Obama Wins On Race

Thanks to the magic of YouTube I just experienced Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union Speech”.  I knew he had delivered it, I knew the reasons why and had read or heard various commentaries– some providing thunderous applause and others citing flaws. But I had not listened to it myself. So after a long day, a bit of dinner and 30 minutes of “Dancing With The Stars”, it was time.

It was fantastic. Not in a Hollywood magic bigger than life personality way. He is capable of that. His more matter-of-fact delivery belied the manner in which he addressed very complex issues with richness of thought rarely heard these days. 

First he set the context for his thoughts by describing the challenges that the founders of this country had in setting the course for our country. The words on the pages were right, such as equal citizenship under the law, but to achieve consensus they excluded an entire portion of the people who already were a part of the nation.

He then addressed his relationship with his pastor, a man who has been public with hateful thoughts. It would have been easy, even expected for Obama to admonish the man as well as the words and distance himself in order to support his campaign. Instead he denounced the rhetoric but painted a picture of a multifaceted man and church community built upon the black experience in America. People of contradictions. There was much good but also some hate. He acknowledged that and rightly pointed this out as a common experience among whites.

He went on to call out the need for continued dialogue on the race issue but called on all Americans to begin to focus on common problems.  The economy, the poor qualityu of our education, healthcare and global warming. These are problems that have no color. He spoke of the hope for our country. That we have improved and can do so more.

That’s what he spoke about but why did I find the speech fantastic? 

He did not dumb down his thoughts to the simplistic themes and easy sound bites so popular these days. He made us listen to the complexity of issues, of personal relationships, and of people. We are complex, multifaceted and often contradictory. I have yet met no person or people that is all wrong or all right, any issue that is merely black or white. (Pun only modestly intended.)

He did not do the safe thing.

He brought dialogue to the situation. Far too often we are entrenched in our views. This entrenchment leads to hate. To a culture of I am right and you are wrong. We need more intelligent discussion. To not be afraid to state our opinions.

This is not just a white American/African-American issue. I can go nowhere without hearing languages and seeing clothes that I did not know from my childhood. I grew up in a very American/western European centric world. Now what I hear are words that sound Asian, eastern European or African. I now pass women in saris, male Muslims in skullcaps or people in turbans. All this without traveling outside the metropolitan area.

We have had over 200 years to address the black vs. white issues. We now need to address the Judeo-Christian vs. Muslim issues and recognize the differences between the radicals and the rest. No stereotypes. No prejudgements. Get to know someone not like you. This is what I read into Barack Obama’s speech.

After almost eight years of a mind numbing President that has had trouble stringing a few coherent thoughts together it was delightful to listen to a mind expanding man who makes us think.

It is worth the 37 minutes.


As reported in the Chicago Tribune:

On Tuesday, Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, weighed in directly, saying: “I think that given all we have heard and seen, he would not have been my pastor.”

This is what I meant by taking the easy way out. Cut and run to placate voters is easy. Addressing complex issues and relationships in an intelligent way is leadership.

A Forward Thinking Government


In the U.S.? You have got to be kidding. Possibly with a new president but I will not be holding my breath. Wealthy, established interest groups trump long-term change every time. Even when the writing is on the wall our leaders have found a way to deny, deny, deny.

Not so in Holland. The impact of climate change matters when it causes water levels to rise and much of your country is below sea level. As recently reported on NPR, Holland is trying a couple of innovations to help cope with the coming reality.

In his report as part of an ongoing series on climate change titled “In a Strategic Reversal, Dutch Embrace Floods” reporter Joe Palca raises a question we should be asking of our leaders.  ” How do you get people to focus on an enormous but slow-moving threat?”  (He was referring to the very gradual phenomena of the rise in sea level.) First, Holland is evolving from its decades old strategy of  building strong barriers to keep the water out. The Dutch government “has decided to lower the dikes in about 40 parcels of land, allowing them to flood when the rivers rise. This will take the pressure off existing dikes farther down river.”

Palca found it interesting to have a government more interested in the effects of climate change than the general public.  How different than a government that toadies to big business and changes policy with every poll.

The second thing happening in Holland is that “architects are designing a new Holland that will float on water, and the Dutch government seems willing to try out the scheme. Innovation being supported by the government? What a concept.

Who knows if any of this will keep Holland from becoming Atlantis in 100 years. I just like the fact that they have recognized a future problem and are investing today in the solutions. As a country we have so much to learn.

Art and Science

Good news/Bad news from NPR’s Morning Addition Monday morning.  The good news.  Two thought provoking ideas ideas were offered, one about not blindly accepting accepted scientific concepts and the other on the artist’s role in science. The bad news. In order to hear these two ideas I had to withstand 7 minutes and 40 seconds of drivel disguised as a creative radio bit.  30 seconds would have been enough. First let’s discuss these ideas and then I will critique the bit.

Robert Krulwich‘s report was titled Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter… and Umami. The background. Several thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Democritus took up the question of how many tastes can a person taste. He postulated four; sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Once he marketed the idea to Aristotle and Plato and signed them as celebrity spokespersons all the Greeks were sold as were scientists for the next several thousand years. It became known became a scientific “fact” that everything we taste is some combination of those four ingredients.

No doubters until Auguste Escoffier said “Il n’est pas tellement”.  It is not so. Was Auguste a renown scientist? Doctor? Non! He was a chef. In fact in the late 1800’s he was thechef in France. He invented veal stock which according to the two knuckle heads on the radio (sorry, I could not completely wait until later to critique) was the most divine taste yet and was not a combination of the 4 accepted tastes. Sacre bleau!

Long story short a Japanese chemist had a similar thought. He discovered that this fifth taste was glutamate, particularly L-glutamate. It took another 100 years for scientists to take apart some taste buds and verify this fifth taste receptor. The taste was called umami in honor of the chemist.

So point number one. It is good to challenge common beliefs now and again. Even science can be wrong. However, in this day of religious nuttiness I prefer challenges with some appropriate support. Not just I said so. Point number two. Non-scientists, especially people with artistic capabilities often “see” reality before the scientists. Hopefully the scientists are listening. ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’ by Jonah Lehrer has more examples of artisans’ contributions to science. This idea of questioning the status quo when you have reason to believe differently is very intriguing to me. As is the concept that we should listen to and debate rather than simply dismiss alternate ideas.

OK I timed this. 1 minute 17 seconds to read this post so far.and I am a slow reader. I just saved you 6 minutes and 23 seconds of your life. Not to mention the quality of the time. It is hard to describe how pitifully Krulwich and Lehrer tried to create a theatre of the mind while dragging out this story. If you have the time to waste you can listen to it hear. When they start doing the cooking sounds as they tell Auguste’s part of the story just remember. I told you so.

Thinking About Thinking


Two articles in the latest issue of The Economist got me thinking about thinking. Mostly I think we do not do enough thinking. I mean complex, creative, two or three steps ahead kind of thinking.

Far too often people do little more with their thoughts than react. If an idea has some logic, any logic, we are willing to stop and accept the concept. However, most of the time, like chess, one thought/move is not the end in itself but it sets off a chain reaction. Deep thinking includes assessments of the potential implications of the first move. It may require the creativity to read between the lines when there is nothing there to guide your thought.

An example. The Economist wrote about the debate regarding whether companies should be social responsible. Simple thought would say YES of course they should. But have you thought through the implications of that statement.

Like too many good ideas, corporate social responsibility has become a “thing” with an acronym (CSR) as opposed to just something that is done. Former labor secretary Robert Reich has recently denounced CSR as a “dangerous diversion”. His point is that by focusing on CSR companies can polish their images by doing things they would have done anyway to increase profits. The CSR movement diverts attention from the need for governments to solve social problems by making changes to regulations that allow for corporate misbehavior in the first place.

I don’t know if Bob Reich is right. For now I don’t care. I am too busy applauding the fact that he raised the level of debate by not assuming the simple logic that having corporations demonstrating some social responsibility must be good—end of story. In other words, he thought.

The second article that got me thinking about thinking was the obituary of Paul MacCready. Not a household name. Mr. MacCready was a genius in the area of human powered flight. He studied birds to help understand lift and energy conservation. Most of his inventions have no commercial use–yet. The description of Mr. MacCready that got to me was:

“Mr MacCready knew that most of his inventions were impractical. In his mind his company, AeroVironment, which he ran for more than 30 years, was dealing mostly in ideas. People were not going to pedal their planes themselves. Nor were they going to want solar-powered cars, even though Mr MacCready’s version, the Sunraycer, won a race of almost 2,000 miles across the Australian desert. The point was to set people thinking about energy efficiency, to inspire the young to take up science, and to experiment for the joy of it.

Thinking. Without it how can we choose postions on the important issues of the day such as what to do in Iraq, how to address global warming, how to combat violence or how to improve the education system. Thoughts can also be small and personal such as how we can be better citizens of the world, better parents, better us.

Think about it.

The Mental Aspect of Winning

Tyson Gay of the U.S. won the 100 meters at the world track and field championships earlier this week. He finished in a blazing 9.85 seconds missing the world record by .08 seconds. It took longer than .08 seconds to read “.08 seconds”. One of the people he beat was Asafa Powell of Jamaica, the current world record holder. Powell was the betting favorite to win the race. He led for the first 80 meters.

Both of these men have the talent and physical tools to win. It was what was inside their heads and hearts that distinguished them in this race, not the strength in their legs. 

It was Gay who proved more adept at fighting off the nerves. “I was nervous but I spoke to my mother and she helped me calm down,” he said. (Presumably before and not during the race.)

“I tightened up. I panicked. I lost it,” Powell said.  “I felt Tyson coming on my shoulder and I panicked. I don’t normally do it but I panicked and Tyson got the better of me. I knew I was in great shape and ready to go but I made a huge mistake in the final.” (I think he panicked.)

There is a minute difference between a world championship and another disappointing finish. The mental aspect makes the difference in all parts of life. Attitude, being able to deal with pressure, and keeping your cool are often what make a person successful.

I find it particularly fascinating when the mind impacts what is often thought of as a purely physical act. Such as running unbelievably fast. Congratulations Tyson!

btw. I love track. I ran track in high school until my parents subtly pointed out that I either needed to be good enough for a track scholarship or I may want to get a job to help pay for college. I consulted the stopwatch and had a job within a week.

A quick post script. This morning Tyson won the 200 meter race in 19.76 seconds, a record time for the world championships. He is only the third person to win the sprint double in the history of the world championships.


Trust Your Instincts

I prefer to analyze things.  Therefore I don’t often trust that little voice inside my head. Too bad. Alot of years of some great experiences have helped shape that little voice.

I was reminded of this recently when I let a significant business opportunity slip away.  I had what I thought was a good meeting with a CEO. My goal was to convince him that I was as good or better than the competitors of mine he was considering. As he walked me out he asked a question that was strange given the context of the meeting. Would I be the team lead if they hired my company? He knew that I was in his office because that was exactly what was contemplated.

Loud warning sirens began to go off in my head. Danger! Danger!  At that moment I should have asked for 5 more minutes since by asking the question it seemed that he may not be comfortable with me. Later I realized that his asking the question meant that I was still in the game. He could have not said anything. The bull should have been taken by the horns. Instead, I mumbled something and left. I did not get the work.

This actually happens to me less frequently in business situations than in the rest of my life because I trust my work instincts more than those honed in other social situations. 

Tusting my instincts. Another area for potential personal growth. Yeah.

Eye of the Beholder

Beauty they say is in the eye of the beholder. Some prefer brunettes over blondes, some prefer abstract paintings over classics, or the poetry of a great basketball team over a golf swing. You get the picture.

The same holds true for blog posts. The topics and/or writing style that pleases the senses of one may be of little interest to another.  As I was discussing the rather modest readership of this blog as compared to that of some of my friends’creations, one of my readers surmised that writing about my bike rides, as personally important as they might be, may not be as interesting as other blogger’s topics. Almost any other blogger.

Once I realized that withholding sex would hurt me as much as this reader, I decided that punishing the messenger is not helpful. So instead, I am looking for more feedback. If all 3 of you that read this regularly blog along with the 25 or so that check in occasionally would share your thoughts about what you like best it would be much appreciated.

I am a person who likes feedback. However, since I follow my own path, I often don’t use the advice I get but I like to hear it anyway. So fire away.

Thinking Changes Your Brain as Well as Your Mind

I just assumed use it or lose it applied to the mind as well as the body. It just made sense. I was unaware and unconcerned with the science behind this. There must be some new neuroscience studies out recently because in a couple of nonscientific periodicals I have read really cool stuff about the link between the brain and the mind.

Apparently the Dalai Lama was far ahead of western docs and scientists. The Men of science believed that the physical aspects of the brain (composition, chemicals, electrical patterns, etc.) make us who we are and that if the brain was affected or damaged in some way that it would affect the mind. The mind however could not change the brain.

The DL suspected that the power of the mind could also change the brain. This was supported by studies of monks who were masters of meditation. Their brains in some ways function differently. The mental training in meditation makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy. They had a stronger connection from the frontal regions of the brain to the emotion regions, which is the pathway by which higher thought can control emotions.

Why do I find this so cool?  I love when no-it-alls learn from people with another perspective. I like the idea that we can exercise the mind for own greater good. I enjoy when West and East come together instead of getting farther apart.

Something to think about.

Personal Freedoms and Choices

To get my 15 year old son to think and read about things other than sports — mostly baseball — I have had him pick out an article from the front section of the newspaper. We then discuss what he reads. Last Sunday’s the article connected to a number of thoughts.

Peering beyond Muslim veil in Britain describes how many Muslim women in the UK are choosing to wear a Niqab, a veil that covers all but the eyes. Is this the medieval manifestation of female subjugation or a religious practice? Tony Blair and other political leaders were denouncing the practice. It seems they are worried about the lack of integration into British society and possible radicalism among the Muslim population. Given the subway bombings of the not too distant past who can argue? And yet the woman interviewed was not interesting in converting all to her belief. It was a strongly held personal choice that connected her more closely to her god. What possibly can be wrong with that? Given piercings, colored hair, torn jeans and provocative dress, personally I think I can adjust to someone wearing a niqab.

Same weekend, Friday night, saw the play Inherit the Wind. Loosely based on the scopes monkey trial at which the right to teach evolution in the schools was at trial. (Who would have guesses that almost 100 years later we continue to have the evolution vs. intelligent design debate?) So, what is the main point of the play. Choice. Freedom. The right of one belief system — strict interpretation of the Bible — to make criminal another belief system. Even one based on rational thought and scientific evidence. Is this truly a question of choice? Can we allow anyone to hold a particular belief, share it with others, as long as it causes no harm to those nonbelievers? Or is their a right and wrong. At the end of the play the Hero, the lawyer playing the Clarence Darrow role, quotes from the bible to a cynical journalist. I interpreted this to mean that he had respect for at least part of the other point of view.

To me these two stories intersected on the issues of personal choice and freedoms. On the day that Democrats retook congress and Rumsfeld resigned, it felt apropos to share these thoughts.