Sunday, October 23, 2011

Build, build, build.

It is not often that I get really surprised. Yesterday, walking Broadway, I ran into a gentleman that at some time in the past I could talk to, but who has become intractable in more ways that one. He also posted a comment to this blog with a very surprising argument: that the Democratic ticket in his year’s election for City Council could not win a single seat because it was committed to building police facilities and fire stations.

He was stuck in the 2009 election, when a Public Safety building was indeed an issue. Not one of the Democratic candidates in 2011 has mentioned building anything; on the contrary they have all committed to look carefully at the long-term needs of the city of Saratoga Springs and find affordable solutions that can ensure our future.

The only candidate committed to build, build, build is Scott Johnson, the Republican incumbent: he pushed to build a Recreation Center in the midst of a community that was not clamoring for it, and that has not, and will not cover its costs or the debt repayments because the needs and the mission of such a building were not examined.

Scott Johnson, in electoral mood, has also offered a half-baked solution to a real problem, by building a fire station on the Eastern plateau on land bonded as recreational open space. What the community there is demanding is better emergency response in case of sudden illness, reducing the EMS response time that is now around 12 minutes in the best of cases.

And again, Scott Johnson has put forward a grandiose project for a large scale reconstruction of the Woodlawn parking lot, touting it as a triumph of public-private partnership planning. One of the projects contemplated by Ron Kim, then Commissioner of Public Safety and candidate for Mayor in 2009, was precisely such a public/private partnership to build this parking lot, including a Public Safety building.

When I pointed out to my Republican friend that the incumbent Mayor had fallen prey to the build, build, build syndrome to cement (pun intended) his place in posterity, he responded by saying: “I do oppose Scott Johnson on that too.” Consistency does not seem to be a Republican virtue any more.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Elections and municipalities

Three important events happened this week in Saratoga Springs. First, the traditional League of Women Voters Candidate Forum at the Saratoga High School Auditorium brought together all the candidates for City Council in this year’s election. The unopposed candidates, John Franck, Commissioner of Accounts, Joanne Yepsen, Saratoga Springs Supervisor, and Rep. Matt Veitch, the second Saratoga Springs Supervisor, expressed their thanks to their respective sponsors and mentors.

As an aside it may be useful to remind the reader that Supervisor is the name of an elective job representing Saratoga Springs on the County Board of Supervisors, in effect the Saratoga County governing body.

On the stage sat at a table the six main actors in this local election; from left to right Michele Madigan, Democratic candidate for Commissioner of Finance; then the Republican incumbent, Commissioner Ivins; the Republican Commissioner for Public Safety, Richard Wirth; and the Democratic challenger for that job, Christian Mathiesen; finally the incumbent Mayor, Republican Scott Johnson and his Democratic opponent, Brent Wilkes. All of them lined up at the edge of the table, adjusting and fidgeting with their microphones and the papers in front of them. Not so Scott Johnson, who had pushed his chair back as if to distance himself from the proceedings, and turned slightly sideways to his left, but not enough to signify his recognition of his rival. Scott Johnson clearly felt and expressed that these proceedings were unrelated to him and that he consented reluctantly to participate. Body language is important on public occasions.

Everybody, except Michele Madigan, sported coat and tie; not so Brent Wilkes who had adopted, under a tweed jacket, the black mock turtleneck that Steve Jobs, the great innovator, used as trademark.

The rules of the game were laid down by the moderator, and were disregarded at several points of the night. The event was rightly themed as a Forum, as the strict time limits and the narrow format discouraged any attempt at real debate..

Brent Wilkes phrased his opening statement in the bluntest of terms: “Scott Johnson does not listen, Scott Johnson does not plan, Scott Johnson does not lead.” From then on Scott Johnson could only be on the defensive. He accused his tormentor of not being able to read the right information. No wonder, as City Hall had repeatedly stonewalled Wilkes’ requests of data under the Freedom of Information Act. Mr. Johnson came up with his own insider figures, which he then still did not disclose in written form.

Madigan opened the budget can of worms, accusing Ivins of not having complied with the present charter requirement of submitting a comprehensive budget to the City Council on the first meting of October. Instead he had only given a Power Point presentation, highlighting the main magnitudes. At that City Council, Ivins explained that the budget was not completed, not ready for prime time whereas in the Forum he claimed that the Budget was ready and comprehensive, but that he had no reason to share it with the wider public; he also claimed that it was up online the next day.

A further bone of contention was the Police Department overtime budget. Madigan and Mathiesen claimed that it was out of control, running way ahead of projections. Both Ivins and Wirth explained the hurdles to keeping track of overtime and comp time. A follow up article in the October 20th Saratogian by Lucien McCarthy indeed corroborated the out-of-control part of it, while explaining how it was so difficult to forecast.

The first question selected for comment by the candidates was Charter Reform. Brent Wilkes, a prominent member of the citizen’s group advocating for Charter change, castigated the Mayor for the money spent on outside counsel in order to fight the Saratoga Citizen petition, and to appeal Judge Nolan’s decision supporting its legality. Scott Johnson repeated his contention that the petition did not fulfill the legal requirements, and that he was protecting the City from special interests. Once the issue was decided he would be appointing a Charter Review Commission of his own.

To qualify a petition of 10% of the City’s residents as a “special interest” seems disingenuous at best, and certainly not democratic. It is well in line with the established and ongoing Republican Party efforts to disenfranchise and suppress voters by any means imaginable.

There seemed to be agreement around the table that the present Charter governing Saratoga Springs was outdated and needed reform; the disagreements revolved around the degree of the reforms to be undertaken, from “tweaking” to “replacing.”

It is probably in the Mayor’s mind to establish a Charter Review commission to ensure that the changes proposed do not make any difference in the basic functioning of City Government.

At the end of the evening, Mayor Johnson reiterated his demand for “civility”, and his claim to have reintroduced it in City Hall. He tried to present himself as the head of team working together for the greater good. Unfortunately his demeanor and his body language pointed to an imperious core, and a willful distance, a moat, between his groomed and coiffed presence and the rest of us.

Scott Johnson claims to have introduced modern management in City Hall by outsourcing the Human Relations function. Outsourcing was modern twenty years ago, the buzz-word in business schools that sent call-centers to India and much manufacturing to China. The devastating result for the livelihoods of many communities in this country is now patent in our hollowed out economy.

How can you ensure and protect the well-being of your community if your management model includes employing people under terms that evade any role in their sustenance, denying them the basic commitment to their health care or long-term security of their families.? What kind of community does such a Mayor envisage, if he will not build the kind of communal bonds that ensure loyalty and a sense of belonging in the people he employs?

At Skidmore, the next day, I sat in a symposium on the future of cities, where our very Saratogian Jim Howard Kunstler, who coined the word “clusterfuck” for the kind of urban planning prevalent in the region twenty years ago, confronted Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. As moderator, Jeff Olsen tried to to keep the attack fish well apart from each other in their respective bowls.

As it were there was more agreement than not. Mr. Steely pointed to the increased vitality of neighborhoods provided with amenities such as bike lanes and rental bikes, pedestrian streets as boosters of commerce, fast bus lanes and improved rail transportation. These and other grass-roots initiatives have proven their value in communities such as Curitiba in Brazil, Amsterdam in Holland, and Portland, Oregon. Kunstler spoke of forgetting about such super-tech miraculous projects as high speed rail in the USA, and instead restoring the old rails right-of-way providing transportation for the masses at 100 miles per hour, as was usual, for instance, between New York and Chicago 100 years ago. The main obstacle to the realization of high-tech dreams is, according to Kunstler, not so much the lack of political will, but the dearth of investment capital by the state and local authorities.

But Mr. Steely also showed a statistical table pointing to the disconnect between what the politicians claim to believe the citizen wants, and what the citizen’s real concerns are.

Meanwhile communities all over the world are finding the political will and support to making their communities more livable. Steely pointed out that Curitiba, Brazil, transformed a deadly three mile long four lane highway into a vibrant pedestrian shopping and activity thoroughfare in 72 hours. High speed articulated buses on dedicated lanes in Bogotá, Colombia, move 50% more people than private cars, reducing pollution and congestion at the same time.

In New York City the boroughs are lobbying City Hall for dedicated bike lanes at the expense of street-side parking and circulation lanes, because they improve the feeling of community and the interaction among citizens. The transformation includes longer pedestrian crossing lights intervals to accommodate slower moving foot traffic.

The recent recuperation of Times Square as urban meeting place, an “agora” as the Greek polis conceived it, is another successful instance of municipal enlightenment.

The third community meeting in Saratoga Springs coalesced around the Occupy….. movement. Forty people met at the Public Library to discuss how the populist rebellion against job cuts and high bonuses for executives can be brought to Saratoga Springs. Occupy Saratoga Springs will come into existence first on a Facebook page, then joining with the weekly Saratoga Peace Alliance rally at the Post Office corner on Broadway on Saturdays at noon.

Stay tuned, citizens on the march!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Voter suppression in Saratoga Springs

In the USA we do not take elections very seriously. I mean, we like the spectacle, we like the suspense, we like the winners and losers part of it. But not their significance in the democratic process.

You will by now be bristling: “yes, the elections are the core of the choice, of the government by the people, elections are what keeps us free.” But that is only the conventional lip service. In reality, we hold them in low esteem, we think that they are bothersome and interrupt the flow of our daily life and the pursuit of happiness.

How do you explain otherwise the fact that we hold elections on Tuesdays, in the middle of the work week, instead of on Sundays when people have time to go to the polls.? Or that the peopling of the polls is entrusted to the old and retired, and they get paid a pittance for a looooong day of work, at present barely above minimum wage.? Or that fewer and fewer people bother to vote at all.? In 2004 President Bush ’43 won the election with 50.7% of the vote, and barely 56.7% eligible voters showed up at the polls. 28% of the eligible voters chose a President, the ship’s captain, the Commander in Chief!

No wonder then that more and more people are delegitimizing the electoral process, declaring that they do not feel represented, that it is all a charade.

And to top it all off, as soon as Republicans are in control, all kinds of concerns of voter fraud are raised, in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, as justification for all kinds of barriers to access, from the old practice of re-drawing electoral districts that they can control, to pre-requisites to voting. As soon as feasible, prospective voters cannot register while obtaining their drivers licence, or photo ID is required to access the voting booth.

According to the Huffingon Post, citing a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, “a string of laws passed in 13 states -- and proposed in 21 more -- could disproportionately suppress turnout of younger voters, minorities and lower-income voters.”

A study by Ari Berman, published at the end of August 2011 in Rolling Stone reports that “All told, a dozen states have approved new obstacles to voting. Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering. Florida and Texas made it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Maine repealed Election Day voter registration, which had been on the books since 1973. Five states – Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia – cut short their early voting periods. Florida and Iowa barred all ex-felons from the polls, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters. And six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures – Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin – will require voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots.”

We are not immune to these trends; the tide has reached Saratoga Springs. The Scott Johnson administration has refused to recognize the validity of 2300 signatures of residents requesting that a referendum be held on a proposed change of the charter, the document that defines and lays out the rules for the governance of the City. After Judge Nolan rejected the City’s claims of defects in the citizen’s initiative, the Republican dominated Administration chose to engage and pay legal fees to outside counsel to appeal the decision, drawing out the process in the hope that a victory in the November 8th election would make such referendum impracticable.

The Johnson Administration has in effect denied the legal and legitimate rights of close to 10% of its residents to decide on the future course of Saratoga Springs governance. The pattern of Republican campaigns of voter suppression repeats itself in our “City in the Country”. We are grown up now!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Towards a new capitalism

Decades ago the European countries, facing the sudden windfall of oil production of their very own and within easy reach -in the North Sea- made the choice of pricing it high, tagging on hefty taxes to put a high price on energy consumption. In the long run the increased revenue on the one hand allowed the governments to invest heavily in costly public ground transportation: high speed trains, urban subways. With smaller cars on the roads, the European per capita energy consumption is half of what it is in the USA.

In the United States abundant domestic oil production and the aversion to letting government intervene in the pricing of energy has led to wasteful use of resources. The deliberate dereliction of public investment in communal transportation and cheap oil have encouraged spread out development of bedroom communities, with the concurrent perverse effects of traffic congestion and pollution.

The oil companies’ need for private profit has denied the government the resources to implement rational policies and undertake investments conducive to energy efficiency. The quest for easy growth encourages more consumption instead of smart consumption. As long as the pricing power remains in the exclusive hands of the private economy, we may be sure that the outcomes will never benefit the consumer. The interest of the large corporations will always be to defend their profits at the expense of the final user.

People have been redefined, and diminished, as consumers. Paul Krugman in the New York Times of April 21st, points to the semantic change that has happened also in the health care industry: people are no longer in need of health care, but mere consumers of health services.

The invisible hand of the market, when it reigns supreme -even Adam Smith warned against this outcome- does no longer intervene, at the present stage of capitalism, to produce the results most beneficial to the population at large. Industrial and commercial behemoths dominate the market, and can co-opt any emerging competition. They can absorb technological developments and manipulate its price until the competitor cannot survive. If that fails the large corporations can buy up any competition that they feel might threaten their dominance.

The world-wide crisis that we are living through is a fundamental crisis of capitalism as we practice it.

Capitalism is a resilient beast and will no doubt survive, but in its present form has reached its boundaries. Let us hope that in the next iteration it will root in humanism and democracy. Capitalism for the people as we practiced it in the mid-twentieth century.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Heat in the depth of winter

What is going on in Wisconsin? The media are compressing the reasons for this conflict into an anti-union tinged fight to bring the much-reviled public employees to heel, and that is the view that the conservative right would like us to have.

But the conflict is actually a much wider one and fits the Republican ever present agenda of privatizing and, yes, union-busting. I have still to see any evidence that private enterprise is any more efficient or mindful of the public good than public bureaucracies. Corruption and inefficiency are evenly spread over human enterprise.

Under the noisy conflict of the Wisconsin governor and his employees, the disputed budget bill, 144 pages long, contains language that allows privatization of any public utility, and declares any such decision to be automatically labelled as “in the public good.” To reassure us, the Koch Brothers, lately so much in the limelight, have announced that they are not interested in acquiring any of those utilities. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Privatization of public property benefits private interests. We have seen how Russia’s oligarchs rooted their huge fortunes in the deals that denationalized all of the State’s properties. At the very least such privatization can lead to cronyism and corruption on a grand scale.

And the one obstacle on this road are the few public employees that are exercising their legal rights to collective action to oppose this law. Which contains also language to delegitimize…...collective action. Under the cloak of freedom corporations are promoting the idea that each worker negotiate on her or his own, standing alone, confronting the corporate lawyers and human resource professionals. Each employee, ignorant of what his or her colleagues’ position is, will stand naked in the howling winds of corporatism.

Mind you that I am not against the corporate entities looking for their own profit and best interests. But I believe that, for the sake of a level playing field, the individual worker or employee, that is all and any of us, should be able to have access to shared resources to establish his or her best interests. That is what unionization is all about. And it must have worked, or how can we otherwise explain the unrelenting and ferocious attacks of the corporate right on them.

There is a space for groups of people banding together to profitably produce goods or services under the banner of corporations, and there is a similar space for the common man, the citizen, to band together and defend her or his rights as an individual.

The corporate world rightfully exists to promote the creation of wealth that did not exist before, within the laws democratically adopted in a representative democracy that delimit and define the proper territory of their activity. The government has a duty to preserve the balanced and equitable distribution of the common wealth among all citizens. But, as David Brooks points out in today’s New York Times, in this country this debate has yet to take place.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A referendum in Saratoga Springs?

Last Tuesday’s City Council meeting brought us a long-awaited unsurprising declaration by His Honor Scott Johnson, that the City was filing a notice of appeal with Judge Nolan’s Court.

The rationale for such a move was very much in tune with Republican thinking: to keep the pitchforks at bay.

The Mayor proclaimed himself the citizen’s Defender, not only of the city of Saratoga Springs (where pitchforks are a boutique item anyway), but of all the municipalities of the state of New York, and even nationally. What would happen, he said, if this people’s initiative to change the form of government were left unchecked, and other groups at another time would request revisions again and again and again.?

The City’s Charter of 2001 explicitly endorses periodic revisions; as John Maynard Keynes famously replied when challenged: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”.

Even more to the point, New York State’s municipal law allows referendums as a manner of improving or changing a municipality’s form of constitution. When a group of citizens perceives a way to ameliorate the conventional wisdom the weapon of choice is the citizen’s initiative of a referendum. Unlike elections, a citizen’s initiative is usually bipartisan or non-partisan, interesting all citizens without labeling them.

Mayor Johnson’s opinion is very much in line with the explicit policy of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives of consolidating the oligarchical hold of the well-to-do on the political system of this Republic. Why the less affluent would support measures that are clearly against their own self-interest is probably best explained by the New Yorker’s caption on a cartoon: “As a potential lottery winner I support tax cuts for the wealthy.”

In today's Huffington Post:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Man versus machine

Tonight I watched Jeopardy. Why am I even saying that? Jeopardy, the popular and very durable classic of game shows, was surely watched by many, and some did so with a deep-seated feeling of guilt, as a secret, unmentionable addiction.

But today was different. The venue was in New York state, on an IBM campus; the players were two old veterans, the highest prize winners of Jeopardy’s history. The third participant was an IBM computer, a huge array of servers, programmed by a team of artificial intelligence engineers over the last three years. They fed the computer with encyclopedias, treatises, even the Bible, and a battery of algorithms to bring together all the interrelationships of known facts that are considered the basis of human intelligence. We all have tried to shout at the screen the frequently quirky questions responding to the answers offered as clues. Puns, rhyming slang, literary allusions, lists, sports statistics and pop-song lyrics are the common fare of this game, that tests not only factual knowledge, but also worldliness and with-it-ness.

The purpose of the experiment, according to the IBMers involved, was, not to create a murderous HAL of 2001: a space odyssey fame, but a true thinking machine that could take over many of the human’s tasks, unburdened by human emotions and sentimentality.

It is all the stuff of movies, and many films have presented sinister outcomes to the doings of similar machines. The reasons why there is such a sustained interest in this kind of lucubration are obvious: we are persuaded that humans are at the apex of creation, but taken aback by the imperfections and aberrant behavior that humans frequently exhibit. Also we are profoundly disturbed by our incapacity of defining what makes us human, distinct from other animal species, and why we deserve the exalted position that we have assigned to ourselves. We are hoping that by creating machines that exhibit our brilliance, and are devoid of our faults, we will be able to get to a perfect world. Our perfect offspring, albeit mechanical, would also conquer our destiny: aging and death.

The IBM computer competitor is named Watson, not after Conan Doyle’s character, but the company’s founding family. In this first confrontation, the simple Jeopardy first level, Watson did quite well, ending in a draw with one of the human contestants. The next two days will see Double Jeopardy and Final Jeopardy. Definitely worth watching on ABC at 7 pm.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

After Egypt, what about us?

Finally, somebody said it. I do not feel alone any more:

"While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance."

read more at:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

State of the Spanish

As an outer space explorer I descended on 2011 Spain expecting a country, as described in the US press, devastated by crisis, tottering in financial morass, beset by hordes of unemployed beggars in the streets.

Arriving in Barajas Airport, a messy collection of the super-modern and 1960s constructivism, nothing much felt changed from a year ago: the lights were dimmed to save energy, but the unending way from plane to baggage collection is speeded by extensive rolling walkways. Baggage carousels were all functional, and the bags arrived in a reasonable 10 minutes after passport controls. I was struck by a new sense of purposefulness: the usually sleepy police passport stampers were crisp and polite, almost no lines cluttered the vast halls. Customs were perfunctory and, once outside, taxis were immediately available, next to several municipal transportation buses. The weather was cold but sunny, some remnants of morning fog visibly melting away.

Traffic on the urban highways to downtown was brisk, the small cars buzzing along into their particular hive of business. At mid-morning the cafeterias did not lack their usual customers, as Spaniards are habitually imbibing small cups of coffee when they get fed-up with whatever they have started doing at 9 am.

All-in all, a picture of familiarity. But Madrid breathes a renewed air of efficient competency. The streets are well groomed, abundantly provided with urban furniture, well marked bike paths, glass bus shelters, freshly painted pedestrian crossings. Most buses run on natural gas. The extensive subway system is clean, on time and very affordable. Escalators, a frequent harbinger of disruption when non-functional, hummed contentedly moving 3 million travelers per day.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the landscape of a modern European city, Madrid is composed of residential high-rises, a product of fifty years of uninterrupted building activity, around the centuries-old city core. The spindly construction crane had become the landmark of post-Franco democratic Spain, and its disappearance has quieted the urban picture, signaling the most obvious symptom of recession. New construction, except for Government supported public works, has stopped.

The Socialist government, now eight years in power, has used all the capitalist tools on hand to sustain the economy, battered by the collapse of the real estate bubble and by the bond traders, in the wake of Greece’s and Portugal’s difficulties. Several stimulus programs, aimed at improving infrastructure, are visible in Madrid and outside of it. Sharp cuts in civil service salaries, reduction in elected officials’ entitlements, and, now underway, a broad dialogue between unions, business leaders and the Government with a view to raise the retirement age, entitling workers to full pensions after 40 years of work, in exchange for more flexible employment regulations.

Investments in the public health system are being increased. It is generally recognized that the present health care is almost on par with France’s and that the best equipped hospitals belong to the single-payer Government-run network. There is also a private health insurance system, but there seems to be agreement that the public system provides the best care available.

The result is an outward picture of normality. Last year 53 million visitors came to Spain, eight million to Madrid. Hotel prices have fallen by as much as 20%, and occupancy has increased as a result.

Restaurants and bars are full, and I am told that night-life is booming. Downtown, around the Puerta del Sol, the commercial and shopping hub of the city, the usual crowd of shoppers and layabouts commingle. This area tends to seediness, because of the very old buildings and the heavily used facilities. But now Apple is installing there their first retail store in downtown, and Galerias Preciados, the largest department store in Spain and the fourth largest retailer in Europe, holds increasing sway over the street that bears its name.

The present crisis seems to be providing impetus to rationalization and increased productivity, as well as diversification of the Spanish economy. The country looks better than it did a year ago, and although the mood in the street is gloomy, the average citizen does not seem overly depressed. Everybody talks about “the crisis” and their reduced spending power, but tries to carry on as usual.

Nevertheless, in spite of generally competent management of the crisis, the polls predict that the Socialist party seems headed for defeat in the 2012 elections. We shall see.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Mayor for our time

In Madrid, Spain, twenty five years ago, Dr. Enrique Tierno Galván died on January 19th. He was a Marxist scholar, university professor, sociologue, lawyer and writer. During the last years of the Franco regime he organized a political party, the Popular Socialist Party (or PSP) whose membership almost exclusively consisted of lawyers, civil servants and some businesspeople, all living in one of the most affluent districts of Madrid. Whether the irony was intentional, he did not say.

The PSP later was absorbed into the mainstream Socialist Party, and, in the first municipal elections in 40 years, in 1979 Dr. Tierno became the first Socialist mayor of Spain’s capital, Madrid, until his death of cancer in 1986.

During those six years he became the most beloved character in the new political firmament: among politicians who feigned gravitas and knowledge, he always addressed the people with a twinkle in his eye, and mischievousness on his lips. His public pronouncements, or “Bandos” announcing new regulations or just admonitions, are couched in high classical Spanish, cloaking the underlying informality of purpose. At a time when the fledgling democracy was hesitatingly and haltingly stepping out into the minefield of governance Dr. Tierno lovingly reminded his listeners to remain flexible in spirit and to remember to smile through the tribulations.

When the Pope visited Madrid this Marxist stoic rationalist greeted him in latin. To define who had the right to be Madrileño, he said: “To live in Madrid is to be of Madrid.” His sense of humor oscillated from the surrealist to the streetwise laconic. Standing in front of the TV cameras next to a young actress suffering from a complete “wardrobe malfunction”, Tierno keeps a straight face with a broad guffaw in his eyes.

He was called “the old Professor” by the young cohorts who followed him with delight. His political enemies and some of his friends feared and envied his ready and wise tongue. As a journalist said recently: “He tickled us when we needed it badly.”

Dr. Tierno’s burial was a multitudinous affair. He was carried, again ironically, in a pompous black carriage, drawn by six black horses, carapaced and beplumed in black. Only the people surrounded his casket, no police or security were needed along the way, over three miles, to his resting place.

A man looks for the moment where he may best fit into the stream of life. Dr. Tierno found his avocation and filled a providential role at the exact time when he was needed. He is now timeless and an example to us all.

Education and the Saratoga Film Forum

Our local jewel, the Saratoga Film Forum recently screened the controversial film “Waiting for Superman”, that has been playing to ecstatic audiences all over the country. Authored by Davis Guggenheim who directed “An inconvenient truth”, in which Al Gore displays his findings in relation to man-made climatological and environmental change, this film tackles the insufficiencies of our education system. Fiercely dogmatic, after highlighting how our present system of public education fails our children, the film proposes various forms of charter schools as the remedy.

As it became known that the film would be shown, and that discussion forums would follow the screenings, demand for seats skyrocketed, and in addition to the usual three screenings in a week, an unusual Saturday screening and an extraordinary second screening on Sunday afternoon was added.

Over 500 people crowded the Dee Sarno theater over the week-end, and the panels had to address many questions thrown at them by passionate parents with children in the Saratoga Springs schools.

But what really struck me was the generally complacent responses of the panelists, from Janice White to David Patterson. They reassured the audience that the problems outlined in the film were not our problems, but inner-city dissonances that, thank Heaven, did not apply to our panglossian reality in Saratoga Springs.

The corporate world, the film seems to say, is willing to underwrite primary and secondary education, pouring oodles of money to subsidize desired results and unburdening the taxpayer. Bill Gates himself was interviewed several times to explain how the future of this nation as a first rate power is being undermined by the poor outcomes of our public education system.

Most remarkable were the facts that the film did not mention, as they might detract from the passionate attacks on teachers’ unions, school administrators and the tenure system.

In my opinion we are losing sight of the goal that a public system of education was meant to achieve. Bismarck, in the beginnings of the German empire in the 1840’s pointed to the need of bringing together the children of different classes, ethnicities and geographical areas to forge a sense of common purpose and destiny. This, more than ever, still applies today in these United States. “E pluribus unum”, out of many, one.

As Dr. Michael Stanford, of Suny Buffalo, in the audience on Sunday evening, reminded us: “Education is a revolutionary activity.” Forging unity and a civic discourse, embracing all components of our diverse and splintered nation into a coherent and forward looking entity, seem, in the present political climate, truly revolutionary endeavors.

This vision is not served if the educators are allowed to attend only to those communities that will be high-performing, abandoning the considerable percentage of children of deprivation to inferior financing and lackadaisical methodologies.

It may well be that in order to serve all needs more money will be needed than we have been so far willing to earmark for education. But are we really willing to abandon another slice of the civic realm to corporate money and interests.?

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy 2011! a homily for the new year.

You, and I, have woken up today and are living in a year with a new label: 2011.
As the saying goes, the past is gone, the future is a mystery, we are left with only the present.

But we still believe that the future will become present, and that we can shape it by our actions and decisions. Hence the long lists of New Year resolutions, mostly forgotten come January 15th.

The most common resolution probably is to lose weight. Let me challenge you to be more ambitious. Forget changing your body, change your mind.

Open your mind to ideas that you have never before entertained: look at them, grasp them with your mind’s fingers, extract them from the context by which you know them, and look at them in the cold light of your reason.

Better still: talk to the people that you thought alien to you, with whom you think that you have nothing in common. Ask yourself why (and if) there is a distance between you and them. Ask them how they see you. Tell them how you perceive them.

At the end of the conversation you may still be apart, separated by custom and convention, by habits and outlook. But your will be enriched by new insights, by perceptions of their motives that you did not know before.

The Italians coined the word “sprezzatura”. It expresses the public image that we all want to project to others, the spreading of feathers by which we want to show how big and beautiful we are, how fearsome and admirable we are. Shed your own “sprezzatura”, look behind the others’ feathers, and try to understand that the other is moved by most of what moves you, and misunderstands you because of the show that you are putting on.

The Chinese say that your friends hate you for your qualities and successes, and love you for your failings. Try to take this with you into the new Year.