Archive for December, 2008

Internet Town Hall

December 8, 2008

Last Saturday, I attended a town hall meeting sponsored by www.internetforeveryone.org/. This was the first or second of a series of national meetings to gather data about internet accessibility in order to assist the government in setting a responsible, comprehensive policy for web access for everyone.

There were a bit over 100 people in a downtown hotel with an interesting demographic. 97% of the people there already had access to the web (that is how most people heard of the meeting). Most of the attendees were men, with the main ethic groups being white and African-American. This became important because as the meeting and discussions progressed, the majority opinion was that there should be a partnership between government, local communities and corporations to provide internet access to all, especially the under- served communities (rural, minority, low-income). This means two things- that the initiatives of the large telecom companies such as ATT and Verizon to control and charge for broadband access need to be held in check and monitored, but also that the communities who most need access were actually under-represented. There were several speakers and videos shown at the meeting who were interesting, but did not present anything that really added to the conversation. The exception was a 13-year old Latina girl who spoke about the problems of not having internet access, especially in relation to her studies and the lack of future opportunities that are created by this lack of access.

We broke into groups and discussed open internet, innovation, budgets and who should be responsible for development and maintenance of internet technologies, access to computers (such as the One-Laptop-Per-Child initiative. These are important conversations that need to be happening across the country, but with a more diverse set of attendees to better represent the constituents and users. We (USA) were once on top of development and usage of these technologies, but we have fallen behind Europe and Asia. Perhaps we should look out for more and better inspiration and guidance for our own policies.

One final note about the meeting. I learned that supposedly, several years ago the LADWP laid fiber optic cable throughout the city of L.A. to provide broadband internet access to everyone. But it remains dark, primarily because of the lobbies of the telecom companies and internet providers because it will cut down on their revenue. Hmmm- data and knowledge for everybody that can only assist the nation (and corporations), or continuing to keep large profits for a few while limiting our ability to provide work and opportunities for the masses. Perhaps I have missed something.

Dancing around the waltz

December 5, 2008

I just finished watching a screening of  “Waltz with Bashir”. It was shown for just before the holiday lunch of one of the departments that I work with. An interesting choice, to say the least, it was ultimately a bit of a surreal experience, which actually mirrors the film. The film is excellent and disturbing, and is described as an “animated documentary”. The footage is shot and then rotoscoped, animated and given effects. The story is of an Israeli man, a film-maker, confronted with the fact that he has no memories of his time during the war in Lebanon, particularly surrounding the tragic events of  the Sabra-Shatilla massacre. He is told by a friend that he needs to find and speak with people who were there with him directly or served in the army at the same time. What follows is a harrowing series of conversations and flashbacks as he tries to recover his memories and understood what happened and where he was.

One of the primary issues addresses historical memory connected to a time of trauma. An Israeli psychologist interviewed in the film describes how a human mind can make itself forget what it needs to, in order to continue to live.

This film touched me deeply and personally. Having spent 2.5 years in the Israeli military (and it seems in the same combat unit of the director), I was familiar with both the visuals and the psychological and emotional issues of serving and post-serving. How memories can get smushed and fuzzed with the passing of time as well as the need to not remember. I was not in Beirut, but was in southern Lebanon, which I often think of in terms of a phrase from the movie “Circle of Deceit”: “There is a saying here, that there are two paradises- one in heaven and one in southern Lebanon”. It was beautiful and experienced too much hell there from all of the wars.

The film was visually stunning, dreamlike, hallucinatory, nightmarish, surreal. It captures the hell, surreal and chaotic nature of war in a way that I do not think a non-animated movie could. It captures the emotional and practical confusion of the Israeli experience as well as the more universal experience of war. The film seems to have been made with a yellow filter, that matches the yellow of the flares that lit up the nights during the war in Beirut, and were part of the filmmakers dream. 

Disturbing as the film may be, it is an important film. It opens discussions about both the Israeli and Christian activities in Lebanon, about the lasting effects war has on the human psyche and condition. I have found many Jews and Israelis who have been unwilling and/or unable to address the the complexity of the war and of Israeli involvement. Although it happened over 20 years ago, its’ effects are still being felt and it is still impacting policies in old ways. Perhaps this movie will help open up discussions and dialogues that can lead to real and positive change.

I served in 1975-7 and went back in 1988 to do art with Jewish, Christian, Moslem an Druze children, perhaps trying to clean up some of my karma, perhaps reflecting a realization that peace is not a passive experience, but rather one that requires action to make it happen and to maintain, like any good relationship. Some images and stories  of these two experiences can be found here: www.golemgrafica.com/photo_1.htm#”

More rants on education and teaching

December 2, 2008

As I read about Michelle A. Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington D.C. city schools, I was impressed on a variety of levels. I am excited and happy to see someone actually taking action in school reform, especially after reading (again) about the problems besetting the L.A. city schools and the push to remove the superintendent, a well-meaning man with little or no experience at all with city schools. At first reading, Rhee comes across like the proverbial breath of fresh air, blowing across the garbage of public education. But the more that I reflected about her and her methods, the more concerned I become. I do believe that a merit based pay system is a good idea, as is removing the semi-instant tenure programs for keeping teachers in their jobs. I also believe in the need to push students to excellence. But I am concerned that her focus is only on teaching and not on educating. Teaching is important- it gives students foundations for all topics. Need to do any type of math? Well, you need to learn the multiplication table by heart. Want to write like Faulkner? Then, you need to learn grammar and punctuation. Want to draw or paint like Pollack or Picasso? Then learn to draw like a draughtsman. Basic skills are acquired through teaching, but the ability to see the spaces in between disciplines and create meaning happens through education.

I am worried that Ms. Rhee may be focusing on teaching at the expense of educating. She also downplays the importance of creativity. She says  “I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap.’ Don’t get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don’t know how to read, I don’t care how creative you are. You’re not doing your job.” I agree that part of the job of a teacher is to teach a child to read. But it is also important to teach the child to understand and crate connections to enable them to understand if what they are actually reading is crap (or not).

The article in Time magazine describes her as curt, direct and more able to speak with children than with adults. This last trait is incredibly important in the education process- to be able to speak with a person on their level of understanding without a condescending attitude. Yet, when affecting major change, it is also important to be able to communicate with all parties involved (often a more difficult path). In the end, I am impressed with the work that Ms. Rhee is doing- it extremely important to create actual change and not remain in the realm of theory. She is on the right track with teacher merits. But I do think that she needs to begin to encourage crativity and not remain in the realm of theory. She is on the right track with merit-based salaries and new ways of defining tenure. But I do think that she needs to begin to encourage creativity as an important element of a true education. The future truly requires multidisciplinary, cross-thinking and collaboration and the schools are good place to begin.