Saturday, May 30, 2015

Can you spell it?

In grammar school, I entered the Spelling Bee every year.  I always lost to Marvin Bernstein.  He was the Jordan/LeBron keeping me from the title.  I never scored the winning shot.  Apparently, if I tried again today, young Indian-Americans would block my way.  The 2015 Winners are Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam.  Maybe it was having to learn to spell their own names that inspired their interest.  I've heard also that competing is a family thing.

For everyday spelling, computers have made champions of us all.  Spell Check will handle it immediately.  There are even programs that make sure we get the grammar right.

I'm not surprised about the spelling help.  With calculators everywhere, it's been years since I went through the mental exercise of remembering the multiplication tables.  I mean I'd be glad if I could recall them, but that would be some "senior" thing.

Aside from participants in the Spelling Bee, maybe it will be up to scrabble players to keep alive a keen interest in seldom used words and how to spell them.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Live and Let Live?

Raoul Castro was so impressed by his visit with the Pope that he said he may go back to the Church.  This was a person to person moment but it is true that secular revolutions -- even the successful ones -- beget religious counterrevolutions and this can happen as quickly as in one generation.

Michael Walzer, in his book The Paradox of Liberation tries to make some sense of this.  Walzer says that liberators look down on the people they come to set free.  As they overthrow the dictators, the liberators want to "improve" the timid, submissive populations.  They want to create a "stronger man."  In this effort religion is an obstacle to overcome. What liberators underestimate are other powerful qualities of religion:  endurance, solidarity, purpose.  These qualities can also create a "stronger man."

Is religion simply lack of education?  Can rational man and fundamentalist man ever engage?  I though about this recently while attending a funeral at a Catholic Church.  I sat among people who knew exactly what to do.  When to stand, when to sit, the words to every song and prayer.  Submissive?  Yes.  Identity, belonging, community?  Yes to that too.

Walzer says that successful secular revolutions have not finished their work, nor have the religious counterrevolutions that contradict them.  Maybe that's a weak place to land . . . or an invitation to continue pondering the paradox.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Robo People

I want to write about robots but I'm not sure what I want to say.  It started when I heard a discussion of Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford.  First there was a story about a baseball game.  I assumed it was journalism.  No, it was a robot writing it up. Ford then began talking about how robots have already taken over mechanical jobs and will march forward moving into service jobs and eventually jobs that require judgement and experience.  The robots can do this because mass data and algorithms give them the power to do better predicting and problem solving. We're in for a jobless future.

I had already pulled my car over to the curb when I heard this alarming news.

This jobless prospect was rattling around in my brain until today when I read an article in the New York Times: Why Robots Will Always Need Us by Nicholas Carr.  (Does Carr run over Ford?)

Carr champions the obvious argument that humans create robots so the robots will always need humans to fix them when they break or get hacked;  and the other argument that if you think computers will overcome human error, computer error can be just as bad or worse.

One of the jobs that Ford said was immune from a robot takeover is nursing.  So here is what I'm left with.  Maybe the jobs that will remain are the ones not highly valued today.  The ones that require empathy, patience, flexibility.  Nursing for sure . . . therapist, day care worker, minister,
comedian . . .

As far as I know, neither author dwelled on the thought that people without jobs to take up their lives would have time to devote themselves to creativity, love, and further invention.

Carr says:  "We're in this together, our computers and ourselves."  So let's be kind to both of us.

Friday, May 15, 2015

My Writing Companion

When I was leading memoir writing workshops I called on William Zinsser's book Writing About Your Life to help me create and organize my presentation.  Zinsser's earlier work On Writing Well helped me so much when I was starting from nowhere and scared about becoming a copywriter.

The people who came to my workshops weren't studying to become professional writers.  They were a diverse group of young and older.  I got the sense that they just wanted to see if writing could help them with their experiences; if telling a story could help make some sense out of it all.

Their stories were factual:  a trip, a breakup, a family gathering.  I encouraged them to see how facts become universal themes, just as Zinsser explains.

William Zinsser's obituary is in today's Sun Times.  It said: ". . . he championed the craft of non-fiction and inspired professionals and amateurs to express themselves consisely and vividly."

He was 92.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Which Came First?

Did God create man, or did man create God?  Adding his voice to this question is Rabbi Herman Schaalman.  He's 99 years old and says he's in the process of "rethinking everything."  Since I'm a fan of the idea that you're never too old to re-think, I am cheering him on.

"God is simply an idea that humans have created because they are overwhelmed by something for which there is no answer," says the Rabbi.   I agree, which means I am in the process of making peace with the Rabbi's other belief:  "I think that death is the end."

Last week my friend Phyllis told me a great story about how her daughter lost the diamond out of her ring, only to find it days later lying in the dirt by the side of a road.  Impossible!  We called it a "miracle."

And that's enough of a miracle for me.