On Growing Up Right-Brained

Equations.1I was born without a left brain. Well, maybe a tiny rudimentary piece of left-ish cortex is in there. Even if the whole left brain/right brain thing is indeed a myth, all I can say is this: My brain doesn’t do the left-brain stuff. Numbers, algebra, equations, calculations, detail. Digits.

This is not to plead total incompetence. My checkbook is balanced, and I can figure tips and keep a very proper ledger of business income and outgo for tax purposes. For that matter, I did my own taxes for some time before marrying Mr. Left/Right Brain 25 years ago and succumbing to the hypnotically attractive suggestion that he’d be glad to do everything financial or mathematical for the happily ever after – which has worked out just fine.

But digital issues have bedeviled me for as far back as I can remember. In the very olden days of long road trips without car radios, a favorite family entertainment for my parents and three older sisters was “Rapid Calculations.” My father would call out numbers, as in “Start with 2. Add 4. Multiply by 6. Subtract 3. Add 17. Divide by . . .” You get the picture. My mother would determine when the game ended and everyone would write down a figure on a piece of paper to see who got the right answer. I would usually still be worrying with 36 minus three.

When I was in high school, the “dumb blond” thing was everywhere in the land and I ferociously tried not to fuel that fire. But connections with my inner left brain regularly eluded me. I blame some of it on the high school days themselves. At my beloved Henry Clay High School in beautiful downtown Ashland, Virginia, I, along with the 39 other members of the Class of ’49, hit eighth grade at a time when the school board couldn’t seem to find a math teacher. So they brought in Mac Simpson, stodgy but brainy son of the academic dean of the nearby college and a student there himself at the time. I had Mac for Algebra I and II, and maybe something else, if I ever got any farther – it’s a hazy memory. My incomprehension of basic math was utterly incomprehensible to Mac. Everything made such perfect sense to him that he was unable to back up to when that sense-making began. Thus without any grasp of the whole x-over-y thing as I launched myself into the world, my left brain simply went dark.poodle skirts

(I did get even, somewhat, by later dating Mac once or twice when poodle skirts were all the rage. The skirts were made out of two square yards of felt. I would agree to go to a movie, after which he would come to the house, calculate and draw the diameters of the two circles – waist and hemline – and then I’d serve him a cup of hot chocolate and say good night.)

Acknowledgment of my lifelong left-brain struggles formed the basis of my signing up, all these decades later, to volunteer for a recent program at the Commonwealth Club featuring Keith Devlin of Stanford University’s H-STAR Institute. Devlin is also President of BrainQuake, NPR’s “Math Guy,” and author of Finding Fibonacci. That last stirred something buried deep within my cerebral cortex. Fibonacci, a distant voice squeeked! The Fibonacci Sequence! Something about rabbits and multiplication! It was wonderfully comforting to know I retained a connection to the Logical Leftbrain.

Ah, to have drawn Fibonacci for Algebra I.

I might have started with Liber Abbaci (The Book of Calculation,) which introduced the western world to basic math – at a level designed for ordinary people to understand. Devlin explains that Fibonacci (whose official name was Leonardo of Pisa but there was that other Leonardo) went with his merchant father to North Africa, where trade with the far east had led to calculating prices with beads (think abacus,) something far more efficient that using fingers as was the custom in Italy. Fibonacci eventually went back home, translated the Arabic figurings into Roman numerals, wrote a bunch of books and started the whole modern arithmetic thing.

Keith Devlin 8.10.17

Keith Devlin at the Commonwealth Club

Devlin’s story of uncovering Fibonacci’s life and work through obscure library archives across Italy and elsewhere makes for a fascinating book, and his rapid-fire presentation was a treat – until the insertion of equations into his talk became necessary. Having started out on a level playing field with an historical narrative, once the numbers started popping up on the screen I began to feel again the old “Rapid Calculation” angst about being the only person in the audience still struggling to add 17.

And then Devlin tossed this bubble-popping dart: Fibonacci did not invent the Fibonacci numbers.  My dimly remembered connection to the brainy lefts? Somebody else came up with that “Fibonacci Sequence.”

What’s a Right Brain to do?

Poets, Writers & Inspiration

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Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

diego-rivera-murals-sfai

The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

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Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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Making All Knowledge Available to All? For Free? Believe It

Universal Access to All Knowledge. In other words, let’s gather up and digitize everything on the internet, and offer it to everyone on the planet. For free. Every book in every library, every website, movie – oh, and throw in music: vinyl records, CDs. In as many languages as possible.

archive-crowd

Some people were doubtful this could be done. But then, they probably didn’t know Brewster Kahle. Kahle, according to his Wikipedia page, is an American computer engineer, Internet entrepreneur and internet activist. And perhaps foremost, he is an advocate of universal access to all knowledge – to which end he founded the Internet Archive in 1996.

The Archive, consisting of a few billion items – it could be a few trillion by this writing – is now a non-profit library recognized by the Library of Congress. If you’re a human being with a digital device you can access anything within its collections. These are grouped within recognizable categories like ‘Old Time Radio,’ ‘Iraq War’ or ‘Television,’ and enigmatic other categories like ‘Electric Sheep’ and ‘Netlabels.’

This writer, whose left brain is minuscule, was only dimly aware of the Archive, despite the fact that some years ago it purchased, for its headquarters, a former Christian Science Church building in San Francisco which I pass every few days. But when Kahle’s wife Mary Austin, co-founder of San Francisco Center for the Book and someone (decidedly right/left brained) I am proud to call a friend, insisted I attend the 20th anniversary celebration not long ago, it seemed time to peek into it all.

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A few hundred friends and supporters turned out for the celebration, stopping by the taco truck at the front steps and going from there to stations offering demonstrations of archived music and video games, planetary digitizations, scanners that put books onto digital shelves in a matter of moments. Many of the Archive employees who work from areas around the globe – this writer talked at length with a sharp young lady from Toronto – were on hand to help explain things, and enjoy the reunion. The Wayback Machine (more than 279 billion web pages saved over time) was a crowd favorite, as was the Live Music archive (6,991 collections: rock, blues, classics, big band . . .) Some of those last were comprehensible to this reporter; other areas where the beeps and blinks of giant servers and assorted machines were connecting us all to the digital universe – well, what can I say?archive-scanner

But I have my library card! Open Library: We lend e-books worldwide for free. You can get one for yourself. Open Library has over a million ebook titles.

You might also want to support this ambitious undertaking and its latest safeguard project: creating a copy of Internet Archive’s digital collections in another country. Kahle and friends are building the Internet Archive of Canada “because lots of copies keeps stuff.” In other words, one more assurance of universal access to all knowledge. Free. And private. Internet Archive does not accept ads (which could track your behavior) or collect your IP address.archive-planets

Fact-check it out.

Evolution & the Curious Child

 

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It was a simple question about being distant kin to the monkeys. The kind of question, like “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do stars go in the morning?” that any curious third grader might ask. His teacher, however, was irate. “Ridiculous,” she said. “Don’t bother me with impertinent questions.”

This kind of a rebuke did not sit well with the grandson of Peter Klopfer.

Klopfer is a distinguished Duke University biology professor, author of more than 20 books and an expert in animal behavior and evoluntionary biology. His daughter Erika Honore, the questioner’s mother, is a retired veterinary scientist with multiple degrees and the author of A Concise Survey of Animal Behavior. She and her doctor husband know a thing or two about kinship with monkeys, and had – along with his grandfather – passed along enough anthropological truth to the third grader that his teacher’s rebuke had the opposite effect: now he wanted to know the story of evolution.

“Erika and I started looking for an age-appropriate book on evolution,” Klopfer says, “and it was nowhere to be found. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but we couldn’t find a good book for six-to-ten-year-olds anywhere. So we decided to write our own.

Thus evolved Darwin and the First Grandfather, a small, colorfully illustrated (by Gretchen Morrissey) book of how humankind began.darwin-1

Darwin’s narrator, asked the where-did-we-come-from question by her own 8-year-old replies that she’ll tell him two stories. She tells first the biblical creation story – which would presumably please the creators of Texas textbooks (and which many if not most Christians see for what it is: a story.) Then she launches into another story, a tale of a boy names Charles and the discoveries he makes as he follows his own curiosity. It is a delightfully readable account of  creation from one perspective and evolution from the perspective of scientific truth.

Scientific publishers who had brought out Klopfer’s scholarly books were less than enthusiastic about undertaking a children’s book. The firm that had published his earlier children’s book had subsequently gone out of business, and he lacked a good connection to children’s book publishers. One atheist publisher was delighted with the idea, but eventually said he could find no way to market such a thing. “So we just put it aside,” Klopfer says now, “and it sat in a file cabinet for years.”darwin-4

Happily for children everywhere, the father-daughter duo recently dug the manuscript out again and decided to self-publish. Klopfer’s neighbor, a textile design artist, agreed to do the illustrations, and Darwin and the First Grandfather was born.

That third grade questioner? He did learn the scientifically accurate story of evolution, which today’s third graders can learn with the help of his mother’s and grandfather’s book. Currently he is a graduate student in computer science at Yale University.

 

There’s Hope for Reproductive Justice

Art by Megan Smith

Art by Megan Smith

Let’s hear it – one more time – for the Millennials. Especially the youngest Millennials, just now reaching or approaching voting age. A generation unto themselves.

Invited to speak at a recent “Awareness into Action” day at Drew School, a private college preparatory day school in San Francisco, this writer went with some trepidation into a classroom set up for about ten high school students. Who – when she hasn’t been a high schooler in more than a half century – knows high school students today?

My workshop was on Reproductive Justice. Other choices the students could make included workshops on Mindfulness, Parks Conservancy, Anti-Racist Dialogue, LGBTQ issues and Immigration Law (to name a few.) I figured if 5 or 6 girls showed up it would be fine. By the time we were ready to start there were 14 girls and two brave (and handsome) guys around the table and sitting on chairs and tables in the back corner, plus one teacher keeping an eye on it all.

For openers, I’d written several facts on the whiteboard:

A woman dies of cervical cancer almost once every two hours. HPV vaccine prevents most cases of cervical cancer.

17 states mandate that women be given counseling before an abortion that includes information on at least one of the following: the purported link between abortion and breast cancer (5 states); the ability of a fetus to feel pain (12 states); long-term mental health consequences of abortion for the woman (7 states.) None of the above are true.

Then I told my own story. The story of a 22-year-old who had never had sex – after all, nice girls did not have sex before marriage in 1956. A victim of what would today clearly be workplace rape, I did all the dangerous things that women desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy are increasingly doing today. When nothing else worked, I had a back alley abortion by an untrained man who probably had not even washed his hands.

“I think,” I said to the roomful of attentive faces, “we’re going straight back to the dark ages.”

Not if these young people have anything to say about it.

Aware that they are among the lucky ones, they are concerned about the unlucky. They seemed a little taken aback by statistics like this one:

In 2006, 49% of pregnancies were unintended. The proportion of unintended pregnancies was highest (98%) among teens younger than 15.

. . . and by other data about how widespread is the denial of access to reproductive healthcare for poor women and girls (and men and boys) in more than half of the U.S. “It’s just wrong,” said one student.

So what do you think you can do to change things, I asked.

“Vote,” came the first answer, before I even finished the question.

“We have to learn to listen to people we disagree with,” said another student, who had been rather vocal in her description of political villains. “You may have to bite your tongue,” I said. “Yeah, I know,” she replied. “Because we have to learn how to have dialogue.”

“We just have to know the laws,” said another, “and work to change them.”

“We need to support these organizations, too,” commented another student, tapping the table with some of the materials I had distributed from groups like Advocates for Youth, Planned Parenthood and Sea Change.

For this writer, who lived through the worst of times, the workshop brought hope for the future of reproductive justice in the U.S. Returning to the worst of times is not on the agenda for these Millennials.

 

 

One Bright New Voice for Justice

Migrant Crisis

My money is on today’s young people.

Faced with problems local, national and global that earlier generations could barely have imagined they remain undaunted. They take on mountainous debt to get good educations despite bleak job prospects, they resist any attempt to be told how to act or think or vote, and they expose themselves to the world on social media to an extent utterly frightening to their grandparents.

As one grandparent, this writer can only applaud.

This is a snapshot of one college student whom I applaud. I have never met emerging artist Brennen French; I was introduced to his art because despite the thousands of miles and several generations that separate us it speaks my language.

French, the son of a college professor and a retirement home administrator, grew up in one of the many American small towns that saw the economy tank and opportunities vanish in the last half of the 20th century, when plants closed and jobs went overseas. Though his own family was comfortably middle class, he learned firsthand about poverty, racism and injustice – and seems determined to confront those issues in the best way he can. As his website explains, he “found his voice for justice in his art.”

Two works illustrate how that goal is playing out, as French pursues an art degree at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. “The Rise of Feminism (Break the Chains, Rise Up, Be Free)” (below) is an homage to women from around the world who have made significant contributions to women’s rights through their accomplishments in a variety of fields. With a powerfully drawn female figure centering the piece (while breaking her chains,) French has created a design with multiple interpretations, using profiles of some of the women he references. He includes initials just in case, but viewers could recognize many of them without clues: Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, nearly two dozen profiles rising from silhouetted crowds of anonymous others.

In “America’s Response to the Syrian Migrant Crisis,” (above) French uses somber tones to portray an endless line of refugees, fronted by a garishly contrasting image of an American TV talking head, a red Starbucks cup on the screen behind her. “I created this in the winter of 2015,” French explains, “to raise awareness of the current migrant crisis. At the time, American news feeds were flooded with the Starbucks Red Cup ‘scandal.’ I was shocked that news organizations felt this story was important enough to dedicate two weeks’ worth of airtime, time that could have been given to discussing the Migrant Crisis.”

Voices for justice may be around for a long time yet.

The Rise of Feminism

 

Arne Duncan on education — and inequity, and injustice

Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan sounds like a man who is ready to get out of Washington.

At a recent Commonwealth Club of California program moderated by EdSource editor-at-large John Fensterwald, Duncan spoke briefly about educational gains made during his seven year term as U.S. Secretary of Education – but repeatedly and at length about the inequities and injustices that remain across the country. His frustration is palpable.

All those debates about Common Core, testing, over-testing? Sideline arguments. “All we can do at the federal level,” Duncan says, “is fight for equity, excellence and innovation. Take politics out of it. Figure out how to get better faster. The school-to-prison pipeline is real; suspensions and expulsions lead to crime.” And don’t even get Arne Duncan started on gun violence.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” the Secretary quoted Martin Luther King Jr. as saying, “but it bends toward justice.”

Duncan clearly believes justice is not happening. “It doesn’t bend by itself,” he says, “or fast enough. The fight is not just about education. It’s about increasing social mobility, about keeping good jobs in our economy. From the standpoint of social justice, it’s about economics, and about keeping kids alive.”

Where is the arc not bending? “With early childhood education. The average child living in poverty starts kindergarten one year behind.” With gun violence, which Duncan repeatedly spoke of as closely tied to schools. “There have been more gun deaths since 1970 than in all of our wars combined. And there are too many instances in which the quality of education depends on where you live.”

Listing three top priorities he believes must be addressed, Duncan cites early childhood education as number one. He sees no reason why it can’t be done. “In the Netherlands, every four-year-old is in kindergarten, and they are working toward extending early childhood education to three-year-olds.” Second: “Great teachers matter. In South Korea, teachers are ‘Nation Builders.’ A teacher in North Carolina is giving blood to help pay the bills.” (Speaking of injustice and inequity.) And third: “How do we build demand for great schools, great teachers particularly in poor communities? How do we make it a badge of honor for teachers and principals to go where the need is greatest?”

Duncan cites the fact that in Massachusetts, the nation’s top state for education, 30% of all high school graduates take remedial classes to get into college. The percentage goes far higher in other states. “Do we want to keep doing that or not? And it is unbelievable to me that we don’t take action to end gun violence.”

Asked what he’d like to have as his legacy, Duncan fired back, “It’s not about me. We have a long way to go, and we must accelerate the pace of change.”

With that, Duncan stepped down from the stage. One gets the very strong impression – hearing him also say that being Secretary of Education was never something he aspired to, but he took the job because of his great admiration for Barack Obama – that he is more than happy to have stepped down from the national stage and headed back home to Chicago.