Saturday, May 3, 2014

Meeting Eugene McCarthy in 1968

My nephew Tommy has a school assignment to collect stories from his family about memories that are connected with important events in history. I can think of a few, but the most surprising and best documented was my brief encounter with Eugene McCarthy.

The year 1968 was, to me, the most dramatic and historical year that I can remember. The war in Vietnam had created a rift in America that echoes in many of our most contentious debates today. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the day before my 11th birthday, and Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles as I was getting ready to finish 6th grade.

Eugene McCarthy was the first prominent politician to challenge Lyndon Johnson and call for an American withdrawal from Vietnam, and he was my candidate. I was so moved by McCarthy and the war that I went to McCarthy headquarters in Santa Monica to help stuff envelopes. I can recall passionate arguments in 6th grade about the relative merits of McCarthy and RFK, but we all cried when Kennedy died.

On the heels of these traumatic events, the Democrats headed to Chicago to nominate a candidate for president. Damaged by Vietnam, LBJ had withdrawn his name from consideration and his VP, Hubert Humphrey was the establishment choice. Humphrey was a decent man, but closely associated with Johnson, and was not trusted by the anti-war faction.

The Chicago Convention was held in late August, and was the most chaotic political event of the American 20th century. Protesters descended on Chicago, and Chicago's police were ready with truncheons and tear-gas. Inside the convention hall, mainstream Democrats were aided by the underhanded tactics of Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley, and Humphrey was nominated even though 80% of the delegates were on the anti-war side.

During the convention, I was visiting New York with my Grandmother Pearl. I rode the Circle Line, visited the Empire State Building, and saw the Rockettes and a production of West Side Story. I didn't watch much TV or read the paper but I did know that McCarthy had lost and I was bitterly disappointed.

The weekend of Sept 1 was Labor Day, and my aunt Selma took me via train to Washington DC for a quick visit. We toured the White House and the Smithsonian. On the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 2 we were near the Capitol, and she suggested that we go see if we could say hello to Senator McCarthy. Yes, in those days, you could walk into the Senator's office building and knock on their doors. At the entrance, we asked the security guard where Senator McCarthy's office was, and he told us that he was pretty sure he wasn't in his office, but helpfully pointed out "that's his car over there". So we walked over and left a note on his windshield.

Just after we left the note, Senator McCarthy came walking up the street and we introduced ourselves. I don't remember what I said but I know I was pretty shy and starstruck; I think I managed to tell him that I was a supporter. Then my Aunt Selma asked if we could take a picture. The Senator obliged with what in retrospect looks like a rather sad smile.

The picture above was taken on  an Instamatic camera, and I think the original was in color but I've lost it over the years. My father had a B&W 8x10 copy made, and sent it to Senator McCarthy for me, and as you can see he inscribed it to me. Around my neck is my Argus C3 camera, which belonged to my Uncle Paul and then to my father, which I used to take photos in NYC and Washington on that trip. In the Senator's hand is my note.

Senator McCarthy was a changed man after the events of August 1968 and was never again a significant political force. It's remarkable to me to remember what a different world it was in 1968 when, just 4 days after the convention, I managed to catch him for a moment on a street on Capitol Hill.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Draft - Technology Forecast 2013

Thanks for all the helpful suggestions! Below is the article as submitted.

It’s easy to forget that in just the last five years our use of technology has changed radically. The first iPhone hit the market in 2007, and the iPad less than three years ago. We now take for granted that we can carry a lightweight, flat, always-connected computer in our pocket or purse, ready to turn on instantly, with access to the world’s information at our fingertips. 
Children today take this technology for granted in the same way that my generation assumed that telephones and televisions belonged in every home. We have not yet begun to understand the radical implications of a world in which a young child sees a magazine as a broken iPad. The appeal of portable flat-screen technology has led us to introduce these new tools into our lives without understanding their full power or appreciating the risks that they represent.
The ways in which we socialize, work, learn, and relax have all changed in just five years. Take a look around at your next social gathering and count the times that someone pulls out a smartphone. Or, perhaps more frightening, observe how many freeway drivers’ faces are illuminated by the glow of a phone or tablet. (I recommend you do this from the passenger seat!)
We can expect a lot of incremental improvements in flat-screen mobile devices in the coming year. Samsung has emerged as a credible competitor to Apple, and Google’s Android operating system has many fans. While Microsoft’s newest operating system has received both raves and pans, it’s clear that they have put their engineering and marketing might behind their new Surface tablets. But don’t count out Apple – this could be the year that they merge the technology in iPhones, iPads, and televisions, further modifying the ecosystem for consuming video.
Perhaps the most interesting new trend is the newfound appeal of analog content. I’ve enjoyed watching my teenage children embrace vinyl records. It’s not just about something that sounds different – it’s about making a physical connection with an object that feels valuable and permanent as opposed to the inexpensive and ephemeral digital download.
Paradoxically, the digital revolution has led us to find greater value in the physical and the analog. The obvious parallel is the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This counter-movement values not just the physical object, but also making things yourself –the so-called Maker Movement. Makers don’t necessary reject the digital – rather, they embrace it as a tool that gives more democratic access to the tools of production.
The embodiment of the analog/digital confluence is the 3D printer. 3D printers use a digital model to “print out” an object – a cell phone case, a toy, a sculpture. 3D printers have been around for more than a decade, but reached widespread awareness 2012. Visit “Google Trends” and enter “3D Printer” to see how quickly interest is growing.
Until recently, 3D printers were expensive tools used by industrial design labs and small manufacturing facilities, but several options are now available for the home at the cost of a good camera. For the adventurous, do-it-yourself kits and plans can be found to build a 3D printer for less than $1,000. Firms such as Cubify and Makerbot offer home printers in the $1,000 to $3,000 range.
3D printers may never achieve the wide-spread use of devices like the iPhone, but as digital content becomes ever cheaper and more universal, we will increasingly value activities that are tangible, flawed, and personal. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mr. Farnham

This is the message I left at the memorial site when I learned my High School Biology teacher, Mr. Richards Farnham, had passed away.

Mr. Farnham was a great teacher. For me his greatest lessons weren't about Biology, although I did learn a few things. What I remember most was that he had no patience for pretense or sham. He taught me that ideas, and learning, and animals, and science, and people all matter, but that school doesn't. School is just an annoying set of arbitrary rules made to be subverted. Tests and grades are distractions. What matters is looking, really looking at the world around you, observing carefully, thinking and making connections. I spent a year as an assistant in his classroom, changing smelly paper under mouse cages and carrying jugs of sea water for the turtle, so I could hang around him and learn.

My mother, my uncle, my aunt, my brother, my sister, and I were all students of Mr. Farnham. And all of us carry a little piece of him into the future. Thank you Mr. Farnham.

My sister's memories of Mr. Farnham

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Piece of my Heart

On Thursday afternoon I am scheduled to have a procedure performed on my heart to correct a condition called atrial flutter. Some of my friends have been curious and some concerned so I thought I'd try to explain it as well as I can. The good news is that the procedure is very low risk, and highly likely to permanently repair the atrial flutter.

The Wikipedia description of atrial flutter is quite clear and seems completely consistent with the information I've received from my cardiologist.

In a normal heart, the atrium fills with blood and then an electrical impulse causes it to beat and force the blood into the ventricle. With atrial flutter, extra beats cause the heart to beat too frequently. This means that instead of a good strong "woosh" I get lots of half or quarter wooshes. It's kind of like a toilet that keeps running and never really flushes.

While the consequences of this aren't that dire, it does mean that my heart works harder for less effort. My resting pulse before medication was routinely 130 beats per minute, and I was getting out of breath with even small amounts of exercise because my blood doesn't get as much oxygen as it is supposed to get. In the long run, it's not so good for the heart, so it needs to get taken care of.

In my case, the atrial flutter (call it a-flutter if you want to sound like a medical person) is in the right atrium, the part of the heart that gets the blue, oxygen-depleted blood from the veins and pushes it into the lungs. The good news is that this is the low-pressure side of the heart, so it's easier and safer to work on.

The ablation procedure consists of inserting a catheter into a vein on my right side and sliding it up to the heart. This is done while I lie on top of a table with big magnets that make it possible for the electro-physiology specialist to see a 3D image of my heart as he works. It's scheduled to take about an hour to get the tip of the catheter to the right position on what's called the isthmus and then burn a small ridge that will interrupt the extra electric flow, stopping the atrial flutter and returning my heart permanently to a normal rhythm. This is all done under sedation, not a general anesthetic.

It's customary to say that someone is lucky when they have a health problem that's not too bad or easily fixed. Actually, I would say "lucky" would be not having atrial flutter. But I am grateful that I have a problem that medical science knows how to repair at very low risk.

I'm not looking forward to this but I'm really not too nervous. It will be good to have it over with! I'll try to post something on Friday about how it went.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Looking Through the Telescope at Griffith Observatory

Sunday was a beautiful day in Verdugo City so we ended up riding over to Griffith Park for a walk to take in the view. The Griffith Park Observatory is one of the places that I truly love in Los Angeles, and one of the few that, on the surface at least, looks much as it did when I first visited as a kid, perhaps 50 years ago. But in all the times I've visited, I've never looked through the telescope before.

Griffith Park Observatory was never a scientific observatory - it was built for public education. The unlikely-named Griffith Griffiths gave the land to the city, which I suspect coveted it mostly as valuable watershed. But from the beginning the park was dedicated to public recreation and education, with the Observatory as the most prominent landmark - not counting the "Hollywood" sign, nearby but not quite in the park.

Anyone who thinks that there aren't lots of people hungry and curious to learn about science need only come down to the Observatory. Create a beautiful and interesting place that's free and you can draw a crowd. I've probably been there at least 30 or 40 times, walked the grounds, toured the exhibits old and new and viewed the planetarium show, but I've never been there at the right time, on a clear night, to look through the 1935 12" Zeiss Refracting Telescope. By the time I had my look, 7 million people had beat me to it. This is telescope that more people have looked through than any in the world.

And what do you get after you wait in line for this purely analog scientific experience? You get to see the surface of the moon close up with your own eyes. That's the real sunlight reflected off the surface of the moon, bouncing off the ridges and crater edges, looking remarkably bright and hyperrealistic. You can look at all the photos you want and it will never look the same as the view through the telescope.

It saddens me that so many science museums are so rotten and boring. When I was growing up, the Griffith Observatory and the California Museum of Science and Industry (especially the "Mathematica" exhibit that I only learned later was created by Eames and Eames) changed my life - they motivated me to the ask the questions that framed my career and my interests. So many museums misuse media and digital technology in ways that remove children from science rather than drawing them in. When I was a kid, the most popular exhibit in the Observatory was the Giant Tesla Coil. Guess what everyone flocks to now? The same old Tesla Coil. Simply seeing a giant spark shoot out of the coil doesn't teach you how electricity works - but it makes you wonder! And that wonder is the root of the motivation that makes some of us try to understand the world for the rest of our lives.

Seeing a print of Van Gogh's "Wheatfield with Crows" is enjoyable, but seeing the painting can change the way you see forever. And you can learn a lot about the moon by looking at photographs, but seeing the moon in the sunlight reflected off its surface and passing 230,000 miles to be resolved by a telescope and your retina is a completely different experience. I feel very lucky to have had both experiences in my lifetime.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Who's Left?

When I heard that "The Who" would play halftime at the Super Bowl, I cringed. Jeez, I thought, do people really want to see two old guys from a once great band that had its last hit 30 years ago? Why would they be invited? Why would they do it, except for the money? Do they really need it?

I was tempted to not even watch, but I couldn't help myself... and it was worse than I had hoped. I knew Daltrey couldn't hit those notes anymore, but Townshend seemed to be having problems with his guitar too... and the attempt to cram 6 songs into 12 minutes was pathetic. I mean, they used to take a 2 minute song like My Generation and jam on it for 12 minutes. I would have felt bad for them, but hey, nobody forced them to do it. I reminded me why I've avoided going to see my rock heroes now that they're old.

For years, I avoided going to see the Who. I got my copy of "Tommy" when I was 13 and had no way to get to concerts. By the time I was going to concerts, Keith Moon was in bad shape, the Who weren't touring that much (and they really sounded pretty bad - I listened to a recording from 1977 today, and Moon was horrible.) I wanted to hold on to the sound I loved, from the raw energy of "I Can't Explain" to the humor of "The Who Sell Out"; the wonderful "Tommy", the awesome "Live at Leeds", and my all-time favorite, "Quadrophenia". I loved the sound of the Who, Pete Townshend's guitar moves, Daltrey's intense energy, Entwistle's melodic driving bass and Keith Moon's manic brilliant drumming. To me, the Who from about 1968 to 1973 were everything a band could be.

I could have gone to see them in the 80's or 90's, but I always wanted to remember how the original band with Keith Moon sounded - to me it just didn't seem like it could be the Who without him. Then Entwistle blew his heart out with cocaine, and I figured that was it, they were done. I would never go see Townshend and Daltrey - I called them the "Who's Left".

But when my 16 year old son told me about the VH-1 Rock Honors the Who concert at UCLA Pauley Pavilion in June 2008 and asked if I wanted to go, what could I say? My son wants to see the Who? I can't pass that up. And it sounded cool, a bunch of bands playing Who covers followed by a set from the Who. The good seats were $500, but I got a couple of nosebleeds at $25 and we went.

Through a couple of lucky breaks, we were able to "trade up" our seats and we moved from the second-to-last row, where you really could just about touch the ceiling of the basketball arena, down to seats 20 rows from the stage on the right. The first half of the show was fun but not really great - Foo Fighters did a decent job with Young Man Blues, Incubus played a nice set. But the Flaming Lips were terrible - I mean, if you are going to play a medley from Tommy for a live and TV audience, you don't have time to learn the words and chords? And Jack Black singing? Yeah, I get it, he loves the Who but so do I and I'm not up there embarrassing myself. Give me a break. But an amazing rock and roll moment was yet to come.

We got to our good seats just in time to see Sean Penn introduce (with a snarky swipe at MTV) Pearl Jam. And oh-my-god they were amazing. You can see it here and please do! Eddie Vedder made the entire audience feel like he was born and lived his entire life just to perform "Love Reign O'er Me" and "The Real Me" from Quadrophenia. This was true, transcendent, ecstatic rock and roll. My son and I were transfixed and transformed by two songs that seemed to last forever and be over in a moment. This was everything that was great about The Who, and Rock and Roll, and Pearl Jam, all in 9 minutes. I've had a few amazing concert experiences, and this was certainly one of them.

At the end of "The Real Me", Pearl Jam's guitarist tossed his Les Paul in the air and let it fall to the floor. It seemed totally appropriate, spontaneous, real. I saw in the YouTube comments some complaints about destroying a beautiful guitar. C'mon, this was a WHO tribute - someone had to do it, and Pearl Jam earned the right. Yeah it was sad and painful and violent. I loved it.

And then... The Who... Pete Townshend looked like an old college math professor, Daltrey like a botoxed tennis instructor trying to look under 40 so he could try to pick up college girls. Townshend was grumpy and angry and really, kind of cool. At one point he stopped a song in the middle, cursing and stomping about the sound, and started over. It wasn't great rock and roll, but it was fun, and Townshend played pretty damn well, a lot better than at the Super Bowl this year.

Sometimes the best rock moments come at 2 in the morning at a club with a band that you've never heard of and never will hear of again. Sometimes it's just a lick or a scream or the way the drum and the bass get in the pocket and drive the beat. It's almost never where you expect it.

When I heard the Daltrey sing "hope I did before I get old" in 2008, it didn't seem ironic; it seemed like a desperate plea to the rock gods that he could still bring it, that he could still rock. And there were moments when they still could. And when they sang "nobody bites back as hard on his anger", I could feel the anger and the pain and the frustration that Townshend expressed so well when he was 20 - and he's still sad and angry and frustrated, just a different set of frustrations. I'm glad I saw them.

But Pearl Jam - that was Rock. I wish they could play the Super Bowl now, not in 2035...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Se solicitan trabajadores!!!

When I drive out to Cal State Channel Islands, the last 10 minutes of the drive passes through farmland, most of it planted with strawberries. Here and there along the straight lines of raised strawberry beds, groups of men and women stoop to pick the berries and place them carefully in boxes. Every so often, one of them stands up with a completed box, and walks quickly, or sometimes runs, over to the truck where the berry boxes rise in stacks.

Strawberries are one of the most labor intensive crops around. Unlike many fruits, they ripen unevenly, so you have to look at each berry to see if its ready to pick. The teams of laborers work from one end of a field to the other over the course of a few days, then they go back to the beginning and start over.

California is in the middle of the worst recession in my lifetime. The official state unemployment rate is over 10%, and I read today a prediction that it won't drop back below 10% until late in 2011. As I drive I often think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have work to go to that I like and that doesn't require me bend at the waist for hours at a time, starting in the chill of early morning and finishing with the sun hot overhead, day after day.

I'm told that nearly all the workers are Spanish-speaking, from Mexico and Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras.... I am sure some are American citizens and many have Green Cards, while others are "undocumented" or "illegal" or "unwelcome". This is not a political essay and I don't know what the right answer is; all I can say is that the people in these fields work hard everyday to support their families and to put strawberries on our tables, and I am in awe of the work they do.