A Reason To Celebrate

Signing of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull

Signing of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull

We celebrate our founding as a nation, not because, like most people. we have a sentimental attachment to our homeland, but because never before in the history of mankind had a nation been founded on the principle that rights are bestowed by God, not man.

In Federalist 14, Madison wrote that the American Revolution “has no parallel in the annals of human society” and that the new republic “has no model on the face of the globe.” He was not bragging. It was the truth.

And that truth is indeed something worth celebrating.

Happy Fourth of July, everybody.

 

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Why I Finally Broke Up With My Kindle

1 Fran_ois BoMadame Pompadourucher (French painter, 1703_1770) Madame du Pompadour

 

My Kindle and I have had an uneasy relationship for over three years now. I tried to love it; I really did. But I finally had to admit it wasn’t working out. Best we just call it quits.

First of all, I don’t like the way I can only look at one page at a time. Until I got the Kindle, I didn’t realize how often I fan the pages of a book, looking for information I’ve forgotten or to see if I have time to finish the chapter before dinner. I also didn’t realize that I typically read the last few words on a page as I make the turn. You can’t do that on a Kindle.

I like to write in my books. God doesn’t care. They are, after all, my books. Of course I would never write in someone else’s book or a library book—curses on those who do—but I happily scribble in mine. I like to pick up a book I’ve already read, and fan the pages looking for the stars, the underlines, and the marginal notes to myself and to the author that I’ve made in my own handwriting. I like to dog-ear pages, paste on sticky notes, insert bookmarks.

In short, I like to handle a book, that is to do a lot of things with my hands as I read.

And I like to know where my books are— and I do. They’re on the bookshelves. I can identify them by just looking at the spines. Some books are fat, some thin; some tall, some short, and they’re all different colors . I like them around me; I don’t want them dancing off into the atmosphere.

But the most disqualifying aspect of the Kindle for me is the fact that I simply cannot concentrate on what I’m reading on a screen for more than 15 or 20 minutes.

To be fair, I should acknowledge that there are certain advantages to the Kindle. You can make the type bigger. It’s easier to read lying down because you only have to hold the reader; the book literally weighs nothing. You can read in the dark; there are lots of free books available, and if you travel, you can carry any number of books with you without adding weight to your luggage.

You’re a nice device, Kindle. But let’s face it; as far as you and I are concerned, it’s over.

 

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Chatty Cathy to Hello, Barbie—Where are We Going With This?

51QJYEvG-YLWhen Elly was four, her Uncle Mark gave her a Chatty Cathy doll for Christmas. I remember it well. We were all amused and intrigued by this “talking doll.” You pulled and released a ring pull on her back and she “spoke.”

However, the concealed recording only produced 11 phrases and even the four-year old knew the doll wasn’t really talking. Cathy’s charm wore off rather quickly.

Fast forward to now. The paradigm has shifted and talking toys have taken on a weirdly sinister character. Thanks to the digital revolution and advances in the field of artificial intelligence, the new Barbie can simulate a real conversation, responding to comments as if she understands them. Actually her roll out may have been somewhat premature since, according to some of the reviews, the most often produced response when you push her belt buckle is “Uh oh, I can’t find a WiFi connection.”

But don’t worry, Barbie’s conversational skills will improve in short order. Today she is programmed to recognize spoken clues that direct her to select from among 8,000 responses.. And she remembers some of what she hears, like the child’s name, a pet’s name, etc. and she incorporates that information into the conversation.

Even though children understand that Barbie is not really alive, they cannot fully grasp just how she works (who can?) and a doll who responds to whatever you say in a reasonably logical way is a powerful plaything especially if the adults, intent on their own electronic devices, don’t often pay close attention to what you are saying.

We all need to have face to face interactions with other humans who have feelings of joy, anger, disgust, admiration—and love— and who express these feelings through language and facial expression. This is how children learn to have feelings of their own and to empathize with others. The process starts when the infant first brings his mother’s smiling face into focus and continues throughout life.

Barbie, however, does not— and never will— have feelings. And children who spend a lot of time with a robot risk becoming, in some measure, 479459-hello-barbierobotic.

After a childhood relating to talking toys and an adulthood conversing with Siri and Alexa and their as yet unimagined sophisticated and smarter progeny, these kids should have no objection to a nursing home where their caregivers will be robots that look like nurses.

Don’t scoff. Such a scenario is already in the works with Japan leading the way. They expect a shortfall of 380,000 nursing care workers for the elderly by 2025 and robots are already on the job there. So far they don’t look like people, but they’re working on it.

O, brave new world/ That has such people in it.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1.

 

 

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How a 100-Year Old House Became an Historic House Museum

And now, 80 years later, The Merchant’s House Museum still offers visitors a unique window into the lives of  mid-19th century New Yorkers.

The Merchant's House Museum

The Merchant’s House Museum

August, 1933—The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Gertrude Tredwell had just died at the age of 93 in the 1832 rowhouse her family had inhabited for almost 100 years. A century of urban progress meant that the house, once located in the New York City’s most desirable neighborhood, was now just steps from the Bowery, the nation’s skid row. It was a time capsule, complete with the original owners’ furnishings dating to mid 19th century, and personal belongings as well—books, decorative objects, textiles, and even 39 dresses belonging to the women of the family.

Enter George Chapman, a distant cousin who made what can only be described as a foolhardy decision to “save” the old house from the auction block and turn it into a museum. Not only had the house been long neglected and was then well along the road to disintegration, but certainly no one at that time was inclined to donate money to preserving the home of an early New York City merchant—a rich merchant, to be sure—a good man certainly—but not a person of historical significance.

But George was a wealthy man and in spite of increasing physical infirmity he just barely managed to hold his beloved museum together at great personal cost for over 20 years. However, he was not inclined to make major repairs let alone the needed thorough restoration of the collapsing house.

Joseph Roberto inspects the roof of the Old Merchant's House

Joseph Roberto inspects the roof of the Old Merchant’s House

Eventually, after an improbable chain of events, an impeccable authentic restoration did take place, undertaken without charge by Joseph Roberto, an accomplished restoration architect who exercised a scrupulous regard for the original fabric of the building and recruited some of the most talented craftsmen in the country as well as White House architect, Edward Vason Jones and noted 19th century authority on American decorative arts, Berry Tracy, as pro bono consultants.

The restoration was a story of creative solutions to structural calamities, heartbreaking setbacks, personality conflicts, and an unceasing struggle to find funding, but Joseph Roberto simply would not give up, and eventually the house was restored to its original beauty, structurally stronger than ever. The textiles had completely deteriorated, but instead of replacing them with period appropriate examples, The Decorators Club, who were responsible for the interior refurbishment, wisely had the original silk curtains and the carpeting reproduced at extraordinary expense.

The story doesn’t end there, however, for there was to be one last crisis, which could literally have brought the house down were it not for the wise direction of the current director and the support of government and corporate grants, and the generosity of private donors.

Since the beginning, The Merchant’s House has held an unworldly attraction for all those who have been involved in its long life. It is not an exaggeration to say that people simply fall in love with it and are willing to devote extraordinary effort to its preservation.

Maybe that’s because of what happens when you cross the threshold.

A mirror reflecting the 19th century.Which brings me to the most miraculous circumstance of all. Here we come as close as we ever will to those who came before us. As we tune in to the height of the ceilings and the nearness of the walls, as we travel a path from room to room, observing the light, seeing what the family saw in those rooms—the piano, the mirrors, the Duncan Phyfe chairs, their four poster beds—we learn with our bodies as well as our brains what it was like to live in a 19th century urban rowhouse owned by one of the early merchants who laid the commercial foundations of this great city.

Once there were hundreds of such homes lining the streets of the neighborhood north of Bleecker. Now there is only one left to tell the story.

To read a sample chapter from Miracle on Fourth Street, go to http://girandolebooks.com.

 

 

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Like It or Not, This Genie is Out of the Bottle

 imagesThe Code Conference, an invitation-only event where industry leaders gather for an in-depth look about the impact of digital technology on our lives, wrapped up yesterday. The featured speaker at the last session was Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors. 

Musk predicted that Tesla would have a stage 4 autonomous automobile ready in only two years.  Stage 4 is a car that is “fully autonomous”; in other words it’s designed to perform all driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for the entire trip without human intervention.

 While the regulatory problems surrounding putting such cars on the road are great, Musk was much more optimistic in his predictions about how long it would take legislators to work it out than were others at the conference: a year or two, he said.

 Tuesday Herb and I made the trip from Lake Peekskill to Manhattan in a hired car—a trip we take fairly frequently. It takes about an hour. Now while I am perfectly comfortable in ceding control of the car to Tommy, our driver, I’m not so sure I would as easily relinquish control to a computer.

 As Tommy adjusted his speed to accommodate slow moving traffic, switched lanes to make the turn off for the exits, slowed to negotiate a tricky turn that brought us into the city and turned left at a stoplight, I tried to imagine what it would be like without him. It made me nervous. I don’t think I am there yet.

 And I should say another thing. Before we got to the highway, along a country road, there is a stop sign for no apparent reason. I asked Tommy about it and he pointed out a very steep driveway just beyond the sign. Some years ago, a child was killed when he came flying down the driveway on a sled right into the path of a car. So they put up the sign. Would a driverless car have been able to prevent such a tragedy? Somehow I doubt it. While we are told driverless cars will make us safer, I think it’s safe to say they can’t ever make us perfectly safe and we shouldn’t in our enthusiasm for what’s new believe that they can. Like I say, I don’t think I am there yet, though I do believe the transition to autonomous cars is inevitable. We seem to me to be on a trajectory that, whether we like it or not, will take us there.

 

 

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Look Ma, No Hands!

google-autonomous-car-e1463757822896

Google autonomous car

When I learned that Uber, my favorite mode of transportation, was testing a driverless Ford Fusion Hybrid on Pittsburgh city streets, I wondered just how far we’d really come in the development of the driverless car. I know, I know, Google has been testing them in Silicon Valley and parts west for some time, but this was pretty close to home! So I signed up for a Google alert.

What I learned was a little unnerving.

 First of all, every major car producer is deep into developing a driverless car.

Already Mercedes, BMW, and Tesla have released self-driving features that give the cars some ability to drive themselves. Mercedes, for instance, has created driver assistance features such as auto-braking, active lane-keeping, adaptive cruise control and blind spot warning systems.

The consensus among the experts and the auto makers themselves is that it is no longer a question of if but when we can expect to see driverless cars on the road

According to Business Insider, fully autonomous cars that can drive themselves from point A to B and encounter the entire range of on-road scenarios without needing any interaction from the driver will be available within the next five years. Ford CEO Mark Fields makes an even more aggressive prediction claiming that Ford will have a fulliy autonomous car in four years. Four years!!

However there are many legal and insurance matters that will require resolution before autonomous cars take to the road. Who is responsible when a driverless car has an accident? The car owner? The software company? The manufacturer? And how do you determine fault?

Nevertheless it seems the consensus is that by 2025 or 2030, we will have fully autonomous (no stand by driver needed) cars on the road. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has said he expects to have a full fleet of driverless cars by 2030.

Although it seems a bit counterintuitive at first, we are told driverless cars will make the roadways safer by far. Of course there will be accidents due to computer glitches, but there are accidents now, most of which occur through human error and could be prevented by cars that won’t be drunk, angry, texting, sleepy or driving the wrong way on a divided highway.

Even if the predictions of the car manufacturers are overly optimistic and taking into account the difficulties of ironing out the legal and regulatory aspects, there’s no doubt in my mind that driverless cars are coming—maybe sooner that we think.

For every person who loves to drive or who is not convinced these cars are safe and will never willingly relinquish control of driving, there are others —the early adopters— who will be eager to accept the latest technology. I believe that driverless cars will be designed incrementally with more and more features that permit the car to take over completely. Gradually all but the most skeptical will get used to the idea and trust the driverless car.

After that, it is only a matter of time before the steering wheel and the pedals will disappear. Autonomous car expert Brad Templeton, who has advised Google, believes that car ownership will then decline and instead of buying cars, people will buy rides from mobility companies with fleets of driverless cars using a mobility plan similar to your mobile phone plan.

Well—what do you think? Are we ready for this?

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In Honor of Daniel R Leffel and All Who Have Served

Some of you may have read this before. I posted it two years ago in honor of my family’s soldier who served so bravely. I just thought it was time to say it again.

American-Flag

When those of my generation speak of “the war,” you should know that we are referring to World War II, when every able-bodied young man was in uniform and every family had “their serviceman”–if not a father, son, brother, or husband, then a cousin or the son of a friend, or the boy down the street.

Our soldier was Lt. Daniel Leffel, who was married to my mother’s sister, my aunt Florence. When Danny marched off to war, he and Florence were newlyweds. They were a vibrant young couple. She was beautiful and funny and lovable. I adored her, and I thought Danny was simply the perfect boyfriend—so handsome in his dress uniform, which I remember Florence told me they called their “pinks,” I suppose because of the slightly rosy tone of the drab trousers. Danny came home for one last leave, and then Florence accompanied him back to California where he shipped out, and she made the long, lonely train ride home by herself to Lansing, Kansas, where she spent the war years living with her mother, my grandmother.

Danny was the commander of Company G, 184th Infantry, Seventh Division, a veteran of four Pacific campaigns: the Aleutians, Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, Leyte, and finally Okinawa. At Okinawa, in the early morning of April 19, 1945, Danny and his men were the first to come under fire from the Japanese as they attempted an assault on Skyline Ridge of Ouki Hill. According to the official military history, Lt Leffel sent a squad forward to “feel out the enemy.” When they came under heavy fire, he radioed for an armored flame thrower. Fighting continued all day, and finally the American forces were forced to retreat to the bottom of the hill.

At 1525 G Companies of the 32nd and 184th Regiments undertook to resume the attack which had been stalemated since early morning, without a great promise of success. Along the base of Ouki Hill both companies were pinned to the ground at 1620 by an extremely heavy 81 mm mortar concentration. Amid the din of exploding mortar, slivers of flying metal filled the air. In small groups or singly the men dashed back in short spurts toward their former position. Many were killed while in flight. One man running wildly back toward safety stopped suddenly and assumed what appeared to be an attitude of prayer. In the next instant, he was blown to bits by a direct hit.

Members of the Seventh Division okinawa_2-1

And worse was yet to come. The fiercest fighting of the bloodiest battle of the War occurred from April 20-24. Danny was wounded on April 23 and flown to a hospital in Hawaii where he died on April 26, 1945. We know he fought bravely, for he was awarded the Silver Star for heroic action on Leyte.

I still have a letter he wrote me in August of 1944 from Oahu, Hawaii after the Seventh had returned to Hawaii following the Kwajalein campaign. There is sort of a sweet formality to the letter.”Well, Little Chum, I haven’t heard from you in a little while, but I feel I owe you a letter, so here goes.” He discusses the weather among other trivialities, although on the second page he gets around to telling me with great pride that his division has just been honored with a presidential review at which not only President Roosevelt but General MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz and General Richardson were present, and the other units lined the streets in honor of the Seventh Division (“our organization”).

2012-11-10 21.11.56

Oahu—Aug. 2, 1944 “Dearest Mary”

Those of us who lived through this war will never forget it or the young men who served. The whole nation waited and worried and wondered if their boys would come home. Many of them did not.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Not long ago, I was waiting for Herb outside a used book store near our apartment, browsing through some books on a cart that had been rolled outside. My attention was drawn to a small volume, which upon closer inspection proved to be a New Testament. I discovered that it was a Gideon publication, and according to the flyleaf, had been presented to Michael Zeamer by the Showers of Sunshine of the First Pentecostal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on December 29, 1943. A message from the Commander-in-Chief appeared in the frontispiece. I read:

Presented to Michael Zeamer, December 19, 1943

Presented to Michael Zeamer, December 19, 1943

January 25, 1941
To: The Armed Forces:
As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Through the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration It is a fountain of strength and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest inspirations of the human soul.

Very sincerely yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt

About that time, Herb appeared, I put the book back on the cart, and we started home. But after two blocks, a funny thing happened. As we walked along I experienced an emotional tug on my heart strings that I simply could not ignore. I realized that I had to have that little book, for it seemed to me that this object was a powerful, powerful connection to an important period of my growing up. We returned to the bookstore and bought it, and it has proved to be an object I treasure.

So–in honor of Danny Leffel, whom I knew well, and Michael Zeamer, whom I knew not at all, and all the others who have served our country in times of war and peace, I remember you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 

 

 

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