“Years of Living Dangerously” – April 13 premiere of climate change information series

April 11, 2014

Will it work this time?  Can it recharge the effort Al Gore started?

Monte Best of Plainview, Texas, explains to Don Cheadle how the Texas drought caused the Cargill Company to close its meat packing plant in the city.

Monte Best of Plainview, Texas, explains to Don Cheadle how the Texas drought caused the Cargill Company to close its meat packing plant in the city. “Act of God,” many local people say.

Here’s the trailer:

The avid promotional explanation:

Published on Mar 14, 2014

Don’t miss the documentary series premiere of Years of Living Dangerously, Sunday, April 13th at 10PM ET/PT.

Subscribe to the Years of Living Dangerously channel for more clips:
http://s.sho.com/YearsYouTube

Official site: http://www.sho.com/yearsoflivingdange…
The Years Project: http://yearsoflivingdangerously.com/
Follow: https://twitter.com/YEARSofLIVING
Like: https://www.facebook.com/YearsOfLiving
Watch on Showtime Anytime: http://s.sho.com/1hoirn4
Don’t Have Showtime? Order Now: http://s.sho.com/P0DCVU

It’s the biggest story of our time. Hollywood’s brightest stars and today’s most respected journalists explore the issues of climate change and bring you intimate accounts of triumph and tragedy. YEARS OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY takes you directly to the heart of the matter in this awe-inspiring and cinematic documentary series event from Executive Producers James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Happy birthday, Albert Einstein! 135 years, today

March 14, 2014

How many ways can we say happy birthday to a great scientist born on Pi Day?  So, an encore post.

E=mcc - logo from AIP

E=energy; m=mass; c=speed of light

Happy Einstein Day! to us.  Albert’s been dead since 1955 — sadly for us.  Our celebrations now are more for our own satisfaction and curiosity, and to honor the great man — he’s beyond caring.

Almost fitting that he was born on π Day, no? I mean, is there an E=mc² Day?

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein. 26 years later, three days after his birthday, he sent off the paper on the photo-electric effect; that paper would win him the Nobel Prize in Physics in another five years, in 1921. In that same year of 1905, he published three other papers, solving the mystery of Brownian motion, describing what became known as the Special Theory of Relativity and solving the mystery of why measurements of the light did not show any effects of motion as Maxwell had predicted, and a final paper that noted a particle emitting light energy loses mass. This final paper amused Einstein because it seemed so ludicrous in its logical extension that energy and matter are really the same stuff at some fundamental point, as expressed in the equation demonstrating an enormous amount of energy stored in atoms, E=mc².

Albert Einstein as a younger man - Nobel Foundation image

Albert Einstein as a younger man – Nobel Foundation image

Any one of the papers would have been a career-capper for any physicist. Einstein dashed them off in just a few months, forever changing the fields of physics. And, you noticed: Einstein did not win a Nobel for the Special Theory of Relativity, nor for E=mc². He won it for the photo electric effect. Irony in history.

106 years later Einstein’s work affects us every day. Relativity theory at some level I don’t understand makes possible the use Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which revolutionized navigation and mundane things like land surveying and microwave dish placement. Development of nuclear power both gives us hope for an energy-rich future, and gives us fear of nuclear war. Sometimes, even the hope of the energy rich future gives us fear, as we watch and hope nuclear engineers can control the piles in nuclear power plants damaged by earthquakes and tsunami in Japan.

English: Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp

Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Albert Einstein was a genius at physics, he was more dedicated to pacifism. He resigned his German citizenship to avoid military conscription. His pacifism made the German Nazis nervous; Einstein fled Germany in the 1930s, eventually settling in the United States. In the U.S., he was persuaded by Leo Szilard to write to President Franklin Roosevelt to suggest the U.S. start a program to develop an atomic weapon, because Germany most certainly was doing exactly that. But while urging FDR to keep up with the Germans, Einstein refused to participate in the program himself, sticking to his pacifist views. Others could, and would, design and build atomic bombs. (Maybe it’s a virus among nuclear physicists — several of those working on the Manhattan Project were pacifists, and had great difficulty reconciling the idea that the weapon they worked on to beat Germany, was deployed on Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapons program.)

English: USSR stamp dedicated to Albert Einste...

Everybody wanted to claim, and honor Einstein; USSR issued this stamp dedicated to Albert Einstein Русский: Почтовая марка СССР, посвящённая Альберту Эйнштейну (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Einstein was a not-great father, and probably not a terribly faithful husband at first — though he did think to give his first wife, in the divorce settlement, a share of a Nobel Prize should he win it. Einstein was a good violinist, a competent sailor, an incompetent dresser, and a great character. His sister suffered a paralyzing stroke. For many months Albert spent hours a day reading to her the newspapers and books of the day, convinced that though mute and appearing unconscious, she would benefit from hearing the words. He said he did not hold to orthodox religions, but could there be a greater show of faith in human spirit?

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

When people hear clever sayings, but forget to whom the bon mots should be attributed, Einstein is one of about five candidates to whom all sorts of things are attributed, though he never said them. (Others include Lincoln, Jefferson, Mark Twain and Will Rogers). Einstein is the only scientist in that group. So, for example, we can be quite sure Einstein never claimed that compound interest was the best idea of the 20th century. This phenomenon is symbolic of the high regard people have for the man, even though so few understand what his work was, or meant.

A most interesting man. A most important body of work. He deserves more study and regard than he gets.

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Register TODAY to vote in March Texas primary elections

February 3, 2014

All votes count

In Texas, voters must register 30 days prior to the election. Primaries for 2014 are on March 4, so today is the LAST DAY TO REGISTER to vote in the primaries in Texas

Registration will be easier than voting for many white women, but that’s the way the GOP legislature likes it.

Today, February 3, 2014, is the deadline to register to vote, to be eligible to vote in Texas’s primary elections, to be held March 4.

Voting is one of the few ways to get the Texas GOP to pay attention to your views.

From VoteTexas.gov:

Register To Vote 

To vote in Texas, you must be registered. Simply pick up a voter registration application, fill it out, and mail it at least 30 days before the election date. Get your application here.


You are eligible to register to vote if:

  • You are a United States citizen;
  • You are a resident of the county where you submit the application;
  • You are at least 18 years old on Election Day;
  • You are not a convicted felon (you may be eligible to vote if you have completed your sentence, probation, and parole); and
  • You have not been declared by a court exercising probate jurisdiction to be either totally mentally incapacitated or partially mentally incapacitated without the right to vote.

Are you already registered?

To confirm your voter registration status, you may select one of three methods to perform a search:

  • Your Texas driver’s license number, if you provided it when you applied for voter registration;
  • Your Voter Unique Identifier (VUID), which appears on your voter registration certificate;
  • Your first and last name.

Find out if you are already registered.


Farewell, Pete Seeger

January 28, 2014

Just got the news that Pete Seeger died.  He was 94.

Such a loss for American music, to American music, and to history and art.

New York Times story here.

Pete Seeger at the Beacon Sloop Club in Beacon, N.Y., in 2010. Andrew Sullivan for The New York Times

Pete Seeger at the Beacon Sloop Club in Beacon, N.Y., in 2010. Andrew Sullivan for The New York Times

I love the Andrew Sullivan photo the New York Times used — it reminds me of the best way to hear Pete, in the out-of-doors, near the Hudson, in the summer, with a small audience who could be coerced to sing along.

Pete was an alumnus of Camp Rising Sun (of the L. A. Jonas Foundation) near Rhinebeck, New York, from the very early days.  In 1974, between concerts at large venues with Arlo Guthrie, and on his way back home to Beacon, Pete stopped and spent a day with us at the camp.  He was , as always, wonderfully gracious, other than outward appearances indistinguishable from the 14- and 15-year boys in excitement to be having fun, exploring nature, and then leading us all in songs.

My unfinished master’s thesis was to explore Pete’s use of different rhetorical devices to get his messages across, and make them popular.   (One of my everlasting regrets.)

But despite his down-home-everybody-welcome demeanor, Seeger drove great movements, and pushed the arcs of history in wonderful directions throughout his life.

  • Pete was an anchor for Woody Guthrie in New York, and sometimes a rival.  As Pete told it, everybody loved Woody and always came to a performance to hear Woody sing.  It was often Pete who pushed Woody out front; no mistake that Woody’s famous New Year’s resolutions from 1942 included “Love Pete” among them.
  • Having learned from the Lomaxes at the Library of Congress, Pete recorded history in songs, preserving old tunes, making foreign tunes popular, and re-arranging verses here and there.  Pete revealed, discovered, or pushed the music of a family domestic (“500 Miles”), Cuban revolutionary poets (“Guantanamera”), his engineer sister (“Going to be an Engineer”), and hymn books.
  • Pete taught a song to seminar attendees at the Highlands School in Kentucky, people who went on to do great things with that song.  The song was “We Shall Overcome,” and photos show that those Pete taught to sing included both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Blacklisted after refusing to give in to the civil liberties assault by the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), Pete created a series of records to teach how to play a guitar, a banjo, and a twelve-string.  One of the kids who learned some twelve-string licks included a guy who went on to play strings for the folk group, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and their new tenor, a guy named John Denver.  Roger McGuinn electrified that twelve-string, and leading the Byrds, turned some of Pete’s songs into rock and roll hits — like “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
  • I asked Pete about getting him to Salt Lake City for a concert in the 1970s — he demurred, saying he needed to spend some time locally.  He told a story about showing up at a PTA meeting in Beacon to talk on some issue, and some local guy told Pete that Beacon didn’t need outsiders telling them what to do.  This hurt Pete, since he’d been living in Beacon at that time for more than 30 years, in the house he built by hand.   Pete told me that he realized a world reputation doesn’t count for much if you can’t use it to make things better in your home town.The “local project?” He said he wanted to get an old sloop, and sail the Hudson River signing to get people to clean it up.  At the time, the Hudson was very much a sewer from Albany to New York City.  A short time later the Sloop Clearwater was refitted, and Pete started music festivals up and down the river.  The Hudson, Pete’s local river, runs much cleaner today for his work.
  • I saw Pete and Arlo in concert at Wolf Trap, the performance park near Washington, D.C., a couple of times; and some other venues — but nothing ever beat that open air concert at Rising Sun.
  • Bruce Springsteen did us all a favor with his album of Seeger tunes; I chafed at Ronald Reagan’s choices of performers at his inaugurals, and at many other choices over the years.  I often thought Pete Seeger’s music, and voice, would be a better choice.  Springsteen’s pre-inauguration concert in 2008, from the Lincoln Memorial, had my full attention.  The only thing more perfect, I told Kathryn, would be Pete singing his own tunes from those steps (I heard him tell the stories of King’s and Marian Anderson’s performances there more than once).  Within a few minutes, Springsteen pulled Pete out onstage, and at the age of 90 he led the crowd singing Woody’s “This Land is Your Land.”  A perfect capstone, I thought.

If  you would, pull out your collection of Pete Seeger music today, and give it a spin.  It will raise your spirits, I guarantee.

What wonderful gifts Pete left us!

So long, Pete, one of the best American citizens we’ll ever know.

Maybe we should just say, “So long! It’s Been Good to Know Ya!”

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Fly your flag for Martin Luther King Day, 2014

January 20, 2014

I don’t really need to remind you to fly your flag today, right?  You’ve already got it waving.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. Credit: architecture.about.com - See more at: http://saportareport.com/blog/2013/12/statue-of-martin-luther-king-jr-proposed-for-georgias-state-capitol/#sthash.TKrjYCX7.dpuf

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. Credit: architecture.about.com, via Saporta Report

Fly the U.S. flag today for the holiday for the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The holiday is celebrated on the third Monday in January.

Many Americans will celebrate with a day of service.

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2014 Google Doodle for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

2014 Google Doodle for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day


GOP debacle swells: Texas voter ID law blocks aged, World War II veterans from voting

November 3, 2013

It’s difficult to figure out a headline for this story, one that accurately describes just how bolloxed the Republicans have made voting in Texas.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Friday was the last day of early voting for Tuesday’s elections in Texas.  Some local offices, and about 2,000 amendments to the Texas Constitution.  Okay, a half-dozen amendments to the Constitution.  Texas’s Constitution is the greatest patch-work legal document on Earth, perhaps in our galaxy, and we’ve got a bunch of amendments this time, too.

Texas’s Kommissar of State Prosecutions, Greg Abbott, took advantage of federal court decisions and imposed the clumsy Texas Jim Crow/Diego Cuervo voting laws for this election.  Although eligibility for voting, including citizenship, is checked when voters register, the new law requires that every voter present a state-issued voter identification card with a photo, again at the polls.

The law was originally targeted by Republican legislators to stop African Americans and Hispanics from voting, with a bonus that it stops senior citizens who may not have valid drivers licenses.

A lot of other people are getting snagged, too.  A state judge was required to vote provisionallyState Sen. Wendy Davis, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for next year’s gubernatorial race, had to file a conditional ballot — she is within striking distance of Kommissar Abbott in current polls (he’s running for the Republican nomination).  About a third of white women in Texas don’t have photo identification that matches their voting registration, due to moving, marriage, divorce, etc.

And Friday, in Fort Worth . . .  well, you can’t make this stuff up.

You cannot make this stuff up.

No one questioned who he was.  He just can’t vote with the ID he has.

If Jim Wright can’t easily get an ID to vote, who can?

If any other veterans of World War II don’t have personal assistants from their Congressional retirement benefits, who will help them vote?

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

By Terry Evans and Anna M. Tinsley

tevans@star-telegram.com atinsley @star-telegram.com

FORT WORTH — Former House Speaker Jim Wright was denied a voter ID card Saturday at a Texas Department of Public Safety office.

“Nobody was ugly to us, but they insisted that they wouldn’t give me an ID,” Wright said.

The legendary Texas political figure says that he has worked things out with DPS and that he will get a state-issued personal identification card in time for him to vote Tuesday in the state and local elections.

But after the difficulty he had this weekend getting a proper ID card, Wright, 90, expressed concern that such problems could deter others from voting and stifle turnout. After spending much of his life fighting to make it easier to vote, the Democratic Party icon said he is troubled by what he’s seeing happen under the state’s new voter ID law.

“I earnestly hope these unduly stringent requirements on voters won’t dramatically reduce the number of people who vote,” Wright told the Star-Telegram. “I think they will reduce the number to some extent.”

Wright and his assistant, Norma Ritchson, went to the DPS office on Woodway Drive to get a State of Texas Election Identification Certificate. Wright said he realized earlier in the week that the photo identifications he had — a Texas driver’s license that expired in 2010 and a TCU faculty ID — do not satisfy requirements of the voter ID law, enacted in 2011 by the Legislature. DPS officials concurred.

But Wright and Ritchson will return to the office Monday with a certified copy of Wright’s birth certificate, which the DPS employees assured them would be good enough for the Texas personal identification card, designed specifically for people who do not drive.

“It can be used for anything, not just voting,” Ritchson said.

Photo ID alone doesn’t work.  Legal identification cards don’t work.  It has to be the magic, let’s hope you ain’t got one, kind of ID.

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Jim Wright shows the voter identification card issued to him by his home county -- not enough to allow him to vote under new Texas voter ID laws.  The World War II veteran was denied an identification card on Friday.  Fort Worth Star-Telegram photo by Terry Evans

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Jim Wright shows the voter identification card issued to him by his home county — not enough to allow him to vote under new Texas voter ID laws. The World War II veteran was denied a photo identification card on Friday. Fort Worth Star-Telegram photo by Terry Evans

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What would a Boy Scout do in this situation?

June 25, 2013

This parallels my experience:

How about your experience with Boy Scouts?

Have you seen this PSA on television stations in your town?  Call the stations, ask when they run it.

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June 15: Magna Carta anniversary, #798

June 15, 2013

In 2015 we’ll celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.  I predict that, beginning in late 2014, pseudo-historians will begin an assault on the history of the document, attempting to convince us that the document banned income taxes, banished the poor from hospitals and job finding agencies, and said children should have to work for their meals and never get food stamps. 

I hope I’m wrong.

Today, June 15, 2013, is the 798th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.  The document laid a foundation for freedom, almost 800 years ago, upon which we stand today.

Runnymede, Magna Carta Isle, photo by Wyrdlight, Antony McCallum, 2008 (Wikimedia)

What event critical to western history and the development of the democratic republic in the U.S. happened here in 1215?

A teacher might use some of these photos explaining the steps to the Constitution, in English law and the heritage of U.S. laws. Other than the Magna Carta, all the events of Runnymede get overlooked in American studies of history. Antony McCallum, working under the name Wyrdlight, took these stunning shots of this historic meadow. (He photographs stuff for studies of history, it appears.)

Maybe it’s a geography story.

View of Runnymede Meadow from Engham Village -- Wyrdlight photo through Wikimedia

View of Runnymede Meadow from Engham Village — Wyrdlight photo through Wikimedia

Several monuments to different events of the past millennium populate the site. The American Bar Association dedicated a memorial to the Magna Carta there — a small thing open to the air, but with a beautiful ceiling that is probably worth the trip to see it once you get to England.

Wikipedia explains briefly, with a note that the ABA plans to meet there again in 2015, the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter:

Magna Carta Memorial


The Magna Carta Memorial & view towards the ‘medes’


Engraved stone recalling the 1985 ABA visit

Situated in a grassed enclosure on the lower slopes of Cooper’s Hill, this memorial is of a domed classical style, containing a pillar of English granite on which is inscribed “To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law”. The memorial was created by the American Bar Association to a design by Sir Edward Maufe R.A., and was unveiled on 18 July 1957 at a ceremony attended by American and English lawyers.[5]

Since 1957 representatives of the ABA have visited and rededicated the Memorial renewing pledges to the Great Charter. In 1971 and 1985 commemorative stones were placed on the Memorial plinth. In July 2000 the ABA came:

to celebrate Magna Carta, foundation of the rule of law for ages past and for the new millennium.

In 2007 on its 50th anniversary the ABA again visited Runnymede and during the convention installed as President Charles Rhyne who devised Law Day which seeks in the USA an annual reaffirmation of faith in the forces of law for peace.

The ABA will be meeting at Runnymede in 2015 on the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the original charter.

The Magna Carta Memorial is administered by the Magna Carta Trust, which is chaired by the Master of the Rolls.[10]

In 2008, flood lights were installed to light the memorial at night, but due to vandalism they now lie smashed.

I’ll wager the lights get fixed before 2015.

Detail of the Magna Carta monument at Runnymed...

Detail of the Magna Carta monument at Runnymede. I took this photo some time in the early Eighties. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is mostly an encore post.

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Where have all the flowers gone? A bunch to Pete Seeger on his 94th birthday today

May 3, 2013

Pete Seeger was born on May 3, 1919.  He turns 94 today.

Pete is an alumnus of the Louis August Jonas Foundation‘s Camp Rising Sun, a little nugget that appealed to me when I signed up as a counselor at the Rhinebeck campus in 19#&.  Pete and Arlo Guthrie teamed up for a series of concerts at East Coast venues that summer, including Wolftrap, Saratoga, Tanglewood and others.  Pete lives just down the river from Rhinebeck, near Beacon — but driving home from one of those venues was just a bit too far.  Pete stopped off at his childhood haunts and spent a day with us.

I hoped to invite him to Salt Lake City.  Pete said he might make such a trip, but it was unlikely — and impressed me with his reasoning and dedication to principle.  He explained that he was sticking closer to home as he approached 65, because there was work to do there.  He said he’d attended a local school board or PTA meeting to voice an opinion on some issue in Beacon.  One of the local newspapers complained he was “an outside agitator.”  That stung, he said — he’d been a resident in the town for more than 30 years.

Instead of complaining, though, he started thinking.  He said he’s traveled the world and worked for causes for other people in other towns; and he said he realized that one’s life’s work might be dedicated to making life better where one lives.  So he’d decided to campaign to clean up his local river, the Hudson . . . you’ve heard of the Sloop Clearwater?

Pete’s dedication to making things better, with local action where one may make a huge difference, stuck with me, and it should stick with all of us.

Last month I was doodling around Twitter, and discovered Pete had signed up for a Twitter account — years ago.  He tweets regularly.

He’s an encouragement to all of us.  He boasts that there is no group he has ever refused to sing for, and in his typical humility, he claims that he can get any group to join, so they do all the heavy lifting.  During the pre-inaugural festivities for President Obama’s first inauguration I was happy to see Bruce Springsteen singing some of Pete’s work — highly appropriate for any president’s inauguration — and I thought it would be more fitting only if Pete was singing himself.  Then Springsteen brought Pete out on stage to close out.

Pete keeps up a schedule of concerts, most for causes.  He sails with the Clearwater, campaigning for clean water on the Hudson River (much accomplished) and community efforts to change things for the better.  As you will see below, he pulls his own when raising the sails.    He cuts his own wood to heat the house he built.

Considering his age, 94, we might wonder why he keeps going, doing so much all the time.

Why does he keep on going?  He might be telling us, from this 2012 recording.

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English: This graphic was used for the cover o...

Cover of Pete Seeger’s single release (same photo on an album). The banjo features Pete’s traditional “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” a twist on a sticker famously seen on his old friend Woody Guthrie’s guitar. Wikipedia image

Some material in this post is recycled from an earlier post.


How’s that austerity working for you?

April 6, 2013

NJ State Police Benevolent Association sign

Sign outside Atlantic City, New Jersey. Image from NJSPBA.com

“Even the bad guys are feeling lucky.”

With declining income, American cities lay off cops.

No problem for the rich!  Just hire private cops! Story in the Christian Science Monitor:

After people in Oakland’s [California] wealthy enclaves like Oakmore or Piedmont Pines head to work, security companies take over, cruising the quiet streets to ward off burglars looking to take advantage of unattended homes.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Long known for patrolling shopping malls and gated communities, private security firms are beginning to spread into city streets. While private security has long been contracted by homeowners associations and commercial districts, the trend of groups of neighbors pooling money to contract private security for their streets is something new.

Besides Oakland, neighborhoods in Atlanta and Detroit – both cities with high rates of crime – have hired firms to patrol their neighborhoods, says Steve Amitay, executive director of the National Association of Security Contractor.

“It’s happening everywhere,” Mr. Amitay says. “Municipal governments and cities are really getting strapped in terms of their resources, and when a police department cuts 100 officers obviously they are going to respond to less crimes.”

Potential issues:

  1. Is the cost less than the modest increase in taxes required to keep the cops on?
  2. What happens when a rent-a-cop finds criminals in action?  Private security firms are not bound to stop criminal action, nor put their lives on the line to catch criminals.
  3. Would it be as effective if those people who fire private security simply donated that money to local law enforcement agencies?

File this under the so-called conservative rich cutting off their fingers to spite their hands:  Does it ever occur to them that they would have more bankable cash if they didn’t have to hire a security service to guard their homes, but instead paid modest taxes to educate would-be criminals to do non-criminal work, and to provide police protection instead of private spies?

Didn’t Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association say his agency would support bigger budgets to hire more cops?  Where is that lobbying action today?  What’s that — he was just jerking whose chain?  (I’d be more comfortable if I knew LaPierre does not regard Somalia as the model for how a national government ought to work.)

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What would a real man do? Samantha Stendal’s brilliant, short video

March 26, 2013

From Samantha Stendal, a film student at the University of Oregon, a brilliant film reaction to the Steubenville, Ohio rape and trials.

Samantha Stendal, filmmaker at the University of Oregon

Samantha Stendal, University of Oregon

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“Return to Madison,” urges James Madison U president on the great man’s birthday

March 22, 2013

What would Madison do?

James Madison’s work, not only on the Constitution, but on making the Constitution and new government work, and on creating the foundation pilings for that Constitution and society, should make his words and ideas key points of study for us, and his principles should be our guiding principles much more than they are today.

Madison is the forgotten founder, I’ve argued.

JMU President J. R. Alger and others present wreaths at tomb of James Madison, March 16, 2013 (Madison's birthday)

JMU press release caption: JMU President Jon Alger, second from left, presents a wreath at the tomb of President James Madison in honor of his 262nd birthday.

James Madison University President Jon Alger spoke at the ceremonies honoring Madison’s birthday last Saturday, March 16, at Madison’s mountain home, Montpelier, Virginia (a few miles from Jefferson’s Monticello).  In his speech, Alger urged a return to civility in discussion of politics, a return to focus on important ideas and the processes by which we discuss them, and make decisions in our national government.

Alger’s remarks deserve a much wider audience, I think.  I asked JMU for a copy, and they pointed to the university’s website where the entire speech is posted.  I repost it here.  Please spread the word.

Jon Alger’s Montpelier remarks

President Jonathan R. Alger
James Madison University
Remarks on the Occasion of James Madison’s 262nd Birthday
March 16, 2013
at James Madison’s Gravesite, Montpelier
Orange, Virginia
(Remarks interrupted by rain)

Good afternoon.  Honored guests, members of the Montpelier Board of Directors, President Imhoff and Montpelier staff, members of the James Madison University Board of Visitors, faculty, students and alumni, family, friends and fellow Madison enthusiasts, it is my great honor to speak at this hallowed place.  On this day 262 years ago, James Madison was born.  Perhaps more so than any other president or founder, James Madison is responsible for the creation and miraculous endurance of our republic.  Known as the Father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison’s contributions to our nation should be remembered by every American.  The sacred fire of liberty lit by Madison’s ideas burns to this day and draws us here to honor him.

I came to Montpelier for the first time only a few months ago.  As a great admirer of James Madison, to me the trip here felt like a pilgrimage.  When the mansion first came into view as we made our way up the long sweeping drive, I was struck by the majesty of the moment—as we feel when in the presence of greatness.  During that visit, Montpelier board president Greg May invited me to speak at this annual event as we strode down a pathway that Madison himself must have walked many times.  I could not have been more honored.

Indeed, this is a dream come true for me.  As a political science major and history minor in college, I read many of the same texts Madison himself studied—as well as some of Madison’s own work.  Even as a young child, I admired the creative genius of our forefathers.  While other kids had stuffed animals or model airplanes displayed in their bedrooms, on my dresser I proudly exhibited a set of small ceramic statues of the American presidents.  I like to root for underdogs and was always partial to Madison, because his was the shortest statue.  Today his picture hangs proudly in my office.

As many of you know, Montpelier and James Madison University have long had a special bond.  It began when Dr. Clarence Geier, an archaeologist at Madison, arranged an archaeology field school here at Montpelier more than 25 years ago.  Our students and faculty have been coming to Montpelier ever since and have participated in digs all across the grounds. (Except for right here, of course.  They are not allowed to dig in this particular area.  You never know with undergraduates!)

From then the relationship between our two institutions has blossomed.  This past November a bus containing JMU faculty, staff and me – as well as my wife Mary Ann and daughter Eleanor – came here to spend a day brainstorming with the Montpelier leadership and staff on ways to deepen our relationship even further. The primary objective of this deeper relationship is to bring more attention to James Madison and his ideas.  This objective reflects the missions of our two great institutions, but it must go beyond those gathered here today.  As a nation, we are in great need of what I will call a Return to Madison.

It is true that, during the past few years, more and more American citizens are professing respect for the U.S. Constitution.  The document was read on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for only the second time in history this past January.  In fact, Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia’s Sixth District – JMU’s district – opened the reading with a delivery of the document’s Preamble.  That’s a good start, but as a nation we must go much further.  For this newfound reverence toward the U.S. Constitution to elevate us as a nation, we must explore and gain a deeper understanding of the principles on which the U.S. Constitution is based.  We must Return to Madison.

Now, by suggesting this return, I don’t mean that we become a nation of history buffs (although that would be OK with me).  Rather, a Return to Madison would provide us with very real and practical insights into how we as a society should confront issues facing us all.

Starting with a realistic view of human nature, Madison believed that politics was driven by “interest,” not by “virtue.”  In his excellent work, The Sacred Fire of Liberty, Madison scholar Lance Banning captured this core principle.  He wrote, “Madison did not assume that a republic could depend upon a superhuman readiness to sacrifice self-interest to the common good. Taking humans for the interested, opinionated creatures they are, Madison asserted that in a pluralistic, large republic, partial interests would be counterbalanced by competing interests.”

This was not new political thinking, of course.  During the 16th century in Florence, Machiavelli (whose work was more nuanced than is often remembered today) explored what he called the “effectual truth” of politics.  In other words, as Paul Rahe writes in his book, Machiavelli’s Liberal Republican Legacy, “[I]n order to avoid their ruin and achieve their preservation, men should govern themselves in accordance with how they do behave rather than in the distorting light of how they ought to.”

So Madison’s great innovation was to devise a system of government that sought to create political and civic conditions allowing the interests of individual citizens, groups, regions and other entities to balance one another so that no one of them could overtake the rest.  He recognized that we would be a society with diverse perspectives and experiences, and that we needed a structure to allow that diversity to flourish.

Today – while publicly professing faith in the Constitution as a document – we seem to have forgotten this essential element.  Far too often, our public discourse on the important challenges of our time degenerates into shallow shouting matches and name-calling in which we cry for the elimination of opposing views on political, social, economic and cultural issues. The people we despise across the political aisle, the fools on the television spouting their ridiculously wrongheaded opinions, the heathens who believe in a different god than we do – we not only hold them in utter contempt, we behave as if we want their ideas extinguished.  And if they were extinguished – oh, if only they were extinguished – we believe the world would be a better place.  If only we all agreed on everything – wouldn’t that be great!  Yet we must be careful what we wish for.  If that kind of wish were to come true, not only would our lives be much more boring—but our society would stop progressing and stagnate.

A Return to Madison would shine a light on the fact that the strength of our republic relies on the existence of opposing ideas and perspectives.  Voices who advocate for Wall Street and others who focus on Main Street?  They need each other.  Republicans and Democrats need each other.  Without the diversity of ideas and opinions, our civic balance would tilt and our system eventually would topple.  The great man we honor today knew this was true.  We as a society need to embrace this notion and continue debating the important issues of the day, but with reason and civility—not with hatred and hopes for total domination.  We need each other.  And I believe that spreading the understanding that our great Constitution is based squarely on this principle could lead to greater social harmony.  Boy, do we need a Return to Madison.

Madison’s Federalist 10 is recognized the world over as one of the great examples of political thought in history.  You might remember that Madison published the Federalist with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in newspapers while the states were considering whether to ratify the proposed Constitution.  Of these 85 essays, Madison’s 10th is widely considered to be one of the best, and it’s about balancing competing interests.  I love it for the philosophy it expresses, but also because it contains one of his most elegant turns of a phrase.  If you’ve read much Madison, you know that his writing can be (to be honest) dense and elliptical.  He is not often quoted in today’s sound-bite culture.  But in the Federalist 10 he wrote, “liberty is to faction what air is to fire…”  Think about that for a moment.  “Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire…”  Madison was making the point that liberty creates a nourishing environment for faction.  At the time, great fear existed that too much liberty could lead to dangerous factions emerging.  Madison was resolute, however, and he completes the idea by writing, “But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

Madison is saying that even though liberty allows faction to thrive, it should not be curtailed.  He goes on to observe, “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”

Thus even as Madison advocated for liberty despite its dangers, he was sure to remind his Federalist readers that man’s passionately held views are imperfect.  Therefore, if we claim to respect our Constitution and if we understand this fundamental premise, we have a responsibility to change the tone of much of our civic dialogue.  Now, to be clear, I am not arguing that we should hold our views any less dear.  Passion leads great people to act. And I am not suggesting that we all adopt a relativist perspective – right and wrong do exist.  As enlightened as Madison and his colleagues were for their time on so many issues, for example, even they were unable to come to grips with the tragic injustice of slavery

If Madison were here today, however, I believe he would remind us of our human limitations when we encounter and react to opinions that differ from our own.  We can all benefit from trying to listen to and understand the views of others with civility and respect, even as we hold and espouse our own cherished points of view.  As the president of the university named for James Madison, I feel strongly that our institution of higher education can best honor his legacy by embracing the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds in our society, while fostering and modeling civil and respectful discourse on the great issues of our time.  That is part of the reason why I began my own presidency with a “Listening Tour” to hear, and learn from, the richly diverse voices and opinions of our university community.

In my inaugural address yesterday at the university, I called for James Madison University to be the national model for the engaged university—an institution that combines a commitment to teaching and learning with a conviction that all humans are interconnected.  This combination embodies James Madison’s ideals.  If we enlighten ourselves through education and believe that we all are connected – even with those with whom we might passionately disagree – we honor Madison.  I intend for this idea to be a hallmark of my administration at JMU.

Another hallmark will be to continue deepening the relationship between the university and Montpelier.  Some of the ideas generated during our visit here in November already are taking shape.  For instance, staff in our department of History and our Adult Degree Program are working with faculty here in the Center for the Constitution to create a course about James Madison and his ideas that includes online and in-person instruction, as well as visits here. The course will be available to JMU students and the general public.  As we celebrated Madison Week on our campus these past few days, Montpelier has honored our university by loaning us several artifacts from its own collection.  These exchanges are reminders of the man to whom we owe so much.  Our educational initiatives can go a long way to motivate those who profess their faith in the U.S. Constitution to deepen their understanding of its underlying principles, and thus inspire a Return to Madison.

Let me share with you a personal story of my own heightened sense of Madison’s, and Montpelier’s, significance.  While inside the house, I was surprised by how moved I was when I sat in the modest room that is believed to be Madison’s study.  The thought that I was in the very room where James Madison read Machiavelli and Locke and Montesquieu and all the others; the room where he synthesized thousands of years of thinking into a framework for our most important founding document; the room looking west toward unsettled lands of great promise; the room in which James Madison addressed civilization’s most intractable problem – how to govern ourselves – I was filled with a sense of wonder and awe.

Yet another way in which the university will connect with Montpelier and its legacy will be to honor the memory of Dolley Madison, the great woman buried beside our 4th President.  Dolley was herself an intellectual and social force who played a profound leadership role by convening people of different backgrounds for civil discourse.  In fact, Yale University historian Catherine Allgor wrote, “Dolley’s assumption that compromise would be the salvation of the system marks her as one of the most sophisticated politicians of her time.”  Through a new initiative called Women for Madison, our university will celebrate the vital role women play in leadership and cultivating a culture of philanthropy.

Finally, as an advocate of education and an ardent student himself, I believe Madison would have enjoyed meeting today’s students who benefit from his legacy in this free and civil society.  I wonder how he would have felt meeting students attending the university named for him. We have several with us today – can you come and join me here?

As many of you know, JMU has a robust study abroad program. I will tour several of our study abroad programs this summer for the first time as president, and my second stop will be Florence, the great city where republican thought reemerged during the 16th century.  Machiavelli was the most influential Florentine political thinker of that time, and his work influenced Madison greatly.  In fact, Machiavelli appears in one of James Madison’s adolescent “commonplace” books.  A commonplace book was like an academic diary.  Students during the era when Madison grew up dutifully filled their commonplace books with notes, quotations and poetry.

Students of our era – such as these fine students – and I will visit Machiavelli’s gravesite at the Basilica di Santa Croce in central Florence this summer. We will take with us the moving experience of being here at James Madison’s gravesite, and reflect on the republican ideal with which both men—and so many other people throughout history—have grappled.  It is quite fitting that students attending a university named for James Madison make this journey, connect these two places and contemplate their meaning.

With this symbolic gesture, we hope to inspire all the students of James Madison University, the visitors to James Madison’s Montpelier and all who bear witness, to Return to Madison.  Let’s go from this ceremony with a renewed sense of our roles as citizens, and of the power we have to live the ideals James Madison handed down to us through the ages.  Thank you

Who in Congress listens?  Who in media and commentary listens?  Who in the academic life listens?

More:

Fireworks at James Madison U, at inauguration of President Jonathan R. Alger

Fireworks over James Madison University, on the inauguration of new University President Jonathan R. Alger, in early March 2013. Despite the somewhat tenuous links to this post, I like the photograph. Image from JMU’s UBeTheChange blog.


Happy birthday, Albert Einstein!

March 14, 2013

How many ways can we say happy birthday to a great scientist born on Pi Day?  So, an encore post.

E=mcc - logo from AIP

E=energy; m=mass; c=speed of light

Happy Einstein Day! to us.  Albert’s been dead since 1955 — sadly for us.  Our celebrations now are more for our own satisfaction and curiosity, and to honor the great man — he’s beyond caring.

Almost fitting that he was born on π Day, no? I mean, is there an E=mc² Day?

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein. 26 years later, three days after his birthday, he sent off the paper on the photo-electric effect; that paper would win him the Nobel Prize in Physics in another five years, in 1921. In that same year of 1905, he published three other papers, solving the mystery of Brownian motion, describing what became known as the Special Theory of Relativity and solving the mystery of why measurements of the light did not show any effects of motion as Maxwell had predicted, and a final paper that noted a particle emitting light energy loses mass. This final paper amused Einstein because it seemed so ludicrous in its logical extension that energy and matter are really the same stuff at some fundamental point, as expressed in the equation demonstrating an enormous amount of energy stored in atoms, E=mc².

Albert Einstein as a younger man - Nobel Foundation image

Albert Einstein as a younger man – Nobel Foundation image

Any one of the papers would have been a career-capper for any physicist. Einstein dashed them off in just a few months, forever changing the fields of physics. And, you noticed: Einstein did not win a Nobel for the Special Theory of Relativity, nor for E=mc². He won it for the photo electric effect. Irony in history.

106 years later Einstein’s work affects us every day. Relativity theory at some level I don’t understand makes possible the use Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which revolutionized navigation and mundane things like land surveying and microwave dish placement. Development of nuclear power both gives us hope for an energy-rich future, and gives us fear of nuclear war. Sometimes, even the hope of the energy rich future gives us fear, as we watch and hope nuclear engineers can control the piles in nuclear power plants damaged by earthquakes and tsunami in Japan.

English: Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp

Albert Einstein on a 1966 US stamp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Albert Einstein was a genius at physics, he was more dedicated to pacifism. He resigned his German citizenship to avoid military conscription. His pacifism made the German Nazis nervous; Einstein fled Germany in the 1930s, eventually settling in the United States. In the U.S., he was persuaded by Leo Szilard to write to President Franklin Roosevelt to suggest the U.S. start a program to develop an atomic weapon, because Germany most certainly was doing exactly that. But while urging FDR to keep up with the Germans, Einstein refused to participate in the program himself, sticking to his pacifist views. Others could, and would, design and build atomic bombs. (Maybe it’s a virus among nuclear physicists — several of those working on the Manhattan Project were pacifists, and had great difficulty reconciling the idea that the weapon they worked on to beat Germany, was deployed on Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapons program.)

English: USSR stamp dedicated to Albert Einste...

Everybody wanted to claim, and honor Einstein; USSR issued this stamp dedicated to Albert Einstein Русский: Почтовая марка СССР, посвящённая Альберту Эйнштейну (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Einstein was a not-great father, and probably not a terribly faithful husband at first — though he did think to give his first wife, in the divorce settlement, a share of a Nobel Prize should he win it. Einstein was a good violinist, a competent sailor, an incompetent dresser, and a great character. His sister suffered a paralyzing stroke. For many months Albert spent hours a day reading to her the newspapers and books of the day, convinced that though mute and appearing unconscious, she would benefit from hearing the words. He said he did not hold to orthodox religions, but could there be a greater show of faith in human spirit?

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

Einstein in 1950, five years before his death

When people hear clever sayings, but forget to whom the bon mots should be attributed, Einstein is one of about five candidates to whom all sorts of things are attributed, though he never said them. (Others include Lincoln, Jefferson, Mark Twain and Will Rogers). Einstein is the only scientist in that group. So, for example, we can be quite sure Einstein never claimed that compound interest was the best idea of the 20th century. This phenomenon is symbolic of the high regard people have for the man, even though so few understand what his work was, or meant.

A most interesting man. A most important body of work. He deserves more study and regard than he gets.

More, Resources:


History resources: Rosa Parks’s arrest records

February 25, 2013

Maria Popova at Exp.lore.com suggested some tools for teachers, about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott:

The arrest records of Rosa Parks. Pair with Susan Sontag on courage and resistance. 

Fingerprint sheet from the arrest of Rosa L. Parks, in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955.

The arrest records of Rosa Parks. Pair with Susan Sontag on courage and resistance.

Popova’s suggestion of Sontag’s piece — which is available at Popova’s site — lends depth to this assignment frequently lacking in high schools. The other link Popova offers takes us to the National Archives and their great bank of classroom materials, including a few more documents from the incident:  “Teaching from Documents:  An Act of Courage, The Arrest Records of Rosa Parks.

I like to use these materials around the anniversary of Parks’s arrest on December 1, which is out of sequence for the civil rights movement and a couple of months before Black History Month.  I find it useful to talk about events on the anniversary of the events, especially to give students more than one pass at the material in class, and also to link whatever is being studied in sequence at that moment (often the Civil War in Texas classrooms) with later events, and current events, as a view in to the web of interlinked occurrences that really make up history.  (Yes, I’m an advocate of dropping the name “Black History Month” and teaching it throughout the year; though a Black Heritage Appreciation Month is a help.)

Modern students seem to me to be particularly ill-informed on current events.  Far too many of them do not read newspapers, not even the comics.  This makes more important the classroom linking of past events with current events that students don’t know about, or fail to recognize the significance.

More, and other resources:

1955 Highlander Center workshop, showing Rosa Parks

Summer 1955: Desegregation workshop at Highlander Research and Education Center. Highlander Center caption:  Rosa Parks is at the end of the table. Six months later, her actions sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. [Who are the other people pictured?]


Lunch at Woolworth’s, with a side of non-violence and civility: North Carolina, February 1, 1960

February 1, 2013

Today is the 53rd anniversary of the Greensboro sit-in. Be sure to read Howell Raines‘ criticism of news media coverage of civil rights issues in a 2010 article in the New York Times: “What I am suggesting is that the one thing the South should have learned in the past 50 years is that if we are going to hell in a handbasket, we should at least be together in a basket of common purpose.”

This is mostly an encore post; please holler quickly if you find a link that does not work.

Four young men turned a page of history on February 1, 1960, at a lunch counter in a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond, sat down at the counter to order lunch. Because they were African Americans, they were refused service. Patiently, they stayed in their seats, awaiting justice.

On July 25, nearly six months later, Woolworth’s agreed to desegregate the lunch counter. One more victory for non-violent protest.

Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond leave the Woolworth store after the first sit-in on February 1, 1960. (Courtesy of Greensboro News and Record)

Caption from Smithsonian Museum of American History: Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond leave the Woolworth store after the first sit-in on February 1, 1960. (Courtesy of Greensboro News and Record)

News of the “sit-in” demonstration spread. Others joined in the non-violent protests from time to time, 28 students the second day, 300 the third day, and some days up to 1,000. The protests spread geographically, too, to 15 cities in 9 states.

On the second day of the Greensboro sit-in, Joseph A. McNeil and Franklin E. McCain are joined by William Smith and Clarence Henderson at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Greensboro News and Record)

Smithsonian caption: “On the second day of the Greensboro sit-in, Joseph A. McNeil and Franklin E. McCain are joined by William Smith and Clarence Henderson at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Greensboro News and Record)”

Part of the old lunch counter was salvaged, and today is on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. The museum display was the site of celebratory parties during the week of the inauguration as president of Barack Obama.

Part of the lunchcounter from the Woolworths store in Greensboro, North Carolina, is now displayed at the Smithsonians Museum of American History, in Washington, D.C.

Part of the lunch counter from the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, now displayed at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, in Washington, D.C.- photo from Ted Eytan, who wrote: ["Ever eaten at a lunch counter in a store?"] The words . . . were said by one of the staff at the newly re-opened National Museum of American History this morning to a young visitor. What she did, very effectively, for the visitor and myself (lunch counters in stores are even before my time) was relate yesterday’s inequalities to those of today, by explaining the importance of the lunch counter in the era before fast food. This is the Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter, and it was donated to the Smithsonian by Woolworth’s in 1993.

Notes and resources:

Student video, American History Rules, We Were There – First person story related by Georgie N. and Greg H., with pictures:

Associated Press interview with Franklin E. McCain:

More, in 2013:


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