Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

On my mind 20091118

Posted by boakley59 on November 18, 2009

So many things need saying that there never seems enough time to say them, yet a job once begun is half done. Let me begin today with a moment of silence in memory of a friend. I learned a couple of days ago that a childhood crush who became my first date died of cancer a month ago. We were neighbors and our families were close, but now it seems only funerals help us restore contact. I remember a beautiful smile blossoming from a generous heart. Roads not taken? What might have been? No, the short time together in a bright, happy childhood shines with all the glow it needs. Farewell, pretty girl. You touched my heart.

Just what is it that can touch my heart? Beauty, romance, perhaps, but often underlying it all seems to be some sense of a dream. Those who pursue their dreams, no matter how simple, fascinate us all. Sometimes, they shame us. Such is the impact of William Kamkwamba, a Malawian who has earned recent fame as “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” Over the course of a few months, he dug into library books to learn the principles to design and build a ramshackle windmill from salvaged parts to provide power to his poor home.

Kamkwamba has made the talk-show circuit around the world and I heard him several weeks ago on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His story is uplifting at its simplest: You can do what you set your mind to even in difficult circumstances, and even in such conditions there are simple steps forward. But I heard more as he told Stewart of his first visit to Russia, where he was taken to talk of his achievement. He was asked there if he knew about Google, and he told Stewart he asked, “What animal is ‘google’?” He said he was then taken to a computer and introduced to the search engine. In a few moments, simply by typing “windmill,” he found information and plans that had taken him months to collect through the print sources, the meager libraries of his homeland. He put his reaction simply to Stewart: “Where was this Google all this time?”

Think about that. A boy with a dream spent months to make something of almost nothing, but he could have collected the information in seconds with access to tools we take for granted. We, with information at our fingertips, use it to argue about whether it’s dangerous to foul our water, earth and air, whether it’s right for the government to spend money to try to save people or just to build machines to kill them, or whether starlet of the day is pregnant by hunk of the day. How little are we, how embarrassing must our failures be, in Kamkwamba’s eyes?

It touches my heart to think that one charitable person with a laptop computer and a satellite link could have put a world of information at Kamkwamba’s fingertips, and he would have done more with it in 15 minutes than perhaps millions of us will do in our lifetimes.

Oh, yes, we have the tools and even the imagination to do more. Arno Penzias, who helped discover the ubiquitous cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang, wrote in his 1989 book Ideas and Information about the direction he thought technology would be taking us. Some of his notions about desktop computing are quaintly simplistic and have been surpassed by unforeseen advances in other areas. He wrote before the explosion of the Internet, cell phones, DVDs, game consoles.

On the other hand, he was expecting an earlier move to electronic record-keeping and the coincidental benefits it would bring in medical practice. How much easier it would be to compile meaningful statistical information on drug effectiveness or the spread of disease once uniform record-keeping made study of data in anonymous aggregate possible! He thought computers would be a great way to relieve stress in emergency room waiting areas, too. He suggested that a properly placed terminal or ticker display (like arrival boards in airports) could show a waiting list indicating next to be served as determined by severity of condition, so that the ailing could be less anxious that they were being ignored.

Of course, we have no such thing. Indeed, it seems we are heading in the opposite direction, with privacy protections and restrictions on release of information sometimes making it difficult for a patient to get his own reports. And a waiting room ticker might start as much trouble as it would prevent, as suffering people wondered why the seemingly untraumatized people sitting around them were being admitted sooner than they, and began badgering staff about it.

No, the days of computer information being collected in useful ways for communal action are still off in the distance. For commercial or marketing purposes, however, we have got it down, though we are wrestling with ethical concerns to varying degrees.

With the large-scale issues facing our society, can we afford to find ourselves asking in a few years, “Where was this information all this time?”

As with our admirable African do-it-yourselfer, the information is there, but communication is the problem. Communication is a two-way enterprise and both receiver and transmitter must be mutually engaged or the enterprise will fail. Mutual engagement is a touchy thing, susceptible to destructive imbalance. A teenager in Malawi must build his windmill to have the power to connect a computer to more easily find the plans to build his windmill. A student willing to learn must find an expert willing to teach. An explorer may have difficulty talking to a couch potato, a mathematician to a mystic, a perfectionist to a slacker.

I was greatly disappointed recently reading a book with the interesting title, Why You Say It: The Fascinating Stories Behind Over 600 Everyday Words and Phrases, released in 1992 by Webb Garrison. This book about words was poorly edited, getting an annoying number of the words wrong, even in the late reprint I was reading. “Costumes” appeared where “customs” would have given the emperor finer clothing, and my buttons were often pushed as “of” became “or,” “to” grew into “two” and so on. The disarray goes deeper, however, as this is not a comfortable float down a river of words with interesting formations along the way, but a skip from rock to rock across a rushing stream. A few phrases cleverly turned help you gain purchase, but too often the slippery toeholds drop you into cold muck. I think the book was put together in a rush using years of collected notes after someone casually suggested that would make a good book.

The point is this was a book that I expected to bring me joy as a shared adventure with a fellow lover of words, but that message was lost as we became more and more unequal partners. I know a lot about words and I didn’t learn as many new things as I hoped. The things I already knew made it difficult for me to forgive shortcomings in quality control, the misuse of the tools of the trade. If this is what comes from a person devoted to words and communication, I wondered as I read, what chance do we have of uniting in common purpose?

Then I read Chances Are… Adventures in Probability, from 2006 by Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan. This is a heart-warming run through history, focusing on the more or less cool-headed use of math in the search to understand the human condition. Here, in what you might expect to be a dense or clinical treatise, the communication is easy and any reader is readily carried along on the journey. The math is presented clearly enough for anyone to grasp its significance, its undeniability, and yet the language is full of subtlety and wonder. Every word seems to point the way to new adventures in understanding while affirming what we already know. It tells you how to win at cards even as it explains why you generally can’t beat the house.

From cards to climate, this delightful book lays out the power and limitations of numbers while guiding even the calculophobic toward the clearest understanding we have of complex life. This is an enjoyable lesson in how to think, how to solve problems, how to face reality.

I knew as I read, our capacity for wonder and understanding means chances are we can unite in common purpose.

Well, what strange steps have carried us from my junior prom, to the simple dreams of a young man from Malawi, to the laziness of people with resources beyond his imagining and the clumsiness with which they often communicate their knowledge, returning to the hope that somehow, in our clumsiness, we nevertheless have the gifts that allow us to cling to each other and move gracefully through life.

Shall we dance and share our hearts for a time? I think it will be good for us.


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