don DeLilio (which I think are terrific and make me look forward to the story that follows...)

"Time seems to pass. The world happens, unrolling into moments, and you stop to glance at a spider pressed to its web. There is a quickness of light and a sense of things outlined precisely and streaks of running lustre on the bay. You know more surely who you are on a strong bright day after a storm when the smallest falling leaf is stabbed with self-awareness. The wind makes a sound in the pines and the world comes into being, irreversibly, and the spider rides the wind-swayed web.

It happened this final morning that they were here at the same time, in the kitchen, and they shambled past each other to get things out of cabinets and drawers and then waited one for the other by the sink or fridge, still a little puddled in dream melt, and she ran tap water over the blueberries bunched in her hand and closed her eyes to breathe the savor rising."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

On Golf...

I know at least two or three rough fractalites (rough fractalinos?) are golfers and so... this quote's for you:

David Lavalle:

"I wish I knew why I sometimes engage in superstitious behaviours while playing golf. When I play I am interested in psychological phenomena such as self-handicapping, the attributions people make on the course and how a round can deteriorate after a bad shot or hole (I note the latter from considerable personal experience!). I also try to apply psychological techniques such as imagery to improve my score although I tend to do this more at crucial times, such as before a pressure drive. While I appreciate that carrying the same amount of tees in my pocket during a round will not help me play better, or the action of always marking my golf ball on the green with a coin placed "heads-up" will not influence the outcome (making the putt), I will probably continue to resort to such behaviours as if I was one of Skinner's pigeons."

David Lavallee is Professor of Psychology and Head of Department of Sport and Exercise Science at Aberystwyth University in Wales. He is also an Associate Fellow and Chartered Psychologist of the British Psychological Society, and founding editor of Sport & Exercise Psychology Review.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


One minute commercial (promoting French Movie Studio, Canal +) with humor and twist...(Charlie Chaplin meets Jason Bourne?). Followed by Richard Wiseman on Wit...

Richard Wiseman - Wit:

I have no idea why I occasionally think funny things. For example, the other day I was watching the film "District 9", which is about an alien race known as "prawns", and thought "I wonder if the alien in charge is called a king prawn?". I would be the first to admit that it was not the world's greatest joke, but still, where did that moderately amusing idea come from? And why are some people so skilled at creating funny stuff, whilst others wouldn't recognise a proverbial custard pie, even if it hit them in the face? My guess is that the creation of comedy will remain a mystery for centuries, although at some point in the not too distant future, I suspect someone will carry out functional MRI scans of comedians creating jokes, and claim to have identified the part of the brain responsible for producing humour. Now, that will be funny.

Richard Wiseman is Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. A trained magician, Wiseman has won numerous awards for his communication of science and his most recent book is 59 Seconds.

Where The Wild Things Are...

Sue Gardner - Dark places:

"I’m cautious about excessive introspection without some trusted person to offer perspective and balance. I have a dark place inside which at various stages of my life has been occupied by ghosts, daleks and negative emotions.

Somehow I need this place though, to connect me to others especially those who want support with change and containment.

In working with people who have mental health needs and substance misuse I use their desire to escape their own dark place to form a connection which, together with the research evidence, best practice guidelines and clinical tools, can accelerate their journey to recovery. Perhaps if I understood myself fully my own journey would be over."

Sue Gardner is a Chartered clinical psychologist and President of the British Psychological Society.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

View From The Window (sunrise)...

(Photo by E.N.S.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On (among other things, Jewish) Identity...

Steve Reicher:

Who am I?
I am a jew, but I am no believer and I do not believe that Israel speaks for me.
I can’t be sure what it means to be a jew.
Yet I am sure that others are sure
And I know that jewishness matters.
I know that millions were slaughtered for being jewish.
I know that millions have been displaced by jews for not being jewish.
What is being jewish to my world and to me?
Who are we?
Who am I?
I was born in England of family who fled from Germany and Poland.
I was raised in England by parents who moved abroad for work.
I live in Scotland with a wife born in Yorkshire of a father born in Pakistan and with a son born in Scotland.
Our history is pandemonium, our destiny (we hope) is Caledonian.
Who do we want to be?
What will others let us be?
And does it count one jot to anyone but me?

No wonder I study identity.

Steve Reicher is Professor of Psychology and Head of School at the University of St. Andrews. An expert on social identity, in 2002 Reicher collaborated with Alex Haslam to create the BBC Prison Experiment.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Alison Gopnik - On Parenthood:

I’ve had three of my own children and spent my professional life thinking about children. And yet I still find my relation to my children deeply puzzling. Our love for children is so unlike any other human emotion. I fell in love with my babies so quickly and profoundly, almost completely independently of their particular qualities. And yet 20 years later I was (more or less) happy to see them go – I had to be happy to see them go. We are totally devoted to them when they are little and yet the most we can expect in return when they grow up is that they regard us with bemused and tolerant affection. We are ambitious for them, we want them to thrive so badly. And yet we know that we have to grant them the autonomy to make their own mistakes. In no other human relation do we work so hard to accomplish such an ill-defined goal, which is precisely to create a being who will have goals that are not like ours.

Alison Gopnik is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has published over 100 articles on children's learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. Her latest book is The Philosophical Baby.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What is this thing called beauty?

(photos by E.N.S.)

Chris McManus: Beauty

What is this thing I call beauty? Not "art" as a social phenomenon based on status or display, or beautiful faces seen merely as biological fitness markers. Rather, the sheer, drawing-in-of-breath beauty of a Handel aria, a Rothko painting, TS Eliot’s poems, or those everyday moments of sun shining through wet, autumn leaves, or even a Powerpoint layout seeming just right. Content itself doesn’t matter – Cezanne’s paintings of apples are not beautiful because one likes apples, and there are beautiful photographs of horrible things. Somewhere there must be something formal, structural, compositional, involving the arrangement of light and shade, of sounds, of words best ordered to say old ideas in new ways. When I see beauty I know it, and others must also see it, or they wouldn’t make the paintings I like or have them hung in galleries. But why then doesn’t everyone see it in the same way?

Chris McManus is Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at UCL. His 2002 book Right Hand, Left Hand won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, the Aventis Prize for popular science writing, and was a finalist for the Descartes Prize in 2004.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A neat letter from someone's archives...

(If you click on the body of the letter it will be enlarged)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Beyond Blue

This is an interesting video. I post it because I have been following Therese Borchard's blog for some time and am interested in her self treatment mixed with blogging. I believe this video is sincere and even found it kind of moving. I like her. Not quite sure what blogging to an anonymous world as if each reader provides an intimate connection does for either the poster or the reader; but it's central to a lot of blogs - audience as best friend? Not unlike celebrity I imagine. Anyway here it is:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

They run and they do not lie...

The Tarahumaras: An Endangered Species
by Shep Lenchek

"Psychologists suggest that over the centuries this value system has actually caused physiological changes in their brain that preclude speaking anything but the truth. Nor can they cheat or fail to aid a fellow tribesman."

Never conquered by the Aztecs and despite being defeated by Mexican armies, the Tarahumaras still consider themselves an independant nation. So strong is this conviction that in the Fifties they more than once took complaints directly to the United Nations. Perhaps the purest and most unmixed of any Indian tribe in Mexico, so little is known about them that their true name "Raramuri" was corrupted to "Tarahumara" by white men and never corrected.

Most of the world knows them only as long distance runners. Living in high altitudes, they have developed tremendous lung capacity and in more primitive times hunted deer and mountain goats, running them down on foot. In more modern times, they have run non-stop in relay teams from Chihuahua City to El Paso, a distance of 230 miles, to open the Pan-American Road Races.

However, this running ability is only one facet of their life style. The truly remarkable thing about them is an ancient religion which has bred into them a moral code so strict that they are unable to tell a lie.

Psychologists suggest that over the centuries this valu e system has actually caused physiological changes in their brain that preclude speaking anything but the truth. Nor can th ey cheat or fail to aid a fellow tribesman.

Luis G. Verplancken, a Jesuit priest who lived among them for many years and is probably the greatest authority on their history and culture, describes them as loyal to God, to their own traditions and their own culture. Although the majority of them have converted to Christianity, there are still some "gentile" groups who have refused baptism. Those converted have introduced their own ancient concepts into their new religion.

God is both Father and Mother. Respect for one another is of prime importance. They give greater value to persons than to things. In their eyes both the white man and the Mestizo are more pagan than their unbaptized fellow Raramuri because over the years these two groups have enslaved, lied, cheated and driven them off most of the fertile land they once inhabited .
Today the "People" (the translation of the name Raramuri) have been driven into the highest reaches of the Sierra Tarahumara, in the State of Chihuahua. There, even the valleys are over 5000 feet above sea level. Now, it appears their last bit of fertile land may be taken over by outsiders, forcing the Indians to retreat higher into the mountains.

Despite this, most Raramuri still ignore the blandishments of Mexican city living. They cling to native costume. The men wear a loin cloth, held together by a wool girdle wrapped twice around the waist. A long, loose, full sleeved shirt of cotton and a cloth head band complete the outfit. The women wear full multiple or layered skirts. Blouses are always worn loose at the waist. They have full sleeves, heavily pleated at the wrists and shoulders. Like the men, they wear cloth head-bands.
With some, however, western-style garb is making inroads and more and more, the colorful native dress is being worn only during festivals or in the more remote villages.

What has kept the "People" true to their ancient customs is a combination of a wilderness homeland and an inherited value system of obligation to fellow men, plus their devotion to ancient Gods they brought with them into Christianity.
In their culture, long established rituals and symbols replace things of a contemplative nature. Thus, they prefer to pray in ritual dances rather than verbal forms. Their ancient theology was not based on dogma or abstract concepts; nor is their new Christianity. Rather it is a day by day practice of living in harmony with nature and their fellow man.

Thus, they still look on the moon and stars as religious symbols. To pay homage to the Cross and Saints they sign across the face and turn their body to the left, the same way they saluted their ancient God. This sign of the cross, according to Father Verplancken, is not of Christian origin but was part of their ancient dance, "Yumari," in which they offered food to the four points of the compass and their traditional God to insure rain and ward off evil.

Recognizing this indigenous dance-oriented method of prayer, the Jesuits introduced the "Dance of the Matachines." It originated in the northern province of Venice in Italy, and is still performed there during Carnival. The Raramuri perform it on all the Holy Days of the Catholic church. Costumed, masked dancers move to the beat of drums and the wailing of flutes. Other dances are performed to solicit rain, heal the sick, bury the dead. All blend the new Christianity with ancient practices.
The first missionaries in the area were the Jesuits who arrived in 1607. However in 1767 King Charles III of Spain expelled them from New Spain. Although the Franciscans continued to work in the area, lack=2 0of funds and personnel made it impossible to fill the role the Jesuits had played. Also, the 19th Century Mexican Wars of Independence hampered their efforts.
It was not until the start of the 20th century that missionaries were able to return. During this almost 150 years of freedom from outside influence, what developed was a unique Raramuri Christianity.

One of the strange results of the expulsion of the Jesuits was the assumption of duties normally reserved for priests by the "Siriam es," the traditional headmen or governors. Marriages, baptisms, and other church services such as continued instruction and spiritual guidance were now in their hands.

Whether the departing Jesuits delegated these rites or whether this was simpy a return to traditional roles, we do not know. Nevertheless, the old way s were so close to Christian practice that the new religion survived the absence of priests. What developed was a set of practices acceptable to both the Church and the "Peoples" life style. Thus healers, rainmakers and other keepers of the tribal heritage exist side by side with Catholic priests. Living conditions among the Raramuri today are still primitive. They continue to barter rather than use pesos, and speak little Spanish.

In 1965 the Jesuits founded a hospital in Creel, the largest city in the area. There, Father Verplancken made his home. There are two other hospitals in the area, free to all who need them. Despite this, the future20of the Raramuri is bleak. Malnutrition and disease go hand in hand with the loss of fertile, food-producing land. Through all of this, the Mexican government has stood silent.

Yet, these remarkable people have maintained themselves, enduring hardships that would have sent a group with less inner strength fleeing to urban centers, abandoning their tribal culture. But the time has co me for the government to intervene. Stop the land-grabbers. Permit "The People" to live in their own villages, own their land, perserve their own ways.
With the rapprochement between Mexico and the Vatican, hopefully the Church can offer more material aid, while allowing the Raramuri to pray in their own way, understanding that they worship the same Father who they preach sent his Son to bring salvation to all mankind.

the edge of survival

The Tarahumara: Between Two Worlds
by Janet Blaser published December 2008

An ancient people teetering on the edge of survival

The dry, brush-covered mountains of Copper Canyon, in the state of Chihuahua, are where the majority of the estimated 60,000 surviving Tarahumara Indians live. The naturally harsh conditions of the area have been exacerbated by several factors, including global warming. Hit hard by 12 years of drought, severe de-forestation and erosion, and worst of all, the lack of clean water, the Tarahumara’s traditional way of life as goat herders and simple farmers has suffered tremendous ly. For more than 1,000 years, the mainstays of their diet has been corn, beans and squash, but it’s become more and more difficult for anything to grow in the now-dry, arid land of their ancestors.

Four years ago Brenda Babbitt went on a road trip through this area she thought was simply a vacation with a friend. Little did she know it would change her life – and the lives of so many others.

Stopping in Creel at a small gift shop, Brenda chatted with a store volunteer who explained how the proceeds were used to assist the Tarahumara. The woman also told her they were in need of medicine and school supplies.

t’s the babies and small children that suffer the most, innocent victims of the struggle they’ve inherited, a hardscrabble existence in an unforgiving place on the planet.

When Brenda returned home, she did some research and saw the full scope of the situation. The majority of funding came from three benefits a year, and in 2005, a major fundraiser usually held in New Orleans had been cancelled due to Hurricane Katrina.

“I discovered they could lose as much as 40% of the money they counted on each year to run the hospital and do their work. That just scared me to death,” she said. “I couldn’t sit back in good conscience and do nothing knowing they needed medicine, especially the children.”

Brenda realized that in Creel they didn’t have the benefit of a retirement or international community for donations and support. The local businesses barely got by and few visitors passed through the area. Because of her experience with Mazatlan and its Friends of Mexico group, which she helped found with Chester Tesarowski in 1998, she felt her energies could be better used helping the Tarahumara.

“I could see that we were growing here in Mazatlan and were already working with the orphanages, teaching English, helping the schools,20things like that,” she said. “A lot of people were doing those things here. I thought why not reach out to others who really need it?”

The small mission clinic, with its formal name of Santa Teresita Hospital, was established in 1965 by Father Luis G. Verplancken. It sees about 4,000 patients a year, with about a quarter of those admitted for treatment. Most alarming is that 75% of these are children under age 2 whose death would be certain if they were not treated. Tuberculosis, easily curable or prevented, is not uncommon, and the hospital has had to set up a special TB ward to address this recurrent problem.

o run the hospital for one day costs about $22,000 pesos – roughly $2,000 U.S. To put it bluntly, that’s about $200 a child.

When Father Pedro de Velasco Rivera came to the mission three years ago, one of the most critical problems facing the Tarahumara was the lack of clean drinking water. The mission has focused much of its energy on digging wells and building sanitary water collection systems, and to date, there are 64 working wells and three dozen water-supply systems in operation. The cost of these life-saving conveniences is minimal – about $3,700 U.S. for a well, $1,100 U.S. for a rainwater collection system, $2,250 U.S. for a spring water system. Other long-term projects include erosion-prevention strategies and reforestation plans.

If you’d like to help:

For more information:

Brenda Babbitt: 913-1318,
Father Pedro J. Velasco Rivero:, ,

Drop-off for medicines & nutritional items – PLEASE, NO CLOTHING!

Tony’s Salon, Leandro Valle #99, corner of 5 de Mayo, Centro Historico. 981-6420. Call Brenda to arrange drop-off in other areas.

Items Needed:

Baby formula – 0-6 months and 6-12 months (25% discount at Farmacia Similares Mondays from 5-7 p.m.)
Baby wipes, shampoo, lotion, powder
Large jars of Vaseline
Cookies: Marias, animal, vanilla
Drinking straws
Instant oatmeal
Gerber baby cereal
Nido powdered milk, age 1-plus
Note: Please be careful not to buy packaged food items made in China.


Amebicida – Metronidazol, susp. 120
Analgesico – Ibuprofeno, susp. 120
Anti-asmatico – Ambroxol Salbutamol, susp. 120
Antibiotico – Amox-Bromhexina, susp. 250
Antitusivo – Ambroxol/Dextrometorfano, 120 JBE infant, also adult
Antihistaminico – Loratadina (preferred) or Difenhidramina JBE
Cash donations are used for shipping costs and specific items requested by the mission.

Deposits can be made directly to Banamex in either of those accounts:

Complejo Asistencial ClĂ­nica Santa Teresita A.C.
Banamex Sucursal 838 Cuenta 70619
CLABE 002150083800706194
Pedro J. de Velasco Rivero
Banamex Sucursal 838 Cuenta 7631705
CLABE 002150083876317054

Many of the families prefer to live in the remote mountains, often several days walk to the village. Children often sleep in town for five days at a time so they can attend the small school, where they learn their native language and Spanish, as well as other general subjects. The 100 or so children ages 5-14 are also taught about both cultures to better prepare them for contact with the outside world. No attempt is made to force modern-day life on the Tarahumara, or Raramuri, – their way of life is accepted and respected.

“It’s a different kind of life, let me tell you, but they’ve managed to take care of themselves and their culture for many years,” said Brenda. Many of the estimated 4,000 families live deep in the mountains, using the natural caves as shelter. “There are some people in the hills that never come out and have never seen a white person. No one even knows where they all are.”

It’s the babies and small children that suffer the most, innocent victims of the struggle they’ve inherited, a hardscrabble existence in an unforgiving place on the planet. The mission’s hospital statistics from last year show20that 10 children a week were saved from dying; official estimates show that 70% of children under age five are suffering from malnutrition, making them susceptible to life-threatening diseases like pneumonia, stomach flu, infections and bronchitis.

To run the hospital for one day costs about $22,000 pesos – roughly $2,000 U.S. To put it bluntly, that’s about $200 a child.

“I’d love to find a few more people with big hearts, willing to reach out to help our brothers and sisters in the mountains,” said Brenda. “Hopefully, some people will assist on a monthly basis so the flow of items will be continuous, all year-round.”

The nuns travel into the outposts, bringing medical care and supplies, food and other basic survival items, keeping an eye on patients and those with special needs. They also work to educate the mothers about symptoms they might see in their children, encouraging them to bring their babies in earlier for treatment. Brenda’s become a sort of lifeline, keeping in touch with the mission and coordinating the collection and shipping of much-needed medical and school supplies, food and infant formula.

“Each month I feel like this is not hard to do, and it helps so many. I’m going to continue to do this, and if anyone e lse wants to help, they can,” said Brenda. “My life is get two boxes, fill, mail - and start again.” Estrella Blanca Package & Bus Company gives her a hefty discount on shipping costs to the mission in Creel, and Soriana donates empty cartons, but still, the costs add up and it seems like there’s never enough.

“I know our help has helped them assist and save lives - especially the babies,” she continued. “This is my commitment and God knows it. I’m so thankful to be able to help with this special work.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

democratic party

One thing about George Bush, especially in his first term, he enforced Republican discipline. He was able to get so called fiscal conservatives to spend vast sums on anything he wanted. Only in the last few months of his term, when it was clear he was leading the party to defeat, did some in his party break with him. The Democratic Party has no such discipline. In some ways, this is positive. The party has a wider set of constituencies, and genuine debate is theoretically healthy. But from a tactical standpoint, the party is clearly letting its vast governing majority go to waste. And, as it dithers on health care reform, it diminishes the clout of the president. Obama has his hands full, to be sure. Even with a unified party, what to do is not so clear in almost all the major policy debates on the table. But with a fractured Democratic Party, and a Republican Party that has decided that they will give him no support on anything, he is becoming less and less influential. I think the Democrats have to take a look at their tactical position. If they cannot make policy as the governing party, there is no reason to care if they stay in power.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What I Understood...

What I Understood
by Katha Pollitt

When I was a child I understood everything
about, for example, futility. Standing for hours
on the hot asphalt outfield, trudging for balls
I'd ask myself, how many times will I have to perform
this pointless task, and all the others? I knew
about snobbery, too, and cruelty—for children
are snobbish and cruel—and loneliness: in restaurants
the dignity and shame of solitary diners
disabled me, and when my grandmother
screamed at me, "Someday you'll know what it's like!"
I knew she was right, the way I knew
about the single rooms my teachers went home to,
the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,
and that there was no God, and that I would die.
All this I understood, no one needed to tell me.
the only thing I didn't understand
was how in a world whose predominant characteristics
are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment
people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.
This year I'll be
thirty-nine, and I still don't understand it.

"What I Understood" by Katha Pollitt, from The Mind-Body Problem. © Random House, 2009

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Teach your children well. Their father's hell did slowly go by...

Hat tip to Jacquelyn Mitchard who posted how parents teach abstinence at

1. Start drinking early in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Come out of the bedroom in a Santa Claus bikini at midnight. After you pass out, forget Santa. Send the kids back into their rooms until noon and tell them Santa was hung over. Laugh. When the kids beg you to stop, tell them to grow up.

2. Pretend it never happened. None of it – the weeping-clown eyes, the shouts and fights, the makeout sessions on the coats in the bedroom with the lady from down the street – never happened. At all.

3. Go out on New Year’s Eve – for three days. There are plenty of Good Humor bars in the refrigerator. And Grandma and Grandpa didn’t leave for Florida yet? Or did they?

4. Nuzzle a waitress’ boobs, even after your friend, the owner of the place, asks you to stop, until your wife and kids get up and walk home. Six miles.

5. Tell your kid he better start on the team. When he does, show up for one game.

6. Talk about how much you drank on vacation the way other people talk about vacation.

7. When your son asks what you’re going to do tonight , say, “I’m going to drink. And you’re going to stay home.”

8. When your daughter, who’s 11, calls you at a dinner party from home to say that someone has broken into the apartment building, tell her to call the cops.

9. When your best friend suggests you slow down, on the night of your birthday, wait until he’s facing the other way and kick him through the TV.

10. Show up at eighth grade graduation, drunk. Show up at high school graduation drunk. Explain that you can’t make it to college graduation.

11. Shout out your requests for Trini Lopez songs so loudly that the bandleader refers to you as “Lawrence Welk and Mrs. Robinson.”

12. When one of the kids is seventeen and gets drunk for the first of three times in her life, throwing up until she’s weak and sobbing, tell her not to worry – everyone feels this way.

13. Be beautiful and charming and funny and complex and inquisitive when you’re sober. Be diminishing, surly, humiliating and cruel when you’re drunk.

14. Die young.

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the author of the number one New York Times bestselling novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, chosen as the first book for Oprah’s Book Club and named by USA Today the second most influential novel of the past 25 years. She has written four other bestsellers and is a contributing editor for Wondertime magazine as well as the author of four novels for young adults. Her new novel, No Time to Wave Goodbye, comes out this week.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mavis Staples, The Band, Joss Stone

Here are two videos/songs featuring Mavis Staples. About the first, Spencer Tweedy, a 13 year old who is treading on some pretty precocious waters (see Spencer Tweedy's Blog) wrote: "One of the best songs ever written or performed, in my book. Literally gave me shivers when Mavis sang." I know what he means. (hat tip to A.B. for the lead to Spencer).

Following that is a Joss Stone/ Mavis Staples version of "Help Me" (or the name of the song may be "Take Me There" - I am not sure). I must be on a precocious theme because I think Joss Stone fits that bill.

PS. Mavis Staples began her career in 1950. She had her first hit in 1957 the year she graduated from high school.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Citizen Cope

The talented Citizen Cope

"Ain't no words to describe it - in french or in english... these feelings won't go away"

Friday, September 11, 2009

Joan Baez

The very beautiful Joan Baez...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tiny Dancer (for example)...

For a couple of posts I am going to just put up some stuff that I like with just a few (if any) words about why.

I like this for the change of mood that just happens (from really bad to really good) and how good (and singing along with the radio?) is like being home.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Obama's speech to students...

Below is the speech that Barack Obama gave to the nation's school children yesterday. If you did not know it was his speech you might think it was written by say, Ronald Reagan (or Bill Clinton, or John McCain or Ted Kennedy). The conservative objections to his speech were loony. From "Obama to brainwash students" to a "public option is the first step towards a single payer national health care system" to "Obama plans emergency powers to take over the Internet and threaten democracy"...if you turn on talk radio and listen to Hannity and his ilk - they sound misinformed and delusional - like hucksters (e.g. Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry).

Here is one passage from Obama's speech: "But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world -- and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself."

Sounds like something Sean Hannity would say if he could stop foaming at the mouth.

Here is the Obama speech to our kids that Hannity was so opposed to:

Arlington, Virginia
September 8, 2009

Hello everyone -- how's everybody doing today? I'm here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. And we've got students tuning in from all across America, kindergarten through twelfth grade. I'm glad you all could join us today.

I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it's your first day in a new school, so it's understandable if you're a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you're in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could've stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.

I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn't have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday -- at 4:30 in the morning.

Now I wasn't too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I'd fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I'd complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, "This is no picnic for me either, buster."

So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I'm here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I'm here because I want to talk with you about your education and what's expected of all of you in this new school year.

Now I've given a lot of speeches about education. And I've talked a lot about responsibility.

I've talked about your teachers' responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.

I've talked about your parents' responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don't spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.
I've talked a lot about your government's responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren't working where students aren't getting the opportunities they deserve.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world -- and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.

Every single one of you has something you're good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That's the opportunity an education can provide.

Maybe you could be a good writer -- maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper -- but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor -- maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine -- but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

And no matter what you want to do with your life -- I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You're going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can't drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You've got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn't just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You'll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You'll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You'll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don't do that -- if you quit on school -- you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country.

Now I know it's not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.

I get it. I know what that's like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn't always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn't fit in.

So I wasn't always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I'm not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn't have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don't have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there's not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don't feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren't right.

But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life -- what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you've got going on at home -- that's no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That's no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That's no excuse for not trying.

Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up. No one's written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.

That's what young people like you are doing every day, all across America.

Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn't speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.

I'm thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who's fought brain cancer since he was three. He's endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer -- hundreds of extra hours -- to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he's headed to college this fall.

And then there's Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she's on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.

Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren't any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same.

That's why today, I'm calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education -- and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you'll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you'll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you'll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you'll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don't feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.

Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work -- that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you're not going to be any of those things.

But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won't love every subject you study. You won't click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won't necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That's OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who've had the most failures. JK Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, "I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

These people succeeded because they understand that you can't let your failures define you -- you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn't mean you're a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn't mean you're stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.

No one's born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You're not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don't hit every note the first time you sing a song. You've got to practice. It's the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it's good enough to hand in.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don't know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust -- a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor -- and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

And even when you're struggling, even when you're discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you -- don't ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn't about people who quit when things got tough. It's about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

It's the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.

So today, I want to ask you, what's your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I'm working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you've got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don't let us down -- don't let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Religion, Politics and Identity.

I do not recall where on the web I found this essay but it has stuck with me. Paul Graham, who wrote this essay ponders why politics and religion often take on a uniquely unscientific feel.

[Speaking of politics, from what I have picked up from the many testimonials is that one of Ted Kennedy's personal and professional strengths was that he did not let it get it personal. He seemed quite capable of being a liberal stalwart/leader while being friends with counterparts on the Republican side. In a 2006 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air he said that one of the most corrosive aspects of the modern political scene is money. Senators spend half their time raising money for their next election campaign. The answer: public finance for all elections. Why does this not happen? Incumbents have the money advantage so it's not possible to get meaningful campaign finance reform passed (McCain-Feingold is a failure). I have thought about this before and will again (each time taking it more seriously) the next time my party or my candidate asks for a contribution.]

Getting back to this essay - there is something about religion, politics and identity that seems to contain a common thread.

PS. I think foot note # 2 states the thesis well.

By Paul Graham

February 2009

I finally realized today why politics and religion yield such uniquely useless discussions.

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

What's different about religion is that people don't feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone's an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there's no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there's no back pressure on people's opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

But this isn't true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost. But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones.

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on. So it's not politics that's the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people's identities. [1]

Because the point at which this happens depends on the people rather than the topic, it's a mistake to conclude that because a question tends to provoke religious wars, it must have no answer. For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers. This sometimes leads people to conclude the question must be unanswerablehat all languages are equally good. Obviously that's false: anything else people make can be well or badly designed; why should this be uniquely impossible for programming languages? And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people's identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn't safely talk about with others.

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible. [2]

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.


[1] When that happens, it tends to happen fast, like a core going critical. The threshold for participating goes down to zero, which brings in more people. And they tend to say incendiary things, which draw more and angrier counter-arguments.

[2] There may be some things it's a net win to include in your identity. For example, being a scientist. But arguably that is more of a placeholder than an actual labelike putting NMI on a form that asks for your middle initialecause it doesn't commit you to believing anything in particular. A scientist isn't committed to believing in natural selection in the same way a biblical literalist is committed to rejecting it. All he's committed to is following the evidence wherever it leads.

Considering yourself a scientist is equivalent to putting a sign in a cupboard saying "this cupboard must be kept empty." Yes, strictly speaking, you're putting something in the cupboard, but not in the ordinary sense.

Thanks to Sam Altman, Trevor Blackwell, Paul Buchheit, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this.


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