Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Two Cultures Redux

C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures reflected upon the great divide between science and the humanities, and criticized educational systems for rewarding the study of the humanities at the expense of science.  This was the late 1950's and in the Sputnik era it widely resonated.  Fast forward to today.  Could Snow have imagined cars that drive themselves, and tiny, powerful computers that also serve as phones, cameras, GPS systems, radar enhanced weather reports, and Facebook, Twitter and email on the go?

More significant than this amazing hardware and software, is we've become a culture of scientism and algorithms, sliding down the slippery slope of relinquishing our actions and moral judgments.   Two recent articles address these issues, well worth reading, and pondering. The first by Leon Wieseltier, "Perhaps Culture is Now the Counterculture" A Defense of the Humanities, is actually the commencement address to Brandeis University graduates.  Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic and he addressed the graduates as "fellow humanists." He makes so many interesting points; here are just some of the salient ones:

      The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep

     And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists,  in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control. 

    Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic

Steven Poole's Slaves to the Algorithm in Aeon Magazine addresses the question of whether there is still a place for human judgment as computers make choices on our behalf.  He paints a dystopian picture of where things are going, culture itself being impacted as "we erect algorithms as our ultimate judges and arbiters."

     What lies behind our current rush to automate everything we can imagine? Perhaps it is an idea that has leaked out into the general culture from cognitive science and psychology over the past half-century — that our brains are imperfect computers. If so, surely replacing them with actual computers can have nothing but benefits. Yet even in fields where the algorithm’s job is a relatively pure exercise in number- crunching, things can go alarmingly wrong.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Other Side of Memorial Day

Previous Memorial Day entries have been about what the "holiday" really means to me, and it still does --  what our service men and women sacrificed to make this country great (in spite of our problems).  It makes me think of my father who fought in WW II, and friends, Ray, Ron, Bruce, who served in Vietnam.  I've always abhorred the other side of the day, the commercial part of it, but it does signal the "start" of the summer season and I suppose one has to accept that along with the true meaning.  So contrary to my other entries, this is mostly a photo album of a trip we took yesterday around Peanut Island, which has become a party island during the Memorial Day weekend. 

There seem to be two groups of boaters there, young families and then large groups of young people who are there to "seriously" party.  Ironically, Palm Beach County has an new ordinance that makes drinking on the island itself a misdemeanor, so that is the safe place where the families can congregate.  But it is legal to drink "off the island" so hundreds and hundreds of boats are anchored, beached, rafted around the island -- mostly party hardy types -- downing booze like there is no tomorrow.  No Memorial Day thoughts there and amazing, these same people get in their boats and go back to wherever they came from that same day.  So it's not OK to drink on the island, but OK to pilot your boat home drunk (there are marine police about, but how many boats can they check on their way out?).

The partiers look at us, two old folk in a boat, as a relic species, a societal vestigial organ, and perhaps we are, although when we were that age, we might have thought the aged eccentric, but always treated them with respect.  Perhaps that is a word (respect) that has become extinct in our society in many ways. 

Is it any wonder that a study by the Yale School of Public Health of entries in Facebook by individuals in the 20-29 age range found:

     74 percent berated older individuals
     41 percent mentioned physical debilitation
     27 percent treated the elderly as children, and
     37 percent advocated banning them from public activities such as driving and shopping.

One group even advocated facing a firing squad when one turns 69. Guess my time is up!

So, with that in mind, we planned a trip to reconnoiter the scene, choosing to leave our home during the noon hour, knowing that we would be returning well before the worst of the mayhem. (In fact, this year some fights broke out while "under the influence.")

Even though we left early, the boat traffic was already heavy and some Florida boaters don't seem to be aware that even in "speed zones" such as Lake Worth, they are responsible their own wake.  Entering the Lake, immediately south of the PGA bridge I try to time my run so I am either well behind or well ahead of the big sportfishes and yachts that run the Lake as if they own the water and everyone else be damned. This still puts us at the mercy of these large vessels approaching us, the greatest danger being when we are between two markers and can't run outside of them.  I'm amazed that these boats don't slow down to give a smaller boat a safer passageway, but most don't.  I had a 41' Hatteras approach us at full bore which left six foot wakes, tightly spaced and with curlers on top, ones I had to take on my port quarter.  Although we took these off of plane, there were a few anxious moments.  We knew the Lake would be rough and I knew our boat could take it, but the boat seems to take it better than our backs.  Unfortunately, between piloting our boat and hanging on, it is impossible to get photos of these inconsiderate, dangerous boats or their wakes. 

But, thankfully, it is slow speed all around Peanut Island and although we had boats on both sides, and ones approaching from all angles, it is fairly easy to navigate, although, again, many Florida boaters seem to lack knowledge of the rules of the road and what it means for the burdened vessel to give way or for the privileged vessel to maintain course and speed.

So here are a few photos of our trip.  First, leaving the placid waters just south of the PGA bridge..

Entering Lake Worth, traffic coming at us, going south...

After passing under the Blue Heron bridge, one beholds Peanut Island on the North Side....

Looking east, rafting on the northern sandbar of Peanut....

This is what the rafting looked like on the Northwest side of Peanut...

Heading south along Peanut's west side....

Tent colony on Peanut's west side (overnight tenting is permitted in designated areas and they are immune from the law that does not permit drinking on the island...go figure)

On the south side of the island, the old Coast Guard station and the West Palm ferry...

Larger boats on the northeast side of Peanut....

Passing Sailfish Marina which is to the east of Peanut -- home to some large sportfishes...

And the rafting goes on and on -- here on the northeastern sand bar right near the narrow channel...

There are some derelict boats near the Island, but this one is someone's home...

Finally, home, and our safely boat in its lift, a paddler surfboarder goes by with a doggie on the bow (wow!)...

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dancing at Lughnasa -- and at Dramaworks

It has been an extraordinary season at Dramaworks and as the personable Resident Director of the company, J. Barry Lewis, said at the "Knowledge and Nibbles" session before last night's preview performance of Brian Friel's best known play (he's written 36!) Dancing at Lughnasa, they wanted to end the season with an explanation point.  The season began with Talley's Folly, a sensitive, delicate two person play about injured lives and it concludes with this eight person production, with much of the focus on five unmarried sisters, but still about injured lives, an ensemble production narrated by Michael, the adult child of two of the play's characters, Chris and Gerry (although we never see Michael as a child on the stage).  As a "memory play" we spend time in the past to understand the present. And as an ensemble, there is no real central character, but that of the family unit and how these people come together and relate to each other in their own special ways.

The overriding themes are dreams foregone, and the old world coming into conflict with new world values, such as the Catholic church losing its grip in the face of rising secular activities, like music and dancing.  The production is a veritable time machine trip, all layers of the play bringing you to the village of Ballybeg, Country Donegal, Ireland in 1936.

The play also carries forth a recurring theme in Irish theater, suffering, tragic women, and men who are free to drift in and out of their lives. I think of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane (performed by Dramaworks last season) and some of the works of Sean O'Casey which explored similar themes.  

Gerry, Michael's father, visits once a year, with dreams of being a great gramophone salesman, or an adventurer in the Spanish Civil war.  The Uncle, Father Jack, has returned from Uganda where he was a missionary but has returned ill, and has been transformed into a pagan worshiper, very much in conflict with the values of his sister, Kate, who, of the five sisters, still staunchly upholds Catholic traditions. The women are the ones who keep the family going, do the work and have to carry on in the face of adversity, the changing times of the industrial revolution that threaten their meager income (Kate is a school teacher whose income is supplemented by two of her sister's -- Rose and Agnes -- work as piecemeal knitters).

Theirs are dreams constantly deferred but Friel introduces the interesting conceit of an unpredictable wireless radio, one that will occasionally work, and it is then the women can burst into dance, from which the play derives its title after an Irish pagan dance festival.  They dance fast and furiously and passionately, with one another and singularly, a sudden, powerful geyser of normally suppressed sexuality and freedom, with animal like cries of joy, but as strangely as this music comes into their lives it fades away and it is back to their mundane lives. The "magic" of the radio -- clearly remembered by Michael with the nickname of Marconi -- opened the outside world to this family for the first time.

Friel uses the stage as a canvas to paint an abstract of family dynamics of the times, ones that mirrored his own life and clearly this is why the  play works.  Michael is the playwright's voice: "atmosphere is more real than incident."   And in order for it to work, the setting must also be perfect and the scenic design by Jeff Modereger has created a startlingly stark depiction of the family's threadbare home and its outside yard, using the full expanse of the stage and compensating for the stage's lack of depth.  It is a stage the actors can move freely about without opening and closing doors.

The challenge to the actors who play the  sisters is to capture the specific individuality of the  different sister relationships. As an ensemble production, the audience needs to get to know each character on his/her own merits, and follow that person's own solitary story.

Kate is the default mother of the family, a schoolteacher and as such the main provider. She is also the upholder of tradition and the values of the Catholic Church (although she, too succumbs to some dancing, but not with wild abandonment). Julie Rowe, who is new to Dramaworks, but not South Florida, plays the role with stoic determination.

She, as are all of the sisters, is protective of Rose, played by Erin Joy Schmidt.  Rose is a little slow witted, innocent, and is the first to get caught up in the excitement and dreams of attending the upcoming harvest dance (which they don't).  Ms. Schmidt  -- who co starred in Talley's Folly at the beginning of the season, carries the role with a kind of gullibility and she, of all the sisters, is most transparent to the damage they all feel.

A veteran Dramaworks actor, Margery Lowe, plays Agnes, who takes a special interest in protecting Rose.  The two of them knit to supplement Kate's income and they are the ones who become most vulnerable when a factory opens nearby.  This is a difficult role, well acted by Ms. Lowe, as Agnes in many ways is the most repressed of the sisters, secretly in love with Chris' Gerry, but never able to reveal anything.

Chris is played by Gretchen Porro, a Dramaworks newcomer who, when with Gerry, becomes almost manic, a schoolgirl in love, and without him, depressive, a "bad woman" as she has an illegitimate child  (but, nonetheless, a love child as the pagan convert Father Jack refers to him).  It is another difficult role to play (there are really no easy ones) and we hope to see Ms. Porro in another production.

Meghan Moroney plays Maggie, the homemaker and in many ways comes closest to a central figure as a fun loving family go between, played with indomitable optimism and energy by Ms. Moroney.  But her good nature is belied by regret too, occasionally singing with a beautiful voice or humming the then popular song, Isle of Capri. She is a powerful figure on stage and as Irish as a shamrock!

And Michael's father, Gerry (played by Dramaworks veteran Cliff Burgess), who occasionally visits to see his son, re-romance his would-be-wife, Chris, with a wink at Chris' sister, Agnes, is not immune to the power of the music, cutting a Fred Astaire with both Chris and Agnes at times to the refrains of Dancing in the Dark. Burgess walks a line in this role, always erring on the side of likeability. You never feel he is a heel in spite of his dreams of adventure, and his kaleidoscopic, self-servicing visits. He embodies the freedom the women pursue, living in the moment. 

Our matriarchal Kate worries when her brother, Father Jack, played by Dramaworks veteran John Leonard Thompson, returns from his missionary work in Uganda, as he not only comes back sickly, with memory loss from malaria, but as an admirer of pagan practices of the African people, threatening the Mundy family's reputation -- and putting her Catholic values in direct conflict.  Thompson glides around the stage like a gray ghost, dazed most of the time, but slowly getting it together, near the end trading his symbolic British colonial hat for Gerry's straw hat, before, Gerry, himself, sets out to find adventure in the Spanish-American war.

The play opens and closes with two powerful, wonderfully written monologues delivered by the adult son, Michael, who is sifting through his memory to describe his childhood recollections.  If I dared, I'd repeat those here as they are just so beautiful, delivered with the devotion of a loving son of this decimated family, by Declan Mooney, another Dramaworks veteran.  But to reprint those (they can be found on the Web) is to reveal just too much of the outcomes of these damaged characters.

In fact, there is a pervading sadness emitted by the play.  We too briefly get caught up in the spontaneous dancing as a relief from the ennui of despair.  And the play seems long, although Dramaworks' pacing felt right; nonetheless there is just so, so much material to cover.  J Barry Lewis' direction was flawless, but, a two hour and thirty plus minute play (with a 15 minute intermission) is a challenge to keep the audience engaged when the plot is partially made up of vignettes of despondency.

A few words about the sound (Steve Shapiro), lighting (Ron Burns), and costumes (Brian O'Keefe) -- all flawlessly in synch with the period and the mood of the play. Again, "atmosphere is more real than incident." It is here that the behind the scene technicians shine. (We were lucky enough to sit with Brian at the luncheon before last night's performance and learned that he sewed all the costumes in his studio on a plain old Singer! He explained that the challenge in making the attire was not only to capture the period, but the personality traits of each sister.)  Kudos as well to Lynette Barkley, the choreographer, and Gillian Lane-Plescia who was the dialect coach and helped to make the production authentic on the one hand and intelligible to an American audience as well (Ann saw the original cast from Ireland in their Broadway debut when the play came to New York and was hardly able to understand what they were saying most of the play!)

All in all, a satisfying conclusion to Dramaworks' 2012-13 season.

I can still hear Maggie singing....

`twas on the isle of capri that I found her
Beneath the shade of an old walnut tree
Oh, I can still see the flow’rs bloomin’ round her
Where we met on the isle of capri

She was as sweet as a rose at the dawning
But somehow fate hadn’t meant her for me
And though I sailed with the tide in the morning
Still my heart’s on the isle of capri

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Disaster Planning and the Oklahoma Tornado

Disaster Planning is something we seem to do very poorly.  It took a wake-up call such as Hurricane Andrew to upgrade building codes in Florida, an attempt to build better wind resistant structures to ameliorate loss of property and protect lives in the future.  Florida still has a long way to go, particularly with insurance issues.

But an improved building code would have done little to minimize structural damage in an F4 or F5 tornado that stays on the ground for a long time such as the horror of yesterday's Oklahoma tragedy.  On the other hand, requiring that new homes be built with a below ground storm shelter, and new schools have storm proof basements, with adequate ventilation and supplies in the event of a structural collapse, is something that could be done.  Retrofitting homes with even a minimal below ground shelter would not be that costly.  Give homeowners offsetting tax credits.  It would save lives.  The odds for surviving a direct hit from such a monster tornado are high in any below the ground shelter as most deaths are from structural collapse and flying debris.  

In the meantime, nothing can be done other than to try to help the victims. There are a number of charities, but the Red Cross has their team there now and one of the best ways to help victims is to give to their disaster relief fund. It is our charity of choice in spite of the occasional false Internet rumor that the Red Cross keeps too much of its charitable donations for its own operating expenses.  It is a large organization and as such perhaps it is a little less efficient than smaller disaster relief charities, but they are in the vanguard of the first responders in Oklahoma.

Red Cross Statement on Oklahoma Tornado
Posted May 20,2013

The American Red Cross issued the following statement following the tornado in Oklahoma this afternoon:

WASHINGTON, Monday, May 20, 2013 – Our thoughts and concerns go to everyone in Oklahoma following this horrific tornado.

The American Red Cross has one shelter open in Moore and is working on locating others; we continue to operate three shelters that were opened Sunday in the Oklahoma City area following the storms on Sunday. .

Red Cross volunteers are out tonight with food and supplies supporting first responders.

More than 25 emergency response vehicles are positioned to move at first light Tuesday, and we expect that the number will increase. The Red Cross is also sending in kitchen support trailers to support the upcoming operation to provide meals to those forced out of their homes.

People in Oklahoma near the tornado area are encouraged to connect with one another and let loved ones know that they are safe. This can be done through the I’m Safe feature of the free Red Cross tornado app. In addition, if you have access to a computer, go to to list yourself as safe. If not, you can text loved ones or call a family member and ask them to register you on the site.

This has been a major disaster, and the Red Cross will be there for the people in this state and this community. People who wish to make a donation can support American Red Cross Disaster Relief, which helps provide food, shelter and emotional support to those affected by disasters like the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma and Texas as well as disasters big and small throughout the United States by visiting, dialing 1-800-REDCROSS or texting REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.