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Practically Idealistic blog
The title for this blog originated with use of the term “practical idealist” in this 1996 opinion piece, which asked: “To what kind of work should a practical idealist aspire?” A century and a half earlier, Emerson, in his 1841 essay Circles, wrote: “There are degrees in idealism.  We learn first to play with it academically. . . .  Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments.  Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true.  It now shows itself ethical and practical.”  Mahatma Gandhi embraced practical idealism in the 20th century, as did UN Secretary General U Thant.  Al Gore invoked it in a 1998 speech. In the context of this blog, the term is meant to convey idealism tempered but not overwhelmed by realism: a search for the ideal on a path guided by common sense.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Literacy Forum: Why Is Math Important?

The New Haven Independent published my account of a recent event on “quantitative literacy” or “numeracy,” exploring “Why Is Math Important?” as part of a Literacy Forum series.

7:49 am edt 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Science Fair(s)

Next week is the New Haven Citywide Science Fair, which in past years has been featured on news reports. 

A February 2011 (February 12) post discussed science fairs and science education.

7:46 am edt 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Appreciating Teachers, Every Day

This is “Teacher Appreciation Week.”

As noted previously – e.g., in a May 2013 (May 5) post – we should recognize the work of teachers every day.  Still, this is a particular occasion to do so.

10:11 pm edt 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

“The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” by Jeff Hobbs

I recently read The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs, who was his roommate at Yale from 1998-2002.

This is a sad, powerful story that shouldn’t be revealed here.  The author is a perceptive writer who balances compassion for his friend with journalistic inquiry and a novelist’s narration. 

One detail that I learned about Newark, New Jersey: According to Jeff Hobbs, it has “the smallest proportion of open space per person of any city in the country.”

7:32 pm edt 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Expanding the Pool of Blood Donors

A December 2014 Times article by Sabrina Tavernise reported the FDA’s easing of what (since 1983) had been a lifetime ban on blood donors who are gay or bisexual men.  However, many restrictions remain, including prohibition of donors who have traveled to malaria zones within the past 12 months.

That malaria provision kept me from donating for the past year, after a trip to India, until yesterday. 

Still, there are many opportunities for most people to give blood.

8:18 am edt 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Grand Canyon, National Parks

National Park Week begins today and continues through April 26.

Coincidentally, my family just returned from our first trip to the Grand Canyon (its south rim, in our case).

This natural wonder is stunning, as expected.  It is also under threat

Last summer, Kevin Fedarko described this threat, prompting letters to the New York Times.

In recent days, we visited the Grand Canyon and then also Glen Canyon, the latter from below via a raft on the Colorado River.

Being at the Grand Canyon, after having read about the threats to it, inspired me to donate to the National Park Foundation.

Our parks and wilderness areas should be widely enjoyed and preserved by the people who together own these lands for future generations.  The National Park Service's website has a page in tribute to Theodore Roosevelt, who understood this.

8:06 am edt 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Academic, Athletic, and Financial Priorities

As the UConn women’s basketball team prepared to win its third straight NCAA title, I published an opinion piece on balancing sports, academics, and financial considerations. 

The essay appears in slightly different versions at Connecticut Viewpoints and on Medium.

8:27 pm edt 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Benefits of Medical Marijuana

An April 2009 (April 2) post addressed “Decriminalizing Marijuana, and Its Medicinal Use”—and invoked a friend of mine who suffers severe digestive pain while enduring the effects of a spinal-cord injury. 

March 2013 post mentioned that same friend, a U.S. Army veteran in a quadriplegic condition.

When we visited yesterday, he was appreciating the benefits of a Connecticut license for medical marijuana that he recently received.  From marijuana cookies (a rare treat at an exorbitant $9 per cookie) to a vaporizer, he is finding some relief from this drug.

Currently Connecticut is considering lowering the age restriction of 18 to allow patients with Dravet’s syndrome, a type of childhood epilepsy, to use marijuana to counter seizures.

3:25 pm edt 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Researching Diabetes and Its Early Detection

The Journal of Clinical Investigation recently published an article to which my wife contributed as second author.  The research, led by Kevan Herold, explores beta cell “death and dysfunction during type 1 diabetes development in at-risk individuals.”

10:31 am edt 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Genes and “The Invisible History of the Human Race”

Geneticists and an archaeologist have collaborated on a new study, published in Nature and described in the New York Times, of the genetic origins of the modern British population.

Among the study’s authors are Peter Donnelly and Walter Bodmer of Oxford University, who also figure prominently in a book I’ve been reading: Christine Kenneally’s The Invisible History of the Human Race.

9:17 am edt 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Edward Ball: “Slaves in the Family”

Last week’s New York Times included an opinion piece by Edward Ball on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the liberation of the enslaved men, women, and children on a plantation that his family owned in South Carolina.

Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family among other works (and a New Haven resident), was the subject of a July 2013 post to this blog, after I had read his most recent book, The Inventor and the Tycoon.  Though the latter book understandably doesn’t have the gravity and power of Slaves in the Family, it’s also worth reading.

12:19 pm edt 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Frank Bruni on College Admissions; “The Shape of the River”

Frank Bruni’s column this weekend is adapted from his new book that aims to be “An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.”  It’s a sensible piece that concludes with a thoughtful letter parents wrote to a high-school senior to reassure him of their love and pride, regardless of which colleges might or might not accept him.  Such reason and a sense of proportion are too often lacking.

Still, who does and who doesn’t get prepared for, accepted to, and persist through selective institutions of higher education is an issue worthy of public concern.  As scholars from Sean Reardon, Martha Bailey, and Susan Dynarski to Sarah Turner and Christopher Avery have demonstrated in recent years, there are major consequences for (in)equality of opportunity and socioeconomic mobility.

A still valuable book is The Shape of the River, which former Ivy League presidents Derek Bok and William Bowen wrote to counter The Bell Curve a generation ago.

10:05 pm edt 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

“The Innovators”

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  From Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing and Grace Hopper to the creators of transistors, microchips, software, the Internet, and the Web, the book covers a range of individuals and technological developments in the history of computing.

Isaacson emphasizes the balance between individual brilliance and a collaborative ethos, as well as the integration of the arts and humanities with the sciences and mathematics.  He attends also to the importance of investments by government, private industry, and “open source” participants alike.  He writes:

“…Creativity is a collaborative process.  Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses.  This was true of every era of creative ferment…. But to an even greater extent, this has been true of the digital age…. The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations.  The collaboration was not merely among contemporaries, but also between generations.  The best innovators were those who understood the trajectory of technological change and took the baton from innovators who preceded them…. The most productive teams were those that brought together people with a wide array of specialties…. Throughout history the best leadership has come from teams that combined people with complementary styles…. Another key to fielding a great team is pairing visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them…. The Internet facilitated collaboration not only within teams but also among crowds of people who didn’t know each other.  This is the advance that is closest to being revolutionary.”  (p. 479-82)

Having invoked figures from Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci to Vannevar Bush, Walter Isaacson concludes:

“Human creativity involves values, intentions, aesthetic judgments, emotions, personal consciousness, and a moral sense.  These are what the arts and humanities teach us – and why those realms are as valuable a part of education as science, technology, engineering, and math.  If we mortals are to uphold our end of the human-computer symbiosis … we must continue to nurture the wellsprings of our imagination and originality and humanity…. Interplay between technology and the arts will eventually result in completely new forms of expression and formats of media. This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors.  In other words, it will come from the spiritual heirs of Ada Lovelace, creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with the sciences and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both.”  (p. 486-88)

Similar themes characterize the “STEAM” (versus “STEM”) movement, mentioned in a November 2013 op-ed.

8:02 am est 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

“Two Republics, and Global Citizenship”

The Times of India published my recent article, prepared to coincide with President Obama’s visit to New Delhi on the occasion of India’s Republic Day (the anniversary of its constitution’s having taken effect in January 1950).

similar version, including several embedded links, was published via Medium.

9:30 am est 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Invest in Infrastructure, Promote Cleaner Energy: Raise the Federal Gas Tax

NPR this week ran a story about President Barack Obama’s reluctance to raise the federal gas tax, despite his call for increased transportation spending.  Earl Blumenauer, a U.S. Representative from Oregon, was quoted among the backers of a modest increase in the gas tax.  Such a measure has long been favored by mainstream economists, who recognize that the most efficient way to discourage behavior (e.g., driving of polluting vehicles) is to tax it – and redirect the revenues in more positive directions.

I recently contacted U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut about “the need for the U.S. to strengthen financing of its transportation needs.”  Thanking him for his bipartisan work in this area with Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, I wrote:

“Even if such efforts have so far proved politically unsuccessful, I urge you and others to continue and indeed to become much more ambitious in your pursuit of viable, long-term funding for the nation's transportation needs (and related jobs).  With gas prices relatively low at present, there is no better time to increase the federal gas tax to raise revenue, encourage efficiency, and set our country on a more promising course -- including more, better mass transit as well as better roads and bridges, not to mention the national security benefits. [Those benefits include, for example, greater independence from the whims of oil and natural gas producers – and reduced risks from the instabilities of global climate change.]

My message to Senator Murphy continued:

“Other aspects of the tax code can be made more progressive and simpler to offset the ostensibly regressive aspects of the gas tax.  For example, I would support a phase-in, over 10 years, of an increase of the tax to $1 a gallon.  Related revenues would allow substantial tax relief, as well as investments, in other areas.”

As with the construction of the interstate highway system, the federal government should lead in improving and modernizing our infrastructure now.  States including Connecticut are right also to be attending more to their roads, bridges, and rail lines – and should secure sufficient revenues for these purposes.  Still, the gasoline tax should be more a federal than a state responsibility, both because of the national/global aspects of energy/transportation policy and because state-level gas taxes can create a corrosive competition between neighboring states that may attempt to lure drivers from higher-tax states, thereby depriving them of revenue.

10:15 am est 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Yale Basketball, Update

December 2014 (December 7) post addressed student-athletes, with a focus on the current Yale men’s basketball team, days after it won at UConn.

Since then, one member of the Yale team – senior Armani Cotton – received attention for a camp that he runs with a dual emphasis on basketball and academic success.  Another senior, Matt Townsend, was named a finalist for a national award recognizing “a student-athlete … [with] notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character, and competition.”

The December 7 post concluded:

“2014-15 could be the first year since 1962 that Yale wins the Ivy League title and makes the NCAA tournament, where the team’s experience, poise, and unity would make it competitive.  New Haveners with any interest in basketball should be encouraged to come out and support this group of young men.

Now, weeks later, Yale is in first place and off to its best Ivy League start since 1962.  February 6 and 7, Dartmouth and Harvard visit for what should be two good games.

10:30 pm est 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Teachers Institute Previews 2015 Seminars

The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute has announced its 2015 seminars, offered in response to teachers’ requests for curricular and professional development in both the humanities and the sciences.

9:44 am est 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

“Gunned Down” by the NRA

A recent PBS Frontline episode, “Gunned Down,” examines the disturbing political power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) – which has increasingly accommodated its extreme elements in recent decades.  This documentary would have benefited from more attention to problems of urban gun violence in addition to school shootings and such atrocities as the attack on Gabrielle Giffords et al. in Arizona.  Also, it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t more explicitly treat the extent to which the NRA is supported by gun manufacturers, not only by zealous gun owners (though the Frontline website does address this in a separate segment with filmmaker Michael Kirk). 

Still, the program is useful in exposing the scope of the NRA’s clout in defeating even the most modest of safety measures: expanded background checks for gun purchasers.  “Gunned Down” implies what an effective counter to the NRA will demand: a mass mobilization of voters who favor the right not to get shot, over the supposed “right” for virtually anyone to bear highly lethal weapons with the potential to kill many more innocents – through accidents and intent – than they will protect. 

Sadly, just before the new year, a mother in Idaho was accidentally shot to death at a store by her two-year-old son when he unzipped a purse that contained her (legal) concealed handgun.  A Washington Post account quoted a friend of the deceased, whose comments seemed inadvertently to capture a kind of warped sensibility by which guns are so normalized that they are taken for granted – even when there’s no real need for them, and they create more hazards than they cure.

“In Idaho, we don’t have to worry about a lot of crime and things like that…. To see someone with a gun isn’t bizarre. [The victim] wasn’t carrying a gun because she felt unsafe. She was carrying a gun because she was raised around guns. This was just a horrible accident.”

According to a fact sheet from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research,

“Compared to homes without guns, the presence of guns in the home is associated with a 3-fold increased homicide risk within the home. The risk connected to gun ownership increases to 8-fold when the offender is an intimate partner or relative of the victim and is 20 times higher when previous domestic violence exists.” 


February 2014 (February 8) post to this blog mentioned an article in Pediatrics on “Hospitalizations Due to Firearm Injuries in Children and Adolescents,” as well as an American Psychological Association report, “Gun Violence: Prevention, Prediction, and Policy.”

January 2013 op-ed discussed “guns and security” from the perspective of a parent (me) whose own grandfather was an avid hunter who owned many guns and gave him (me) a .22 caliber rifle for his (my) 11th birthday.

On the history of the Second Amendment, there is Saul Cornell’s book A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.

1:15 pm est 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mentoring, in January and Year-Round

January is mentoring month, as President Obama has proclaimed.

9:09 am est 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

“The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century”

I’ve been reading Peter Dreier’s The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.  This 2012 book has enhanced my appreciation of figures from Robert La Follette Sr., Florence Kelley, and Fiorello La Guardia to Ella Baker, Walter Reuther, and David Brower – who may been the most important environmentalist since John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt.

Few of the selections would be controversial in progressive circles, though I disagree with the inclusion of Bob Dylan in particular (despite his artistry).  If one were to add an entertainment luminary to the likes of Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, a strong candidate would be Paul Newman.  An actor-activist who made Richard Nixon’s enemies list, Paul Newman also lent his name to Newman’s Own, the company that has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for charitable causes.

7:31 am est 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

“The Opportunity Equation”

Recently I read a new book by Eric Schwarz, a founder and longtime leader of Citizen Schools, called The Opportunity Equation.  (The Carnegie Corporation of New York and Institute for Advanced Study collaborated on a commission that produced a 2009 report, on STEM education, with a similar title.)  His subtitle: “How Citizen Teachers Are Combating the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.”

Eric Schwarz, whom I met in summer 2000 and recently saw briefly when he gave a book talk in New Haven, concentrates on the role of volunteer “citizen teachers” that Citizen Schools has deployed for two decades.  His book is an unusual combination: part memoir, part institutional history, part how-to manual, part policy brief, and part call to action.  A former journalist, he narrates effectively – with elements of humor as well as data and well-earned experience.  He is respectful of professional teachers while recognizing their need for greater support.

Large-scale increases in volunteer mentoring and tutoring, and in federal support for the AmeriCorps service program, are among his suggestions.

His own privileged background, far from something he takes for granted, fuels his zeal for expanding learning opportunities and learning time in order to counter inequalities.  He argues (page 195):

“…Some of the achievement gap (20 to 30 percent) is caused by inequality between schools in wealthier and poorer backgrounds. This inequality needs to change. But most of the gap comes from unequal access to learning opportunities offered after school or in the summers, at home or in a growing constellation of tutoring centers, skill-building camps, and paid enrichment and internship programs.  Upper-income kids get many thousands of dollars invested in these types of extra learning opportunities, and as a result they hone their basic academic skills; they build new skills such as the ability to innovate and create and work on teams, and they build increasingly important social networks and social skills.  This inequality needs to change too.”

10:39 am est 

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