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?

Are facts dead? Say it isn’t so

“We’ve got to be nicer to each other. A little more humility; a little more good faith . . .”

facts

These were a few solutions to the condition of the country today offered recently by Author Tom Nichols, during a Commonwealth Club talk titled “Are Facts Dead?” Facts may not be hopelessly dead, but Nichols fears for their survival. (He’s talking about Facts here. Established knowledge. “Alternative facts” seem unendangered.) Nichols maintains that the proliferation of fact-slayers has a lot to do with the rise of narcissism and its corresponding I-know-more-than-you-do assumption.

Nichols, Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and a CBS TV political analyst, is most recently the author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Just to reinforce the fact that he falls into the category of expert himself, he is also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion.

“The attack on expertise is part of the narcissistic trend,” he says; “but it’s also because people feel things are out of control. It becomes empowering to say ‘I don’t believe you’ – ‘I don’t believe the experts.’” Nichols readily admits that experts can be wrong. People like to point out ‘expert failure,’ to say, “Well, Thalidomide. Challenger.” You will never find an issue on which everyone was 100% right, he concedes, or a person who’s never made a mistake. But the denigration of experts and widespread refusal to accept known facts is a growing threat.

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17

Tom Nichols with Melissa Caen

Moderator Melissa Caen, a political and legal analyst, TV personality and no slouch with facts and expertise herself, asked about Nichols’ students, and whether the problem of expert-doubting often starts with (adult) students.

“I tell my students,” Nichols says, “’You’re here to form opinions, not to have your opinions confirmed.’ The best weapon they can have, the most important skill to develop, is critical thinking. Rigid, ideological thinkers are easy to manipulate; critical thinkers are hard to manipulate.” Nichols can wax indignant about teachers who say they learn more from their students than their students learn from them. “I tell them NO! If they’re not learning far more from you then you’re not doing your job.”

The quick acceptance of any absurdity because it’s been pronounced on a TV show or an internet site, along with the doubting of experts is in no way confined to students, though. Non-facts, “alternative facts” and outright lies are being repeated over and over again by public figures today – encouraging people of all ages to accept them as truth. And this, Nichols believes, presents a very real threat to our democracy.

The only people who can keep things on track, Nichols argues, “are the voters. Ordinary citizens.” And it will help if they let experts do their job of getting at the facts. A little critical thinking on all sides might still keep civilization afloat.being nice

Meanwhile, maybe we should also try to be nicer to each other.

The Joy of Unplugging

plug

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it,” my good buddy Annie Lamott famously said, “including you.”

Heeding Lamott’s excellent advice, this writer has recently unplugged from a bunch of things. Huffington Post’s blogger roster. The list of ushers at 10 AM church services. Automatic evites to a bunch of meetings & gatherings I don’t really, really need to attend every month. Happily, this means simultaneously unplugging from a zillion email lists. Email lists for activist groups like MoveOn, Indivisible, Stand Up San Francisco, etc etc etc etc are something to tackle another day.

Unplugging even extended to regular blogging on this esteemed franjohns.net. But it’s still a joy to post when something worth posting comes to mind and time can be found. It’s also a joy to hear from readers who still read. (Most of all the email from someone I’ve never met who asked when I would be posting again on franjohns.net. Thanks, and here you are!)

Unplugging, though, is tricky. Technology still confounds. Much of life in today’s world must remain plugged in and operational: computers, printers, TV remotes, modems, iPhones and assorted other too-smart devices, home security systems, garage doors, you name it. For technologically challenged people like yours truly, having the passcodes for all these plus a lifetime of data stored in a cloud in the ethersphere for safety’s sake is a source of great comfort. One does not ever want to unplug from The Cloud.plug.1

Meanwhile there are the wasted hours on phones tapping through menus that, should you get to an end, lead to a recording that says “We’re sorry, but the office is closed. Please call again tomorrow.” And the wasted hours on the computer tapping through Help links that eventually lead to articles you do not have time to read, written by frustrated others who had a similar issue but probably nothing to say about yours.

Every now and then, though, one encounters a simple solution to a simple problem. This occurred recently when my lovely Surface computer blinked confusedly at me and went blank. The horror.

I dearly love my Surface. But I am a certified geezer and technologically inept. I did know I simply needed to shut it totally off & restart it. With my old laptop I did this by unplugging, and  removing the battery. But my svelte little Surface has nothing so old school as a clunky, removable battery. I called the Microsoft number with fear and trepidation, figuring I’d be writing off the morning.Surface

Within two minutes I reached an utterly charming young man. “Hold the Start button down,” he advised. “Keep holding it. Now we’ll just talk for a little while. You think 30 seconds isn’t very long, and it’s hard to figure out just how long it is.” Whereupon we had a pleasant exchange of several sentences about the fog in San Francisco. “OK,” he said then, “We’ve actually been talking for just over a minute. If you need to do this another time, just keep an eye on your watch. If you hold the button down for 30 seconds it will shut completely down.” This is valuable information.

And lo, when I pushed the Start button again, all was well, It just wanted to unplug.

Don’t we all.

Art & the Protection of Democracy

Ward show w Fran

Schumaker with the writer

Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher, two San Francisco-based, nationally recognized artists whom this writer is proud to call friends, have been fighting depression – to put it mildly – since last November. It is of course political – everything’s political these days – but for Schumaker and Flesher (who are in fact married to each other,) it’s about much more than politics. It’s about  human rights, the future of the planet their 9-year-old grandson will inherit, and protection of our democracy.

I met Schumaker shortly before the closing of his latest show at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery, for a brief talk about art and activism. (Sorry if you missed the show. You can still see his work at Fischer’s Potrero Street Gallery.) Does creating art help them deal with depression, I wondered?

Ward show 1“No. It’s just hard. But it’s what we do: get up in the morning, every day, and go to work at 8 AM.” Some extraordinary examples of Schumaker’s work were assembled for the latest show – creating them took about a year and a half, not all of which time was clouded in depression. My personal favorite is a piece titled “The cloud of unknowing.” Schumaker conceived the piece as a meditation, referencing the ancient (late 14th century) work of mysticism which suggests that contemplative prayer might lead to an understanding of the nature of God.

To mitigate their depression, however, Schumaker and Flesher are doing a little more than painting. They have created an assortment of postcards, some with messages on the front and some just featuring their original artwork. After printing out a stack of cards, they also printed out the names and addresses of every member of Congress, both Senate and House. (You can do the same, by following the links.) They keep these, along with a supply of 34-cent stamps, on their breakfast table, where every morning they enjoy coffee and The New York Times. When they find someone in Congress has done something positive, they send a thank-you postcard. Others get a card expressing disapproval.

Ward show 2Postcards take a little more time than a phone call or email, but are a powerful way to make one’s voice heard. Especially if one is worried about human rights, the future of the planet one’s grandchildren will inherit, and the protection of our democracy.

Plus: this is how democracy is protected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facts, Truth & Being Nice to One Another

Truth sign“Critical thinking,” says author Tom Nichols, “is that thing that says ‘Start asking questions. Don’t be afraid of where they go.’ It is okay to change your mind.”

Nichols, who has changed his mind more than once but has never not been a critical thinker, was in San Francisco recently promoting his latest book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. He is more than a little concerned that the acceptance of untruths and outright lies, and the increasing willingness to ignore experts on all subjects, is going to get our democracy into deep trouble.

“There’s been a change,” he says, “from ‘I doubt you; explain.’ to ‘I know more than you do.’”

Tom Nichols & Melissa Caen 5.24.17

Tom Nichols & interviewer Melissa Caen

Nichols is unquestionably an expert himself – a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, at the Harvard Extension School, a Sovietologist, and a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion (among a long list of other credentials on his Wikipedia page) – and sees many reasons for the death of expertise. A virtual epidemic of narcissism, for one; technology in many of its uses and abuses for another. But the danger of the “collapse of expertise,” he says, is that it can easily lead to mob rule. And poof, there goes democracy. Nichols is concerned, as he writes in The Death of Expertise, that “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue.”

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was also in town recently, talking a good bit about facts and truth herself. Unsurprisingly, Pelosi feels there is not much respect for either in the present administration. She opened her remarks with a report on President Trump’s first meeting with congressional leaders. “The first thing the president said was, ‘Do you know I won the popular vote?’ Now first, that wasn’t relevant to what we were there for. And it wasn’t true.”

Nancy Pelosi & Scott Shafer 5.30.17

Pelosi with interviewer Scott Shafer of KQED

Pelosi repeatedly said she felt things could get done, including on many issues that would require  cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. “But we have to start with facts. Data. Truth.”

Nichols says the best way to get the facts – “the real story” – is to read multiple sources. (“I read the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.”) And to those who would say, “I don’t have time,” Nichols has one answer: “Yes. You. Do.”

If the issues and the problems are complex, Nichols suggests that part of the answer is sublimely  simple: “We have to be nicer,” he says. “We have to believe we want the best for each other.”

That has, in a not-so-distant past still fondly recalled by more than a few Americans, been true.

 

 

 

A Soft Spot for a Pillow

tired guy

Rejuvenation. Couldn’t we all use a little rejuvenation? It is not a subject on which I have spent a great deal of time; but recent events prompt this report.

Walking home from downtown one recent, hot San Francisco afternoon this writer happened to pass a Sutter Street storefront window featuring a sign: Rejuvenation Pillow. Who could resist?  The sidewalk was steamy, a homeless gentleman was asleep in an adjacent shady doorway, guarded by a small shaggy dog; and the usual cacophony of impatient taxis, Muni buses and wailing ambulances prevailed. I stepped inside, and into – Peace. I mean, a huge, cool, quiet room full of beds tastefully made up with coverlet corners tastefully turned back. I spotted a water jug on a shelf near the desk in back. Cool water! There was no one in the sales room at the time other than one serene young woman at the desk.

“Ummm,” I said into the tranquil air, “I’m wondering about the Rejuvenation Pillow.”

(Pillows are a widespread concern these days. The MyPillow people would have you believe their pillow is the answer to  prayer, which may or may not be the case, I haven’t tried it. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Nick Hoppe recently devoted an entire column to his pillow struggles – but then, who am I to snipe at pillow columns?)

“Certainly,” said a serene voice. “I’ll be happy to show you one.” Whereupon she produced a pillow and invited me to rest my head upon it. Bliss. Admittedly it was a hot day and I’d been walking a lot of uphill blocks and the place was cool and quiet; still, the pillow had to speak rejuvenation for itself. What follows is an unsolicited, unpaid paean to my new pillow.

Bear on pillow

Bear rejuvenating on pillow

The Rejuvenation Pillow is a product of New Mexico-based Sachi Organics, which gets ingredients from South Dakota, North Carolina and Texas to create the all-organic pillows shipped to California – good ol’ Made in USA. What enables it to rejuvenate is a filling of all-organic buckwheat hulls or millet hulls, encased in all-premium eco wool and covered in organic cotton sateen. What’s not to love about all this ecological refinement?

I chose the millet, partly because the serene saleslady said the buckwheat made a slightly rustling sound. The millet hulls are supremely silent. What they quietly do, within their eco wool-encased dual chamber design, is squish themselves around in the manner of your choosing, as if some drifting cloud paused to cushion your weary head. If you choose to shift or move a little, your agreeable pillow squishily moves as appropriate. After a few weeks of this, I am unabashedly in love with my pillow. Rejuvenated, you might say.

While there are possibly more important issues confronting mankind these days, most of them seem surrounded by bad news. Rejuvenation pillows? Nothing but good news. You’re welcome.

“Life’s Work” : A book of life for today

Dr. Willie Parker wants the moral high ground back.Willie in scrubs.full

That ground was seized 40 years ago, to his regret, by those who would deny women control of their reproductive destinies – “when ‘the antis’ adopted words and phrases like ‘pro-life’ and ‘culture of life.’” But Parker, a deeply committed Christian physician who has provided compassionate care – including abortions – to countless women, is out to retake the moral high ground of reproductive justice. With kindness, scientific truth, and scripture. Parker’s book Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice tells his personal story alongside the stories of real women needing to choose abortions and the men and women fighting to preserve their right to do so.

In a recent appearance before a group of residents and other medical/academics at the University of California San Francisco, Parker spoke of his life and work.Life's Work Both encountered a turning point, he explains, on hearing Martin Luther King’s famous last speech which included the biblical story of the good Samaritan. In that story: after others had passed by a man in need a Samaritan stops to help. Those who passed by, Dr. King said, worried, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Parker writes in Life’s Work that “What made the Good Samaritan good, in Dr. King’s interpretation, was that he reversed the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” Immediately after hearing that, Parker writes, “Once I understood that the faithful approach to a woman in need is to help her and not to judge her or to impose upon her any restriction, penalty or shame, I had to change my life.”

Parker’s life-change led him from a good job as an ob/gyn in an idyllic Hawaiian locale to becoming an expert in abortion care – both the medical procedures and the many and complex needs of women he sees when providing care. His passion now is to keep that quality of care available, especially to poor and underserved women in parts of the U.S. where access is made more and more difficult by restrictive state laws. Which led him to talk of the politics of abortion.

Fran & Willie Parker 6.14.16

Dr. Parker with a fan

“President Trump has an agenda that marginalizes women,” he told his UCSF audience. “But he does not have a mandate. We have to do a deeper dive into engaging politically, and not legitimize what’s happening. It’s most important not to become disheartened – which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Parker, who grew up poor in Alabama, the descendant of slaves, says he “draws from the history of enslaved people” – in understanding the women he sees and their need to make their own, personal reproductive choices.

Some 60 years ago this writer, faced with a pregnancy resulting from workplace rape, was forced to seek out a back alley abortion. There was no Willie Parker to defend my choice, or to explain why it was morally and spiritually right. No one should be able to claim some moral superiority that supports sending women back to those dark ages, which is the direction we are headed. Now, though, there is a voice to be reckoned with. To quote Gloria Steinem re Life’s Work: I wish everyone in America would read this book.